‘Stopped: Profiling The Police’ Post-Grant Report

Executive Summary

Briefly describe the highlights of your project (2-4 sentences).

As required by law, the Missouri Attorney General’s office each year releases racial profiling data submitted by about 600 law enforcement agencies across the state. This has been going on for two decades, and the data is easily available on the Web. In our four-part multimedia series, which was capped by a 30-minute televised town hall discussion, Flatland took data hidden in plain site and showed that Black drivers are routinely stopped more than drivers of other races — and that two decades worth of evidence was not enough to change behavior or drive lasting reform.

Project Update

Key players: Who are/were the main participants in this project?

Chris Lester, managing editor, Flatland
Nick Haines, executive producer/public affairs, Kansas City PBS
Catherine Hoffman, staff writer, Flatland
Vicky Diaz-Camacho, staff writer, Flatland
Cody Boston, video producer, Flatland
Mary Sanchez, contributor, Flatland
Mike Sherry, contributor, Flatland

Process: What was your approach, and was it different from how you normally orchestrate a story/series? If so, how?

At Flatland, we are a boutique newsroom that prides itself on telling untold stories and giving voice to unheard voices. In this case, we mined a data set hidden in plain sight that has been given short shrift by other journalism organizations in the state. The timing for such an effort also seemed doubly appropriate in the context of recent social justice protests following the killing of George Floyd.
The solutions journalism approach really focused our attention on not just on leveraging the data to highlight a persistent problem of racial profiling or the lack of change the data had prompted through the years. We permeated solutions throughout our coverage, including devoting the last installment of the series entirely to ways to improve the situation. This commitment to highlighting concrete reforms led us to sources diverse in both race and perspectives. The drive for the best solutions took us to national sources, such as the Center for Policing Equity and the U.S. Commision on Civil Rights. In looking at solutions, we also scrutinized the problem from several angles, including the unique challenges presented when police officers encounter drivers with autism or other invisible disabilities that could exhibit behavior perceived as threatening.

Defining success: Do you consider your project with SJN successful? Why or why not? What metrics are you using to define “success”?

We absolutely believe this SJN project was successful. The assistance from SJN helped us assemble a highly diverse team of reporters and video producers. Including Flatland staffers and contributors, minority women made up half of our six-person reporting team. With the help of a contract producer, each one of our four stories included an impactful video that amplified our message. The diversity and talent of this team, and the content it produced, is how we are defining success. Kansas City PBS also specializes in pulling together diverse panelists for town halls, and we did that once again for a half-hour special that aired on TV. One of biggest indicators of our success came from the reaction of an expert named Don Lemon, a Missouri man who has dedicated years analyzing the vehicle-stop-report data put out by the state. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen any better reporting on the VSR,” he told us in an email.
We also shared our stories with The Call, an independent newspaper that serves the local Black community. The website of LINC, the Local Investment Commission, a nonprofit agency that serves children and families, also shared links to our coverage.

Factors for success: What factors contributed to your success?

This mix of talent and experience allowed us to publish four solidly produced packages. We had veteran journalists paired with talented early career multimedia reporters. Through weekly editorial meetings, this diverse team shared ideas and reporting approaches. Particularly beneficial were the viewpoints, ideas, and sources suggested by the minority women who were part of the team. They brought a perspective that took this series to the next level.

Challenges & Responses: Have you encountered any stumbling blocks? If yes, what were they and what actions did you take in response? Were the responses successful? (32,000 characters max)

Wrangling all the data was probably the biggest stumbling block. Assembling and analyzing 20 years worth of data in Excel was a painstaking process at times. Unlike many instances, the state was helpful in providing data in an electronic format. Still, some of the best summary data was included in tables published on the Attorney General’s website. So, some of that information had to be merged with the figures already in the Excel spreadsheets. And then, in some cases, Flatland had to devise its own methodology for determining outlier departments in some categories. The only way to overcome this was to allot the time necessary to do the work and the calculations, which we did. It was successful in the end because we presented striking statistics and graphics based on these figures.
Another challenge was getting some police agencies to talk with us, even though we explained this was not a “gotcha” piece. We wanted to hear from some of the agencies that looked bad on paper, but they would not comment. However, one of our reporters doggedly pursued comment from one of the police agencies, and their responses were extremely helpful in explaining problems with the data.
Finally, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic presented unique challenges in terms of reportorial and production access to sources and, at times, colleagues. Zoom calls don’t adequately replace the spontaneous collaboration that takes place in a normal newsroom environment.

Insights: Share any other takeaways. What did you learn about reporting and/or engagement from this process? Any tips for other news organizations looking to do better journalism and build trust with their communities?

Our insights revolve around doing stories around racial profiling data. Uncertainty is the biggest challenge here that other newsrooms must be prepared to deal with. There are just so many caveats to how the data is collected and analyzed that it is virtually impossible to definitively finger a “good” agency vs. a “bad” agency. There are so many factors that go into a traffic stop that sheer facts and figures cannot take into account. As far as the reporting process, our approach of trying to solve a problem, rather than pointing fingers, built a level of trust with some police agencies in talking with us. That was particularly true of the Kansas City Police Department. In detailing the ways that KCPD is looking at its own traffic stop data, and providing guidance to officers based on that data and good-policing practices, we believe that Kansas City PBS helped build a little more community trust in the department.
In many ways, we see this effort as a step toward creating a template for future projects on important issues in our community. The keys to success are selecting the right topic, assembling a diverse team of reporters and producers, meeting consistently as a group, presenting the content across multiple media platforms and sharing our content with other media organizations and community groups.

Activities and Impact

Please note that this is a requirement of the final grant report. Tell us, what has happened since you or your news organization started doing more solutions-oriented coverage? We want to know how your audience has responded, if laws and policies have changed, if you won awards… but we also want to know if your reporting habits have changed, or if practices have changed within the newsroom to accommodate more solutions reporting.

You can submit as many impact anecdotes as you want here. Questions? Please reach out to Elizabeth Tompkins, elizabeth@solutionsjournalism.org

What happened? (headline)
Changing culture

Tell us more!
Our introduction to solutions journalism, and the beginning of our culture shift, actually started three years ago with an investigation of how Kansas tax exemptions for wind farms was diverting millions of dollars away from rural school districts. This was a partnership with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. We have carried lessons learned from that project into our work ever since.

Dec. 4, 2017

Giving Away the Wind Farm (flatlandkc.org)

What happened? (headline)
Keeping the ball rolling

Tell us more!
As we continued to look for ways to highlight problems – and solutions – to community problems, we undertook an in-depth examination of the eviction crisis in Kansas City. This half-hour documentary, which won a regional Emmy, spotlighted the mostly hidden problem of evictions long before the issue burst on to the scene in 2020 amidst the COVID pandemic.

May 7, 2018

Public Works? | Evicted | Season 2 | Episode 3 | Kansas City PBS

What happened? (headline)
Opportunity Zones

Tell us more!
Our dedication to explanatory/solutions journalism carried over into a multipart, multimedia package we did on opportunity zones in the spring of 2020. In this four-part series, which was followed by a televised town hall, we dissected a complicated economic development tool that had yet to bring the promise of rebirth to low-income communities.

May 6, 2020


What happened? (headline)

Tell us more!

Not long after our Stopped series, Flatland returned to the eviction crisis and explanatory journalism to explore solutions to the looming problem facing communities when a federal moratorium on evictions expired at the end of December 2020. This is ongoing coverage, which will include two more packages by the end of January 2021.

Dec. 18, 2020

Surviving Today: Landlords and Tenants Square Off as Eviction Moratorium Expires (flatlandkc.org)

What happened? (headline)
Viewer comment

Tell us more!

Thank you for your show last night on police traffic stops of black drivers.

The depth and meaningful insights gleaned from the data was both astonishing and further evidence of policing as an antiquated and racist system. It is such a pivotal moment in our country and I think you all’s work is as timely as ever.

I will be sure to let my friends and family know to tune into the program when it repeats over the weekend.

Nov. 12, 2020