A crowd of people hold up signs One reads "Say Their Names," another reads "Black Children Matter. Black Trans Lives Matter. Black Health Matters. Black Dreams Matter. Black Futures Matter." A third sign, partially blocked by the crowd, reads "No Justice." To the right of the frame, Mayor Lucas yells into a megaphone.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, left, listens to a protester, June 3, 2020, during a protest against police brutality following the death of George Floyd

When news organizations cover police statements, why do they do it?

This isn’t a trick question. Or it shouldn’t be.

In theory, reporters seek police comments to better understand matters of community safety and urgent public concern. Police statements, in and of themselves, typically aren’t the real story.

That’s the simplest reason not to repurpose police statements as headlines, even with attribution, as the Kansas City Star did late last month. After another local outlet, The Kansas City Defender, reported concerns that Black women seemed to be disappearing from the city, the Star ran a headline taking the police response at face value: “‘Completely Unfounded’: Rumor about serial killer in Kansas City is untrue, police say.” Leading with the police frames crime reporting through the lens of police bureaucracy rather than community safety. 

In post-George Floyd America, newsrooms that once treated police accounts as sufficient, unbiased sources of truth can no longer claim ignorance of the risks inherent in that practice. What police say should not merely be documented, but also contextualized and interrogated. That’s hard to pull off with a same-day story, let alone in the small space of a headline. And we know as an industry that lots of readers scan headlines, rather than reading entire stories.

Journalists have an obligation to consider how their audiences consume news and adapt responsibly. That’s why media organizations — especially white-dominated ones — should abandon the “police say” headline format.

What happened in Kansas City is a case in point.

In September, a year-old, Black-run abolitionist news site called The Kansas City Defender released a video of a Black community leader, a church bishop, expressing concern that Black women seemed to be disappearing from a specific intersection: 85th and Prospect. In the video, the bishop — Tony Caldwell of Eternal Life Church — said he was “upset” because he feared a serial killer was targeting women in his community.

The Kansas City Defender shared the video, knowing that a single-source story along these lines would not meet the criteria for many journalism outlets to go live with a tip, although relying on police statements is also a form of single-source reporting. Editor Ryan Sorrell explained that, given Caldwell’s community credibility and the dire nature of the concerns, he felt compelled to alert readers to potential danger immediately. A statement accompanied the video: “We are working to confirm and verify all of the information as we can. Please know we take these matters seriously and only want to report facts and not fearmonger. However, given the very serious nature of the matter we believe it is critical to report this.”

Other news outlets did not weigh in until the video went viral, prompting the Kansas City Police Department to issue a statement dismissing Caldwell’s claims as “rumors” that were “completely unfounded.” That’s when news outlets came out in force, with quick-turn stories appearing under headlines almost unanimously centering that quote.

In addition to the Kansas City Star, KMBC, the local ABC news channel, ran this headline: “KCPD: Social media rumors of a ‘serial killer’ targeting women are untrue.” The local CBS affiliate, KCTV5, ran a similar headline: “KCPD: Social media post claiming serial killer on loose in KC ‘completely unfounded.’” Meanwhile, national outlets adopted similar language. Here’s one from Newsweek: “Kansas City ‘Serial Killer’ Rumor Is ‘Completely Unfounded,’ Say Police.”

Weeks passed. Then a 22-year-old Black woman escaped from the basement of a home in Excelsior Springs, a small Missouri town about 45 minutes away from Kansas City. The woman, identified as T.J. in court reports, appeared on neighbors’ doorsteps pleading for help on Oct. 7. She said she’d been taken from Prospect Avenue, that she’d been held captive in that basement for about a month, and that there had been other women trapped with her. The others “didn’t make it out,” she said. 

T.J.’s escape launched a formal investigation, and the man whose basement she fled — Timothy Haslett, Jr. — is now in police custody on charges of rape, kidnapping, and assault. So far, Clay County police have yet to find evidence of additional victims. Much reporting remains to be done before a definitive picture connecting all the dots emerges. But “completely unfounded” rings painfully dismissive.

These headlines landed in a community that has suffered recent trauma in the very specific form of missing and murdered women. In the early 2000s, the bodies of murdered Black women started turning up in the Prospect corridor, and in 2004, police apprehended a serial killer, who was later convicted of six of the murders

Reporting the police position on current “rumors” as part of an effort to understand a larger story is one thing. Leading coverage of that story with highly subjective police statements minimizing community fears is another. At the very least, given local history, it lacks empathy and trauma sensitivity. Also worth noting: Last summer, civil rights groups in Kansas City called on the Justice Department to investigate the KCPD for allegations of racism and possible civil rights violations. That investigation is currently underway.

It’s time to stop treating the KCPD and other police departments as neutral sources of information, particularly when reporting on stories affecting Black communities. In June 2020, The Washington Post asserted that “protests of racism and police misconduct have prompted a larger reassessment of the racial dynamics within largely white newsrooms, including how they have historically covered crime and policing in Black communities.” That piece, published more than two years ago, urged journalists not to conduct knee-jerk coverage regurgitating the police version of a story. 

That’s essentially Kansas City Defender editor Sorrell’s point now. “The only people who we are accountable to as a news organization are the Black people in our city,” he says. “That’s who we serve. We don’t trust the police department at all with our safety, so for us, it’s totally antithetical to think that the police are the arbiters of the truth.”

So, what can journalists do, on tight deadlines, to reconcile police statements with potentially contradictory community accounts?

If police department contacts are in your phone, community contacts should be there, too. Those relationships are as important as police contacts, arguably more so, because vulnerable communities don’t issue press releases or call press conferences. 

Contextualize police statements. After T.J.’s escape and Haslett’s arrest, The Kansas City Defender followed up with a spokesperson for the Kansas City Police Department to see if the department wanted to walk back its initial statement. What’s revealed in that exchange is that the KCPD’s assessment of the threat to Black women in Kansas City had been based not on an investigation, but on the absence of formal criminal reports. That context is crucial.

Advocate for more time if you need it. Community reporting is inherently time consuming. Statements with the potential to undermine community efforts to keep people safe should be published with both caution and context. Better yet, newsroom managers could just assume these stories will take longer than they have in the past because the standards of due diligence have changed.

Build on one another’s work. Rather than trying to start from square one, consider contacting journalists from community outlets and treating them as sources with insights that might advance your own investigation. Differing methods should not get in the way of sharing information when lives could be at stake.

Gina Kaufmann worked as a journalist in Kansas City for 20 years, where she has taken on roles as public radio a talk show host and a digital columnist, among others.

Most popular articles from Nieman Foundation