A new iteration of the Black Press is changing the media landscape in Kansas City
Like so often happens to him these days, Ryan Sorrell's phone was lighting up. People were sharing a local news story about an unnamed teenager getting shot. One report called it "a case of mistaken identity."
At first Sorrell remembers thinking, "oh, that's crazy," but the details were thin, and he had other stories to cover.
He saw a clip that aired on the local Fox news station that said the unidentified teenager had been "shot in error." He watched the reporter try to talk to reluctant people in the neighborhood where the shooting happened.
"We take care of one another," a white neighbor said as he drove away, refusing to answer questions.
Something was off. There was no mention of the race of the child who had been shot, but Sorrell heard the subtext. He knew the neighborhood. As a young Black man he avoids the Northland, the suburban and rural area above the river in Kansas City, Missouri.
"There's definitely a culture." Sorrell says. "Some people even describe that area as like a sundown town." It isn't clear if it was historically a place where Black people weren't allowed after dark, but there are rumors.
Sorrell felt that tingle many journalists get, a sort of second sense that tells you to keep digging. Not to mention his phone kept buzzing, with people asking him to look into it.
So he went where he usually goes — online. He searched TikTok and found the aunt of 16-year-old Ralph Yarl, Faith Spoonmore, telling the story of what happened to her nephew. He reached out to the family. Then he posted his version of the story, one that was explicit about race.
"'This is a hate crime': Kansas City Black family demanding justice," the headline reads.
He didn't break the story exactly. It was more like he burst it open.
"Defenders of Black people in our city"
"I actually don't even feel super comfortable considering myself a journalist," Sorrell says.
Even so, he's the force behind the Kansas City Defender, a local Black-owned nonprofit news outlet covering Kansas City and its outlying suburbs.
They are small and scrappy. Sorrel is the only full-time staff member, with two part-time staffers, five interns, and four freelancers. The outlet covers news and culture, and Sorrell says they are intentionally rooted in the traditions of the Black and abolitionist press.
"Every single person in our organization is an organizer, and I'm an organizer before I'm a journalist or a reporter," Sorrell says.
"Of course I'm gonna be reporting the facts," he says. "But I'm also gonna be asking the family, what do you need right now? And reaching out to organizers who I know, trying to figure out what we can be doing about this."
The Kansas City Defender was born out of the protests of 2020. But for Sorrell, the seeds for starting a Black-owned news outlet were planted in the decade before.
The 27-year-old grew up in Kansas City. He left to attend college in Chicago in 2014. During Sorrell's freshman year, Laquan MacDonald was murdered by a Chicago police officer, just a couple of months after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri had set off waves of Black Lives Matter protests across the country.
"That was a very transformative time period for me," he says.
He got plugged into the activist community in Chicago — learning how to organize. That's also when he started his first Black newspaper, as a student.
"I felt like we were always having to beg these white-owned news outlets," he says. "We had to beg them to cover our stories, to cover our protests, to cover these things that we thought were incredibly important."
Why spend all that energy begging for coverage, when you could just do it yourself, Sorrell figured.
In 2020, the pandemic hit and Sorrell, like many young people, moved back home. "I expected just to be back here for just a few months," Sorrell says.
Then came George Floyd and the uprising.
As an experienced organizer, Sorrell found himself on the front lines of the protests in Kansas City, where the movement felt young, as if it was only just emerging. Once again he was going to local news outlets, asking for coverage. There are some great reporters who do great work in Kansas City he says, "but nobody can tell our story the way that we can."
Sorrell named the Kansas City Defender after one of the most influential Black newspapers, The Chicago Defender. It wasn't just a paper, it was a magnet, helping drive the Great Migration.
Sorrell was intentionally trying to place his news outlet within the continuing legacy of the Black press — specifically the Black abolitionist press.
"Throughout history the Black Press has served an advocacy role," says Trevy A. McDonald, an associate professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "Freedom's Journal and the 40 Black newspapers that were published prior to the Civil War were all pushing for abolition," she says.
They were pushing for the abolition of slavery. But that abolitionist ethos — opposing racism and systems of oppression established in slavery's wake — continued after the Civil War.
For Sorrell it's not a leap to apply it now, to the criminal legal system.
"Our organization is very explicitly founded on prison industrial complex abolition, and building up systems outside of the racist, harmful systems that exist," he says.
Sorrell points out that journalism has long been complicit in these systems. More than complicit, the press has itself been a racist, harmful system.
"We're called the Defender because Black people are continually dehumanized, de-legitimized, and killed," he says. "And the murders of Black people are then justified through the media. So we see ourselves as defenders of Black people in our city."
The Defender's role, as Sorrell sees it, is to spotlight stories that deserve attention. Stories that otherwise might go unnoticed.
Like the story of Ralph Yarl.
A report on missing Black women
Black people have responded, especially young folks. "Young people in general, I would say from Gen Z on up to millennials, are really connecting with his message and his voice on social media," says Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Kansas City. Grant has become something of a mentor for Sorrell and helped him secure funding to start the paper.
It didn't take long for the Defender's audience to become its primary source. The same young people who were engaging with their social media posts, started sharing information and tips.
"A very large majority of our stories come from people DMing us on Instagram or on TikTok or Twitter," Sorrell says.
Which was how in mid-September of 2022 Sorrell says they started to hear rumors about Black women "who were going missing, potentially being killed, from this street called Prospect Avenue."
The most public voice was a local bishop, Tony Caldwell. Sorrell shared a facebook video Caldwell had made claiming a serial killer was targeting Black women, on the Kansas City Defender's TikTok account.
The Defender added an editorial disclaimer: "We are working to confirm and verify all of the information as we can. Please know we take these matters seriously and only want to report facts and not fearmonger."
The Kansas City Police Department quickly released a statement rebuking the claims as untrue. Local media followed suit.
Caldwell, who runs the community organization Justice & Dignity Center, stands by what he was hearing about women going missing. "The people on the streets have a lot of information, and if you are not the police, they talk to us — they tell us," he says.
Caldwell points out that it can be hard for outsiders to understand people are missing — especially unhoused people, sex workers, addicts — when they are already invisible.
Gwen Grant says she shared some of the larger questions about the story's accuracy. "Some folks kind of told Ryan, 'Well, part of the problem was your source, more so than the story itself,'" Grant says. "That's why it's important for him to know one of the canons of journalistic ethics is that you want to have more than one source."
But Grant says that doesn't explain why the police department went on the offensive. "They came out with this whole notion that these allegations of missing women were unfounded, without having done any investigation of their own," she says.
Grant is also critical of how some in the press parroted the police narrative. "You gave more credibility to the police," she says. "And you're looking at the young African American, probably in their minds — upstart — who had the audacity to enter the space."
Sorrell doesn't trust police narratives. It's not just a history of police statements not matching up with facts, especially in the age of cellphones and body cameras. It's also about who the Defender's audience is. "If we took the police's word at face value, we would lose trust from people in our community," he says.
Sorrell says it was hard not to feel attacked. "Everyone was saying that we were spreading misinformation and lies. And that there was no serial killer, there were no missing Black women."
In early October, a little over two weeks later, a young woman, half-naked, a crude metal collar and padlock around her neck, knocked on the door of a house in the nearby city of Excelsior Springs. She was Black, and she told the neighbor who helped her that she had been imprisoned and repeatedly raped and beaten. She said she had been kidnapped, about a month ago, from Kansas City. From a street called Prospect Avenue.
According to the neighbor, the woman said she had friends who didn't make it.
Police arrested Timothy Haslett Jr., a white man, and charged him with rape, kidnapping and assault, among other crimes. As of yet, there has been no confirmation of any other missing or murdered women.
In a statement made after the woman was found, the Kansas City Police Department wrote: "We base our investigations on reports made to our department. There have been no reports made to our department of missing persons, more specifically black women, missing from Prospect Avenue in Kansas City, Missouri. In order to begin a missing person's investigation, someone would need to file a report with our department identifying the missing party."
NPR asked a department spokesperson if missing persons reports are an incomplete metric to examine this deeper problem of missing women, especially in the cases of poor and marginalized women. That question was not answered.
There is no direct evidence that Caldwell's claim of a serial killer, made public by the Kansas City Defender, was directly connected to what happened in Excelsior Springs.
But there is another possibility.
Even if it was just a wild coincidence that the fears amplified by the Kansas City Defender were followed by a real kidnapping with eerie overlapping details, it wasn't really that wild. Those fears weren't unfounded, because they tap into a deeper, ongoing problem; in the U.S., one third of missing women are Black, despite making up less than 15 percent of the population.
Sorrell says he understands he made mistakes in reporting this story, including putting too much stock in a single source. But he points out that most other news outlets in Kansas City did the same thing too.
Only their single source was the police themselves.
The boy who cried wolf and the risks of getting it wrong
The story about the alleged serial killer wasn't the only time The Kansas City Defender had to walk back a post. Earlier this year they shared the story of a Black man who claimed he'd been charged twice for his meal at an expensive restaurant, and wrongly arrested by police. It's one of those stories of racism that goes viral sometimes.
The only problem — it didn't happen. The patron wasn't overcharged, video showed he was obviously intoxicated, and he had been arrested, but for driving while drunk.
"They ran out there with that story without getting all the information, and had people in an uproar," says Eric L. Wesson, the managing editor and publisher of The Kansas City Call, the region's historic Black newspaper, founded in 1919.
Wesson says that sometimes the Defender can be a little trigger happy with a post, a little too ready to share what he calls clickbait.
He's quick to add that he respects the intentions of Sorrell and the Kansas City Defender in challenging status quo narratives, and engaging young people. "I think what they are doing is good for their generation, I would just say that they should be more accurate," he says.
In an email to NPR, Kansas City police spokesman Jacob Becchina mentioned the Defender's initial inaccurate reporting on the restaurant incident, noting that it used up police resources and tarnished the restaurants reputation.
"The Defender's propensity to publicize one side of an event, many times without an inquiry, has caused numerous challenges for us as well as others in the community," he wrote.
But Sorrell is again tapping into real feelings, Wesson says. "I think one of the issues is racism is so relevant in Kansas City, that you can have people report things like that and people jump on the bandwagon."
That's also precisely why it's important to get these stories right, Wesson says. Otherwise, it risks becoming the boy who cried wolf about racism.
Wesson says taking on the mantle of the Black press means the Defender represents more than just themselves. "He reports something inaccurately, it calls into question what we do — it gives us all a black eye."
The power of a story
Sorrell says he knows accuracy is important, especially as a "radical Black news outlet."
"Having accuracy and truthfulness and integrity in our work is important because people will try to de-legitimize us," he says. Sorrell says he and the Defender are learning in real time how to get things right. It is also clear that they are breaking big stories, often forcing local — even national — news to follow.
Like the shooting of Ralph Yarl.
Sorrell thinks one reason that story went so big, so quick, is who Ralph was — a good student, universally beloved.
"I think a lot of times when violent harm happens to Black people, oftentimes people will look for things to try to say that person deserved it. We shouldn't have to say that Ralph was the perfect kid," for his story to deserve to be told, Sorrell says.
Still, he thinks the story might have easily disappeared, buried among the deluge of news. "This could be forever lost into history as a Black kid who got shot in error," Sorrell says, if the Kansas City Defender hadn't helped push it into the spotlight.
The 84-year old man who shot Yarl, Andrew Lester, was initially let go after only a couple of hours, no charges filed. Sorrell believes that it was the persistent pressure of the community, paired with national attention, that pushed police and prosecutors into action.
"The Ralph Yarl story is not known to America without the KC Defender," says Kansas City mayor Quinton Lucas. And it's not just that. Last year, before everything that happened with the claims of missing women, Kansas City police disbanded their missing persons unit. This past April it was reinstated. Lucas says that probably wouldn't have happened "without the KC Defender and the narratives they were able to share."
He thinks the paper, and Sorrell himself, have had a deep — and ultimately positive — impact on the city, "And I say that as someone who has been dragged, like nobody's business, on their social media platforms." Even those sharp criticisms, Lucas says, feel like they are about the Defender and Sorrell pushing him and their city to do better, especially when it comes to young Black folks.
Lucas says there's something powerful in what Sorrell is doing, in his intentional casting aside of the old rules of journalism — like the pretense of objectivity. "He gets rid of it all and kind of just covers it and says, I am pro-Black people, right? I'm pro information to them."
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.