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"Lazy" Journalism Keeps Innocent in Prison

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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Ex-Reporter Says Too Much Gets by News Media

No Blacks Among N.Y. Times Summer Interns

Byrd Hailed for Renouncing Klan - by Most, Anyway

Journalists Beaten, Jailed During Toronto G20 Protests

Story of Cop-Killing Cop Is One of Mental Illness

Americans' Use of Digital Toys Fuels Abuses in Congo

Denver's Tina Griego: I Write to Provide Reaffirmation

Galvanizing Image

Short Takes

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)

Ex-Reporter Says Too Much Gets by News Media

Michael Adams"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:

"Wrongly convicted man goes free

"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.

No Blacks Among N.Y. Times Summer Interns

Photography intern Marcus YamThe 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.

Copy editing intern Reyna DesaiThe 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. Reporting intern Stephen CeasarThe 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.)

Byrd Hailed for Renouncing Klan — by Most, Anyway

"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 — 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 was David A. Love, executive editor of, 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 – 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’s 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."

 Jesse Rosenfeld, left, told the CBC, 'All the time I was saying 'I am not resisting arrest. I am a journalist. Why are you beating me?'

Journalists Beaten, Jailed During Toronto G20 Protests

"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.

“'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’Connor, 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.'"

Story of Cop-Killing Cop Is One of Mental Illness

David Brown Jr.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.

But as Bob Ray Sanders of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram pointed out in his Sunday column, the story was as much about mental illness and bipolar disorder, and society's failure to grapple with it.

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 — we'll find that out later — 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?' — something they didn't get from news stories, especially from the broadcast media." [Updated June 29]

Americans' Use of Digital Toys Fuels Abuses in Congo

"An ugly paradox of the 21st century is that some of our elegant symbols of modernity — smartphones, laptops and digital cameras — 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’m thinking: What if we could harness that desperation for new technologies to the desperate need to curb the killing in central Africa?

"I’ve never reported on a war more barbaric than Congo’s, and it haunts me. In Congo, I’ve 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’s 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's Tina Griego: I Write to Provide Reaffirmation

Tina GriegoDenver 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 — and here I mean both mainstream and entertainment media — 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."

Galvanizing Image

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)

Short Takes

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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 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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"Lazy" Journalism Keeps Innocent in Prison (David Cay Johnston)

 Michael Adams is right -- too much spoon fed material from cops and prosecutors and not enough checking of facts in the court record.

       There is also far too little examination of the quality and competence of court-appointed defense counsel, including the budgets they get and the caseloads they carry. It is not unusual for court-appointed defense lawyers to get a budget of more than a few hundred dollars for investigations and to make less per hour than the cost of support personnel just to keep an office open. Appeals courts have upheld convictions in which defense lawyers slept through much of  trial, showed up drunk and failed to ask the most obvious questions of witnesses.

       When the innocent are wrongly convicted it does more than breed disrespect for the law, it also means the authorities allowed the perpetrator to go on his or her way, perhaps to commit more crimes.

       Amy Bach's superb and brief book, Ordinary Injustice, will open eyes to how wrongs get perpetrated every day unless reporters tell the full story of what is really going on in our criminal justice system.

       David Cay Johnston

Byrd deserves no quarter

I am not sure what I resent more white journalists and politicians making excuses for Byrd's racism and legacy of contempt for Black Americans or Black journalists and Black politicians engaging in tortured logic in offering off excuses and fiction about the gutless racist and bigot Robert Byrd was during the bulk of his life.

Byrd's legacy does not deserve a pass nor should people give any credibility to his alleged regrets and personal growth. Sorry but that depth of depravity and evil cannot be ignored nor be given a pass by anyone of good will.

I hope Robert Byrd rots in hell for the inhumanity he brought to the lives of thousands of human beings he encountered and had influence over simply because they were not of his hue...

Bryd's Racist Legacy and his Defenders

I am not sure what I resent more white journalists and politicians who excuse and defend the vile and racist legacy of Robert Byrd or Black journalists and politicians who parrot the same fiction and behavior of thier white counterparts. Evil should never be given a pass or regrets of any degree.

Robert Byrd not only was racist and whose contempt  towards Black Americans was a part of his legacy but the depth and degree of his evil and inhumanity destroyed thousands of Black americans who were subject to his racist practices. 

I hope Byrd rots in hell for the evil and inhumanity his life caused for americans who not of his hue. Byrd does not deserve any forgiveness dead or alive.

down the path Thrasher proposes.... a world in which once one has done something vile they may as well just keep doing it because there is no learning, no redemption and no progress. 


Racism is evil. No one should excuse it. The Byrd obituaries I read all provided appropriate context. 





Indicting Evil works as a Deterent

David Cay Johnston's is a white man validating other white journalists and some Black journalists who penned excuses for the racist and evil legacy of Robert Byrd ...From my vantage point as a Black man none of the Byrd obituaries offered up the condemnation that Byrd's  inhumanity and racism warranted...When evil is confronted and attacked there is learning, progress and more importantly for the victims of evil  closure...

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