Watchdog Q&A

Published — June 5, 2020

Q&A: Susan Smith Richardson on how to cover the protests from a solutions angle

People gather to protest after the death of George Floyd in Coralville, Iowa, on June 2, 2020. (Joe Wertz/Center for Public Integrity)


This week we’re talking with our CEO Susan Smith Richardson on race, inequality, and policing and how to make sense of what’s happening with these protests. Susan led reporting teams that covered the aftermath of the unrest in Los Angeles following the police beating of Rodney King and the protests in Chicago in 2015 after a police officer killed teenager Laquan McDonald. 

Journalists have been here before with this story, and we haven’t always gotten it right. How can we cover it differently?

We have to learn how issues connect, and then report about solutions or responses to the problems of the day. The protests today are different. They are playing out in a pandemic. But the issues underlying them are generations in the making — racism, income inequality, police brutality and white supremacy. Police violence isn’t just about policing, any more than it is about a single police officer or a few bad apples on the force. The violence is interconnected, and it’s about systems and policies.

I was talking to some members of Black Lives Matter on a conference call yesterday. They emphasized that journalists need to report about the protests from a solutions angle. What’s driving the protests, and what do folks think should be done? I couldn’t agree more. So much of what we do is identify what is broken. Of course, our job is to expose problems, but when it comes to police violence, we need to spend more time covering responses. I mean report about big ideas for change like defunding police departments. That’s good journalism, and journalism that can speak to this moment.

How do you develop expertise in reporting about race and inequality?

I have always asked sources, “What should I check out to get a better understanding?” I was on a panel a few years ago with Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times. She said if you want to understand race in America, you need to know the laws that affect it. That’s the bottom line. When I was in Chicago, there was a powerful group of academic-activists who believe that if you care about affecting change, your work has to be informed by a deep knowledge of the history of social and racial justice movements in this country. If we want to cover movements for justice today, we need to know the history.

What have you learned from covering issues like this in the past?

A year after the unrest in Los Angeles, we sent some reporters to look at efforts to rebuild South Central, the part of the city that bore the brunt of the disturbances. The reporters did some serious grass-roots reporting. They dug into what people were doing to invest in and rebuild their community. We intentionally skipped spending a lot of time with elected officials or well-known community leaders. Nothing substitutes for talking to people who are directly affected by an issue. As people hit the streets now in the name of justice and equality, our job is to tell that story accurately, contextually and authentically. We cannot do that if we don’t understand the communities that are living with inequality every day.

The takeaway: Reporting on solutions moves the needle.

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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