Reporter’s interview with Chicago cop accused of murder prompts social media criticism

Christy Gutowski waited three years to speak with the white Chicago police officer accused of gunning down black teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014, a killing that exposed the police department’s fraught relationship with the community it is sworn to protect.

But when Gutowski, a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, finally landed the scoop, the critical reaction on social media was swift. Civil rights activist Shaun King lambasted the Tribune for publishing the interview, calling the article a “glowing piece” in a tweet. The post from the columnist for The Intercept was retweeted more than 600 times. “One of the most disgusting interviews I’ve read in my entire life,” he wrote. Several other Twitter users questioned whether the interview was journalism. “You gave him a platform to issue his talking points,” one Twitter user told Gutowski after she shared the story.  On the Tribune’s Facebook page, one reader wrote that the “article feels like [a] propaganda/publicity tour and I’m perplexed Chicago Tribune is going along.”

Gutowski, a staff writer with the Chicago Tribune, landed the interview on Aug. 28, just as jury selection was beginning in the first-degree murder trial of Officer Jason Van Dyke.

Van Dyke told the Tribune in a 40-minute interview with Gutowski, her investigative team colleague Stacy St. Clair and videographer Brian Cassella that he was “extremely nervous” about the upcoming trial. “I might be looking at the possibility of spending my life in prison for doing my job as I was trained as a Chicago police officer.”

                                                                    Laquan MCDonald Black Friday Mag Mile Protest March

Van Dyke told the Tribune in a 40-minute interview with Gutowski, her investigative team colleague Stacy St. Clair and videographer Brian Cassella that he was “extremely nervous” about the upcoming trial. “I might be looking at the possibility of spending my life in prison for doing my job as I was trained as a Chicago police officer.”

Van Dyke spoke with his lawyers and a PR strategist present. His legal team vetted the Tribune’s questions and would not allow the interview to be recorded on video, so Cassella included the audio with pictures of Van Dyke at his lawyer’s office along with stills from the dash-cam footage.

(News organizations generally do not consider it their responsibility to ensure a fair trial.  That’s the job of the judge. Newsroom ethics policies instruct reporters not vet their questions before an interview.  But occasionally vetting is permitted for an especially sensitive story involving a trial.)

The prosecution wanted him jailed but instead the judge opted for the $200 fine for giving the interview (reported by the Tribune).

The fallout from the interview was expected in some ways. The shooting, caught on a dash-cam video that was released only after a court order, exposed deep mistrust between Chicago police and black residents. Now that the trial is underway, Tribune columnist Dahleen Glanton noted that without a black man on the jury, no one will know what it was like for McDonald, who was shot 16 times.  “No one deciding Van Dyke’s fate will know exactly how a black man feels when he encounters police,” she wrote. “No one can vouch for the fear and apprehension black men experience whenever they are stopped for even a minor violation. No one knows what it’s like to stand in a black man’s shoes when he is face to face with a police officer.”

The story was an important one for Gutowski, who has been live-Tweeting from the trial this week, and the hometown Tribune to land. McDonald’s shooting has attracted media attention from around the country, with the New Yorker, New York Times and others all weighing in on the significance about Chicago and what the shooting meant to the city. If the Washington Post had come to town and got the interview, it would have been different. But this was a deeply sourced Chicago reporter who has written extensively on the shooting and tried to give readers a sense of McDonald, of a life lost.

Gutowski, a graduate of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, was one of the first reporters in the city to profile McDonald after he was killed. As Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich wrote last week, “Chicagoans have been forced to think in a freshly urgent way about the relationship between the police and the people they’re sworn to protect.” She noted that a new generation of activists has taken to the streets, a federal investigation was launched and a state’s attorney who delayed bringing charges against Van Dyke lost an election. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who lost support after the controversy over releasing the video, announced he won’t run again.

Chicago Tribune managing editor Peter Kendall declined to comment in response to an email request.

The Chicago Sun-Times had its own interview with Van Dyke’s wife, Tiffany, on Sept. 16. Tiffany Van Dyke told them she was “petrified” at the possibility of her husband serving 45 years to life in prison. WGN also had an interview with Tiffany Van Dyke as the trial began. The reaction to those interview on social also was critical as well. One Twitter user said Tiffany Van Dyke was wrong to think her husband deserved a fair trial.  

Jonathan Peters, a media law professor at University of Georgia, said part of the mission of journalism is covering the uncomfortable topics, such as murders or graphic tragedy, in addition to more routine government meetings and community features.

“It’s certainly not to go out and seek controversy for the sake of controversy,” Peters said of journalism’s mission. “A lot of what happens in public affairs [and] in covering influential public figures can involve controversy. In part of the mandate of doing journalism, we are supposed to frame public discussions. We are not immune.”

Jack Doppelt, a journalism professor at Northwestern University, also said it would be a mistake to refrain from covering the controversy.

Doppelt said giving Van Dyke a chance to talk is not bad on the sole basis that it is controversial.

“There are are plenty of reasons not to have done it in relation to the impending trial and to his strategy to get to the public and potentially the jury and therefore increase the likelihood in his favor,” he said.

Aside from the legal aspect, Doppelt said he saw no valid reason to avoid speaking with him.

Van Dyke likely spoke to the Tribune because “he felt it could be a contained enough interview that…could get who he thinks is a sympathetic, real person across to people,” Doppelt said.

Peters said editors should think about many facets, including the nature of the public interest in the story and decide if it is in the mission of the news organization.

“One consideration is ‘do I run the risk of normalizing what some would consider dangerous ideas or dangerous rhetoric,’” he said. “That is one of many interests you would have to consider.”

Carolyn Bradley is a correspondent for Gateway Journalism Review. Her Twitter is @carolynabradley.