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A Journalist Reflects On Her Past Criminal Justice Reporting

A pile of newspapers. (Getty Images)
A pile of newspapers. (Getty Images)

In 2012, 19-year-old Brandon Spencer received a 40-year prison sentence for shooting into a crowd on the University of Southern California’s campus. At the time, Los Angeles Times columnist Sandy Banks condemned him for the action that injured four people. 

“Pull a gun, go to jail,” she wrote. 

Nearly a decade later, Banks feels differently. In arecent column, she expressed her regret for writing that piece. She no longer recognizes the person who wrote it or believes how harsh she was to Spencer and his family.

Gang shootings were strongly prevalent then, and Banks remembers feeling fed up with the stories she’d heard of people being killed or injured by gang-related violence. This led to her taking it out on Spencer through her column, she says. 

She also thinks about what Spencer’s parents felt reading her column. His parents had homeschooled him for a time, Banks says, and sent him to relatives when he got into trouble. 

“They did all this to keep him safe and out of trouble and to see me in the newspaper — and I’m a Black woman and he’s a young Black man — to see me blasting him the way I did, I think a lot about that,” she says.

And when Spencer was sentenced to 40 years, she remembers feeling it was an appropriate consequence.

But today, Banks feels she only based her column on news reports at the time and speaking to other reporters.

“It made me realize that you can’t sit in your newsroom or wherever you are and make judgments in a vacuum,” she says. 

People base their perceptions primarily on self-interest and what’s happening within their personal lives, but Banks says she wishes she waited to speak until she knew more or had the chance to converse with more people.

Now, Banks says she’s slow to make snap judgments. 

“It’s made my editor complain I slow down too much,” she laughs, adding that the process of slowing down is key to reconsidering judgments and rethinking bias.  

For journalists like herself, Banks says that it’s paramount to admit when they’re wrong. Beyond just blaming Spencer, Banks says the process of reparative journalism would look further at why he felt he had to carry a gun and the pressures of growing up in his part of the city. 

“I think it’s a holistic change that we have to make as a profession and as a society,” she says. “And I hope that there’s an appetite for that now.”

Cristina Kim produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Jeannette Jones adapted it for the web.

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