Dr. Yusef Salaam knows firsthand how dangerous irresponsible news coverage can be. He served more than six years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Salaam is one of the Central Park Five, now also known as the Exonerated Five. The 1989 Central Park jogger case shocked Americans when a vicious attack by a serial killer left a New York woman comatose for 12 days.

On the precipice of a record year of homicides, New York Police used the jogger case to reaffirm the public’s confidence in law enforcement – and journalists helped.

Negligent police work, coerced false confessions and the demonization of five Black and Latino teenaged boys tarnished the investigation from the get-go.

The high-profile case made prime real estate for the front page of newspapers. The New York Daily News’s cover labelled the teens a “wolf pack” and “roving gang,” while calling the jogger their “prey.”

A contemporary study of news coverage of the case found that of 406 news items in the two weeks after the attack, journalists used “emotional negative language” 390 times, including 185 terms referring to the children as animals.

Five days after the attack, the New York Post ran this frontpage headline: None of Us is Safe.

Dr. Yusef Salaam, one of the Exonerated Five, compares Trump’s 1989 death penalty advertisement to his recent “stand back and stand by” comment towards white supremacist groups at a Presidential debate. (Photo courtesy Dr. Yusef Salaam)

Pete Hamill of the Post described the boys as “from a world of crack, welfare, guns, knives, indifference and ignorance… a land with no fathers.” The New York Times published Salaam’s name, address and high school after his arrest, even though he was a minor.

The Post went on to run an editorial titled Channel Your Outrage: Demand the Death Penalty. (Two weeks later, a full-page advertisement appeared in four New York newspapers – the Times, Post, Daily News and Newsday – calling for the return of the death penalty. The ad was paid for by Donald Trump.)

Bombarded by headlines assuming his guilt, Salaam’s mother described the truth as a “whisper” lost in the swirl of false narratives.

At 15 Salaam, despite never having made a confession, began a seven-year prison sentence. He turned 21 in 1995 and was transferred to a maximum-security prison for adults. When he looked down at his prison number – 95A-1113 – he saw it as rich with information, a story of its own.

The number 95 signified the year. “A” was for the first half of the year, when the transfer occurred. Salaam understood the last four digits to mean he was the 1,113th person to enter that prison’s doors so far that year. His birthday is February 27.

In that moment, Salaam experienced what he calls an “awakening” to the American nightmare.

Feeling defeated after losing an appeal in 1991, Salaam met with civil rights lawyer William Kunstler, who said something Salaam would replay in his head over and over during his years behind bars.

“He said to me, ‘This is a predominantly Christian country. This case is such a case that Jesus Christ Himself couldn’t win.’”

Accountability, not collaboration

Desmond Cole — a journalist and activist and the author of The Skin We’re In: A Year in Black Resistance and Power — resigned from the Toronto Star in 2017 after his boss issued Cole an ultimatum: journalism or advocacy.

A month before his resignation, Cole attended a Toronto Police Services Board meeting as a member of the public. The meeting centered on preserving data from “carding,” the practice of stopping, questioning, and documenting individuals without cause for investigation. There, Cole protested against the decision to destroy this data. He believed it may support evidence of racial profiling in Ontario policing.

“Police are supposed to be keeping people safe,” Cole says. “But when they don’t do it, they’re still the authority on their own violence.”

Cole believes the relationship between media and law enforcement is symbiotic. He says law enforcement often use journalism as a propaganda machine.

“You can criticize and scrutinize your own industry to make it better,” Cole says. “God didn’t drop the media down from the sky, and select people who are upstanding and have no agenda.”

An ongoing investigation by the Washington Post reveals that 5,879 people have been shot and killed by police in the United States since 2015. Of these, 949 have taken place in 2020, as of Dec. 15.

A closer look at the Post’s database reveals more than 95 per cent of the victims are men, and half between the ages of 20 and 40. The number of Black Americans killed by police is twice as high as the rate for white Americans, despite making up less than 13 per cent of the population.

Covering crime merely as event after event means missing the bigger picture of who is being disproportionately harmed by law enforcement.

Vicky Mochama, a freelance journalist and former national columnist for the now defunct Star Metro, believes that journalists and police are both fundamentally “creatures of emergency.”

“The police are responding to a crisis,” Mochama says. “So are journalists. We’re looking for someone who can explain to us that crisis in a way that we can explain back to our audience.”

She says journalists would benefit from reframing crime coverage to justice coverage. “If you’re a journalist and you spend far more time talking to people in power than you do talking to people who don’t have as much power, then I think you’re fundamentally failing in your job,” Mochama says. “You’re getting a picture, and it’s a picture of power. It’s not necessarily how power is functioning.”

While journalists use language to protect the innocent until proven guilty, “known to police” is a common term that perpetuates harm in our reporting, Mochama says. Labelling individuals as “known to police” dehumanizes by associating them with past criminal behaviour, regardless of guilt or context.

Sarah E. Gaither, an associate professor of social psychology and neuroscience at Duke University in North Carolina, believes journalists often fuel divisions between police.

“If the media practiced true neutrality in reporting it could perhaps improve trust between community members and police,” Gaither says. This could also lead “to more fair trials, since media exposure has been associated with swaying jury members as well.”

Terms like “police-involved shootings” and “dynamic entry,” Cole warns, further the mission of white supremacy. The ambiguity of language surrounding crime reporting reinforces false narratives about police protecting the public, despite being an authority on their own violence.

He says there’s no such thing as a “civilian-involved shooting,” so journalists shouldn’t use a term that shields police from accountability.

He also explains that “dynamic entry” is just a sophisticated way of describing the use of military-style tactics to break into someone’s home.

Cole believes reporters legitimize police because we don’t feel comfortable questioning them.

“It would be unusual, absurd, and far-fetched for a police officer to ever commit a crime,” Cole says. “And we’ll report it that way.”

Black Torontonians are disproportionately affected by police violence and brutality.


Getting a story wrong

Released on parole in 1996, Salaam continued being falsely labeled a sex offender until the five were fully exonerated in 2002. A documentary, the Central Park Five, followed a decade later, providing the first comprehensive telling of the case from the perspectives of the five men.

In 2014, Salaam was awarded an honorary doctorate from Carlow University in Pittsburgh. In 2016, he accepted the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award from President Obama. Now a poet and inspirational speaker, he continues to advocate for criminal justice reform.

His family has grown to ten children between the ages of four and twenty-four. He also co-wrote a novel with best-selling author Ibi Zoboi, Punching the Air, about a teenager falsely convicted of murder, published by Harpercollins in September 2020. The novel made it to the best-seller list of the New York Times, the same publication that published Salaam’s home address 30 years before.

Salaam believes chipping away at institutional protectionism – the idealized depiction of police and law enforcement – is key to evolving coverage. He says that policing often comes with a “mob mentality,” making individuals less likely to respond appropriately in moments of crisis.

“The beautiful thing about having control over yourself, even as part of a whole,” he says, is that “it gives you the opportunity to make the right decision in those most critical moments.”

Emmett Till, who would be nearly the same age as President-Elect Joe Biden if he were alive today, was lynched at age 14 for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955. Despite the woman recanting her claim, the damage was done.

Newspapers in Mississippi vilified Till, swaying public opinion. Ultimately, the men accused of his murder were acquitted.

Salaam says, “He should have been afforded the opportunity to experience the fullness of life, the fullness of freedom, justice and equality, the proverbial for the idea for the American dream.”

He believes Till is an example of the collateral damage that can happen when journalists get a story wrong.

“To get it wrong could mean the loss of someone’s life.”

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About the author

Stephen Wentzell

Stephen Wentzell is an ambitious and resilient investigative writer from Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has been a journalist for a third of his life....

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