The Northeast Ohio Media Group defends itself against an outpouring of criticism as legitimate journalistic questions about 12-year-old killed by police remain unanswered
CLEVELAND, OHIO – Cleveland police killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice at a public park when they found him playing with a toy gun, which they say looked real. Rice wasn’t a criminal, but Cleveland.com tried to turn him into one anyway.
Depicting black/brown boys and men as violent criminals from poor upbringing is an established media narrative that Tamir didn’t quite fit. But Cleveland.com, the website of the city’s former paper of record, tried to make him fit into the narrow narrative anyway, by reporting on the criminal misdeeds of his parents instead.
It’s an old, but tired trick used by the news media, especially when it comes to a black or brown person being killed by law enforcement. Such presumptive reporting invites bias, lacks context and is often unhelpful to readers in helping them to understand, and maybe even do something, about news events happening around them.
In order for you to understand the points I’m about to make, I have to link to a story that I detest. A week ago, Rice joined the ranks of Michael Brown and John Crawford III when he was shot by a white police officer called to a public park in response to a 911 call that a guy, “probably a juvenile,” was pulling a pistol out of his waistband, according to news reports. “It’s probably fake but he’s scaring the s— out of me,” the caller told a dispatcher. The caller once again told the dispatcher that the gun was likely a fake, but that information was never passed on to the police officers.
Within seconds of police officers’ arrival, 12-year-old Tamir lay bleeding on concrete at the park.
Of course, all sorts of questions swirl around Rice’s death. But Cleveland.com’s attempts to answer those questions have left readers appalled. Rather than report on who Tamir Rice was, and how playing with a toy gun led to his untimely death, the Northeast Ohio Media Group, the digital sibling of the website and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, reported that both Rice’s mother and father have criminal records. His father, Leonard Warner, has multiple convictions for domestic abuse. His mother, Samaria Rice, pleaded guilty to drug trafficking last year. You may ask what these things have to do with the way Tamir died; that’s the same question many readers have as well.
Condemnation of the story on Rice’s parents is so strong that the article went viral over the past four days. And it is causing a furor inside the Plain Dealer’s newsroom as well.
Plain Dealer ombudsman, Ted Diadiun, defended the news organization on Saturday via a column titled, “Blaming the media — social and otherwise — is foolish and fruitless.” Diadiun also took to social media to try to help readers understand the decision to publish the story. He told Facebook users that “looking into the background and home life of a kid who meets a violent, tragic end (and reporting on it) has been standard operating procedure for all of the four decades I’ve been in news.” Diadiun also said he was “baffled by the accusations from many that the stories on Tamir’s parents somehow were an effort to paint him as a violent kid, or indicate that he deserved what he got,” Diadiun wrote. “To the absolute contrary, it was reporting that gave a windo (sic) into the kind of surroundings he was growing up in. In my view, revealing those facts made Tamir a more sympathetic figure, not less.”
Diadiun acknowledged that an awkward sentence to justify the coverage was added after the story initially published on Wednesday. He added that the story only ran online, not in The Plain Dealer’s printed edition.
That’s how it will remain if left up to David Kordalski’s, The Plain Dealer’s assistant managing editor for visuals. “Can someone, anyone, explain why the father’s history is remotely relevant to the death of this young man,” Kordalski wrote on Facebook, revealing a split within the news organization’s own ranks regarding whether the story should have been published. “If I have anything to do with it,” Kordalski said, “this will not appear in print editions of The Plain Dealer.”
Veteran Cleveland journalist and community activist Dick Peery didn’t read past the headline of the story. “I was so disgusted, I didn’t bother to read it,” said Peery, whose 38-year career includes stints at the Plain Dealer and the Call and Post, Cleveland’s African-American newspaper. “Whether the kid came from a broken family, a dysfunctional family, or an apple pie family is totally irrelevant to what the police did. The police rolled up on him and shot him dead.”
Nationally syndicated columnist Connie Schultz, who won The Plain Dealer’s first Pulitzer Prize, didn’t hold her tongue about the story either
“I didn’t link to the earlier story in question because I didn’t want to send one click to that heinous excuse for journalism… Likewise, I will not post (Northeast Ohio Media Group’s) Vice President Chris Quinn’s written attempt to justify running it,” Schultz wrote on her Facebook page. “A 12-year-old boy is dead. His father’s criminal history has nothing to do with why police zoomed up next to this child carrying a toy gun and shot him within seconds of their arrival.”
Executives from Cleveland.com tried to calm the waters on Friday. Christopher Quinn, who oversees digital content strategy for Cleveland.com, The Plain Dealer and the Northeast Ohio Media Group, attempted to explain why editors published the story.
Quinn said people were asking whether Tamir had been exposed to violence at home, and if that had anything to do with him playing with a toy gun in public. “… we believe it may shed further light on why this 12- year- old was waving a weapon (sic) around a public park,” he wrote.
Cleveland.com needs bulbs with higher wattage. Its readers are still no more enlightened about Tamir’s home life than they were before the flawed story was published because the reporter, Brandon Blackwell, simply quoted documents without benefit of context. Blackwell apparently didn’t bother to talk with family members, neighbors or friends who would have given a clearer picture about Tamir and his short life. Apparently Blackwell and his editors didn’t see the need for context that would fill in the gaps between the facts as no indication was given in the story that they’d even tried.
The story they did report relies on assumptions that should be tested with old-fashioned shoe leather reporting. What if Tamir was raised by another family member, not his “violent” mom or dad? Did the pellet gun actually belong to Tamir? Did Tamir witness any of the violence caused by his father? Is playing with a toy gun a symptom of having abusive parents, or is it a boy being a boy? Or a boy misbehaving?
Blackwell didn’t even quote from an earlier story published by his own organization that described Tamir’s neighborhood as being plagued by gangs. In that story reporter Cory Shaffer wrote: “But Tamir never became caught up in the justice system. A records request turned up no criminal charges for the child in Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court has no record of the boy ever being accused of a crime.” (sic)
That’s right: Tamir Rice never had a run-in with the law before he was killed. But Cleveland.com editors and reporters were so blinded by their own memes of violent black men and boys, they couldn’t see the truth uncovered earlier in their own reporting. They decided that the parents’ backgrounds must explain a trait in the youngster that the news organization’s own reporting does not support. In that way Cleveland.com’s stories about Tamir Rice perpetuate myth and stereotype, which goes against basic ethical standards many of us learn in college journalism classes.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics states:
- Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.
- Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting.
- Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government. Seek to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open, and that public records are open to all.
Cleveland.com’s story judging Tamir Rice based on his parents’ pasts fails each of the above criteria. The insistence on the youngster’s “violence” was reinforced by the reporters and editors uncritical acceptance of a false narrative, instead of challenging it. Additionally, the 911 caller described Rice as a youth and emphasized that the gun was probably a toy. Cleveland.com reported these facts, but so far has not investigated how holes in the police department’s communications system led to such crucial omissions when it was dispatched to police officers responding to the scene.
Cleveland can’t bring back Tamir Rice, but it can help improve the way local law enforcement officials communicate with each other. That’s if the editors and reporters within the news organization decide to stop investigating their own narratives and start reporting more relevant information. Information readers can use to not only better understand Tamir Rice’s death, but that might prevent another Tamir Rice from dying in this way.