Post/Times’ stories powerful; but are they ethical?

If a piece of journalism is so powerful that it captures the national conversation and results in positive reform, should it be immune from criticism for bias and inaccuracies?

That question is raised by a potent one-two punch administered by the Washington Post and The New York Times this month following up on the unrest in Ferguson, Mo.

A few weeks into the Ferguson coverage both the Times and the Washington Post provided provocative coverage on a tangentially related issue – the way in which the multitude of north St. Louis County municipalities use traffic fines to finance city government.One of the most interesting pieces was a blog post in Washington Post by Radley Balko.  It ran to more than 14,000 words – almost a third the size of the great American novel “The Great Gatsby.”
Balko described how poor, black residents accumulated multiple traffic violations they could not pay, failed to show up in court and then were arrested on bench warrants.  Those with multiple bench warrants could be carted from one municipal holdover to another, spending days in jail for nothing more than failing to pay fines.The blog gave a big boost to a report issued before Ferguson blew up by ArchCity Defenders, a group of young St. Louis lawyers who had observed more than 60 courts in St. Louis County.  The compelling report concluded that by “disproportionately stopping, charging and fining the poor and minorities, by closing the Courts to the public, and by incarcerating people for the failure to pay fines, these policies unintentionally push the poor further into poverty.” New York Times jumped in next with a lead Sunday editorial on Sept. 6 – “Justice in St. Louis County” – that focused on the muny runaround, citing Balko’s work at the ArchCity defenders study.{%221%22%3A%22RI%3A6%22}

The Balko blog and the Times’ editorial contributed to a powerful momentum for change. Ferguson announced plans to pull back on the use of fines to fund municipal government.  And the dean of the Saint Louis University Law School, Michael Wolff, proposed a Missouri Supreme Court rule change to make it clear that it is the “obligation of municipal courts to proportion fines to the resources of offenders.”  Wolff himself is a former chief justice of the court.

Nevertheless, there are significant journalistic issues with both the Balko blog and the Times editorial.  The editorial stated, that the ArchCity study indicated that municipal policies “appear to be structured to persecute minority communities.”  Actually the ArchCity study had specifically said that the impact on poor communities was unintentional.

Also Balko’s piece, for all its power, was a one-sided piece of advocacy journalism. As the first commenter underneath his blog wrote: “Lots of tremendous research here but Mr. Balko goes off into cuckoo land with some of his statements: For example, Mr. Balko refers to ‘poverty violations’ as things like ‘driving with a suspended license, expired plates, expired registration and a failure to provide proof of insurance’. Is he suggesting we get rid of registration & insurance requirements?? The cops can’t be faulted for citing people for things like that!”

Balko also got the Cookie Thornton story wrong.  Thornton was the African-American who killed five public officials at Kirkwood City Hall in 2008 before police killed him.  Balko portrayed Thornton as a victim of the tyranny of municipal traffic violations who was made into a “community punchline” and driven insane after having collected $20,000 in fines.  What Balko leaves out is that the city offered to drop all of those fines.

The journalistic niceties may be beside the point if the result is an important reform of a system that had an unfair impact on the poor and black.

But it is important that the media and community remember there is no real direct link between the death of Michael Brown and the municipal runaround in St. Louis County.

There is a broader issue of race that plays out in segregated housing, racial profiling and substandard education in schools that largely remain separate and unequal.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for ProPublica, put it succinctly in an email: “I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that there is still a larger American story to be told out of a city and a state with such a complex history of racial and housing segregation….Particularly, what struck me was how Michael Brown was painted as a success story for somehow managing to become one of the 20 percent of black boys who graduated from the unaccredited Normandy school system – and that this is something we would consider successful for any American child.”