What a Cleveland news outlet should learn from its flawed Tamir Rice coverage

The Northeast Ohio Media Group faces criticism from readers, and from fellow journalists

DETROIT, MI — Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy holding a novelty pellet gun, is shot dead by police in a Cleveland park. It’s captured on video: an unarmed African-American child killed by a white cop within two seconds after police approached. Public outrage soars. And local reporters are needed more than ever to give a rigorous account of what happened.

The Northeast Ohio Media Group—digital sibling of The Plain Dealer—has primary responsibility for the police beat, and it jumped on the story at Cleveland.com. But a serious misstep in its early coverage incited a backlash, both inside and outside the Advance-owned organization. And attempts by NEOMG’s leaders to address the criticism have been unsatisfying and unpersuasive—a signal that they don’t really understand why readers are justifiably upset, and that, barring meaningful changes, episodes like this one are likely to recur in the future.

The trouble started with a Nov. 26 article by Brandon Blackwell that details the criminal history of the boy’s father, of all people.* Headlined “Tamir Rice’s father has a history of domestic violence,” and published four days after the shooting, the brief piece is, as the alt-weekly Cleveland Scene put it, “little more than a rap sheet.” It implies that Rice’s family shares responsibility for his tragic ending while offering no sense of who Tamir Rice was, no background on the police officers involved, and no further information about what happened. Afi-Odelia Scruggs, a former Plain Dealer reporter, held the article up against the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethical standards, and found it wanting.

Widespread backlash prompted an update to the piece that attempted to justify its existence. It read:

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People from across the region have been asking whether Rice grew up around violence. The Northeast Ohio Media Group investigated the backgrounds of the parents and found the mother and father both have violent pasts.

It wasn’t just the public that found this gesture unsatisfying—strong criticism came from within The Plain Dealer newsroom, which already has a strained relationship with NEOMG. “This is shameful. And that update does not change that fact,” wrote one Plain Dealer employee, in an email the Scene printed. “Is this really the type of news organization NEOMG wants to be known as?” Meanwhile, David Kordalski, the Plain Dealer’s assistant managing editor for visuals, wrote on Facebook: “If I have anything to do with it, this will not appear in the print editions of The Plain Dealer.” (In fact, the piece did not appear in print, though it’s not clear who made the call. Thom Fladung, the paper’s managing editor, declined to comment.)

I heard many of the same complaints firsthand from multiple Plain Dealer reporters who expressed embarrassment and anger about the article and the editorial judgment that produced it. “Call me old-school, but if this particular story were presented to a newspaper editor of any integrity, they likely would reject it as incomplete,” said Wendy McManamon, a Plain Dealer copy editor. “Can you imagine Ben Bradlee reading such a one-sided report and saying, ‘Post it right away’?”

The article sits in especially unfortunate contrast with a story NEOMG published late Monday night, this one headlined: “Father of Cleveland cop who shot Tamir Rice says his son had no choice.” The officer’s father, himself a retired New York City policeman, is the key source; he says his son is doing “pretty well” and “living his life,” attending church and spending time with friends.

That story is the closest thing we’ve gotten to a proper profile of anyone involved in the encounter. As Scruggs points out in another post, in the 10 days since the shooting, NEOMG hasn’t published a full profile of Tamir Rice, so “the public knows almost nothing about his friends, his hobbies, his personality—nothing about him.”

The last time NEOMG came in for widespread criticism—last month—its leadership went silent for a week. This time, at least, they’ve addressed the controversy. Chris Quinn, NEOMG’s vice president for content, and Ted Diadiun, the reader representative, have both penned columns, and Diadiun has participated in some of the sprawling social media conversation. But what they had to say is occasionally so tone-deaf as to be astonishing.

Quinn wrote, in part, that “we believe [reporting on the parents’ criminal histories] may shed further light on why this 12-year-old was waving a weapon around a public park”—eliding the fact that, as NEOMG has explained, it wasn’t a weapon. And, more importantly, that the “rap sheet” article didn’t actually shed any light on what happened that day. (In reply to questions from CJR, Quinn said, “Reporters at the Northeast Ohio Media Group continue to work on deeper background pieces on Tamir and the police officers.” Quinn also promised in his column to “fully delve in to [the officers’] backgrounds,” and NEOMG has reported on how police have so far failed to release key personnel files.)

Diadiun’s piece bears the dismissive headline, “Blaming the media – social and otherwise – is foolish and fruitless.” He doesn’t get around to the Rice story until the last quarter of his column. After citing high traffic numbers—which he offers as evidence of “the public’s reaction” to the coverage—Diadun acknowledges the criticisms, and concedes that in the past, information about the parents’ criminal histories would have been folded into a “narrative newspaper perspective piece.” Then he brushes concerns aside: “It is an imperfect process, and will remain so. But news at the speed of light is here to stay, and we are all going to have to get used to it.” It’s as if NEOMG has no agency in the matter; it couldn’t possibly decide to do anything different—because, the internet.

There’s the bare germ of a point here. As one of the Plain Dealer reporters I spoke to acknowledged, it would be customary to include details on Tamir Rice’s family history in the course of fully developed coverage that sought to explain who he was. That’s the narrative newspaper perspective piece, a format that, whatever its failings, attempts to deliver information in a way that provides context and promotes understanding. If a publication is going to abandon that form, it needs other means to achieve the same tasks. What this ill-advised story needed more than anything was strong editorial guidance, in a structure that supports principled journalism. It didn’t get it—and what’s worrying is that NEOMG seems not to understand that.

One other point worth noting: When Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, MO, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch did manage to do the “narrative newspaper” profile, along with a companion story based on interviews with his parents. They appeared two days after the shooting.

That brings us to the lessons we hope NEOMG will take from this, and where it can go from here:

 Listen—really listen—to readers. Yes, a portion of the public will complain about “the media” at every opportunity. But critics of the Rice coverage are not trolls in a comment thread—and NEOMG needs to keep listening. 

Jill Miller Zimon, a Cleveland writer who has been a strong voice in challenging NEOMG’s coverage, said that to Diadun’s credit, he has been a steady presence on social media, engaging with critics and commenters. “I wouldn’t say that anything he wrote was incredibly groundbreaking, but he stayed civil, he asked and answered questions—it was a lot more than people might expect,” she said. She added that, “I think it stunned him, frankly, just how upset people are with NEOMG, and are willing to put that anger out there so publicly.”

Connie Schultz, the Pulitzer-winning columnist who spent 18 years with The Plain Dealer, suggested that senior staff hold community meetings to discuss what went wrong in their coverage. The Plain Dealer and NEOMG could co-host town forums, giving leadership the chance to learn from the people they want to cover (and who they want to read their coverage). The key, Schultz said, is that news leaders really hear people out, and not simply defend themselves.

“Just the willingness to admit to people, ‘Hey, maybe we’re not getting this right,’ and ask what they need to know—it could be transformative for both the news organization trying to make its coverage better and for the community to regain trust and respect,” Schultz said. 

There are limits to “iterative reporting.” The streaming content, as-it-happens approach that predominates at Cleveland.com has some benefits. It can deliver news speedily to readers with a loose energy—this is the appeal of live-tweeting event coverage, after all. 

But with a story as fraught and combustible as the Tamir Rice shooting—involving police violence, racial tensions, the death of a child, and public anger, unfolding while protests are still ongoing in Ferguson, MO—iterative reporting is an accident waiting to happen. Bits-and-pieces coverage has the ring of hasty gossip. Even if the posts do accumulate into a solid narrative, many readers will glean only a portion of it—catching pieces as they stream by on Cleveland.com, or on Facebook, and missing the whole. 

As Scene’s Sam Allard put it, “[I]t actually requires considerably more energy and attention to assemble an entire narrative oneself, bit by bit as it were, laboring to arrange little 250-word fragments in a comprehensible order with some semblance of cause and effect, some nod to broader context, some sources with specialized insight, some Godforsaken chronology etc.” 

At a certain point, a story requires a solid and coherent narrative, well-edited and contextualized. The “imperfect process” is not good enough.

High website traffic is not synonymous with public understanding. In the river-of-news content model, information can be decontextualized. Relatedly, clicks on individual Cleveland.com articles are decontextualized; despite Diadiun’s best efforts, you can’t count them up and view the total as signifying a meaningful contribution to public understanding. And you certainly can’t equate clicks with an approving thumbs-up from readers.

“I don’t think its acceptable for Ted Diadiun or anyone else to claim, ‘Look how much traffic we get now! That shows it’s worth it,’” Schultz said.

 “NEOMG is really at a crossroads,” she added. “You can say ‘We’re just doing what everyone else is doing now,’ or you can decide to be a leader in online credibility and accountability.

Finally, if this episode is important for its impact on NEOMG’s relationship with readers, it also affects the relationship between NEOMG and The Plain Dealer, which I’ve written about extensively. It’s been tense since Advance created NEOMG and split it off from the Plain Dealer, amidst massive layoffs in summer 2013. And NEOMG has taken the lead in coverage of the Rice case because managers moved responsibility for cops (and later, courts) beats there.

The distinctions between the companies are blurry to readers—a point of frustration for those left at the old newsroom. “Readers see posts on Cleveland.com and don’t distinguish between reporters of NEOMG and The Plain Dealer, so when there is something as shameful as this Tamir Rice tidbit, the public lashes out at The Plain Dealer,” said McManamon, who is chair of the local guild unit. 

That doesn’t do much for morale.

“I’m doing more job references for people who are still there than I ever have,” Schultz said. “And the reason that’s happening is so many of them are not just afraid that they’ll lose jobs, but afraid they’ll not be able to do the journalism they want to do.”

* Correction: This sentence originally misstated the NEOMG reporter’s first name.

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Anna Clark is CJR’s correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.