"Lazy" Journalism Keeps Innocent in Prison
Sunday, June 27, 2010
After walking out of an Ohio courthouse May 5 a free man for the first time in nearly three decades, Raymond Towler was joined by family, friends, advocates and fellow exonerees for a pizza lunch. (Credit: Innocence Project)
"It's quite interesting being on the other side and watching how news is covered," Michael Adams told Journal-isms. "The average paralegal knows more about the law and civil procedure (the rules of the various courts) than court reporters. Reporters know how to write about what happens in the court room, but the real story might be in the stuff that takes place before a case reaches trial.
"A lot of the stuff is readily available in court files, but lots of times the reporters don't check. They're either too intellectually lazy or they're being tugged in different directions by their editors. Often, they wait to be spoon-fed by flacks in the district attorney's office. Ditto for cop reporters. Most police departments are insular and uncooperative with the press. They will give certain reporters access as long as they write stuff with the cops' spin on it. Some editors think these reporters are doing a great job just by getting comments from key cops when news breaks. It shows how detached the editors are from what's happening in the real world."
Adams took a buyout from the Baltimore Sun in 2008, leaving the paper as an assistant city editor after 25 years there. Now he works for the Maryland Innocence Project, which like its counterparts in other states, works to assist prisoners who could be proved innocent through DNA testing. Journal-isms asked Adams to write a short essay about what he now thinks journalists should know.
By Michael Adams
On May 5, this headline topped a story that appeared in the Columbus Dispatch:
"Long-awaited DNA tests prove he is innocent of rape."
The article carried a photo of Raymond Towler, 52, after his release from an Ohio prison. Towler had spent more than 29 years behind bars after his 1981 conviction in the rape a 12-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy. It took six years for attorneys for the Ohio Innocence Project to free Towler. He was the third person freed as a result of the Dispatch's series, "Test of Convictions," in which the newspaper and the Ohio Innocence Project exposed flaws in Ohio's DNA testing system.
Many news organizations have adopted a formulaic approach for coverage of inmates who're exonerated by DNA testing. It works like this: the happy inmate walking to freedom, comments from the gritty defense lawyer and an oversimplification of the complicated science of DNA testing. Often, the reader is left with the false impression that our justice system does not fail the innocent.
Nothing could be further from the truth. And the Dispatch should be commended for exposing it.
I spent 25 years as a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Sun before taking a buyout a couple of years ago. I earned a paralegal certificate and now review cases for the Maryland Innocence Project. We offer DNA testing for clients who've been convicted of rape, murder and non-negligent homicide.
DNA testing is a double-edged sword: It can show a person's guilt or innocence. Cops and prosecutors readily employ it to gain convictions - and they drag their feet or fight like hell to keep it from being used for post-conviction testing. Why? Because wrongful convictions are often the result of sloppy police work, police and prosecutorial misconduct and/or other dysfunctions hidden in the justice system.
Consider these findings by the Innocence Project:
- Nationwide, false confessions accounted for about 25 percent of the more than 240 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence. These confessions resulted from fear, intimidation, force, trickery and the compromised reasoning ability of the suspect.
- None of the DNA exonerations would have been possible without evidence to test. Yet evidence is sometimes lost or destroyed.
- Some courts will not consider newly discovered DNA evidence after trial, despite its ability to prove innocence. Towler asked for DNA testing in 2004, but some of the evidence could not be found and was not tested until 2008. Even after sophisticated testing eliminated Towler, follow-up testing was ordered and for reasons unknown, it took a Texas lab 18 months to complete it.
I'm convinced that there are many more Raymond Towlers behind bars who'll never be freed.
I urge other news organizations to join the Dispatch and take a look at wrongful convictions. There's more to criminal-justice coverage than sending reporters to cover trials and having them write follow-up stories on police department press releases. Bigger stories can be found by piercing the insular world where judges, cops and prosecutors veil their mistakes and misconduct under the rule of law.
- Editorial, Columbus Dispatch: Fair payment - Falsely convicted should be paid quickly what the law already mandates
The New York Times began its summer internship program with 13 interns on June 1, but none is African American.
"We have several people of color this year but no African Americans, unfortunately," Senior Editor Dana Canedy told Journal-isms. "One we wanted had already accepted another internship and another had just graduated and was offered a fulltime job. What we really need is a deeper pool of candidates. Of about 600 applications for this summer I estimate that we had only about two dozen African American candidates. I intend to reach out to HBCUs for next summer to try to increase the numbers who apply," she said in a reference to historically black colleges and universities.
The Times' 10-week internship program is offered to college seniors and graduate students who have decided on careers in journalism. The reporting interns in New York are called the James Reston Reporting Fellows, after the late columnist and Washington correspondent.
(A program intended to advance diversity, its 1998 class included fabricator Jayson Blair and a colleague whose work he later plagiarized, Macarena Hernandez.)
"Interns are assigned to various news departments, typically, metro, education, business and sports. They get reporting assignments and bylines on their stories. The internship includes four days in Washington, D.C., on a behind-the-scenes tour of the capital and the Washington bureau," the Times says.
The visual journalism program, covering graphics, art design, page design and photography, is called the Thomas Morgan Internship, named after the former New York Times reporter who was 1989-91 president of the National Association of Black Journalists. The copy editing internship program is coordinated through the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund Copy Editing program.
In another flagging indicator of African American participation in competitive journalism programs, only two black journalists were picked among the fellowship programs for mid-career journalists this year at Harvard, Stanford and the University of Michigan. The number of African American applicants declined by five.
The John S. Knight Fellowship Program at Stanford University saw nine African American applicants of 133 total, or 6.7 percent, Program Director James Bettinger said; last year there were 14 African American applicants out of 166, or 8.5 percent. The applicants to the Nieman program at Harvard and the Knight-Wallace program at Michigan were about the same as last year, their directors said. (Sixteen vs. 15 at Nieman and 10 vs. 11 at Knight-Wallace.)
"The conservative Daily Caller has been no friend of the late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd. But its e-mail this morning takes the criticism to a new place entirely," media writer Keach Hagey reported Monday for Politico.
"1.) Former Klansman kicks the Bucket ‚Äî Sen. Robert Byrd, the self-obsessed former KKK member whose name graces every immovable object in the state of West Virginia, died this morning after taking ill late Sunday night," she quoted the e-mail as saying.
Others were more charitable. Writing on theGrio.com was David A. Love, executive editor of theBlackCommentator.com, a progressive, black nationalist site.
"We should condemn the man's racist past, but honor his recent accomplishments. And we should respect his ability and willingness to transform his mind and move beyond his circumstances and upbringing. Robert Byrd did not die as a leader of the Klan, because he had buried that racist past a long time ago. However, he did leave us as a leader for all Americans. So, let us give him a proper goodbye," Love wrote.
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., an outspoken member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in a statement, "Senator Byrd often spoke about his regret over participating in racist and anti-civil rights activities as a young man. I appreciated his willingness to publicly repudiate his membership with the Ku Klux Klan, and later his filibuster of the Civil Rights bill in the Senate. He often referred to his decade as a Klan member as the greatest mistake of his life.
"Senator Byrd also deftly identified the proudest moment in his career ‚Äì his 2002 vote against authorizing the Iraq War. A fiery orator, he delivered a memorable speech on the eve of the invasion. As the Chair of the Out of Iraq Caucus, I greatly appreciated Senator Byrd‚Äôs outspoken opposition to the war, his concern for our men and women in uniform and his foresight into how entrenched our nation would become in this unjustified war. Senator Byrd was a great ally for our anti-war cause and for our brave soldiers."
- Mary C. Curtis, Politics Daily: Robert Byrd's Klan History, and the 150 Recruits He Brought With Him
- Eugene Kane blog, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Yes, Byrd was in the KKK. We can agree on that.
- Eugene Robinson, Washington Post: Robert Byrd: A story of change and redemption [June 29]
"Two National Post photographers were arrested Saturday night during anti-G20 demonstrations in downtown Toronto," Canada's National Post reported Saturday.
"Brett Gundlock, a staff photographer for the Post, was tackled and taken away by several police officers in riot gear as they attempted to disperse protesters hanging around near the Ontario legislature.
"Kier Gilmour, a photographer for Canwest News Service who witnessed the arrest, said the officers knocked Mr. Gundlock to the ground and then dragged him away. He had been standing with several other media photographers at the time.
‚Äú'They slammed him down, onto his ass so to speak, then they dragged him back up and pulled him back to the police line,' Mr. Gilmour said.
"Colin O‚ÄôConnor, a freelance photographer working for the Post, was also apparently detained."
The CBC additionally reported, "Freelance journalist Jesse Rosenfeld says police beat him Saturday night in Toronto as he covered a G20 demonstration.
"A second journalist who witnessed the incident said it was 'not a great night for democracy.'
"Steve Paikin, host of TVO's The Agenda public affairs show, was watching protesters on a downtown Toronto street, the Esplanade, on Saturday night.
"In a message posted on Twitter, Paikin wrote that the demonstration was peaceful. 'It was like an old sit-in. No one was aggressive, and yet riot squad officers moved in.'"
- Shannon Kari, National Post: G20: Post photographers spend night in detention centre
- Katy Kelleher, Jezebel: G20 Journalist Threatened With Rape, Violence In Jail
- Video of Jesse Rosenfeld interview with CBC
To those who read only the headlines, it was another sad story about the child of a prominent figure gone wrong. The son of the new Dallas police chief killed a fellow officer and a civilian last week, and then was shot to death himself.
The central figure was David Brown Jr., 27, and his mental illness was not mentioned in many of the accounts.
"Brown, the son of Dallas Police Chief David Brown Sr., reportedly was acting strangely that afternoon, walking, dancing and humming around an apartment swimming pool wearing only his boxer shorts and sunglasses. Witnesses also said he was in the water naked, causing some people to leave the pool. That, the witnesses said, in turn apparently upset Brown," Sanders wrote.
"There is no use playing the 'what if' game, because nothing can change what happened that Sunday afternoon. But had Brown been detained that morning, taken to Parkland Hospital for psychiatric evaluation or if his family had been summoned to come check on him, maybe . . . just maybe.
". . . It is important that our police officers continue to avail themselves of the special training offered by various agencies so that they might be more capable of defusing certain situations that might otherwise end in unnecessary arrests, injuries or even death."
Sanders told Journal-isms on Tuesday: "You're right, that the mental illness angle has not been played up in news reports even though when Brown's girlfriend first called police she told them that he was having a 'psychotic breakdown.' When police arrived, she explained to them that he was bipolar.
"The Lancaster police had dealt with him several times before, so I'm sure they were aware of his mental problems.
"The reaction has been interesting. As always, I heard from my racist detractors who thought I was simply trying to make excuses for a black guy who was probably on drugs and had killed a cop. He may have been on drugs ‚Äî we'll find that out later ‚Äî but they don't understand that drug addiction is a mental illness. However, having served on the board of the Mental Health Association of Tarrant County for years, I've had experience with bipolar individuals. The more likely story is that Brown probably has been prescribed medication for his mental illness and had not been taking it for several days before this incident. Bipolar people can function with the proper medication.
"There have been several instances in the last couple of years where mentally ill people have been injured or killed because police didn't know how to deal with them. This continues to be a serious issue.
"I did hear from people who thanked me for telling more of the story, for they all were wondering, 'Why?' ‚Äî something they didn't get from news stories, especially from the broadcast media." [Updated June 29]
"An ugly paradox of the 21st century is that some of our elegant symbols of modernity ‚Äî smartphones, laptops and digital cameras ‚Äî are built from minerals that seem to be fueling mass slaughter and rape in Congo," columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote Sunday ln the New York Times. "With throngs waiting in lines in the last few days to buy the latest iPhone, I‚Äôm thinking: What if we could harness that desperation for new technologies to the desperate need to curb the killing in central Africa?
"I‚Äôve never reported on a war more barbaric than Congo‚Äôs, and it haunts me. In Congo, I‚Äôve seen women who have been mutilated, children who have been forced to eat their parents' flesh, girls who have been subjected to rapes that destroyed their insides. Warlords finance their predations in part through the sale of mineral ore containing tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold. For example, tantalum from Congo is used to make electrical capacitors that go into phones, computers and gaming devices.
"Electronics manufacturers have tried to hush all this up. They want you to look at a gadget and think 'sleek,' not 'blood.'
"Yet now there‚Äôs a grass-roots movement pressuring companies to keep these 'conflict minerals' out of high-tech supply chains. Using Facebook and YouTube, activists are harassing companies like Apple, Intel and Research in Motion (which makes the BlackBerry) to get them to lean on their suppliers and ensure the use of, say, Australian tantalum rather than tantalum peddled by a Congolese militia."
Denver Post columnist Tina Griego responded over the weekend to a reader who wrote, "I mostly pass up your column because it always says the same thing and is always about the Latino community, specifically a person(s). Enough . . . please enough . . . you are selling your soul for a cause that many just are tired of reading about."
"I do have a bias," Griego replied via her column. "News coverage ‚Äî and here I mean both mainstream and entertainment media ‚Äî hinges upon simplification. Simplification risks oversimplification risks caricature. Caricature becomes stereotype.
"Stories continue to swing from one extreme to the other, the angel-devil syndrome, with little room for the nuance and complexity that is life.
"I freely admit this leads me to try to fill in the lines, to seek the intersections, the contradictions.
"That hasn't meant writing just of the everyday life of everyday Latinos or other ethnic/racial minorities. It's meant writing about people of faith. It's meant writing about the poor. About people battling addiction. About newcomers and old-timers. About change in a community and how we respond to it. It means that when I see, sitting alone in a legislative conference room, an American Indian man wearing one magnificent bolo tie, I will stop. I will learn he's Ernest House Sr., the Ute Mountain Ute tribal chairman, and you know he's gotta have stories. It means, in particular, that I write about youth, most often urban youth such as those appearing in 'Zoot Suit,' which is the column that prompted Robert's e-mail.
"This expanded field of vision has led me to believe this job is not simply about informing, but illuminating. What it is to succeed, to love, to mourn, to rage, to soar, to stumble, to get back up, to yearn, to experience one moment of perfect contentment. I tell those stories not because I believe I am going to change misperception, but because, if I tell them well, they provide reaffirmation. I seek that rare moment when one person picks up the newspaper and sees himself in the story of another."
In this May 3, 1963, photo, a 17-year-old civil rights demonstrator defies a Birmingham, Ala., anti-parade ordinance and is attacked by a police dog. The photographer, Bill Hudson of the Associated Press, made searing images of the civil rights era, documenting police brutality and galvanizing the public. He died Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla., at 77. (Credit: Bill Hudson/AP)
- "Barack Obama is well into his term as president and yet 24 percent of his constituents think he was born in another country, despite the constitutional requirement that presidents be born in U.S. territory," CBS announced on Monday, referring to the latest "60 Minutes"/Vanity Fair Poll. "Six percent of that 24 percent say Obama was born in Kenya, where his father was from, while 2 percent said Indonesia, 5 percent picked 'Someplace else outside the U.S.,' and the rest (11 percent) said, 'Not sure which country.' Of the 63 percent who knew Obama was born in the U.S., 39 percent correctly picked Hawaii as his place of birth."
- "The American Society of News Editors applauds the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in which the court held that disclosing the names of people who sign a ballot petition does not violate their First Amendment rights" [PDF], ASNE said Monday. "The case, Doe v. Reed, arose when Washington Gov. Christine Gregiore signed legislation in 2009 expanding the rights of same-sex domestic partners."
- Debra Juarez began working as news director of the New England Cable Network on Monday, a spokesman told Journal-isms. "Juarez most recently ran Deca Productions, an Illinois-based production company that creates video, commercials, and documentaries for English and Spanish media and advertisers. Before that, Juarez was vice president of news for the Fox affiliate in Chicago, where she helped oversee an expansion of news and sports coverage," Johnny Diaz reported for the Boston Globe.
- The Cleveland Call & Post was awarded the Thomas Morgan III Award for HIV/AIDS Education at a New York meeting of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, Hazel Trice Edney reported for NNPA. The $2,500 award is jointly funded by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the California-based Black AIDS Institute.
- Two suspects have been arrested in the killing of Rwandan editor Jean Leonard Rugambage, who was shot as he pulled up outside his gate, the BBC reported on Monday. "The government has denied as 'baseless' accusations it was behind the killing. A police statement says one of the suspects is related to someone allegedly killed by Mr Rugambage during the 1994 genocide."
Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site BugMeNot.com provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.
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