How we’re failing to cover the cops

February 5, 2024
Photo by Dakota Santiago

Phil Trexler got his start covering crime as a college student in 1989 working for the Daily Kent Stater. “It kind of typecast me,” Trexler recalled. He spent a quarter century on the police beat in Ohio, including sixteen years at the Akron Beacon Journal, where he covered police and the courts. 

For years, he would hit the station house and pore over police reports from the night before. While the police were not particularly friendly, Trexler recalled, “I’d see the sheriff every morning,” and he got to know beat officers as well. Sometimes he’d see cops at a crime scene, and they’d whisper about a suspect or point out a key witness. Other times they’d invite him to join them on a raid. Trexler would ring up dozens of stations each day and ask if they had any tips. 

All of these efforts paid off. After a robbery at an adult bookstore outside Cleveland in the mid-1990s in which a security guard was shot, “a cop source invited me back to the station, where I was permitted access to the two suspects, who were openly bragging about the shooting,” Trexler remembered. “Turns out it was their last stop on a multistate robbery spree.”

Today, as editor in chief of the Marshall Project–Cleveland, Trexler says that reporters’ contact with police is much more limited. “Police are so distrustful of the media that we don’t get the access,” Trexler told me. “We don’t get to know the squad leader, the young lieutenant, the captain. I think there’s a wall.” 

The wall has not stopped Marshall Project–Cleveland from doing the kind of accountability reporting that is at the heart of its mission. In November 2022 it published an investigation showing that police in a wealthy, predominantly white suburb outside Cleveland were disproportionately pulling over Black motorists. But Trexler wants more regular contact with the police, and he has not given up. “I impress upon young reporters, ‘Get out of the office,’” Trexler said. “We have to work harder at building relationships.” 

Across the country those relationships have broken down. While there are no hard numbers, there is a broad consensus that far fewer reporters cover the police beat. This is largely because there are far fewer news organizations, particularly in small and midsize cities. While local television stations continue to emphasize crime coverage, most of them do little accountability or investigative reporting. 

The police beat was once the training ground for young reporters, said Ted Gest, president of a national organization called Criminal Justice Journalists and publisher of a daily newsletter, Crime and Justice News. Young journalists entering the newsroom were often required to cover the cops. “This was their first assignment, and a lot of them got it unwillingly,” Gest told me. 

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Gest suggested four reasons that the relationship between journalists and the police had grown so fraught. The first is simply that there is less dialogue. The second is that police departments rely more on one-way communication, in which spokespeople post the information they want to share on social media. The third is the widespread perception, fueled by national politicians, that the media is biased and untrustworthy. The fourth is resentment over the way they are covered, with less local reporting and more national accountability reporting focused on police misconduct. 

It’s a dynamic I observed while working on a report about police, protests, and press freedom in 2023 as a senior research fellow at Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute. Having spent much of my career overseas and as a press-freedom defender at the Committee to Protect Journalists, I had never covered police in the United States. I assumed that police officials would be willing to engage with me, even if I was asking uncomfortable questions. But that wasn’t the case. Few police departments returned my calls, and when they did, it was to speak on background about how unfairly they were treated by the media. I found this disappointing, and wondered what stories we were missing as a result.

One journalist featured in my Covering Democracy report is Cerise Castle, who made a name for herself as a relentless chronicler of violence and abuse committed by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The limited interactions she has had with the police in Los Angeles have been hostile, including being hit with rubber bullets while covering a march in May 2020. While she sees herself as an investigative journalist, Castle believes the regular interactions with police that come with beat reporting serve a critical function, particularly if reporters come from more diverse backgrounds. She points to Los Angeles Times reporter Keri Blakinger, who was formerly incarcerated, as an example of how to break the mold. 

Christina Carrega is a national criminal-justice reporter for Capital B, a nonprofit newsroom that reports for Black communities across the country. She jokingly refers to herself as a “criminal-injustice reporter,” since she is focused on accountability. But she remembers with fondness her time as a court reporter in Queens, when she and a cadre of local journalists occupied the pressroom and regularly interacted with police and court officers. “It was fun,” recalled Carrega. “Those hallways are littered with so many untold stories of possible injustice.” Today, the courthouse reporters are gone, and the pressroom has closed. 

The lack of contact between police and the press also has implications for safety. In 2020, as protests swept the nation in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, police arrested and assaulted hundreds of journalists seeking to cover the events, according to the US Press Freedom Tracker. The most important factors were overly aggressive crowd control measures and a failure by the police to protect the rights of journalists, my report found. But the lack of personal relationships between police and local media may have also played a role. Kevin Johnson, a veteran criminal-justice reporter and now trainer for the National Press Foundation, told me that journalists need to do a better job of engaging with the police. “We often show up when it’s a time of crisis, and they don’t know who you are, and those relationships don’t exist, ” Johnson noted. 

Of course, relationships that are too close can produce distorted coverage. My Newmark J-school colleague Cheryl Thompson-Morton, who directs the school’s Black Media Initiative, argues that overreliance on law enforcement sources has produced the misleading impression that crime has spiked in the past few decades when it’s actually declined. Still, Thompson-Morton believes relationships between journalists and police built through beat reporting are critical. “There is a way to strike the right balance,” Thompson-Morton told me. “Police are a source like any other.”

A healthy relationship between the police and the press requires both regular contact and close scrutiny. That’s why we need beat reporters. Their decline, ultimately, is bad for accountability, and bad for our democracy. 

Joel Simon is the founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.