By Marianne Colbran
The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 triggered massive demonstrations across the globe against police brutality and the victimisation of people of colour. Along with the criticisms of the police brutality in Minneapolis and calls to defund the police, there were also calls to ‘defund the crime beat’ in journalism. In an article for the Nieman Lab (an attempt to help journalism figure out its future in an Internet age), media scholars and journalists Tauhid Chappell and Mike Rispoli described crime reporting as ‘racist, classist, fear-based clickbait masking as journalism’ and argued that ‘it creates lasting harm for the communities that newsrooms are supposed to serve’.
In my book, Crime and Investigative Reporting in the UK (2022), I explore how new British investigative non-profit organisations, such as The Bristol Cable, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and its sister project, the Bureau Local, are addressing these concerns – and, although none of these non-profits are expressly reporting on crime, changing the remit of traditional crime news.
Why are people of colour and other marginalised communities represented negatively in crime news?
Whenever I teach classes on media and crime, my students are always taken aback when I tell them that the processes of making crime fiction and crime news are the same; that, essentially, it’s about groups of people getting together to tell stories about certain aspects of reality – in this case, about crime and how crime is controlled. The making of crime news is not about journalists gathering facts and then reporting them; it’s about journalists interpreting those facts and then telling stories. And, as in any good story, there is a strong narrative, a beginning, a middle and an end; but there are also heroes and villains, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters, ‘criminals’ and the ‘law-abiding’. In crime journalism, the police are the heroes and, far too often, Black and other marginalised communities are the problem.
Several journalists I interviewed for my book said that one reason why Black and other marginalised communities are often represented negatively in the mainstream press is the lack of diversity in newsrooms. In the United Kingdom, a 2022 report on diversity in journalism found that only 8 per cent of journalists came from non-white groups. Many of my interviewees argued that this lack of diversity was leading to a disconnect between journalists and their audiences. As one of them argued:
‘Everyone went to the same schools, the same universities, works in the same newsrooms. And as a result, stories get missed because it doesn’t occur to them that certain issues are a problem for [other] communities.’
According to my interviewees, another cause was that, following the closure of so many local newspapers in the UK over the last ten years, journalists were often being ‘parachuted in’ to cover stories about neighbourhoods of which they had no knowledge. As a result, they often resorted to the negative stereotyping of previous news coverage. A further key development was a lack of trust in the media within those communities.
Changing relationships with marginalised communities
One way in which non-profit organisations differ from their mainstream counterparts is in the relationships they have with their readers. Key to those relationships is a concept of collaboration – and, in the case of The Bristol Cable, sharing power with their readers. As one of the co-founders put it to me:
‘It’s not about telling the stories the journalist wants to tell or thinks should be told; it’s about asking people what do you want, what do you need. And for us to work with them, to build those stories, those investigations.’
As the term suggests, non-profit journalism is the practice of journalism as a non-profit enterprise rather than a for-profit business. Non-profits are funded by philanthropic grants or reader donations, allowing them to focus on the stories they believe are important – and, crucially, allowing them the time to build trust with marginalised and/or stigmatised communities.
Another of the co-founders of The Bristol Cable told me that if they were going to tell stories in a different way, it needed a more diverse group of people to carry out that reporting:
‘It was also our aim to democratise the production process. If we were going to work with communities and tell stories about them, then those citizens needed the skills to tell the stories alongside us.’
The founders believed that if they were going to create a new kind of journalism, they needed to share their power with their audience. Right from the start, they trained community members to take on aspects of reporting alongside the team:
‘We organised a series of workshops that enabled people to come and learn how to produce media of different kinds. One was the ABC of writing articles, there was also a class on how to do photojournalism… another session was on the ethics of journalism in order not to slander or to get involved in defamation – to get people to realise that, even though they may not have received journalistic training, people could still be involved in producing reports of quality that could be considered journalism.’
Had they set up their organisation in a more traditional way, the same journalist told me, they would not only be maintaining the status quo in terms of inequality of access for these communities, they would also be missing out on key stories.
‘I think we did two things by setting up the Cable in this way. One is to feed information to mainstream journalists who might not be aware of what is going on across the city. The other was being able to draw on community members to source story ideas and investigation leads. And these were stories we might not – if it had just been us – have chosen to tell.’
Giving communities their voice
One of the first initiatives to give voice to those communities generally portrayed negatively in traditional media was The Bristol Cable’s series of stories about the Traveller community in Bristol – an initiative which started in 2015 and is still ongoing. As reporter Hannah Vickers explained:
‘Our job and responsibility as journalists is to cover the under-reported voices, study the facts and context, and avoid shock headlines. It makes for a less sensationalised, exciting story, but a more accurate, balanced one… This is what the other papers should be doing. If there was more responsible journalism about these populations, people wouldn’t have such skewed narrative about Gypsies, Roma and Travellers.’
In her reporting on issues affecting the Traveller community in Bristol, Vickers sets out to redress that ‘skewed narrative’, including articles showing the positive contributions of Travellers to their local community, such as the donation of food to local food banks. But she also gives space to the perspectives of Travellers themselves, of local politicians and of the wider community. In a 2019 story on the Gypsy and Travellers Communities Bill, Vickers reports on the Bill’s proposal to turn Traveller sites into land for housing and move all Gypsies and Travellers into houses ‘to help them integrate’ while criminalising trespass. As she notes, Tory councillors had been eager to get trespass criminalised for a while. As Mark Weston, the leader of Bristol’s Conservatives, commented:
‘I don’t think people should be able to illegally trespass on private land then just be able to move on at will.’
At the same time, Vickers is careful to give voice to those affected by this proposal. Luke Wenman, a Romany Gypsy and advocate for Traveller rights, argued that:
‘It’s an excuse for cultural cleansing… One, they force you to continue being on the move, or two, they force you to assimilate… The racism doesn’t go because we’ve moved into a house. You still get bullied at school.’
By contrast, a 2019 report in the Daily Mail outlining proposals by the Home Secretary to enable police to remove ‘unwelcome visitors’, did not include any interviews with Travellers.
Hope for the future
What’s so exciting about the work of the non-profit organisations is the way in which they are totally reimagining crime journalism – from who sets the news agenda, who determines what’s newsworthy, to whose voices are reflected in reports. By challenging norms and finding new ways of working, these British non-profits give cause for optimism about the direction in which crime reporting is heading. Importantly, their work shows that there can be new ways of telling stories about marginalised communities that are more inclusive – and can give to those citizens a voice that has been denied to them for far too long.
Illustration courtesy of The Bristol Cable