Lost in the Post
The Washington Post won a Pulitzer for creating a database of people killed by police. We were there first.
Earlier this month, the Washington Post was awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for its project on police violence, “Fatal Force.” The Pulitzer Prize Board singled out the paper “For its revelatory initiative in creating and using a national database to illustrate how often and why the police shoot to kill and who the victims are most likely to be.”
The paper’s media reporter, Paul Farhi, provided details on the win in an April 18 write-up: “After covering several high-profile incidents involving the killings of civilians by police officers in 2014, Washington Post staff writer Wesley Lowery was surprised to discover that there were no official statistics about such fatalities. So Lowery pitched an idea to his editors: The newspaper, he suggested, should collect the information itself and analyze it for patterns in law enforcement.”
Except that’s not exactly how it went down. I know, because I was the one who suggested the idea to Lowery.
Back in 2012, I was the editor and publisher of the RN&R. After a fatal police shooting in Reno, I did some digging and discovered that no local, state or federal agency accurately kept track of such shootings. So I decided to start a website and database, called Fatal Encounters, to collect and log data on police killings.
My colleagues, students from the University of Nevada, Reno, volunteers, and I began collecting data on deadly police violence and releasing it for free to anyone who wanted to use it for any reason. Universities, artists, news media, activists, national politicians, police organizations and even the FBI used our data. But interest in the Fatal Encounters database exploded after Aug. 9, 2014, when Michael Brown, an unarmed black youth, was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
Shortly after Brown was killed, I published a story on Gawker, “What I’ve learned from two years collecting data on police killings,” Aug. 22, 2014.
A couple of weeks later, I got an email from Wesley Lowery, at the time a Congressional reporter at the Washington Post, who had read the piece:
From: Lowery, Wesley J
To: D. Brian Burghart
Wed, Sep 3, 2014 at 7:34 AM
Reaching out because I’m working on a piece about the lack of national information about police shootings, and have seen your work everywhere. Caught the piece you wrote for Gawker, and was hoping you might have a few minutes to chat sometime today about your work to catalog every police shooting.
Let me know if you’ve got a few minutes to chat,
The Washington Post | Post Politics | The Fix
We talked on the phone the next day, and during the course of our interview, I told Lowery it was absurd that a grad student and editor at a four-person alternative newsweekly in Reno, Nevada, should be doing the job of the national press in his spare time, and I suggested the Post should pick it up. A few minutes after our chat, he got back to me, writing, “Thanks! Immediately after I got off of the phone I ran over to my bosses to insist that we get a databasing project underway. Will keep you posted.”
A few days later, Lowery published a story on the lack of statistics on police shootings. He was complimentary of Fatal Encounters’ work, writing that “prior to the Brown’s [sic] shooting, the only person attempting to keep track of the number of police shootings was D. Brian Burghart, the editor and publisher of the 29,000-circulation Reno News & Review, who launched his ’Fatal Encounters’ project in 2012.”
When Lowery’s story ran, Fatal Encounters had already gathered more than a year’s worth of data, which was incorporated in numerous stories by the RN&R and other media such as TruthOut, CNN and CounterPunch. When I submitted the RN&R’s work to the Pulitzer Board for consideration for the 2015 Public Service Award, on January 25, 2015, we had more than 4,000 entries cataloging all deaths that happened during interactions with law enforcement in the United States, and the complete data for nine states going back to 2000. (By contrast, the Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fatal Force” series contained 990 shooting fatalities for the year 2015.) We’ve cataloged 1,143 gun homicides involving police during 2015 (and 153 officer-involved deaths by other violent means).
We’d been collecting data on 17 data points: Subject’s name, age, gender and race, image of the deceased, date of injury resulting in death, location of injury (address), location of death (zip code, city, county and state), agency responsible for death, cause of death, a brief description of the circumstances surrounding the death, official disposition of death (justified or other), link to news article or photo of official document, and symptoms of mental illness. The Post was collecting 13: Subject’s name, date, age, gender, race, city and state of death, manner of death, whether the subject was armed or fled, signs of mental illness, “threat level,” and whether the officer had a body camera.
Fatal Encounters itself wasn’t the first attempt to catalog shootings by police. The October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation with its Stolen Lives Project predated the mass adoption of the internet, so it’s primarily a list, not a database. Operation Ghetto Storm, written by Arlene Eisen in 2012, advanced the issue of a racial imbalance in the killing of Americans by police. Even Killed By Police, on Facebook, started two years before the Post’s project.
Of course, neither Fatal Encounters nor Killed by Police won the 2016 Pulitzer. We didn’t even apply. After all, the Washington Post and the Guardian’s project “The Counted” had used Fatal Encounters’ data to inform their projects and cited that they did, and going up against giant news organizations with resources as large as those at the Guardian and the Post felt like an exercise in hubris. At any rate, money was tight, and the $50 entry fee seemed like a luxury. The costs for the first two years of Fatal Encounters came out of my own pocket.
Plus, the competition for Pulitzers sometimes comes down to which category a paper is smart enough to enter itself in. As the Huffington Post reported, the Guardian missed out on the prize because it entered the Explanatory Reporting and Public Service category, where the Washington Post entered the National Reporting category. The Washington Post was savvy about timing as well—Guardian’s project was set to publish on June 1, 2015, so the Post went live with their project on the night of May 30.
The Huffington Post quoted Washington Post database editor Steven Rich: “We were getting ready to publish for a Sunday and we got—and one of our reporters got an email from someone at the Guardian saying, ’Hey, you should report on our new database we’re going to put out on Monday, So we basically launched at the same time, which was advantageous for both of us.’ ”
Huffington also reported, “Rich didn’t mention the reporter by name, though sources told HuffPost that Lowery received the Guardian’s release.”
Timing isn’t everything, but it’s not nothing. Who publishes first matters, and the Post’s rush to beat the Guardian proves it.
The Post’s project deserves credit for its original insights; Fatal Encounters, for example, did not distinguish between armed vs. unarmed victims, and the Post did. But in other areas, the Post makes unearned claims to have been the first to report what they were not. For example, in the same write-up from April 18, Farhi writes:
“The data showed, for example, that about one-quarter of those fatally shot had a history of mental illness; that most of those killed were white men (although unarmed African Americans were at vastly higher risk of being shot after routine traffic stops than any other group); and that 55 officers involved in fatal shootings in 2015 had previously been involved in a deadly incident while on duty.”
But TruthOut, on March 10, 2015, reported Fatal Encounters’s findings that up to 30 percent of people killed by police were mentally ill, months before the Post ran its story on the topic. Alternet’s Don Hazen reported it again on April 7, 2015. The Reno News & Review published stories that included the information in early 2014. Samuel Sinyangwe, data scientist for #BlackLivesMatter and Campaign Zero, launched MappingPoliceViolence.org using race-related data collected by Fatal Encounters months before the Post launched their project.
(The Post’s data can be compared with Fatal Encounters’s relatively easily at Numeracy, which is an independent enterprise that builds tools that make it easier to work with, understand and share complex data.)
The Washington Post and its editors and reporters are heroes of mine, and the Watergate reporting inspired me to get into journalism in the first place. More importantly, Fatal Encounters was open to the public, and we’d designed it intending and hoping that the data would reach a wider audience by being picked up by a national news outlet, and that’s exactly what the Post’s project did. Their project was easy to use and clear, and the paper’s reputation and readership all but guaranteed that the issue of police killings would get the attention it warranted. But the paper gave no credit to Fatal Encounters or any other grassroots data-collection project in their submission to the Pulitzer Board.
When the Post submitted “Fatal Force” to the Pulitzer Board, they described the project thusly:
“After a police officer shot and killed a black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., people began asking pointed questions about the use of deadly force by police. ’How often do police shoot people? Who are the victims? Are the officers ever charged with a crime?’ None of those questions could be answered when Michael Brown died in August 2014 because police are not required to report fatal shootings to the FBI.
“Without that data, it was impossible to say whether Brown’s death fit a pattern. It was impossible to hold police to account. So the Washington Post launched an unprecedented effort to tally every fatal shooting by an on-duty officer in 2015.” (Emphasis added.)
This line, from the same letter, signed by executive editor Martin Baron—yes, the Spotlight guy—expressed the Post’s regard for the impact of its own work quite well: “The [FBI’s] new approach will mirror The Post’s, capturing shootings and other violent incidents in real time and logging many of the same details.” Yet, the Post’s database only contains information about fatal shootings. Fatal Encounters’ and the Guardian’s were the ones that contained “other violent incidents,” such as deaths during high-speed chases or fatalities by Taser.
So I fired off an email to Wesley Lowery, Martin Baron, Paul Farhi and managing editor Cameron Barr congratulating them on their Pulitzer, but complaining that I didn’t think they’d given Fatal Encounters the credit we were due.
Barr graciously responded. He wrote that the Post had given us credit several times, and that they had gathered their own data, but, “As a backstop, we periodically checked your site and Killed by Police, which is why we credited the two organizations.”
Fine, even though no credit was mentioned in their Pulitzer application—it wouldn’t have been traditional to cite outside sources anyway. I was grateful that the Post management had responded. Still, I couldn’t help but register one final complaint that the Post, it seemed to me, had created an origin story after the fact: “After you guys launched, there seemed to be a strategy to talk down what FE had accomplished to make the Post’s project seem more innovative,” I wrote, by email, “Even the Medium story that misrepresented what was in our database appeared designed to undermine the work we’d done and are still doing.” While the Post’s oral history at the website Medium referred to Fatal Encounters only collecting information on five data points, we collected data on 17, and tracked deaths not only by gunshot, but by Tasers, vehicles and asphyxiation.
I was content with my knowledge that Fatal Encounters was the first national open-data, crowd-sourced and journalist-vetted database, and that its data was making an impact. We’re now at 25 complete states, complete national data for three years, more than 12,670 records, and we’re growing at the rate of 200 records a week. We’re 10 times larger and far more detailed than the Post on each record.
Then Wesley Lowery appeared on the PBS News Hour with Judy Woodruff on April 19. PBS’s description of his appearance read: “No one kept track of police shootings until this Pulitzer-winning project.”
Perhaps Lowery meant to say that no government body kept accurate track, but he went on to describe the origin of the project: “Smart editors asked an obvious question, which is true, ’We should be able to provide some clarity to this debate, and it turned out that we could because no one was keeping track at the national level or even at the state levels. No one knew exactly how many people were being killed by police’” and “the sheer number did surprise us, right, the fact that it was almost a thousand over the course of the year and that very many of them—even in cases someone was armed or unarmed—you had issues of mental illness you had people how had knives instead of guns, cases where it seemed that perhaps something could have been done to prevent this person from being killed” and “previously, this wasn’t out there.”
Unless he was referring to me or one of my colleagues at the RN&R as the smart editor, Lowery and the Post described something as unprecedented that wasn’t.
PBS also tweeted a link to the segment using similar language, and a minor fracas erupted between Lowery and Veronika Cernadas, who is, according to her Twitter bio, the Media Relations Manager for the Guardian:
In fairness to Lowery, he is not responsible for how PBS described the segment on the air, on YouTube, on Twitter, or anywhere else, and he tweeted his own response to PBS: “Our efforts built on great work by others, and complimented [sic] by other excellent projects on police violence last year.”
The thing is, the Pulitzer citation specifically said they were awarding the Post for creating an unprecedented database: “For its revelatory initiative in creating and using a national database to illustrate how often and why the police shoot to kill and who the victims are most likely to be.” But it was not the Washington Post’s “Fatal Force” project that proved that the federal government had been misrepresenting the number of people who were killed by law enforcement for decades. It was Fatal Encounters and Killed By Police that took the initiative and proved that instead of 400 people a year, it was closer to 1,200.
This Pulitzer Prize heralds the arrival of the era of data journalism in earnest, and the reception of the Post’s project will set the tone for data-driven investigations for years to come. It shouldn’t matter who collected data on police killings first, but it does. Claiming to be first when it was not, claiming not to know that other databases existed for years, and claiming to be comprehensive when it was not is—quite frankly—beneath the Washington Post.
Newspapers and organizations like Fatal Encounters that have far fewer resources than the Washington Post collect data and publicize it at great cost. Independent media and independent data collection and publication are part of the future of data journalism, and allowing legacy media to take credit for our achievements undermines our ability to sustain our own efforts, which depend on charitable dollars and public support.
The Post did something we didn’t: its analysis and packaging of police-killing data were original, and outstripped what Fatal Encounters could ever have done given the resources available to us. But the idea of keeping track wasn’t new, and the Post newsroom was not the only one to undertake the work of assembling a massive data set that has already begun to change policing in this country for the better. We may have been the scrappiest database of deadly police violence the Washington Post had ever heard of, but we existed before the Post’s did, and they had heard of us. They just told the Pulitzer Board that they hadn’t.