On the night of April 28, the city of Baltimore was relatively quiet, in part because of a mandatory curfew. The tension between police and protesters over the death of Freddie Gray was still palpable. But there was no confrontation like the ones that happened the days before.
Nevertheless, the images of buildings and cars burning, rocks flying over people’s heads, and of masked men charging and police responding with violence, were all showing on cable TV. The recap of the events seemed necessary to pique the interest of viewers, in the absence of tangible violence. That prompted writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, a Baltimore native himself, to get to Twitter and vent his frustration:
It is hard to argue with Coates’s — who is famous for his articles in The Atlantic about racism and violence — logic. Violence in Baltimore didn’t start when protesters clashed with the police, or with Freddie Gray’s death, for that matter.
At the same time, as he reckons, what the public needs to understand in order to deal with the violence in inner cities is not exactly “news.” If journalists are to really help change that scenario, showing just what is happening — or what happened the days before — can actually worsen the situation. A different type of coverage can be challenging, time consuming, expensive, and maybe not that viral, in the way images of violence are.
Days after the “tweet storm,” I asked Coates to expand on his notion of “the bias of now,” and how journalists could avoid it in Baltimore’s coverage.
Luckily, as news organizations competed to bring different takes on Baltimore’s recent developments, some of that reporting that Coates called for started to emerge. The New York Times’ Upshot looked into the data to show the lack of social mobility in Baltimore. The Baltimore Sun reported on the long history of police brutality, and how much it cost to the police department; Vox made some charts and “cards” to illustrate the economic disparities between different regions of the city; The Washington Post investigated the effects of lead poisoning in Baltimore (Gray was one of its victims) and the incredible number of vacant houses in Baltimore, which encapsulates, according to a scholar, all the city’s “social, economic and political issues”.
Of course, not every newsroom has the time, staff and money to investigate these issues. A series of recent deaths of black people by the police, starting with Michael Brown’s, in Ferguson, Missouri, last August, sparked the public’s interest in police reform and the criminal-justice system.
But after some weeks, that interest can fade into the background of more pressing news events. That’s where nonprofits can step in: Not only to offer help on the underserved black communities, as philanthropic groups historically have done, but, increasingly, while supporting the journalistic work itself.
Nonprofits come to help
Mark Obbie, who spent most of his 33-year career in journalism covering “courts and cops”, received last year a fellowship from the George Soros’ Open Society Foundation last year. His pitch was to make a great story about the criminal-justice system and its need to reform, but in the victims’ point of view.
The foundation selects a few journalists each year to support with grants that range from $58,700 to $110,250. The goal is to make the reporter focus on one important story, or theme. “Normally to make a living as a freelancer is to crank a lot of short stories, in a short time frame. I’m doing the opposite of that,” says Obbie, who acknowledges that he is “extremely treasured” to have that kind of opportunity.
The fellowship made it possible to take a “deep dive in the topic,” which could only be possible if he had “a big, fat and juicy book contract,” which is rarer these days, he says. In the past year he was able to read books, papers and do a series of interviews on the subject that he otherwise could not. He hopes that his series will land him a book contract — which will help advance the debate on criminal justice, to show that victims demand more than “justice,” a little further.
Obbie’s final story will appear in a six-part series at Slate in the coming weeks. Obbie said that the website found the prospect of getting a well-researched, longform story “without having to pay for it” very interesting.
This type of partnership where a foundation pays for the reporting and a media partner edits and publishes it — championed most prominently by ProPublica — is increasingly common. Last February, veteran reporter Tom Robbins published an article that was the result of a nine-month investigation on inmate mistreatment at Attica Prison. It was featured on the cover of The New York Times, and it was entirely funded by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization.
Aside from cutting costs in the newsrooms and making a “win-win situation,” as Robbins describes it, that kind of partnership can bring a different measure of impact on journalistic work. Robbins said his story could have played a role in the conviction of correction officers cited in his report that occurred a day after the story ran. And it definitively made some actual changes at Attica, as cameras were installed days after the Times article appeared.
The Marshall Project is the biggest nonprofit news organization focused on prison and criminal-justice reform. Founder Neil Barsky says that “The Marshall Project represents our attempt to elevate the criminal justice issue to one of national urgency, and to help spark a national conversation about reform.” In its mission statement page, The Marshall Project asserts that its work is important because “The recent disruption in traditional media means that fewer institutions have the resources to take on complex issues such as criminal justice.”
With an annual budget of $4 million to $5 million and high-profile hires like former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, The Marshall Project brings additional visibility for the issues that are affecting black youth. Other nonprofits, such as Reveal News and the Juvenile Information Exchange, are doing the same, and will continue to do so, even if the big media organizations lose interest after the situation “calms.” Ta-Nehisi Coates said that kind of work is important, but insists that there is more to uncover.
Coates said that if the media wants to shed a light on the roots of violence, the injustice of criminal justice and the inequality that inner-city populations experience, it has to do it through stories, in the literal sense. It doesn’t have to be with an image of a store burning. But a person’s story can be “news”, and can ultimately make the general public acknowledge the problem and push for reforms.
(This story was written for my Reporting Class at CUNY. Thanks to professor Kathryn Lurie for all the edits!)