Journalists’ failures to cover people in the system

Could journalists be better when covering people tangling with justice?

By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

We heard from Kimberly Haven and Ronald Simpson-Bey who talked about how journalists get it wrong and can get it better when reporting on criminal justice.

Ronald Simpson-Bey in a 2016 conversation about solitary confinement.

Ronald spent 27 years in Michigan on a wrongful conviction he was released from. “My co-defendants and I were arrested, we were splashed across the front of the news paper, handcuffed and chained together like we just got off the slave ship,” he said. That image followed him like a “scarlet letter”.

As a JustleadershipUSA Outreach and Alumni Engagement Director, Ronald now travels the country advocating for justice reform. JLUSA advocates for people first language and context of who people are when accused of a crime. “They are not just the one thing they have been accused of – they have stories,” Ronald said.

After spending three days without showering behind bars after he was first arrested, his co-defendants and him were brought out in front of the public. “We looked like animals, [and] the media was out there taking pictures.”

And the impact of those images – “we didn’t have a chance [for a fair trial].” He felt the media coverage led the to a public decision of guilt before he was even tried.

Kimberly Haven, a coalition and policy director for Reproductive Justice Inside, gets frustrated when reporters always include her criminal history in articles about her advocacy work. As far as covering plea bargains and arrests on slow news days “If the only reason your covering a sentencing is into fill space, think again.”

“You have to make the decision what’s the story and also what’s the point of the story,” she said.


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Founder of The Des and freelance criminal justice reporter based in Washington, D.C.