Journalists gather in Chicago to discuss race and police

By DIMITRIOS KALANTZIS      JUNE 2, 2015

CHICAGO – By the time the 20 working journalists from across the country, and all types of media, converged in Chicago for a marathon 20-hour, two-day workshop on covering police, race and community, Freddie Gray was already dead.

The 25-year-old Baltimore man’s death while in police custody on April 19 would spark yet another protest — and riot — in an American city. But not just yet.

So it was almost prescient that the workshop opened April 23 with an introduction by Peter Moskos, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who began his research by becoming a beat cop for the Baltimore Police Department.

“The reason they dislike the media so vehemently,” Moskos would tell the group the following day about police, “is because they think you don’t get it.”

It was the kind of insight that underscored much of the workshop’s nine sessions, which included an on-the-record opportunity for the journalists to listen and talk to people intimately tied to one of the most pressing questions confronting this country today: Where does race and policing intersect? And how is the media covering it?

Over the course of those two days — put together and hosted in Chicago by Community Media Workshop in connection with the Poynter Specialized Reporting Institute and funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation — an underlying theme developed. The actors on either side, the referees in the middle, and even the researchers peering in from the outside, asked that the journalists always strive for the “full story.” Just what that means, of course, took many shapes.

“Don’t hide behind your newspaper,” said Chris Mallette, executive director of the Chicago Violence Reduction Strategy, which aims to take a holistic approach to combat crime in the inner city, pulling in social services and trying to understand why young people turn to crime in the first place.

Reinaldo Rivera, who works in the U.S. Justice Department’s Community Relations Service — what he called the “peace-making arm” of the federal department — urged the journalists to find the “counter narrative.”

“The absence of urgency is what I call complacency,” he said. “And complacency is an impediment to change.”

The workshop took reporters from the lecture halls of Columbia College Chicago, to the University of Chicago Law School, to a community group in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood.

For their own part, the journalists came from Spokane, Wash.; St. Louis; New York City; Austin, Texas; Pittsburgh, Penn.; San Jose, Calif.; and Boston. Chosen by application, this class writes stories about crime and about many of its root causes, through print, video and radio. They represented The New York Times, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, St. Louis Public Radio, the Austin American Statesman, ProPublica, the Des Moines Register, and Time Magazine, among other organizations, including nonprofits like the Southern Poverty Law Center.

They heard directly from police, lawyers, academics and other journalists, including Cheryl Corley, of NPR; Gina Barton, of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel; Cheryl Thompson, of The Washington Post; and Angela Caputo, of the Chicago Tribune.

“I’m scared of y’all,” said Chicago Police Department Deputy Chief Patricia Walsh, a 29-year veteran of the force. “We read what you say. We care what you say.”

For many of the participating journalists, the workshop was encouraging as much as it was humbling.

Beatriz Alvarado, a reporter in Corpus Christi, took a bus down into Chicago’s South Side at the end of the first day’s sessions, and came across a police stop that was, she would later say, somewhat unfamiliar to her in Texas. Still, she said, “I wasn’t really surprised because we had just talked to those kids.”

The work was already sinking in. And the journalists were already considering their next steps when they left the conference and headed back home. They returned home with two ebooks, written by Stephen Franklin, Community Media Workshop’s ethnic and community media project director — one more than 60 pages on how to cover violence, and another 20 pages on best practices for covering police.

“We’re trying to move the dime on police reporting,” said Susy Schultz, a veteran journalist and president of Community Media Workshop. “To really make sure we look at race and get the other voices from the community, not just the voices of power.”

Kalantzis is managing editor of The Daily Journal in Kankakee. He attended the McCormick Foundation SRI and was given a stipend to cover the event.