By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post
It’s inevitable that reporters will have to rely heavily on law enforcement sources in the first hours after a horrific crime. Amid chaos and wild speculation, the police may be the only ones with any hard information at that point.
But sometimes their information is flawed. And sometimes the way they tell it reflects a damaging bias.
And so it was on Wednesday when Jay Baker, a captain with the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia, described the motivations of the man accused of killing eight people, six of them Asian women, at spas in the Atlanta area.
While hedging a bit, Baker told reporters there was no immediate reason to think that the white shooter had a racial motivation.
Why not? Well, because that’s what the suspect told police, Baker said at a news conference Wednesday.
“He apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations as something that allows him to go to these places and it’s a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate,” Baker said, sounding strangely empathetic toward Robert Aaron Long, the 21-year-old suspect.
Long, Baker theorized, “may have been lashing out.”
And then came this line, which ought to live in infamy:
“He was pretty much fed up and at the end of his rope, and yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did,” Baker said.
Watching it live, I was incredulous, like a lot of other people.
A really bad day? For most of us, that might culminate in crying on the phone to your best friend, or maybe bingeing on butter pecan ice cream eaten right out of the container.
“Would police describe a targeted massacre from someone who wasn’t white this way? What the hell?” wrote Sawyer Hackett, a political adviser to Julián Castro, the former HUD secretary and Democratic presidential candidate.
Baker’s language and delivery were beyond inappropriate to the situation, way beyond insensitive. (Baker, by the way, is director of communications and community relations at the sheriff’s department; he’s supposed to be good at this.)
There was also his utter failure to question the suspect’s own depiction of what motivated him, to understand the intersection of racism and misogyny, or to note that many communities have reported a spike of anti-Asian violence this year.
Even more dismaying, though, was the first round of media coverage: tweets, news alerts and early stories from nearly every major news organization that essentially parroted Baker’s assertion that this horrible crime didn’t seem to be racially motivated and wasn’t being immediately categorized as a hate crime.
Yes, these reports for the most part included the words “police said,” but they sounded like the official truth.
Later, we learned far more. Not just about the crime but about the sheriff’s spokesman.
We learned that Baker had posted racist imagery on Facebook, joking about a T-shirt that blamed China for the pandemic. The shirt was a twist on the Corona beer label that said “Covid 19 IMPORTED VIRUS FROM CHY-NA.”
“Love my shirt,” Baker wrote last April in a post that has since been deleted. “Get yours while they last.”
Could this have been a factor in why he, and others who share his worldview, might fail to see the unavoidable racial component in the deaths of employees of Young’s Asian Massage and other such spas?
As Wednesday went on, the facile interpretation that Baker injected into the news cycle became diluted by better reporting and analysis. I saw insightful commentary on CNN and MSNBC throughout the day, relying on public officials such as Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, as well as on scholars and other experts. But when the network evening newscasts rolled around late Wednesday, they still referred to Baker’s statements as a source of information, though now with more context.
Part of the problem is the need for speed.
“I know the intense pressures that reporters, editors and engagement teams are under to keep the audience informed and also to drive traffic to your content,” wrote Doris Truong, director of training and diversity at the Poynter Institute and formerly of The Washington Post. “I have been the person who wrote the news alert, then pushed the button that sent breaking news to millions of devices.”
But, she added, “we have to do better.”
What does better look like?
Part of it is stepping up training for journalists before the crisis happens so that they are better equipped to cover fast-breaking news without credulously relying on police sources.
That’s been an overdue necessity in covering recent Black Lives Matter protests and is just as important in covering the Asian American Pacific Islander community. It’s happening in many newsrooms, and none too soon.
The Asian American Journalists Association on Wednesday put out a helpful guide for those covering the shootings: Use careful language, provide context, understand anti-Asian racism, diversify your sources, empower and support the journalists who are part of the Asian and Pacific Islander communities.
Another part of doing better is remembering a core tenet of good journalism: Don’t take everything from official sources at face value. Interrogate the information before credulously retailing it to your audience. Verify. Corroborate. Include context.
“Treat the police like any other source, with the same degree of skepticism,” Susan Chira, the editor in chief of the Marshall Project, a news site that focuses on the criminal justice system, told my Washington Post colleagues Paul Farhi and Elahe Izadi last summer.
As Chira noted, the phrase “police said” is not shorthand for the truth.
We learned it again this week.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.