The massive clusterfuck (I’m sorry, but there’s no better word for it) in Ferguson, Missouri has many people calling for transparency. I’ve heard it in every news story about Ferguson and the killing of Mike Brown, either in the form of body cameras for cops, in reference to the evidence or the grand jury process, or in other ways. It comes up when talking about the protests, the no-fly zone, and nearly everything else about Ferguson.
Everyone knows we cannot get perfect information, but people feel they deserve better information, at least. I don’t know what everyone means by transparency (I don’t think they know what they mean, either, in many cases), but we have at least one example of what it could look like.
Serial, the wildly successful podcast from This American Life (by my rough estimate, 96% of the people in my part of town are listening) is a deep dive into the murder of Hae Min Lee and the conviction of Adnan Sayed, her ex-boyfriend, both Maryland teenagers at the time of the murder. There are 9 episodes as of this writing, and most of us who are listening can hardly wait for the next episode, which comes out next Thursday. Serial is a compelling story, but as Joyce Barnathan explains at the Columbia Journalism Review, it is also an exercise in radical transparency:
What Koenig does that we don’t normally do is share our thoughts and views as we research a story. Normally we do all that work before publishing. We give our audience the most intelligent assessment we can. We go through the same hard work of interviewing and researching as Koenig—and we suffer through the same anxieties and soul searching. The difference is, we never make that work public. She breaks new ground because she makes journalism more transparent—and in my view, adds tremendous credibility to our field.
The killing of Mike Brown probably wouldn’t make a good subject for Serial partly because most people have already made up their minds. One reason the show is so compelling is that we come to it as fresh as Koenig does. The killing of Mike Brown also has many fewer moving parts and mostly consists of conflicting eyewitness testimony. But I think an approach like Koenig’s is what people mean when they talk about transparency. I don’t think they just want access to the raw materials. I think they want access to the raw evidence and to be led through it by a neutral skeptic.
Some have tried. Vox‘s Ezra Klein dug into Officer Darren Wilson’s testimony and the testimony of Brown’s friend and eyewitness, Dorian Johnson. Here’s a summary of eyewitness testimony from Mashable, with pie charts. Many other media sources (the Washington Post, for example) have gone over the evidence, too, but most are piecemeal glosses. None have taken a holistic, Serial-style deep dive into the case. Perhaps more important, none have packaged up that deep dive in a way that makes it compelling to readers or listeners.
It’s easy to be certain — of someone’s guilt or innocence, of the carriage or miscarriage of justice, of the intent of everyone involved — when you know just a few facts. The picture changes considerably when you lay out the evidence you have to work with and try to assemble a coherent narrative to sell to a jury or audience. This isn’t news to litigators or reporters, but it is eye-opening for pretty much everyone else.
Transparency is just the first part of putting together the evidence. Most people cannot make meaningful use of the raw evidence without someone to put it all together. On the other hand, the grand jury decision, public statements by police, prosecutors, and politicians, and published articles leave out too much detail. Ezra Klein’s posts at Vox are helpful, but still lack the detail to help someone make up their own mind.
Without someone to break down the evidence, put it in context, and help weigh it, there is no meaningful transparency. That is why I really hope someone will do a Serial-style analysis of the killing of Mike Brown.
I realize the protests are not just about the killing of Mike Brown. People are mad because cops arrest and kill a massively disproportionate number of black people (caveat: most common data sources are definitely problematic), and the killing of Mike Brown finally got people pissed off enough to take to the streets. The protests probably won’t go away no matter what really happened. But the protests are also about the killing of Mike Brown, and from the outside it’s really hard to know what the heck happened.