The New York Times Went to Baltimore, and Only Found the Police Worth Talking to


For readers who turned to Tuesday’s New York Times site (4/28/15) for news of the ongoing Baltimore protests following the death in police custody of Freddie Gray, they found a terrifying tale of rioters throwing cinder blocks at firefighters trying to put out arson fires, as the city was beset by people with “no regard for life.”

Whose tale was it, though? Here’s the first six original citations from the Times story:

  • “police said”
  • “police said”
  • “police also reported”
  • “police said”
  • “state and city officials said”
  • “police acknowledged”

Not until the 12th paragraph does the paper get around to quoting someone who isn’t a police or government official. At shortly after noon on Tuesday, the Times edited its story to include a quote near the top from a local resident cleaning up after the night’s violence. It still included no quotes from demonstrators or anyone else actually on the scene last night. The original story lives on at other sites via the New York Times News Service.

Taking official sources at their word is all too common in US media coverage, of course — especially when reporting on conflicts taking place in distant lands. But Baltimore is a bit more accessible to Times reporters than Afghanistan; indeed, at least one of the two authors of the Times piece, Richard Oppel and Stephen Babcock, conducted some on-the-ground reporting that appears later in the story—well after the main narrative has been laid out by the Baltimore police.

In fact, plenty of other news outlets are doing good reporting from on the scene. The Baltimore City Paper‘s Brandon Soderberg (4/28/15) recounted how sports bar patrons helped spark Saturday’s violence outside the Baltimore Orioles stadium, shouting racial epithets and tossing beer bottles at protesters. And Wall Street Journal technology columnist Christopher Mims reported after Saturday’s protests that they were “overwhelmingly peaceful” — though Journal readers would have to turn to Mims’s Twitter feed (4/26/15), not the actual paper, for this news.

The Times, meanwhile, has stuck mainly with government sources, even for a story that cries out for original reporting to cut through the official line. The front-page story in today’s print edition (4/28/15), which mostly focused on yesterday’s establishment of a curfew and calling out of the National Guard, cited, in order, Baltimore’s mayor, the Maryland governor, Baltimore’s police commissioner, “the police” (cited as the source of a “credible threat” that gangs were plotting to “‘take out’ law enforcement officers”) and a police captain–all before citing the pastor at Gray’s funeral as appealing for calm.

Somebody needs to remind the Paper of Record that government officials don’t have a monopoly on the truth.

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