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.

Want to Make a Terrible Argument? Consider Publishing this Instead

For the past few years, I have talked about the nature of policing and our relationship to it amongst my circle of friends. My friends, mostly progressive, ask me if there’s anything we can do to help solve some of the serious problems that exist in policing, even though only one of us is Black and has real-life lived experiences with police violence and racism. Our discussions are enough to qualify me as an Expert on this topic, and today, young people all over the country are asking the same questions as we did, and I feel that I am a Qualified Expert to write about this topic.

Here’s the answer I think is the right one for the country: Consider becoming a police officer.

To many reasonable people, the suggestion to join the police force may be counterintuitive, even offensive. After all, based on what you’ve seen, read, and experienced firsthand, policing is a racist and oppressive institution, so how could I ask you to ignore all that? Simple: I will ignore that argument or my complicity in a society that created and persisted this system of policing, and instead turn it around and somehow make it your fault even though these problems began before you were born.

One of the main challenges when it comes to controlling the police is that police officers are granted a great deal of discretion. Instead of engaging with the question of whether such an institution should exist in our society, I will support the premise that we should live among and continue to fund an unaccountable, violent arm of government. The police deal with many varying and ambiguous situations, which is why we need to continue to live in a country where armed officers (given limited training that almost always focuses on responding with violence) are the only tool available to our emergency dispatchers to deal with all and any scenario. Officers, like any citizen, must follow applicable laws and policies, and I will make no mention of the fact that officers do not follow such laws and policies, and not only remain unpunished, but remain as police officers; for it does not support my point that The Police is a Fundamentally Good Institution.

I will lay the blame for systemic police violence and brutality as a matter of individual “judgment that isn’t good,” because that is most definitely very different from the A Few Bad Apples argument that has been made and countered for decades. I will give no links or external evidence to support my viewpoints. It’s common sense.

Yet this unaccountable and ungoverned system of violence is also an opportunity that somehow we have not realized after the 1960s police riots: We could reform the police by adding more Good People, like how you can cover up spilling poison in your cooking by adding more good-tasting spices! (Years ago, I added paprika to the poison I was feeding others, and I will include this as a fun side note and gloss over the relevant circumstances of why I was feeding poison to others and why I stopped.)

A new generation of Good Cops would still be vulnerable to the same problems that have plagued new police officers for decades, but there’s a glimmer of hope. I will ignore everything like the chain of command, how senior officers can use their positions of power to deny raises, harass “problem” junior officers, prevent promotions, or drumbeat Good Cops out of the force; because by the power of my hand-waving, all problems with institutional power will go away. I will believe that Good Cops will call out their fellow officers and can reform the force, which is why we’ve never had to implement whistleblower programs, because of course the Bad Cops will want to be called out and corrected by their juniors! I will write that these Good Cops can use their discretion (within limits!) to arrest serious offenders, despite that nobody arrested by the police is an offender as we are all innocent until convicted by a competent tribunal, and that individual junior police officers have no discretion over what tasks they are ordered to do and refusing is grounds for dismissal.

Furthermore, I will continue to make arguments predicated on the eventual turnover of Bad Cops to Good Cops, agai ignoring the question in society about whether we should even have an unaccountable violent arm of government, and also being okay with continuing the suffering and deaths of people of color — especially Black people — by police officers until this turnover is complete.

It is not until later that I will even acknowledge evidence that invalidates my earlier points, and even then I will argue that there are “reasons to be more optimistic,” because while the arguments against my points are damning and conclusive, I will find some studies that do support my position and shroud them with the optimistic language of possibilities such as “suggests,” “may,” and “encouraging” as if these are somehow strong enough to counteract more conclusive arguments.

I’m not saying you have to be a good writer to write well. While conducting research on what good opinion looks like, I’ve come to know many writers who are things that aren’t relevant to the job, like some of them prefer dogs more than cats and some of them can wiggle each of their toes independently of the others. My point is that we should derail the conversation about whether the people should exercise their right to alter or abolish the police as an institution of government and provide new guards for their future security, because that is most certainly a meaningful contribution to the democratic conversation.

Americans are now facing one of the most difficult labor markets in generations, which is why we should not defund police forces and spend society’s resources on alternative things for the public good, like housing, food, healthcare and a social safety net. If you’re a young person who cares about social justice and are willing to put your body on the line for it, you should wait your turn until you get your say in how our society should be run — or better yet, work with the people casually killing people like you. Letting more people die from police brutality might just be the right thing to do.

Leo Ji is an expert on race affairs by having lived as a non-white person for over two decades.

This is a response to “Opinion | Want to Abolish the Police? Consider Becoming an Officer Instead” by Neil Gross, published in The New York Times on July 13, 2020.

The image attached to this post is the same as used by The Times in its original article, and is creditable to Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis, via Getty Images.