ProPublica, Watching the Detectives

There’s a journalism project that I think is important on many levels.

[Note: this is part of the post category I’m dubbing “Making an Appeal” (get it?!), which is to highlight the projects (sites, podcasts, other goings on) I come across that are relevant to this blog’s topic (true/crime/etc.) and seem worth checking out.]

ProPublica is a journalism organization that is doing things differently. They are a non-profit organization, not a for-profit news outlet. It was founded in 2007-2008, according to its website, with the following mission:

To expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.”

They emphasize this word “moral” in a few places, which may be another point of distinction for the organization: not only are they a nonprofit organization, but they have a specific mission based on a type of moral compass trained on “abuses of power.”

To be honest, this kind of claim to morality is a bit cringey because the term itself has been weaponized throughout history to execute abuses.

But shifting journalism from for-profit models to nonprofit models is a direction I’ve been hoping for. In recent years, we’ve seen the financial collapse of local newspapers as more of the information economy has shifted online. We’ve also seen a strengthening monopoly of news media controlled by a few powerful actors.

There is a specific project that ProPublica has been working on that is particularly relevant to crime discourse. They call this project “The NYPD Files”:

“ProPublica reporters uncover abuse and impunity inside the NYPD, using confidential documents and insider interviews, giving the public unprecedented access to civilian complaints against officers.”

They are making data about the NYPD more accessible to the public, such as their searchable database of public complaints, and they are also investing in deep-dive journalistic investigations of specific police abuse cases as well as following the money and procedures behind the scenes.

Screenshot of ProPublica's searchable data from public complaints about NYPD
Screenshot of ProPublica’s searchable data from public complaints about NYPD

They published over a dozen articles in 2020 dedicated to this NYPD focus, with titles such as:

This kind of project is not new to traditional journalism and newspapers. The press and the police have had a longstanding relationship that could probably be described as symbiotic, even though that partnership has always involved manipulation, critique, and even exploitation.

A quick google search for some documentation of this historical relationship yielded three academic studies — unpublished dissertations and theses. One dissertation from a “mass communications” perspective, another from a criminal justice perspective, and an undergraduate thesis from a communications and media studies perspective.

My academic library yielded at least one recently published book-length study of the relationships between police, media, and the public: Policing and Media:

Public Relations, Simulations and Communications, by Murray Lee and Alyce McGovern, two scholars in Criminology studies in Australia, published by Routledge Press in 2013. From the book abstract:

Policing and Media explores the rationalities that are driving police/media relations and asks; how these relationships differ (or not) from the ways they have operated historically; what new technologies are influencing and being deployed by policing organizations and police public relations professionals and why; how operational policing is shaping and being shaped by new technologies of communication; and what forms of resistance are evident to the manufacture of preferred images of police. The authors suggest that new forms of simulated and hyper real policing using platforms such as social media and reality television are increasingly positioning police organisations as media organisations, and in some cases enabling police to bypass the traditional media altogether. The book is informed by empirical research spanning ten years in this field and includes chapters on journalism and police, policing and social media, policing and reality television, and policing resistances. It will be of interest to those researching and teaching in the fields of Criminology, Policing and Media, as well as police and media professionals.”

The work that ProPublica is doing in terms of investigating the NYPD is valuable for both journalism and policing in the U.S.: it should, at the very least, remind everyone that there has to be accountability and transparency for all powerful institutions in a democratic society, that includes policing and the press.

Who’s watching the detectives?


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