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Opinion: Some Colorado newspapers are rethinking criminal justice coverage

The national racial justice reckoning lately is involving publications that are atoning for past wrongs by rethinking the way race is considered in, among other things, criminal justice coverage.

A Black Lives Matter protester holds a sign reading "Justice delayed is justice denied," a paraphrase of words used in Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" during a demonstration in downtown Montrose on June 1, 2020. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In 1864, when U.S. cavalry troops slaughtered more than 100 Cheyenne and Arapaho in what became known as the Sand Creek Massacre, The Rocky Mountain News didn’t report it as a mass murder on behalf of white settlers. Instead, the newspaper heralded the soldiers for what it called a “needed whipping” — and it slurred the tribes. 

So tells the 2011 book “News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media.” In it, authors Juan Gonzales and Joseph Torres point to the Rocky’s coverage of the massacre — and its portrayal of American Indians leading up to it — as an example of how stories that ran across the early Associated Press wire “influenced national perceptions of race.”

A couple weeks ago, Torres spoke on a webinar with dozens of Colorado journalists about a legacy of media harm — and also current efforts to acknowledge and repair it. 

Corey Hutchins

This past fall, the Los Angeles Times examined its failures on race and explained its “path forward.” Closer to home, in late December, The Kansas City Star published a six-part package revealing how in its early history “through sins of both commission and omission — it disenfranchised, ignored and scorned generations of Black Kansas Citians.”

During the local webinar, led by News Voices: Colorado and supported by COLab and the Colorado Media Project, some participants wondered what similar acknowledgments might look like here — if and should they emerge. 

The Rocky, which folded in 2009, isn’t around to examine its archives for past harm, but its former rival, the 150-year-old The Denver Post, is. I asked Editor Lee Ann Colacioppo if such a thing was on her paper’s radar. She said she found the Star’s project compelling, and while the newsroom hasn’t discussed exploring the Post’s past coverage, journalists are working to ensure current practices don’t reinforce racism. The Post doesn’t publish mugshot slide shows and is pursuing a “coherent policy” around mug shots in general, for instance, and it is working on a system to help people who want a story updated or changed — a policy that is already in force, in a way, at some other papers like The Aspen Times. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

“Both of these last two items are meant to address the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on people of color, which over the years has been reflected in our paper and our website,” Colacioppo says.

About 150 miles west, The Steamboat Pilot & Today newspaper, whose work predated that of the California and Kansas papers, in September embarked on a six-part series called “Indivisible” about diversity, equity and inclusivity in Routt County, which is more than 90% white.

In a first-person column, Editor Lisa Schlichtman wrote, “at the age of 55, I looked in the mirror and acknowledged my white privilege … I came to the conclusion that I can best contribute to the cause of anti-racism through my work as a journalist and editor.”

Among its roughly two dozen articles, the series profiled local immigrants and people of color, tackled white privilege, and included personal reflections from the paper’s journalists. 

Schlichtman, who has been at the paper for seven years, says readers told her they appreciated seeing diversity in photos and interviews in a way they weren’t used to. The Pilot, she told me, would have covered, say, a local World Fiesta event as part of the paper’s arts and culture coverage, but “when it came to covering issues that were important to our readers we didn’t make a huge effort to consider who we were interviewing.

“And if you look back at our coverage and at our photo archive over the years it’s just almost all white people,” she says. “And so I think that was something that has forever changed in our newsroom and how we are going to — how we have been — covering things.” 

Meanwhile, the Pilot and others in the Swift Communications chain are also re-thinking the way they cover criminal justice, reflecting a broader national movement among forward-thinking editors who understand the damage much traditional crime coverage can inflict. (I’m ashamed of my own early-career dehumanizing coverage, and wish I had been thinking about these things back then.)

Aspen Times editor David Krause says his policy — and that of other Swift editors — of allowing subjects of past new coverage the ability to request a story update or even to have their names removed is part of the “Right to be Forgotten” movement championed by Advance Ohio President Chris Quinn at Cleveland.com. 

“We’re joining the movement,” Krause told me this week, adding not all Swift editors in Colorado will handle it the same, but they’re talking about it. 

In Aspen, Krause already has amended a handful of stories, typically after hearing from someone trying to get a job who knows what’s popping up when prospective employers search a name. 

The program has also informed how the newspaper covers criminal justice in real time. Journalists are more selective about stories and follow each case throughout the full adjudication process. “If we’re going to put it out there, we’ve got to clean it up at the end,” Krause says. “And that takes a little effort.”

A little effort I wonder if more Colorado newsrooms might consider.  

Corey Hutchins is a journalism instructor at Colorado College and a contributor to Columbia Journalism Review, The Washington Post, and other news outlets. This column is produced with support from the Colorado Media Project, and is distributed statewide via the Colorado News Collaborative. Interested in an insider’s look at the news behind the news in Colorado? Sign up here for Corey’s weekly email newsletter.



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