Case in point: The stop-and-frisk scandal had been talked about for years, but it wasn’t until a civil suit that the stories found sustained media attention. That’s not because journalists don’t care about issues until there’s a lawsuit; it’s because lawsuits make it so much easier for us to cope with our lack of authority.
Before the lawsuit, complaints about stop and frisk could seem anecdotal. Bundle those individual complaints into one legal complaint, however, and the story has new life. The trial is a gift to the journalistic form, a performance, by the prosecution and the defense, of the professional demand that there be at least two sides to every story. It’s easier to make a quote stick to the walls of the inverted pyramid when it comes from inside a courtroom.
Back to the video, and to what’s so brilliant about the use of Polanco’s story: Polanco’s credibility is rooted not in his participation as a whistleblower in the class-action trial, which is the reason the mainstream media had earlier taken interest in him, but as a human being who has experienced stop-and-frisk firsthand. The fact that he is a cop is used in the video’s first sentence with irony, rather than to wield legitimacy against a a skeptical viewer. This video trusts us to trust him—his personal impressions and the conclusions he draws from them—a choice which infuses more humanity in four minutes than can be wrung from gallons of ink spilled covering the lawsuit.
Careful, clever journalism could do that too—but often does not. It could also do what this video does next: take us, quickly and deftly, behind the scenes of a consequential choice—in this case, Polanco’s decision to join the NYPD. The video tells us that Polanco grew up in Washington Heights, and he remembers “murders every night.” He wanted to be a cop after a female officer visited his elementary school. He talks about some of the frisking he’s done, and how badly he felt.
No doubt some viewers will call Polanco’s story biased—because it’s only one voice; because he’s clearly anti-stop and frisk; perhaps even because he’s a person of color. Indeed, because of all of these things combined, this video doesn’t look like the stuff we’re used to calling journalism. But it does what we want the best journalism to do: help us feel the human stakes and inner emotional stories of today’s most pressing topics.
Make no mistake: there is an agenda in these videos. And that’s where careful journalism would, and should, never tread: The video ends with a call to “join the campaign” against stop and frisk by sharing the video. But this series does something journalists can, and perhaps should, do more often. It credibly builds claims about civil rights abuses with the voices of those who live with them. The willingness of “Where I Am Going” to use individual voices to question institutional authority should inspire a creative vigilance even in more traditional journalism.