Reporting on Racial Injustice

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On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. What followed were weeks of protests and civil unrest in the community, chronicled heavily by the national media as the decision of whether or not to indict Wilson unfolded.

During the protests, journalist Wesley Lowery was on the ground reporting, setting the scene for readers with firsthand observation and interviews. He spoke with Brown’s family members and Ferguson residents, gaining their perspective on the incident and the community’s policing. As more instances of racially charged police violence occurred, Lowery was there, speaking with families and police to make sense of the burgeoning movement for racial justice in the United States.

It’s that reporting that led to his newly released book, “They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement,” in which he chronicles the problem represented by police violence in neglected communities of color with critical reporting. BTRtoday had the chance to speak with Lowery about the experience of writing a book and the countless hours of reporting that led to it.

BTRtoday (BTR): How long did the process of reporting and writing the book take?

Wesley Lowery (WL): So this book draws on the reporting that I’ve done over the last almost three years, although I started writing the book itself sometime around January. I probably spent about six months on the book, but I was drawing from a ton of experience, conversations I was having and interviews I had done dating back to August 2014.

BTR: You spoke to Michael Brown’s family as well as the families of other victims of police violence. How willing were they to share their experiences and their pain with you?

WL: It depended on the family—some families were eager to talk, some were more hesitant. The advantage of doing a book project is that you can come back to people over time, although there were still families that I couldn’t quite speak to or didn’t talk to a ton.

It’s fascinating. When your loved one is killed–by anyone, much less a police officer—you’re going through trauma, you’re stuck in this moment. Some people find it relieving, a means of coping to have these conversations and talk about their loved one. Other people just want their privacy. I had a lot of success talking to families, but in the same way you understand when someone doesn’t want to.

“Some of these communities see us, and we only show up to cover stories of pain and trauma, and how we don’t follow up. About how, perhaps, we’re not there on a normal Tuesday or a normal Wednesday, but on Thursday when someone’s shot and killed, we’re there.” – Wesley Lowery

BTR: Can you talk about the empathy involved in speaking with families who have gone through such an immense personal loss, especially when the loss is as public as some of these were?

WL: It’s very difficult. Usually when you lose someone, it’s something that you can share with your family, kind of going through it and thinking about it. But what’s different here, when someone’s killed by the police, especially in one of these cases that’s racially charged or goes national, the media is all over you. They’re camped out on your front lawn, they’re calling everyone’s cellphone numbers, they’re asking all these questions. Meanwhile, you’re watching your loved one be dehumanized—their Instagram post dissected on the news, or this tweet they sent two years ago. This implication by talking heads on cable that this is someone who deserved to be killed. That’s not something that most of us experience when we lose someone, so that can be extremely difficult.

I chronicle in the book my own struggles as a member of the media. It’s my job to ask questions, to show up at these places and figure out how to best talk to and interview family members—the mother of Walter Scott, the mother of Tamir Rice. How do you ask questions that aren’t vapid? How do you get deeper than just asking ‘how are you feeling?’ or ‘do you think justice will be served?’ It can almost feel insulting to show up at someone’s house amidst the worst tragedy of their life and ask them base level questions. I think that’s something we all grapple with—how do you cover such difficult and sensitive stories while still being respectful of the people in them.

BTR: Do you think the sense of entitlement in the media has led to disparaging coverage of some of these victims, or on other topics in general?

WL: I definitely think that’s true. I certainly think that there’s a sense of entitlement, and then a sense of frustration that follows. Sometimes the media feels that we deserve this information or we deserve to be spoken to. I think that can create frustration on the part of the media, but also deepen distrust in these communities. So often we show up to tell these stories about these communities and their police departments and the trust between the department and the community, but we also forget there’s a trust that’s been lost between the community and the media itself.

Some of these communities see us, and we only show up to cover stories of pain and trauma, and how we don’t follow up. About how, perhaps, we’re not there on a normal Tuesday or a normal Wednesday, but on Thursday when someone’s shot and killed, we’re there. It’s important to build those relationships in the communities we’re covering, because that’s the only way we can start to better and more accurately tell these stories, as well as build that trust that perhaps we’ve lost.

BTR: Police officers and departments regularly provide journalists with information about various situations. As a member of the media, can you talk about the difficulty in reporting on the police violence or overuse of force?

WL: I think there’s a built in structural bias with the media to trust spokespeople, to treat the police chief or the public information officer as gospel. We rely on them every day to tell us what happened—what happened with that traffic accident, what lanes of the highway are closed, what happened with that shooting. So we have these conversations over and over and over again. We rely on official sources for information. Then when there’s a shooting, we often have the word of those same sources, the police who say ‘there’s nothing to see here, it’s justified, don’t worry about it,’ versus the word of residents in the community.

I think that oftentimes those built-in relationships can leave us biased in favor of the information we’re receiving from those official sources, and we tend not to scrutinize or be as critical and cynical as we might otherwise have been. We’ve seen this in case after case—situations where there is a shooting and the media runs with the official statements, only to later discover a video, either a body cam or a bystander video, that seems to contradict what the police story was. That’s something that we have to focus on and be careful of. To make sure that we’re not overstating what we know, that we are properly attributing, and also that we’re able to call out and willing to be honest about what the police won’t tell us.

BTR: It seems crazy to say, but Michael Brown was killed more than two years ago now. Based on your observation and reporting, what kind of progress has our country made since then in terms of racial and social justice?

WL: It’s hard to state what, if any, progress we’ve made. It’s clear that we’ve had a conversation that’s on a bit of a higher level than we were having in 2014. We’ve certainly seen steps by the federal government, the Department of Justice specifically, to investigate some police departments and some shootings, although it’s unclear with the information coming in what, if any of that, will change and stay. So I guess it remains unclear exactly where we are as it relates to this. We have not seen any massive change across the country, we have not seen any massive reform. So we’ll see what happens moving forward.