Going behind the scenes with The New York Times project on the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks

Your Tuesday Poynter Report

June 16, 2020
Category: Newsletters

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Last Friday night around 10:30 p.m., Atlanta police were called to the drive-thru of a Wendy’s where a man had fallen asleep in the driver’s seat of a car. Within minutes, that driver — a 27-year-old Black man named Rayshard Brooks — was shot and killed by a police officer.

The police officer, Garrett Rolfe, has since been fired. The Wendy’s where the incident took place has been burned to the ground.

What happened, exactly? The story can be described by words: Brooks was given a field sobriety test, which police said he failed. When they attempted to arrest him, there was a struggle, Brooks was shot twice in the back and, according to the Fulton County medical examiner’s office, died from organ damage and blood loss.

But the story is best told by video. What happened was captured in a remarkable visual piece compiled and published online Sunday by The New York Times: “How Rayshard Brooks Was Fatally Shot by the Atlanta Police.” Using eyewitness videos, police body cams and security cameras, the Times synchronized footage to tell the story of how Brooks was shot and killed. The package was posted on the Times website less than 36 hours after the incident.

On Monday, I reached out to Malachy Browne, the senior story producer on the Times’ Visual Investigations team, to find out how this project was put together and why visual journalism is so critical. Here is our email exchange.

Tom Jones: How soon after Rayshard Brooks’ death did the Times team begin working on this story?

Malachy Browne: Journalists on The Times’s National desk were reporting on it early Saturday afternoon, the day after it happened. The Visual Investigations team began working on a reconstruction within 30 minutes after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation released time-stamped security camera footage of the shooting filmed at Wendy’s. The footage was released at 5:19 p.m. on Saturday.

Jones: How long did it take to put together the story for publication?

Browne: The first version of the story took Christina Kelso and I around 12 hours to report and produce with assistance from Muyi Xiao. Christina was also balancing other responsibilities in producing short videos of protests around the country Saturday evening, including in Atlanta in response to Mr. Brooks’s killing.

The story was edited in London Sunday morning and ready to publish around 5 a.m., when Christina and I finished up for a few hours before going back to it to help with publishing. We waited for Philip Pan, the Weekend Editor at The Times, and Marc Lacey, our National editor to review it early Sunday in New York. It was published at 9:45 a.m.

Just as we were publishing, (Times reporter) Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs sent us bodycam and dashcam videos of the two police officers who were involved. We added a note at the top of the story that we were assessing these. These gave us a picture of what happened in the 26 minutes that the two officers spent with Mr. Brooks before he was shot.

We annotated those videos, which had timestamps, synchronized them with the witness footage and security footage from Wendy’s, and this gave us greater accuracy in the chronology of what happened. It also showed how calmly Mr. Brooks and the officers spoke during that period, and the escalation that led to him being shot in around one minute. My colleague on visual investigations, Barbara Marcolini, joined Christina and I to produce the second version of the story which published at 4:30 p.m.

Jones: Perhaps local news outlets can do this kind of journalism. Can you describe how a story such as this is put together?

Browne: Collect and analyze. And at the end of your prospecting ask yourself: Do you have visual evidence that clears away the fog of a chaotic or complex event, builds on our understanding of an event or reveals something new and important?

Look at all the clues in the visual evidence: slow it down, zoom in, change the contrast, color correct to uncover new details. Synchronize it and layer other evidence to give a fuller context — 911 calls, footage showing another angle, what witnesses said in tweets or Instagram posts.

Pick up the phone and talk to victims, families, witnesses and subject matter experts. Seek official documents, work sources. Go to the scene if you can. Lay out your reporting in time and space, answer the fundamental journalistic questions, and hone in on the salient details for your storytelling.

We usually produce linear videos with detailed animation (all our video investigations are available here and are outside of The Times’ paywall). For expediency and given the visual material we had, we chose to produce an interactive with annotated video clips for this story. This also allowed Christina and I to work in parallel — as she edited the videos, I reported and wrote. The compromise with that format is not hearing the audio — browsers don’t allow audio in autoplay. This is partly why we linked out to videos and published some on Twitter.

Jones: Why is it important to tell stories like this visually?

Browne: Because they’re explanatory in nature, rooted in evidence-based analysis, and can reveal new details that get to the truth of what happened, which is important for accountability.

Reconstructing the killing of Ahmaud Arbery using 911 calls, video and police reports revealed that he had been chased by three men in two vehicles for close to four minutes before he was shot (video here).

Synchronizing the video evidence of David McAtee’s fatal shooting in Louisville (video here) showed how he was shot within two minutes of law enforcement arriving in the area, and how police failed to follow their own department’s guidelines.

Analyzing the gruesome videos of George Floyd’s death with subject matter experts (video here) drew attention to the actions of the three officers working alongside Derek Chauvin, who were subsequently arrested for abetting him in second-degree murder.

More Times investigations

If you’re especially interested in the Times’ video investigations, be sure to check out some of their behind-the-scenes looks at how they’re done, including “How Times Reporters Froze a Fatal Moment on a Protest Field in Gaza,”How Times Reporters Proved Russia Bombed Syrian Hospitals,” and a project on the Las Vegas mass shooting: “Reporting on Las Vegas, Pixel by Pixel.”

And now onto the rest of today’s newsletter …

No more mugshots

The Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times is the latest newspaper to eliminate the gallery of arrest mugshots from their website. In a statement, Times executive editor Mark Katches said, “The galleries lack context and further negative stereotypes. We think the data is an important resource that our newsroom will continue to analyze and watch carefully, but the galleries alone serve little journalistic purpose.”

Katches said the decision to discontinue the mugshot gallery doesn’t diminish the Times’ commitment to covering significant crime news and publishing mugshots with stories newsworthy enough to make the paper or website.

Several media outlets have dropped mugshot galleries in recent weeks. The Marshall Project’s Keri Blakinger wrote about the issue for Poynter in February, and last week, Poynter’s Kristen Hare reported on how former GateHouse papers that are now part of the Gannett chain had dropped mugshot galleries. In addition, the South Florida Sun Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel also have stopped.

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Troubled Times

(AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

There is an “internal uprising” going on at the Los Angeles Times. That’s the phrase used by some Times’ journalists, according to a report from NPR’s David Folkenflik.

Folkenflik writes that Times executive editor Norman Pearlstine is “scrambling to placate journalists of color after years of often-unfulfilled promises by the paper to make grand progress in the diversity of the newsroom’s ranks.”

Pearlstine told Folkenflik, “I would say in the case of Black journalists, that we do not have enough journalists in positions where they are able to help us tell stories that really need to be told. I’ve asked myself in hindsight what got us to where we are now.”

Times staffers have voiced concerns over diversity at the paper, as well as protest coverage, which some say concentrated too much on looting. Last week, Pearlstine promised to hire a senior news executive for diversity and that the next hires for the metro section will be journalists of color.

Meanwhile, later this week, I’m told, there will be a social media push in which Black Los Angeles Times alumni will talk about the racism they faced in the newsroom. Look for #BlackatLAT on Wednesday.

Leaving in protest

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

This should come as no surprise: Amanda Bennett and Sandra Sugawara — the two veteran journalists who had been in charge of Voice of America — resigned Monday in the wake of a conservative filmmaker taking over leadership of the agency that oversees VOA.

After President Donald Trump pressured the Senate, Michael Pack was confirmed earlier this month as chief executive of the U.S. Agency for Global Media. Pack is tight with Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign strategist.

For those not familiar with VOA and its mission, The New York Times’ Edward Wong writes, “Voice of America is the largest American international media broadcast organization and receives funding from the U.S. government, but it is supposed to remain editorially independent of any federal agency.”

Trump, however, has been critical of VOA and, based on his complaints, seems to think it should be more like state-run media.

Bennett, who was director of VOA, wrote to staff in a farewell email, “Michael Pack swore before Congress to respect and honor the firewall that guarantees VOA’s independence, which in turn plays the single most important role in the stunning trust our audiences around the world have in us. We know that each one of you will offer him all of your skills, your professionalism, your dedication to mission, your journalistic integrity and your personal hard work to guarantee that promise is fulfilled.”

Questions for Quibi

Quibi is off to an ominous start. The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Mullin wrote the new video streaming service is struggling with infighting between founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and CEO Meg Whitman and, worse yet, the service isn’t even close to reaching its first-year subscriber goal. (The WSJ piece is behind a paywall.)

Mullin wrote, “At its current pace, Quibi will sign up fewer than two million paying subscribers by the end of the app’s first year, a person familiar with its operations said, well under its original target of 7.4 million. Quibi’s app download numbers have been falling in recent weeks, according to analytics firm Sensor Tower. Daily downloads peaked at 379,000 on its April 6 launch day but didn’t exceed 20,000 on any day in the first week of June, according to Sensor Tower.”

Katzenberg has blamed the slow start on the coronavirus, and Mullin writes, “The company said the decreasing downloads were caused in part by its decision to reduce its marketing in light of protests sweeping across the U.S. following the killing of George Floyd.”

A landing spot for Jason Whitlock

Sports commentator Jason Whitlock has found a new home after he and Fox Sports 1 failed to come to terms on a new contract. Whitlock will join Clay Travis’ “Outkick the Coverage” website as a writer and podcaster.

In a debut column, Whitlock wrote, “It’s hard to be me at a modern mainstream media company. The things that define me are under attack. Social media has prioritized race, gender, sexuality and political ideology well ahead of God and country. The mainstream media’s addiction to social-media traction does not comfortably accommodate someone with my beliefs speaking my truth. Social media defines my values as outdated, no longer healthy or useful. Major corporations, the lifeblood of the mainstream media, operate in fear of algorithms that act as social-media lynch mobs. The punishment for failing to stick to the secular values promoted through social media is career execution by lethal algorithm.”

I’m not a big fan of Travis, not because of his views, but because of the trolling manner in which he delivers his against-the-grain takes. So, in that sense, he and Whitlock should work well together. If you care, here’s Travis’ take on Whitlock joining “Outkick the Coverage.”

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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