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It’s Bad Journalism to Take Cops at Their Word

When news outlets fail to fact-check police, they enable the scourge of police violence and mass incarceration.

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson speaks at a police graduation and promotion ceremony at Navy Pier on November 19, 2018, in Chicago, Illinois.

When mainstream news outlets fail to fact-check the police, they fail their readers and they fail our society.

Time and time again, by uncritically presenting claims made by police as truths, mainstream news outlets condone and enable the scourges of police violence, racism and mass incarceration in our communities.

This is true throughout the country, but a closer look at recent newspaper articles in Chicago, where I live and take part in anti-prison organizing, illustrates the dynamics of these journalistic failures.

Misleading Coverage of Bail Reform in Chicago

Just last week, Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department Eddie Johnson took to the airwaves to cry that bail reform — the increased release of people who are awaiting trial and presumed innocent — was responsible for violence earlier this month.

Editors across the city lined up articles and segments centering this narrative when reporting on the 50 shootings that occurred. Stories in the Chicago Tribune, CBS Chicago and WGN TV failed to ask what information Johnson was using to draw the connection between gun violence and bail reform.

The reality is that the problem of gun violence in Chicago is much older than the county’s attempt to reform its money bail system. Outside of a brief spike in 2016, violent crime has been steadily declining in Chicago for the last decade, coinciding with the implementation of meaningful bail reform. In fact, compared to last year, shootings are down 13 percent in Chicago and crime is down 9 percent overall in 2019.

Yet every summer, the warmer weather brings an uptick in shootings in Chicago, and every year, law enforcement looks for a new target to blame. This summer’s target appears to be bail reform.

Most of the mainstream news pieces that centered Johnson’s narrative simultaneously glossed over or completely ignored the fact that crime in Chicago is actually down. The majority also ignored a May 2019 report on bail reform efforts in Cook County that demonstrated that an increase in pretrial freedom has resulted in no decrease in court appearance rates and no increase in re-arrest rates.

The report, which was released by the Circuit Court of Cook County two weeks before Johnson’s attempts to vilify bail reform, found that even though more than 30,000 people have been released pretrial since reforms went into effect in 2017, just about half of one percent of everyone released was arrested on a new charge considered violent. At the same time, violent crime rates in Chicago declined by 8 percent.

In other words, the Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) narrative wasn’t just unsupported by evidence, it was directly contradicted by much more thorough evidence and a larger, more reliable dataset.

People released pretrial overwhelmingly succeed when given the chance, where otherwise they would have been forcibly incarcerated because they could not afford to purchase their own freedom. The actual data of bond reform shows that this incarceration is unneeded to promote public safety or court appearance. While Johnson’s narrative took over the news cycle, these facts were buried.

Meanwhile the stories of these tens of thousands of people released pretrial who didn’t commit another crime or endanger their community continue to be absent from the vast majority of mainstream news coverage. Stories about our friends and neighbors keeping their jobs and housing while fighting their cases are not considered newsworthy.

Is No One Fact-Checking the Sheriff?

Another telling example of mainstream media outlets’ eagerness to accept police narratives as truth occurred on April 4, 2019, when The Washington Post published an op-ed by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart stating that no one has been held in solitary confinement in Cook County Jail in the last three years.

Outside of the word of Sheriff Dart himself, there is no proof that solitary confinement has been eliminated. Dart’s claim has not been verified by any outside body or structured oversight process.

Yet, the Washington Post still found it worthwhile to publish this extensive op-ed that amounted to little more than Sheriff Dart patting himself on the back for an unverified achievement.

Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence suggests that there continue to be many people in solitary or its equivalent in Cook County Jail.

People released recently from the jail have reported that they have experienced various forms of damaging isolation, either because they are transgender or because they have special medical treatment needs. While this segregation may be referred to as “protective custody” or by other names, it often looks the same as solitary confinement.

Eliminating solitary confinement in the nation’s largest single-site jail would be a tremendous victory. Nearly 60,000 people pass through Cook County Jail every year, and knowing that none of them were held in the damaging confines of a solitary cell would be a great relief for anyone with a loved one inside. Such a claim is deserving of investigation by outside evaluators. The Post’s decision to reprint this claim without evidence from anyone other than the jailer holding the keys to these cells is quite simply irresponsible.

And yet, editorial decisions like these are all too common. Across the country, news outlets regularly regurgitate police talking points and stories that police departments’ communications teams spoon-feed to editors. Perhaps reporters feel pressured to accept these stories at face value so that they don’t lose access to the police as a source of information on future cases. In effect, printing police lies can keep outlets in the good graces of law enforcement agencies, ensuring they’ll be able to get comment for future stories or be given the next big crime scoop.

Bolstering Calls for Heavy-Handed Policing

Yet another way in which mainstream news outlets often serve the priorities of the prison-industrial complex is by bolstering misguided calls for heavy-handed policing. This happened in Chicago last month when, prior to Memorial Day weekend, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she was “flooding the zone” with 1,200 additional police officers.

The vast majority of mainstream news outlets in Chicago failed to fact-check the assumptions and logic behind Lightfoot’s plan, even though crime and shootings are down in Chicago.

For example, coverage of Lightfoot’s suggestion was included in the Chicago Sun-Times and the Tribune, both of which failed to call into question the impact of a greater police presence in these neighborhoods and whether there is any basis for believing that “flooding the zone” would decrease gun violence.

Stories like these do a disservice to the communities these news outlets serve. By skewing or ignoring the facts while drumming up fears about crime, papers are not reporting or even editorializing; they are spinning tall tales. While alarmist discussions of public safety may pull in viewers, misportraying the challenges a community faces can have devastating consequences to the communities being reported on.

In Chicago, for example, the results of Lightfoot’s Memorial Day weekend plan were disastrous: 22-year-old Myles Frazier was killed by police while having a mental health crisis, 84-year-old Verona Gunn was killed when two CPD vehicles recklessly crashed into each other, and 21-year-old Curtis Stagger was killed when CPD erroneously served him with a warrant intended for someone else.

With more than 2 million people incarcerated and hundreds of people killed by police officers every year, it is essential that news outlets research and question the statements made by law enforcement rather than simply repeating them. Failing to do so props up the oppressive criminal punishment system that is wreaking havoc on our communities.

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