WEDNESDAY, MAY 12, 2021
State's system lousy, scribes claim: In print editions, the headline on the front-page report had a heart-rending headline:
Teenage Girl Killed by Officer in Columbus Ached to Go Home
The report appeared atop the front page of last Sunday's New York Times. The shooting victim to whom the headline referred was the late Ma'Khia Bryant, who was shot and killed last month, at age 16, outside the foster home where she and her younger sister Ja'Niah Bryant were living.
Because Bryant was shot and killed by a police officer, the fatal shooting had produced national press coverage. (When teens are shot and killed by civilians, there will rarely be national coverage.) The fact that Bryant had been living in foster care added an unusual element to this latest fatal event.
In Sunday's front-page report, the New York Times presented its overview of this widely-reported case. The assignment had gone to Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, a young journalist listed as lead reporter on the report's three-person byline.
(For a fuller roll call of the troops, see yesterday's report.)
In their report, Burroughs and his colleagues described the events which had placed Bryant and three siblings in foster care. In substantial detail, they described the events which led to the fatal shooting itself, largely relying on accounts provided by "Ma’Khia’s family members and acquaintances."
Why was Ma'Khia Bryant in foster care? Tomorrow, we'll review the account which was offered in its front-page report. But as young Bogel-Burroughs began his lengthy report, he seemed to offer a stark indictment of the system which had placed the Bryant children in foster care.
"A review of Ma’Khia’s pathway through foster care shows that it failed her in critical ways,“ the youngster wrote at an early point in his report, possibly giving the impression he knew what he was talking about.
Tomorrow, we'll look at Bogel-Burroughs' account of this young person's "pathway through foster care." For today, let's examine the early passage in the front-page report in which Bogel-Burroughs' unnamed editors let him pose as an expert on Ohio's foster care system.
Ma'khia Bryant, age 16, had been shot and killed by a Columbus police officer. In this case, though, bodycam video had interrupted a prevailing Standard Narrative, in a way Bogel-Burroughs quickly described:
BOGEL-BURROUGHS ET AL (5/9/21): [On April 20], Ja’Niah called 911 again, telling the police that she and her older sister were being threatened by two young women who used to live at the house. Officers arrived in the middle of a melee outside the house, and one of them fatally shot Ja’Niah’s 16-year-old sister, Ma’Khia Bryant, who was lunging at one of the women, brandishing a steak knife.
The shooting, which occurred moments before a jury in Minneapolis convicted Derek Chauvin of murdering George Floyd, released a new wave of anger over shootings by the police. To calm the furor, the Columbus police quickly released body camera footage, which showed some of the fight outside the house and, they said, demonstrated that the officer had acted to protect the other woman.
The bodycam footage complicated initial suggestions and claims that the police officer had misbehaved (as officers sometimes do). After reporting that fact, Bogel-Burroughs began to target the Ohio foster care system.
What is the overall state of Ohio's foster care system? Like Bogel-Burroughs and his colleagues, we have no real idea.
We would assume that foster care is very difficult to run. Does Ohio perform this service more poorly than other states do?
We don't have the slightest idea. Nor can we find the slightest sign that the three Times reporters and their unnamed editors do.
Did the foster care system behave in some inappropriate way in earlier decisions concerning Ma'Khia Bryant and her three siblings? We can't answer that question, any more than the New York Times can.
That said, Bogel-Burroughs fingered the system early in his report. As he did, he engaged in some of the incompetent analytical practices which are now completely routine in the journalism currently practiced in Our (self-impressed) Town.
Below, you see the indictment. In our view, this is embarrassing, yet thoroughly typical, journalistic work;
BOGEL-BURROUGHS ET AL (continuing directly): But Ms. Bryant’s tragic death was also preceded by a turbulent journey through the foster care system, which had cycled Ma’Khia through at least five placements in two years—after her own mother was found to be negligent—despite efforts by their grandmother to reunite the family.
Ohio places children in foster care at a rate 10 percent higher than the national average, and child welfare officials here are considerably less likely than in the country as a whole to place children with their relatives. Black children, like Ma’Khia and her sister, account for nearly a third of children removed from homes—nearly twice their proportion in the population.
A review of Ma’Khia’s pathway through foster care shows that it failed her in critical ways.
Research has demonstrated that children fare far better when they remain with family members, a practice known as kinship care. It also shows that each successive placement causes additional trauma, further setting back a child in crisis.
“Everybody knows and the research has proven over and over and over again that the best placement for children is with their kin,” said Ronald R. Browder, the president and chief executive of the Ohio Federation for Health Equity and Social Justice. “But the focus has always been on foster care.”
What the Bryant sisters wanted, Ja’Niah said, was to return to their family.
“We can go to Mommy or Grandma, it doesn’t matter, as long as we can get off the system,” Ja’Niah recalled Ma’Khia telling her younger siblings, who were also in foster care. “That was her biggest thing, she didn’t want to be in the foster care system until she was 18.”
A spokeswoman for Franklin County Children Services, which had custody of the siblings, declined to comment on Ma’Khia’s case, citing confidentiality laws...
Those are paragraphs 7-14 of an 81-paragraph report. In this early section, Bogel-Burroughs seems to say that the Ohio foster care system "failed [Ma'Khia Bryant] in several ways."
"Easy to be hard," top experts frequently tell us. Meanwhile, consider this:
As you can see if you look very closely, the\at passage doesn't explicitly say that Ohio's foster care system failed Ma'Khia Bryant in several ways. But that's the likely impression the passage will leave with Times subscribers, and the passage does seem to criticize the Ohio system in several specific ways.
Is there something notably wrong with Ohio's system? Like the intrepid Times team, we have no idea.
That said, the intrepid team seems to scold the Ohio system, including its treatment of Bryant and her siblings. The charges include these:
Criticisms of the Ohio foster care system:
Ohio places children in foster care at a rate 10 percent higher than the national average.
Ohio's child welfare officials are considerably less likely than in the country as a whole to place children with their relatives.
(Apparently) in Ohio, black children account for nearly a third of children removed from homes—nearly twice their proportion in the population.
Research has demonstrated that children fare far better when they remain with family members.
According to one source, "the research has proven over and over and over again that the best placement for children is with their kin.”
In these ways, the Times team conveys the impression that something is notably wrong with Ohio's foster care system, and that they know what it is.
They link this apparent claim to the tragic outcome in Bryant's case, without quite attempting to show how their overall criticisms might relate to the decisions which were made in her particular case.
Meanwhile, much of the Times' account of her particular case is drawn from reports by her family and friends. As would presumably be the case almost everywhere, local officials weren't allowed to comment on her case.
Near the start of a lengthy report, the Times team lowers the boom on the Ohio foster care system. Their effort strikes us as pseudo-journalism, though of a highly familiar kind.
A cynic will tell you this:
The bodycam video robbed the scribes of the chance to work from a standard Storyline, in which a police officer will be said to have stepped way over the line.
(Sometimes, officers do step over the line.)
Robbed of that standard narrative, the scribes turned to a related claim. In this case, it was the Ohio foster care system which had "failed" Ma'Khia Bryant, apparently in several ways:
It's better if children stay with their relatives! They're putting too many black kids in foster care! It almost sounds like the Bryant kids shouldn't have been in foster care at all!
The Times' strikingly young reporting team advanced these suggestions, claims and accusations early in their front=page report.
Tomorrow, we'll consider the merit of these claims, both as a general matter and in the way they may relate to this particular case. As we do, we'll ask an important question:
Can Our Town hope to survive in thrall to major news orgs with such lowbrow intellectual tastes?
For the record, no one should be shot and killed when she's just 16. Even more radically, we'll say that no one should ever be shot and killed at all.
We'd also say that Ma'Khia Bryant and her siblings had apparently been exposed to many influences and events from which young people deserve to be spared. It sounds like these problems, which didn't start with these kids, were underway long before Ohio's foster care system became involved.
On the whole, we thought this New York Times front-page report was arrogant, scripted, dumb. Anthropologically, we shouldn't expect anything better, despondent top experts all say.
Tomorrow: Let's take a look at the "research"