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Journalists should not be pack animals

I have and will continue talking about the virtues of journalists and newspapers and defending the work they do, because I think a free and independent press is vital to a functioning democracy.

But I don’t want to imply journalists are without fault.

Last weekend, I watched “When They See Us,” a Netflix original drama about Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Antron McCray, teens who in 1989 became known as “the Central Park Five” when they were wrongfully convicted of beating and raping Trisha Meili while she jogged in the park.

They were convicted without a shred of forensic evidence. DNA found at the scene matched none of the boys. Prosecutors’ case hinged on four of the boys’ videotaped confessions, which inlcuded conflicted in details that often didn’t match the physical evidence. It was later revealed police coerced those confessions with threats and promises.

At the time of conviction, the youngest boys were 14, the oldest 16. They served between six and 13 years in jail and prison before Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and serial rapist, admitted to the crime. It was his DNA found at the scene.

Salaam, Wise, Richardson, Santana, and McCray all had their convictions overturned and eventually won a multimillion-dollar settlement with New York City. A suit against New York State still is pending.

The Netflix miniseries is powerful and moving, and culturally important. After it went live earlier this month, Elizabeth Lederer, one of the two lead prosecutors on the case, was forced out of a part-time lecturer position at Columbia Law School. The other, Linda Fairstein, who’d become a crime novelist, was dropped by her publisher and her agent.

Why that didn’t happen in 2002, when the men were exonerated, or in 2014, when the five won their suit against the city, I don’t know.

A recurring theme throughout the series is the media’s failure to fully question the prosecutors’ case and the way they hounded the families of the five boys. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, also streaming on Netflix, director Ava DuVernay also criticized the media for coming up with the moniker “the Central Park Five,” robbing five young black men of their individual identities.

As is often the case, the series’ criticism of journalists is harsher than necessary. The series itself even includes audio from an actual television news broadcast in which the reporter points out during the trial that there’s no physical evidence.

But some of the criticism is well-founded. In the late-1980s and early 1990s, the press was still guilty of employing dog whistles and was often tone-deaf in the way it wrote about people of color — especially young black men — often using politicians’ phrase “super predators” instead of getting to know who the men and their families really were.

The press has, for the most part, evolved since then, but one sin the media still tends to commit is the “pack animal” mentality. You see it frequently in “When They See Us”: throngs of reporters surrounding the characters, shouting questions and following each other’s often wrongheaded train of thought.

I don’t know how many scores of press conferences I’ve attended throughout my career, but I’ve found little value in them. Occasionally, they produce a gem when another reporter asks a question you hadn’t thought of or reveals some piece of information you hadn’t landed on.

But, for the most part, press conferences and scrums make for shallow reporting. When you’re one of dozens of reporters shouting questions at a subject, there’s little opportunity for follow-up questions or questions seeking clarification to a subject’s answer. And reporters tend to follow whatever line of questioning starts out from the horde of their peers, making for a one-track series of inquiries that leaves important avenues unexplored.

I’ve always had the best luck when I’ve zigged while other reporters zagged. When I landed the one-on-one interview, when I went to the jail or the prison to talk to the defendant directly, when I drove out to the courthouse and pulled the old files from the basement.

There’s a line in the first “Men in Black” film, when Will Smith’s character says people are smart enough to handle the truth about aliens.

“A person is smart,” Tommy Lee Jones’ character answers. “People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it.”

It’s the same with journalists.

When they turn into pack animals on the scent of a sensational case like the one in “When They See Us,” they tend to follow each other down some bad rabbit holes.

And it’s often the subjects of their stories who pay the price.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.