Civil Rights, Media

The messiness of civil-rights reporting

With the worst of the Ferguson clashes behind, news outlets have begun to turn their focus to litigation stemming from the protests.

BuzzFeed portended that “many, many lawsuits” would flow out of the incidents. The Washington Post had a comprehensive rundown of pending lawsuits against the town.

Lawsuits make for exciting headlines, which explains why everyone from Reuters to Newsweek seized on the opportunity to report on a recently filed case in Missouri federal court. Damages sought: $40 million.

The reports offered no explanation on how plaintiffs arrived at that figure, but since Ferguson is still fresh on people’s minds, the amount probably seemed reasonable. Another matter altogether is whether reporting on it is good journalism.

That’s because a lawsuit, for all its formalities and legalities, only tells one side of a story. All a reporter has to go on is the lawsuit itself—the paperwork filed with the court. If the reporter is not legally trained, it is likely he or she will go through the motions of listing the allegations. In the case of a civil-rights lawsuit, these will consist of a laundry list of wrongs allegedly perpetrated by the state or state actors.

For balance and fairness, a reporter may even post a link to the lawsuit so readers may judge for themselves. But is reader prejudgment preferable to a court’s judgment?

The claims in the recent Ferguson lawsuit are as exemplary as they are shocking: A mother and child are ordered to the ground and arrested at a McDonald’s. A person attempting to visit his mother is hit by rubber bullets and pepper-sprayed. Peaceful protesters are assaulted with tear gas and stun grenades by officers in riot gear. The list goes on.

All of this is believable because we’ve seen it splashed across social media—we’ve seen the tweets, the images, the Vines. But as Nick Bilton noted in the Times, even the most technologically savvy Twitter reports suffer from credibility problems. Without proper checks, a reader can be easily led astray.

Which is why a reporter needs a bit of a lawyer’s hat when reporting on these cases. That means talking to the attorney on the other side (they’ll often say they haven’t seen the lawsuit). That means telling readers that these are only allegations and that all, some, or none of them may make it to trial. That means explaining that a number of the claims might get dismissed for a variety of technical or substantive reasons. That some of the allegations may not even have a remedy at law. That when all is said and done, $40 million may end up becoming a $1 million settlement. And that it may take years to even get there, if the claims get there at all.

Better journalism is to report on court decisions—opinions, judgments, dismissals, appeals. Even settlements. They’re not a panacea, but they’re a better source of information because they benefit from arguments from both sides. Many of them are the result of a trial, extensive discovery, or a hearing where the judge heard from everyone with an interest in the litigation. There will often be a record of the proceedings. Decisions can be a factual goldmine, and they benefit from the pruning inherent to the adversarial process.

Earlier this year, New York City settled an iconic civil-rights case: the lawsuits filed by hundreds of protesters and bystanders wrongfully arrested during the 2004 Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden. The $18 million settlement was called “historic” by the New York Civil Liberties Union. It took 10 years to get there.

The settlements for the RNC protests—as well as for the Central Park Five, the stop-and-frisk cases, Jabbar Collins—demonstrate that justice for vindication of constitutional rights takes time. The news media, in reporting on these cases, should take its time to get the story right as well.

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