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The Marshall Project takes its local journalism efforts to a new level

December 13, 2021

Setting aside any personal opinions on the case, many observants of the Kyle Rittenhouse trial found the behavior and approach of Judge Bruce Schroeder to be jarring. From the struggles with “pinch to zoom” to racially-tinged comments on the lunch order to asking the courtroom to applaud a defense witness before taking the stand, there were a lot of people asking, “This guy has to be a particularly bad judge right? No way this is normal.”

And a lot people who witness the inner-workings of the criminal justice system first-hand responded “Wellllllllllllllll, about that.”

This is kind of how it all works. And most people don’t know that.

That’s why it’s encouraging to see stories on a new initiative from The Marshall Project. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism nonprofit is taking a step it never has before—setting up a local newsroom, this one in Cleveland. They’re in the process of hiring an editor-in-chief, three reporters and an outreach manager.

More details, from a piece in Crain’s Cleveland Business.

[Marshall Project President Carroll Bogert] in a phone interview on Wednesday said Cleveland is “the first of what we hope will be several” local newsrooms nationwide. She said the Marshall Project, with the help of the American Journalism Project, conducted a feasibility study last year to identify markets that would be good fits for a local newsroom. Three criteria were critical, Bogert said: putting the newsroom in a city with “a very stressed media ecosystem,” though not one that’s a “news desert,” given the Marshall Project’s emphasis on co-publishing its work with existing media outlets; identifying a city facing serious criminal justice issues; and finding a place with sufficient financial support from philanthropic organizations.

“We take very seriously the problems but also the possibilities of local news,” Bogert said.

It’s those problems with local journalism that have led to the public’s blindspot on the criminal justice system. The biggest, right now, is of course a lack of resources and a strained revenue model.

From a journalistic ethics perspective, it is unwise—if not worse—to repeat a police statement or report as factual and verified news. But it’s also a lot easier and a lot less time intensive, and when you’re the only reporter on the “cops and courts” beat, you may not even have the option to do otherwise given your workload.

But it’s this type of news and this type of journalism that impacts our lives and our communities as much as any other. It’s often the most vulnerable members of our society who interact with the criminal justice system the the most. And at a municipal level, taxpayers spend more on this system than they do anything else.

So, credit to the Marshall Project for investing resources here. It is sorely needed.

Journalists as a whole, with subjects like this, need to produce stories that lead readers to ask questions like “Is this what we really want?” and “Is this working? Is this producing the results we desire?”

Because right now, with clicks and short-term revenue driving the local product, it’d be a lot more fruitful than producing stories whose primary result is making readers afraid.

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