Navigating institutional hurdles to accountability journalism

Marc Perrusquia, an investigative journalist. Photo | Courtesy

What you need to know:

  • But, for Marc Perrusquia, an investigative journalist, Floyd’s death marked his first major battle with reporting about criminal justice and policing.

The May 25, 2020, murder of George Perry Floyd, an African American man, by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, inspired massive protests against the use of excessive force by police officers, in the United States and globally.

But, for Marc Perrusquia, an investigative journalist, Floyd’s death marked his first major battle with reporting about criminal justice and policing.

“After Floyd’s death, people started digging into police conduct nationwide. The police in Memphis (Tennessee) have always had core problems with recruiting and supervising officers. You’d see police officers with thick files full of recommended disciplinary action promoted to sergeant, lieutenant or homicide detective. The police officers involved in the killing of Floyd hadn’t killed anyone until that point, but they had a history of other abuses that were pretty severe,” Perrusquia adds.

Perrusquia is the director of The Institute for Public Service Reporting Memphis - an online newspaper that was opened five years ago by the University of Memphis, with an aim of producing robust, independent investigative and enterprise reporting while also providing hands-on training to students.

A steep decline in legacy media has led to fewer journalists employed by newsrooms, which, in turn, means fewer eyes and ears on government, less accountability, and less substantive reporting on critical issues.

In his study of the patterns of abuse in the Memphis Police Department MPD), Perrusquia faces a number of challenges.

“When I tried to get internal reports on excessive use of force over the last five years, they said it would cost me USD $7,000. I didn’t have that kind of money. However, Tennessee law allows one to look at the records for free. So, I was told I could look at them once a week, for an hour. I was not permitted to take pictures or make copies. I was only permitted to take notes,” he says.

However, with persistence, the Institute built a database on police abuses and exposed them.

“Our main finding was that police did not enforce serious penalties for these abuses. Some of the cases we recorded could be classified as torture. Defendants were handcuffed behind the back and either beaten, pepper sprayed or tasered. The MPD viewed these abuses as an internal disciplinary matter. Never did they consider them a crime,” Perrusquia adds.

The journalist says The Institute’s exposé was impactful because nowadays, errant police officers are prosecuted.

However, although there is clearly a great need for reform, not many people are happy with The Institute’s work.

“Memphis has one of the nation’s highest violent crime rates (third highest after Juneau – Alaska and Santa Fe – New Mexico) and people believe suspected criminals should be locked up. They don’t want to hear about the problems with the police force because they believe the police are their defenders. Some members of our legislature call, requesting us to stop writing or to pull down tweets,” he says.

Perhaps, the Institute’s work came to the fore in the aftermath of the murder of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old black man, on January 7, 2023. The SCORPION unit of the MPD was implicated.

Christopher Fulton 

“We had the first story of who the police officers who assaulted him were. The SCORPION unit would drive around low-income neighbourhoods in unmarked cars, working under the pretext of enforcing drug and gun control. They would stop drivers for flimsily reasons, like cracked windshields or tinted windows. Confrontations usually escalated,” Perrusquia says.

Two weeks after Nichol’s death the SCORPION unit was disbanded.

Running a non-profit newspapers

Due to the changing nature of newsrooms globally, The Institute has only two staff reporters. Christopher Fulton was an intern at The Institute but now owns an online newspaper, the Mountain Home Observer.

“When I finished my internship, I took up a job at the Baxter Bulletin, in Mountain Home, Baxter County, Arkansas. They hadn't had a journalist in over a year and there had been no serious reporting in probably 15 years. A wealthy couple took me on a drive around the county, offered me a house on the lake, a boat, a Ford F150, and lots of money as long as I reported what they wanted to be reported. I declined the offer,” he says.

Fulton says Baxter County is a very conservative town. He and his wife later built their own digital newspaper, Mountain Home Observer, from scratch, using their life savings. They are the only reporters of the newspaper.

“The newspaper survives on subscriptions and has since broken a number of investigative stories, which have earned me threats from the Ozark Patriots, a conservative political grouping in Northern Arkansas, whose members called for the stabbing of my wife and I,” he says.

Fulton has never thought of quitting because the First Amendment to the US Constitution protects his rights.

Government’s indifference to investigative reporting

Indifference to investigative and accountability journalism is a defense mechanism employed by a number of governments. Perrusquia has faced his fair share.

“I always tell people that covering the MPD is like covering the Kremlin during the Cold War. For a long time I thought it was just me, because the Mayor doesn’t like me and he has been in office for eight years. I will write a critical story about the police and try to get their input or more information by sending them detailed emails. But seven out of ten times, there is no response. They don’t care,” he says.

Perrusquia adds that the MPD also stonewalls other national publications, like the Washington Post.

“This is a slippery slope because lack of transparency is a step towards oppressiveness. We could sue them, but no one has the money for that anymore. However, we have the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and through them, I have four active suits against the MPD, the Sheriff’s Office, the District Attorney, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The organisation represents us free-of-charge. Recently, I won a case where we were trying to get access to police body camera footage,” he says.

The reality of journalism today is that journalists live in a fragile glass house, where they have to balance accountability journalism with stories that praise the sitting government, if they are to remain in business. However, the truth needs to be told.