On May 31, Netflix will release Ava DuVernay’s four-episode documentary, “When They See Us.” The documentary focuses on the Central Park Five, a group of Black and Latino teen boys accused, tried and convicted of raping and attempting to murder a 28-year-old white woman who was jogging in Central Park in 1989.
These boys spent a number of years in prison for these crimes.
The thing is they didn’t do it.
I was a teen in 1989. I remember this. When I first heard DuVernay was co-writing and directing this documentary, I knew I had to watch as there’s so much to unpack, think about and discuss. After seeing the trailer a few weeks ago, I began to wonder if I could stomach this documentary. It was that heartbreaking. I will watch because I have to, but I’m pretty sure I’ll cry, become angry and then happy that the young men were released. The anger, though, will always be there because these men lost years of their lives, and who knows the treatment they endured in prison.
While I know I could spend the majority of this column critiquing the role law enforcement and the judicial system played in this situation, my attention is focused on the media. As a journalist, I have to say that I’m disgusted by the way reporters and editors vilified these boys. Reporters ran with the police narrative even when it didn’t make sense. Editors wrote sensational headlines to sell newspapers. No one stopped to think about how these boys and their families were being affected by the words in the newspaper. No one stopped to ask basic questions that would’ve started poking holes in the police’s version of events. No one stopped at all. They just ran and ran some more, painting the most vivid picture of how violent these boys were. The boys were called “wolf pack” and “monsters,” and I’m sure everything under the sun except a child of God.
The media failed those boys, and too few reporters from that time want to own it. Instead of doing their jobs as reporters — asking questions and investigating — they took the word of the police as gospel. A part of me gets it. As a reporter on the police beat, the police are your source. You build relationships over time and view them as “friends” and “colleagues.” While I’ve never been a cops reporter, I did go to the police records office quite regularly and became acquainted with the women who worked there as well as the police officer. We talked about the weather, told jokes, etc. I saw these people as human because we had a connection. That connection is something police reporters don’t have to the suspect. The suspect is words on a piece of paper and whatever funny or interesting story the cop shares with you. Words don’t feel so they can’t hurt. However, those words do hurt people. From my experience, cops reporters go into every situation asking the police what happened, taking their word for it and never getting the suspect’s side. Most suspects don’t want to speak to a reporter or are unavailable for a variety of reasons (jail, on the run, hospitalized, etc.). I’ve heard people often accuse the newspaper of getting the story wrong since it was based solely on the police officer’s report.
This is one of those instances. Police officers in this situation twisted the facts to fit their narrative, and the journalists didn’t call them on it. They should’ve. But this is nothing new. We see this time and again when someone Black is accused of a crime. Articles are written to highlight any criminal behavior from the past (even if the person is a victim), tropes about poverty, single mothers and uninvolved dads are trotted out, mug shots and any negative details are used to further illustrate the narrative.
Although this happened in 1989, nothing has changed when it comes to reporting about crime when Blacks are involved. We are guilty until proven innocent — and even then there’s doubt. It’s why Black people generally distrust “the media” and likely always will until my colleagues with less melanin begin to actually treat Black people as people and not just words on paper.