A reporter and her newsroom navigate the aftermath of an arrest
By Susan E. McGregor
On March 12, jurors acquitted Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri of two misdemeanor criminal charges: “failure to disperse” and “interference with official acts.” Sahouri was arrested on May 31, 2020, while she was covering protests following the killing of George Floyd by police, during a week in which more reporters were arrested in the US than during the previous three years combined. While the charges against most of those reporters were dropped, Sahouri was the first reporter to stand trial on criminal charges in the US since 2018. (Disclosure: the author, a former Columbia Journalism School faculty member, never taught Sahouri, a CJS alumna, but did help coordinate awareness efforts leading up to her trial.) Coverage of Sahouri’s arrest and trial noted that her ordeal might have a chilling effect on journalists, even beyond Sahouri and her paper.
“Chilling effect” — a legal term used to describe a law’s unintended effects — is often invoked when journalists are arrested or charged with crimes in the course of their reporting; such incidents can curtail their ability to report effectively on law enforcement, but also more generally. Precisely how those chilling effects manifest in journalism can vary; while an arrest can have repercussions on journalists’ physical and mental health, going to trial adds to that by interfering with a reporter’s coverage, employer, and career.
Sahouri joined the Register in August 2019 as a breaking news reporter — a beat she summarizes as focusing primarily on “crime, courts, and public safety.” Over time, however, she developed the beat evolved to include police accountability, but because of her arrest and impending trial, says Sahouri, “There are a lot of things that I didn’t really get a chance to do.”
Last year, for example, Sahouri had been working on a story about a woman who alleged she’d been beaten and arrested by police as she walked to her car near a protest site on May 31. The woman is now suing both the city of Des Moines and individual officers for libel and constitutional rights violations. In the woman’s lawsuit, Sahouri says, “her lawyer was naming instances of unjust arrests during that weekend — and she explicitly named me.” Sahouri felt it would make it difficult for readers to accept her reporting on the case as unbiased. “Immediately,” she says, “I had to hand that off.”
Sahouri was still able to co-author a major investigation about the Des Moines police department’s lack of transparency around officers’ disciplinary histories in early 2021, but as her trial date was pushed from December 2020 to March, she ran into against challenges with the district attorney’s office. At one point, for example, the office declined a request from Sahouri for information on an unrelated matter, stating via email, “I’m sorry for the inconvenience but ethical rules prevent us from having contact with a party who has a pending case and is represented by counsel.” According to Carol Hunter, the Register’s executive editor, Sahouri’s attorney and the Register’s corporate counsel had to get involved, and the former eventually sent an email emphasizing that the office’s decision “prevents [Sahouri] and her colleagues from doing their constitutionally-protected jobs as journalists.” Sahouri says she has since reached out to other attorneys at the same office for information related to other stories and has received no response.
Still Sahouri felt strongly about continuing to work breaking news, despite the constant contact with police. “Was it awkward at times?” she says. “Yes. Were we professional? Yes.”
Even the contents of her trial may pose challenges for her future reporting work. Iowa police departments, for example, were among the first to begin using body cameras almost a decade ago, but accessing the footage can be challenging, and many times arrests are not recorded. “I want to do a story about body camera footage not being on,” says Sahouri. During her trial, however, “the key evidence for the state’s case against me should have been [arresting officer] Luke Wilson’s body camera footage, but it didn’t exist.” Given the prominent role that missing body camera footage played in her own trial, Sahouri now has concerns about how readers might perceive any reporting she might do on the topic.
While Sahouri told The Guardian that her acquittal made her feel “powerful,” its repercussions have hardly dissipated. “Now I have the option: do I want to sue, do I not want to sue? And I have to think: What does filing a lawsuit against a police department mean in my career?” says Sahouri. “What does it mean if I want to keep doing police accountability work — not just in Des Moines, but beyond that? Will I not be able to do that because I sued a police department? Does that show a bias?” In a catch-22 that seems increasingly common for journalists who are women and/or reporters of color, Sahouri, who is both, must now contend with the fact that seeking redress for her wrongful treatment could become a professional liability.
Hunter, the Register’s executive editor, says that after the arrest, she had concerns about the possible public reaction to Sahouri remaining on the breaking news beat.
“Here is our reporter who has been arrested by the same department in what is becoming this high-profile case,” says Hunter. “And I could understand people seeing that byline and saying ‘Well, [Sahouri] just has it in for the department because of her arrest.’” While such critiques never amounted to more than what Hunter describes as “social-media chatter,” following her arrest both Sahouri and her supervisors felt they had to be even more vigilant about checking their own biases and making sure their reporting was “bulletproof.”
Despite the challenges presented by Sahouri’s arrest and trial, Hunter says that removing her from a beat where she would have to interact with police day in and day out was never a question — though it’s not a choice all newsrooms would make. “It would be grossly unfair to force someone to change beats because something wrong happened to her,” Hunter says.
This is why, according to Hunter, “it’s important for newsrooms to have people with gender, racial — all kinds of diversity — in positions of power. It helps if people ‘get’ things like that.”