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Since starting at Free Press in 2022, Cassie Owens has steeped herself in the work of transforming media coverage of trauma, safety, crime and criminal justice in her native Philadelphia.

As the News Voices: Philadelphia program manager, Cassie has helped lead efforts to dismantle structural racism at local news outlets and imagine a new kind of reporting, one that centers community members’ voices and information needs.

I caught up with Cassie to reflect on her powerful and all-too-necessary work.

The Inquirer, crime briefs and harm

I know you worked as a journalist at The Philadelphia Inquirer prior to joining Free Press. I’d love to hear a bit about that experience and your perception at that time of the paper’s crime coverage.

I joined the Inquirer in late 2017. My hiring was part of a newsroom restructure to make the paper more modern, more digital-first, and a paper and a website that more women and more people of color and more millennials would want to read. Those were all areas where the Inquirer was struggling at the time. A lot of the readership skewed white, male and older. They created a team called the Modern Life team, and they hired three reporters for the team. …

It was this very experimental thing where we took on a bunch of different stories that had to do with culture, with social dynamics with young people, with things that were coming up at the time with millennials. Because of reporting gaps, I took on more stories that had to do with Black communities that were being underserved and another reporter took on more stories that had to do with gender, and sometimes we’d overlap and support each other.

My perception of crime coverage at the paper was never good. Multiple people at the Inquirer over time had raised that the coverage was a really serious obstruction to actually gaining trust with marginalized communities and being in line not only with the mission, but to being able to have the diverse audiences that we wanted.

A lot of the crime-coverage reporting comes out of the breaking-news desk. … They didn’t have any standing weekend reporters, there was a rotation. And we all had to work weekends. And when the night reporter went on vacation, we had to work nights. If they had to do that rotation, every reporter at the Inquirer would have to do crime coverage that way, depending on what happened. And it was very difficult, psychologically, to write crime briefs.

Could you say more about that?

I’ve never been a fan of them. Nobody’s really a fan of them. There is this cross-sector condemnation of crime briefs, including from journalists. And I didn’t like it because I had seen family members mentioned in crime briefs before. And sometimes a paper might not even do a whole crime brief, they might just drop a list of homicide victims.

When my cousin was murdered, he wound up in crime briefs. That happened when I was at [WHYY’s] Billy Penn, where I worked before the Inquirer. For me it just felt like it was part of a larger system of devaluing Black and Brown lives since so many of the people impacted by crime briefs are Black and Brown. It filters into a larger cultural disregard for how many Black and Brown people are dying every day. And I became more and more critical, because even if I wasn’t having to write those things every day, I still felt like I was complicit in being a part of a system that did that.

I’m so sorry about your cousin. I don’t really have words. I’m just so sorry. And I can see how having that connection would really heighten the trauma of having to work on the crime briefs.

Yeah, I know how I felt reading them. And my cousin who passed had nine kids. And I just kept thinking about his kids, like, how would they feel reading this five or 10 years from now when they’re trying to get details on what happened and this is what they see. It just offers a criminalized depiction of someone who was never a criminal to us.

My cousin could be kind of like the cool, tough person to the people who he didn’t know. But to people he knew he was a funny, embracing, just really sweet person, even if that’s not how people saw him. Crime briefs don’t give you any of that.

You’re absolutely right. And again, I’m so sorry. I was wondering if you could tell me about what inspired you to shift from the Inquirer and join Free Press.

I was looking for ways I could actually work in storytelling, but in ways that didn’t have the systemic issues that newsrooms have that can impede progress when it comes to doing a better job for all news consumers. I knew [former Free Press staffer] Tauhid Chappell because we had worked together at the Inquirer. And he was regularly sharing opportunities with his network. He’s won an award for moderating a digital journalist-of-color group on Slack. He is someone who is consistently working to protect and support journalists of color.

He passed along the email that had the job description and asked me to pass it along. And I reached back out to say wait, I think I might be interested in this role. I applied after I spoke to him, and that’s how I came to Free Press.

Building solidarity with communities of color

I know a big part of your work in Philly connects to Free Press’ role as a co-leader of the Journalism Accountability Watchdog Network, which holds Philadelphia news outlets accountable for their treatment of both journalists of color and communities of color. Could you talk about your work with J.A.W.N.?

J.A.W.N. is a coalition consisting of Free Press, the Philadelphia chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association, the Philadelphia chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. I’m going to have to give a huge shout-out to Tauhid again, because he’s the founding facilitator of the group.

I think something gets lost because of people who have not been taken with J.A.W.N.’s advocacy around the Inquirer. Sometimes people depict J.A.W.N. as a group that can be combative, or just participating in call-out culture, which I think minimizes everything that the group does. Honestly, I sometimes bristle at that when the group is really about building power and solidarity.

One of the things that I tried to hold and I tried to share in conversations like this, when people ask me about J.A.W.N., is that Tauhid’s dedication to having a space like that came from a space that to me felt very pure. Tauhid is biracial, and he is in two of the three affinity groups that we are supporting. So much of this was about having more spaces for journalists of color to come together, because the leaders of J.A.W.N. are all people who’ve made a bigger effort to have solidarity.

When I first became a journalist in Philly, there were very few venues where you would see lots of journalists of color together. You could go to different affinity-group events, and maybe if different affinity-group leaders were friends with other journalists of color, they might be there. But now because of this work, there is a culture where if you show up to an AAJA Philly fundraiser now, because of the solidarity that’s been grown, you see people of different backgrounds there. Of course you see AAJA Philly membership and all the people who would be there, but you see a lot of NAHJ Philly people there, too, and people from PABJ. We support these groups in coming together around mutual aid and around accountability, and what it looks like for journalists of color.

Initially, we spent a lot of time fighting issues of representation and harm that were happening at the Inquirer. And since last summer, we’ve been in a months-long process that is close to completion of setting up all of J.A.W.N.’s infrastructure and establishing documents, so it can have all of that grounding and be strong in its operations.

Last May, J.A.W.N. issued a no-confidence vote in the Inquirer after the newspaper failed to address numerous diversity, equity and inclusion issues and improve coverage of the city’s BIPOC communities. Could you talk a bit about that decision? I’d also love to hear what the coalition is planning to focus on now that the relationship with the Inquirer is in the rearview mirror.

J.A.W.N. leaders have had a lot of conversations with the Inquirer over the years, both individually and collectively, over issues that have been ongoing there, and also over broken commitments. And where that was coming from was trust that the Inquirer would completely honor its commitments around diversity, equity and inclusion. That trust isn’t there anymore, because of the way things have been.

There’s a really difficult dynamic where some of the harm that happens in workplaces and newsrooms is very normalized. Calling organizations out for normalized forms of oppression is not easy work. But J.A.W.N.’s leadership, whether we’re talking about within the respective affinity groups, or we’re talking about collectively as J.A.W.N, are regularly fielding complaints, not just about the Inquirer, but about the way that journalists of color are being treated in Philadelphia. J.A.W.N. has maintained a posture that all forms of harm are unacceptable. There should be accountability, and things shouldn’t be swept under the rug to support performative actions that things are getting so much better.

Since the summertime, J.A.W.N. has been working out its infrastructure and its operations. Soon J.A.W.N. isn’t just going to have a mission, vision and values, but accountability policies and procedures. Whatever J.A.W.N. decides collectively to take up in terms of accountability and in terms of mutual aid will be the next steps for the coalition once we get through this process.

Prioritizing care

That all sounds really exciting. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the workshops that you and Tauhid led last year on mental health and harm reduction.

We are always talking about material that’s triggering, and there isn’t a day on this project in Philly that we’re not. To try to support people who are trying to move through these very difficult conversations , it felt like we needed to have more specifically planned around care.

There are a few different initiatives that are trying to increase care for journalists, and provide more resources and have more recognition around just how common it is for journalists to experience work-related trauma. Regardless of race, if I’m not mistaken, what I heard at the Crime Coverage Summit is that the recent data is showing that 80 percent of journalists have work-related trauma. There’s a conversation that’s growing around how we can expand trauma-informed practices into a more general practice that embeds care within journalism.

But there hadn’t been as much conversation around how to care for people who’ve been harmed by crime coverage, whether they’re a source or not. That’s why I proposed that as the focus of those workshops — so we could get more intel on that, so that we could begin to not just develop programs, but to figure out ways to embed those lessons into the programs. And so we convened a group of therapists and organizers.

All of the organizers had elements of care in their work, whether they are harm-reductionists or people who specialize in anti-violence or mutual aid. We gathered folks around [questions like] how are you experiencing the impacts? How are these impacts showing up for you at different levels? What are the things that you would like to see? How should we care for people? How should we meet these needs?

It was really important to have the people we were talking to in those conversations because some of the things that we’re talking about are actual mental-health symptoms where we need people who have clinical experience to weigh in. And people also forget that the organizers who are in community are caring for people all the time.

We are definitely planning on building on what came from those workshops. Some of the things we’re going to incorporate into our new Public Safety Coverage Cohort. But we’re going to grow a lot of this into other areas of our work as well.

On how crime reporting makes people less safe

You mentioned the Crime Coverage Summit, and I was thinking about this quote that I read from your conversation there with AP reporter Gary Fields. You said: “While we as journalists often think of our work as neutral, the evidence is showing that the impacts on the communities and on the people in the stories are not actually neutral.” You touched on this concept a bit earlier when you were talking about the harms of crime coverage. But I was wondering if you could explore that in a bit more detail.

A crime brief is not a method that humanizes anyone. The complaints that come from the community is that it doesn’t actually give you information that can help you with the next steps after what happened, regardless of who you are. A lot of crime stories do not include resources in the same way that a story on suicide might include information on hotlines.

In addition, let’s say you’re a neighbor and you would like to connect with other neighbors to do something positive, crime coverage doesn’t give you any information to do any of that either. It keeps it anonymous or near-anonymous, and you don’t get to understand the full impact of what’s happening and you don’t get to contextualize it as what this so often should be, which is health reporting.

A lot of the things that show up in crime coverage are epidemics. Gun violence is an epidemic. A lot of gun violence in Philadelphia, unfortunately, is gender-based violence, which should also be addressed from a health standpoint. Addiction, again, is another health story. That’s one layer of it.

Sometimes there’s some dissonance there because you’re writing with the journalistic standards that are pushing you to make things more quote, unquote, objective. But it’s not going to do anything that could have a more neutral impact. Putting more and more news out there with information that drives fear is going to drive more fear. It’s just that simple. …

There are ways that the actual reporting makes the people in the stories feel less safe. And it has a really negative impact on them mentally if they are recovering from injuries. And then there’s research that shows that if we look at crime coverage, and a wider ecosystem that includes media, the TV cop show that might come on prime time, the true crime novel, all those things are having impacts on how we see violence. Depending on the context, it has both the power to desensitize us or to actually inspire more violence.

I think that, as journalists, we don’t always think of ourselves as a part of that system. But of course we are. Harmful crime coverage is contributing to cycles of violence.

A new path for local journalism

Your point that all of these different kinds of crises and epidemics should be covered in the context of health makes so much sense. It’s very easy to see why that is the correct context, and yet that doesn’t even occur to most of the decision-makers at newspapers. With that in mind, I was wondering if you could talk about what inspired the creation of the Public Safety Coverage Cohort.

It came out of different strategic conversations we’ve had about the work — and also, to be honest, out of difficult experiences that we’ve had, because there are newsroom leaders who can be very hostile. Those conversations made it abundantly clear that we can’t simply do the work of trying to persuade people to come to our side. We have to actually support people who are trying to do the public-safety coverage, rather than crime coverage, that we want to see.

There is a pattern of newsrooms having reckonings; it’s not just a 2020 thing. They’re going out and getting support to do projects that still wind up speaking to what some people call a white middle-class default, instead of fully speaking to the community and for the community. And we hear consistently in the organizing that that’s one of the core things that has to change.

Why not invest in community to do that work? Why not support Black- and Brown-led news projects that are trying to look at the audience, the ethics, the information needs, not just in ways that are different, but are more grounded in community?

The Public Safety Coverage Cohort is a space that’s bringing together people who either want to start or have started or want to support projects that editorially and in their financial models move in a way that’s different from the status quo.

Could you talk about the membership of the cohort and some of the immediate goals?

We have eight rock stars in this cohort. It’s a mix of people who have worked and are working in newsrooms and people who never have. It’s a mix of different sectors and different lanes of experience. There might be one person who has a lot of passion and a lot of expertise around community narratives and the ways that public safety is experienced through that while another person in the cohort might have more experience with product and product development and whether the things that we’re talking about are reflected in user experience, not just what the article or the broadcasts are literally saying. We’re excited to have deep conversations. Some of that already happened at our community-building launch that we had a few weeks back.

Starting out, we’re going to try to establish some common ground and shared values for the group and our work together and to build out different strategies and ways of working differently. We have people who would like support in a lot of different ways, from getting support with hardware to actually making the stories to getting support in terms of some of the deeper existential, profoundly important questions. Like, what types of storytelling do we want to see? What are the elements in the storytelling that would make someone feel safer? How can we make sure to include the people we want to include? How can we make someone who has recently immigrated to Philadelphia feel safer?

We’re going to start with values and then from there get into those deeper questions and try to etch out some scripts, some strategies.

Before we end our conversation, I wanted to give you an opportunity to touch on anything else that you think is important for people to know.

I was trying to explain this project to some other folks recently. One of the things that makes it very exciting is that it’s in many ways unprecedented. It’s both unprecedented and something that people have been working on for literal centuries. We have that mandate that comes along with the work of making sure that we know our history; we’re building on work that has come before, like in a lineage.

We also continue to expand the ways that we are building cross-sector support, not just having this as an internal conversation among journalists, or as one organization individually writing an Op-Ed or a study. We’re trying to empower the people who don’t agree with what’s happening. That’s part of the reason why there are so many different arms to the work. That’s part of the reason why it’s always an uphill climb.

But that’s also one of the things that makes me excited about it. With something like this, where so many people see what’s wrong with it, there should be a change. We can help that group come together and make those changes. That’s what we’re trying to do.

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