Cleveland’s Testify Project Aims to Rethink News Coverage of Criminal Justice

From a story on by Lauren Harris headlined “Inside The Marshall Project’s local reporting collaboration in Cleveland”:

EVEN AS THE FINANCIAL MODELS OF TRADITIONAL FOR-PROFIT JOURNALISM have been crumbling at the local level, groups across the US—and the world—have been working to reimagine what local news can look like: how it’s conceived, constructed, distributed, and even defined. In many cases, localized outlets and projects have gained support from national foundations; in others, they’re supported by national institutions. Such is the case with Cleveland’s Testify project, supported by national nonprofit The Marshall Project, a news organization dedicated to reimagining coverage of criminal justice.

The Testify project’s primary goal is to use journalistic resources to probe public data about Cuyahoga County courts. “Using tens of thousands of court records, The Marshall Project is exploring the lopsided outcomes in Cuyahoga County’s court system—including why 75% of incarcerated people convicted in Cuyahoga County are Black,” the landing page says. The Marshall Project collaborated with Cleveland’s crowdsourced reporting initiative the Documenters and WOVU radio, with support from local Cleveland residents—including those most closely connected to the courts system—and a host of distribution partners in local Cleveland media.

The project hopes to approach the relationship between local information and national news in a fresh way. “If you look at the prison system, if you look at policing, if you look at courts, if you look at elected officials, DAs and mayors who appoint police commissioners, all of this apparatus is actually guided by state or municipal laws and state or municipal officials,” Susan Chira, editor in chief of The Marshall Project, said. “If you’re going to do accountability journalism, you need to understand and be responsive to what goes on in a locality, which differs tremendously by geography.” To that end, The Marshall Project is partnering with reporters and community stakeholders who have been doing important and innovative work in Cleveland for years. While considering the project, Chira reached out to Pulitzer Prize winner Wesley Lowery, who grew up in Cleveland and has written extensively about criminal justice. She brought Lowery on as a contributing editor, and the two sat down to discuss “what a responsible local news outlet would be like,” Chira says.

Rachel Dissell, another contributor to the Testify project, was a crime reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer for nearly two decades; more recently, she helped launch the Cleveland Documenters to train local residents in the work of newsgathering. Her years of experience in the world of traditional local news has offered her insights into both the production and consumption of information at the local level. “The way that we reduce crime stories to what happened to someone in one moment, without going back to understand those stories and how they interact with larger systems, is something that always bothered me,” Dissell said. But even deep reporting on social and political systems can be slow to permeate public consciousness.

Years ago, Dissell told me, the Plain Dealer published a series on lead poisoning. Even with hefty journalistic investment and frequent publication, it took the “average person in Cleveland” nearly a year “to catch up with some of the basic facts” that the paper was reporting. “It took a lot of repetition, a lot of persistence, a lot of going out in the community and talking about it,” Dissell said. “The journalism framework we have now isn’t really made for that. It’s made for putting a bunch of money into doing one thing, doing it really well, putting it out there, and then expecting everybody else to share it and make it accessible. And it doesn’t happen, you know?”

The Testify team has worked to ensure that their data is available to the people for whom it matters most: those intimately connected to Cleveland courts. “If it is not accessible to residents who are involved in the court system, or who have family members involved, or who have the opportunity to vote in races [for judicial candidates], it’s nice, but it’s performative in a way,” Dissell said. Before even digging into the data, the Cleveland Documenters interviewed more than forty Cleveland residents to learn how much they know about judicial candidates and what they wished to find out (audio recordings of some of these interviews are available on the site’s landing page).

The Testify project has also attempted to reimagine distribution to meet audiences where they are: partnering with local newsrooms, from newspapers to local Black-owned radio stations; creating a dynamic project website; and putting together one-page flyers that can be distributed locally. To explain a complicated dataset in just a few panels “was harder than doing the 2,500-word piece,” Dissell said. The entire project, Chira added, “took a year longer than anyone thought it would.” It’s The Marshall Project’s unique model, she said, that allows it the elasticity to tackle projects like these.

The Testify project is just the beginning of The Marshall Project’s hopes for local expansion. (They’re slated to open a localized criminal justice newsroom in Cleveland first, then four more to-be-determined locations over the next several years.) But beyond the aspirations of a single news organization, the Testify project highlights the unique benefits and challenges of reimagining localized coverage and its relationship to national news. As Dissell said, people have asked her for years when she is planning to “move on” from local journalism. To her, it’s a foolish question. “It’s the reporting that is done on the ground, when you stick around after that initial story is written, and you keep writing stories, and you keep writing stories, that actually leads to more significant and lasting change.” The question now is how more newsrooms can build the capacity to do it.

Speak Your Mind