The original press release from the Minneapolis Police Department about George Floyd’s murder was a lie.
By the police account, the murder was not even an act of killing. Under the title “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction,” the release claimed that Floyd had resisted arrest and then suffered “medical distress” after being cuffed. That is a drastically reduced description of what actually occurred when Derek Chauvin murdered Floyd. Nowhere does the release mention that the medical distress was brought on by Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds—as Floyd experienced seizures and cried out for help, in front of multiple eyewitnesses. In video footage of the arrest, Floyd’s only visible resistance to the officers is his falling to his knees and saying he’s claustrophobic.
The press release resurfaced following Chauvin’s conviction, and it renewed a conversation about how, exactly, news outlets should report information that comes from law enforcement officials when the police have killed or injured a civilian. Historically, journalists have tended to defer to police reports as the default narratives around crime and violence; the police are, after all, consistently there as sources at otherwise confusing and unpredictable scenes, and their accounts have the authority of the government behind them. But Floyd’s murder presents another challenge to that long-held standard, especially when the police are active participants in the stories they tell.
As witnesses’ cellphone footage has captured more acts of police violence, and as officers’ body cameras have kept contradicting their own accounts of events, news outlets have begun couching their coverage of police reports in more skeptical terms. Again and again, law enforcement officials themselves end up revising or retracting essential parts of their stories of what happened. But the old habit remains a powerful one.
Kat Stafford, an investigative reporter for the Associated Press, explained in a Twitter thread it’s vital that journalists not act as stenographers for the police but instead investigate their account as thoroughly as we would any civilian’s.
How will this knowledge translate into policy for journalists? I asked a number of major news organizations if they planned to change their newsroom standards or guidelines about how to report on information provided by police officers and departments. CBS News said it has been “reporting on this issue on and off air.” A spokesperson for the Associated Press said: “AP’s guidance is to treat police statements, like any source of official information, with due skepticism, and question it closely, speak to all parties involved in a particular situation and do our own due diligence. Police information should be attributed properly and not stated as fact.” The AP spokesperson also pointed to this story addressing the topic following Floyd’s murder.
The Washington Post said its policy is to “disclose to readers the sources of information in our stories, to the maximum possible extent. When we find that individuals or institutions have misled the public or The Post, we cover that failing, as our reporting on the death of George Floyd demonstrates.”
(Slate’s own official statement on the subject was: “We don’t have a police-specific policy, but our editorial approach is, and will continue to be, to use discretion, fact-check and properly contextualize and frame information provided by police officers and departments. Statements from law enforcement officials can be important and newsworthy developments in a story, but we believe it is our job as a news organization to verify and hold those officials, and the information they provide, to account, just as we strive to do with every source.”)
In an interview with Slate, two officials for the Gannett newspaper chain described an ongoing set of coverage reforms that are starting within the company’s Atlantic region and are meant to be rolled out companywide—part of what they said was a larger reckoning with how to cover policing and crime. As they talked to the public about the company’s journalism, Michael Kilian, Gannett’s New York state editor, said, “it became quickly clear that public safety coverage was the big impediment to trust.”
The revised approach includes a policy of not writing about a crime or arrest unless the underlying case would be in the public’s interest and would merit continued coverage as it passes through the court system. Gannett also avoids publishing police mug shots except in special circumstances—such as if the person is a prominent figure or poses a significant danger to the public—and emphasizes the need for reporters to speak to other people at the scene and in the surrounding community rather than directly publishing the police narrative.
“I read the police report from Minneapolis, and it took a leave from reality,” said Hollis R. Towns, the vice president of local news initiatives at Gannett. “There were a lot of omissions in that police report and a characterization in that police report that was not reflective of what was actually happening on the ground or what happened when George Floyd was taken into custody.”
“For many, many years, we’ve accepted the gospel from police as [the] true religion, and we haven’t pushed back,” Towns said. “We’ve accepted it as it is. And I think what this approach does is to look at that differently. That the police are offering one viewpoint on what may have happened.”
Kilian noted that even referring to police as “the authorities” in a news story was being discussed, since it further reinforces a historical lack of scrutiny given to law enforcement.
“We don’t call the mayor ‘the authority’ or President Biden or anybody else,” he said. “It puts us in a position of being almost subservient, or subordinate, to the police information. And that is something that’s so built in. If we go back and read police news from a year ago or 10 years ago or 20 years ago, we can see that.”
“We have to cure ourselves of that and treat them as one more source that we should be skeptical of,” he added, “and find what the full story is.”