Journalism, independent of the police

In a recent Chicago Tribune column:

It’s not clear to me where activists and demonstrators ever got the idea that public protesting is somehow a private act that can be conducted anonymously. It’s dismaying that they insist their threshold for personal trauma outweighs the tenets of responsible journalism.

Column: The Phoenix rises: Loyola’s student newspaper takes a courageous stand for journalism” — Eric Zorn, The Chicago Tribune, Sept. 4, 2020

Looming unsaid over this column, and over every column written and published during this time, is how the practices, standards and supposed “norms” of the professional journalism industry were cemented into the newsroom consciousness when newsrooms were incredibly racist, anti-Black, and highly conservative workplaces of ideology.

The Tribune Tower is a neo-Gothic skyscraper in Chicago. It was the home of the Chicago Tribune. Prior to the construction, correspondents for the Chicago Tribune brought back rocks and bricks from a variety of historically important sites throughout the world. Stones included in the wall are from such sites as the St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Trondheim Cathedral, Taj Mahal, Clementine Hall, the Parthenon, Hagia Sophia, Palace of Westminster, the Great Pyramid Notre Dame de Paris, Abraham Lincoln’s Tomb, the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat, which inspired the shape of the building. by Gautam Krishnan
The Tribune Tower is a neo-Gothic skyscraper in Chicago. It was the home of the Chicago Tribune. (Gautam Krishnan via Unsplash)

The way that supposed professional journalists evoke the standards of journalism would suggest that such rules and principles are plucked from the ether as absolute truths of the practice. It’s not true, and any amount of glossing-it-over with brushes of journalism expertise doesn’t make it any truer. Journalists are not an objective, external observer of ongoing events; by our very presence, we impact and influence the events we document, however well-intentioned we may be in attempting to stay out of it.

Institutional newspapers have been notoriously racist institutions. In the 1940s, the Los Angeles Times explicitly called for and endorsed the unlawful and unconstitutional detention of Japanese Americans, including numerous U.S. citizens, shrouding its racist views under appeals for “wartime” necessities, and writing that:

“As a race, the Japanese have made for themselves a record for conscienceless treachery unsurpassed in history. Whatever small theoretical advantages there might be in releasing those under restraint in this country would be enormously outweighed by the risks involved.”

The Los Angeles Times, as re-cited in a 2017 editorial

And numerous other supposed “journalism tenets” continually reinforce America’s racist hierarchies. Mugshots, for example, have been a journalism staple for decades and are as indisputably a tenet of journalism as “objectivity” and “reporting the facts” might be; yet, after decades of campaigning, news organizations continue to display and update them on their websites, despite the evidence that such mugshot galleries undermine the presumption of innocence, reaffirm biases against people of color (especially Black and Brown people), and can tarnish someone’s future forever. Remember that booking photos taken by police as part of the arrest record are not evidence of conviction — and our own journalists have been the ones who continually pay attention to how police actions are racist and violent, and provide evidence to back up these claims.

Stories about how journalists stand up to the mob are easy to read and write, but do little to help repair the gaping trust deficit between newsrooms and the communities that they supposedly serve. After all, it is also our reporting that spread the news about how police use photos from social media to track down and arrest protesters, and how the police seek to use legal means to force news organizations to hand over unpublished documentation to reveal protesters’ identities. We know that these things can and do happen — and so do protestors, including those affiliated with Black Lives Matter that the Tribune’s op-ed columnist riles against.

Judge orders Seattle Times, four TV stations to give photos, videos of protests to police

Judge orders Seattle Times, four TV stations to give photos, videos of protests to police

The police department’s demand “puts our independence, and even our staff’s physical safety, at risk,” Seattle Times executive editor Michele Matassa Flores said.


You may try to hide behind the comfortable excuse that you are doing your job. It is not, and has never been, a good enough reason to inflict any harm upon other people, including by aiding the police and the systems of society that have failed them for so many centuries.

We have had protests following the police killing of George Floyd. We have had chats to say Breonna Taylor’s name. We have had story after story after story about how Jason Van Dyke shot Laquan McDonald and the year-long fight it took to release the dashcam video that showed how Chicago police lied and covered up the truth about his killing. How much more do you need to think about how cozy you want to be with the police?

That we as journalists have the right to publish information does not mean it is ethical to publish it; nor are journalists a de facto law enforcement assistant to the government.

Nobody is disputing that the protests on North Sheridan Road outside of Loyola University and involving its students should not be covered or reported by its student newspaper. The complaint was limited to the journalists’ broadcasting and publishing of photos and videos, which we know can contribute to later police investigations and arrests. Nothing stops the police from bringing their own cameras to protests — but if we as journalists are to remain truly independent of all parties involved, we should consider whether we’re doing the police’s job for them.

thoughts on an arrest of a journalist

This morning, Minnesota State Police arrested CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez and his camera crew as they were reporting live on the air on the protests in Minneapolis.

The event is confounding and unforgivable because there is no reasonable alternative explanation for the events. Jimenez is clearly heard on national television to be cooperating and deferential to the police officers. He is holding up his CNN identification badge clearly for the officers and the camera to see. He repeatedly identifies himself as a CNN journalist to officers, even when they arrest him.

It is highly likely that race is a factor when we consider that Jimenez, who is Black, was arrested while a white CNN journalist was not.

Jimenez is led away after being handcuffed Friday morning.
CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez is arrested by Minnesota State Police officers. (CNN)

Media organizations, including CNN itself, have responded quickly and correctly that this arrest is a violation of the First Amendment, which protects the freedom of speech and of the press.

For the police to arrest a member of the press for doing his job by reporting the happenings is a violation of those protected rights.

Most importantly, though, this is not just a violation against the media as a sector of society; it is a violation of the people’s rights and of the fundamental principles of accountable democracy.

Arresting a media staffer is to deprive the public of the ability to know what is going on and to understand what is happening in our country. It is an infringement of the public’s right to know what is going on, and to inspect and oversee its elected officials and government actors to hold them accountable for their actions and wrongdoings.

A people’s government acts in the light; it is tyrants, authoritarians and oligarch who operate in the dark, casting shadows over the consent of the people with fear, misinformation, arrests and state violence.

The news media’s supposed role of “impartiality” stems from the necessity for journalists to remain observers as much as possible, precisely for conflict-heavy events like this. As the state’s police and anti-police violence protestors are clashing in Minneapolis, members of the professional news media try to stay out of all of the parties’ way as much as possible to share the news with the country and document the events of history without being accused of or mistaken for being involved.

It is a lesson that the people of Hong Kong — my people — have learned as they clash with their own government over repressive, anti-freedom policies being pushed upon them by Beijing officials.

In Minneapolis, it was not the people nor the news media who got a CNN correspondent involved with the protests. It was the state police who stripped Jimenez of the protections of the First Amendment; it was the police who broke the bargain between the news media and every participant in a news event: The journalists will respect your involvement if you respect their disinvolvement.

Members of the professional press must now reckon with how much deference we give to police officers and the veracity of their statements, as journalists of color and those who have suffered from police violence have insisted for ages.

At the moment that Jimenez was arrested, accountable democracy got a bit weaker. An apology by the state governor is not sufficient. We must see and demand that our government officials understand the role of the news media in a democratic, politically accountable society.

A good start might be the governor issuing an order to state police forces reminding them to observe the protections for the news as they attempt to deescalate the unrests in Minneapolis.