Sometimes The Story Is In The Numbers

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always have a lot of patience with data. It’s a lot of numbers, and my head will start spinning, and then I’m checking Instagram or something. It takes a lot of patience and skill to search through rows and rows of data and put them together to make more sense.

Well, some journalists specialize in and thank God for these people. Many of the biggest stories have been published over the years that have brought light to some of the biggest scandals ever.

I consider one of those journalists a friend and one of those reporters playing the game at another level, Lawrence Mower. We met in Las Vegas when I was at the public radio station, and he was working at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. We talked about finding stories in data, covering politics, and dealing with vitriolic readers. But, we started by discussing how he got into journalism. It all started with a letter to the editor.

Listen to the interview in its entirety on the podcast

TRS – How did you get into journalism? 

Lawrence Mower  – I was actually an accounting major first, and I never thought about being a journalist until I was in my third year of school. I wrote a letter to the editor of the Review-Journal about a professor at the time. The Review-Journal has an extremely libertarian editorial stance. They were talking about double-dippers, people in the legislature who also work in state government. And at the time, that applied to Dina Titus, the Senate majority leader back then. She was also a professor at UNLV teaching state government. I had her for one of these classes in a giant lecture hall where I sat in the back, and I knew who she was.

I knew that she was in the legislature. I think somebody had written a letter to the editor saying that she was probably indoctrinating all of her students because she was a Democrat, indoctrinating them to be liberals. And I’ve always been staunchly nonpartisan. I wrote a letter after taking her class saying I was on the lookout to see if she would be like some raging liberal. And she didn’t tell anyone who she was until the last day of class. And it was a very entertaining class. I had a lot of fun. I wrote a letter to the Review-Journal editor, and they printed it. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I like seeing my name in print. I had professors in other classes notice and actually say, hey, that was a great letter to the editor. After that, I decided to take a journalism class and really liked it. I started working with the student paper, took a couple of classes, really liked it, and switched my major. I eventually was interning for the Review-Journal on the cops beat. 

TRS  – I remember when I met you. You were at the Las Vegas Review-Journal and had been working on this big story about police use of force. This turned into a big series, and it changed things. Tell me how you found that story.

Lawrence worked with a group of reporters on a year-long project to uncover use of lethal-force by some Las Vegas police. The series was called Deadly Force.

Lawrence Mower  – I was covering. I think it was on night cops at the time. I was working a swing shift, 2 to 11 p.m. covering police, covering the police beat, going to crime scenes, you know, writing about crime and Las Vegas at the time, like a lot of police departments, but Las Vegas, in particular, had a lot of police-involved shootings. And by that, I mean police shooting people. And sometimes killing people. And this was weird because it seemed to follow like this, this, the cycle. There’d be a lot of shootings in a row, then there’d be a drop-off, and then there’d be another round of shootings and controversies because a lot of these shootings were on unarmed people. A lot of them (victims) were Black. And there was one shooting, in particular, Trayvon Cole, the case of a young man selling small amounts of weed from his apartment. And police ended up doing a raid on his apartment. He was flushing weed down the toilet when an officer shot and killed him. And this was really on the heels.

I believe it was right after another really controversial shooting involving – I think it was an Air Force veteran in a Costco parking lot in the suburbs of Las Vegas. But anyway. John Cole, there were questions raised about this right away. This was an officer who had been in multiple shootings before. And the officer’s story was refuted by the medical examiner. The officer said this guy turned and pointed with two hands at the officer as if he was holding a gun. And, of course, he had no gun. The medical examiner said he was not facing the officer and the evidence showed that he was flushing weed down the toilet. And so my sources in the police department were the ones who told me that there was something seriously wrong here. My attitude towards it was, well, there have been so many shootings, I want to actually know what’s really going on. So I took a look at every shooting for the last 20 years across all of the Southern Nevada police departments, including Las Vegas. The big one, of course, was Las Vegas Metro. We dove deep into examining every single incident, including any incidents where somebody was not hit by a bullet. You would take all this data to analyze the time of day where this happened, the officer’s characteristics, how long the officer had been on the force, where this officer was assigned, and what unit? We looked at multiple shootings published in 2011. This was a year, two years before Ferguson. It was the only examination of its kind and indeed of its scope of police shootings and many police shootings by the police department. 

TRS – And that that the series, by the way, it was it was called Deadly Force. 

Lawrence Mower – It’s called Deadly Force. And it ended up publishing over five days. Within a week, the Justice Department contacted us. The Department of Justice had the COPS office, a division of the Department of Justice that works with police departments to improve them, notice problems, and go in and try to help. And they had noticed the series and contacted the sheriff at the time, Doug Gillespie, and said, ” Hey, we’ve got a problem here. And specifically, you have a problem here. Let us help you. We combed through all the police department homicide records after each shooting; we went through each of those records and actually spent $10,000 to buy those public records from the Las Vegas Metro Police Department, which the paper had never done before. We read through every single coroner’s inquest that had happened over the last 20 years. We had the coroner’s office dig up these old dusty binders with transcripts of each coroner’s inquest after each fatal shooting, read through those, and basically enter them into a database. I had the former metro undersheriff, the former sheriff, and all kinds of detectives and police officers on the record talking about these incidents and saying, yes, there’s something very wrong with this police department. And, of course, what they were doing is they were shooting people and not analyzing why they were shooting at people. They were just covering it up. And the state attorney was doing that, too. They relied on this bogus coroner’s inquest process to clear all these shootings. 

TRS – What was it like after that report came out? Because you’re covering the police beat, and this comes out. Did anything change on your beat afterward? 

Lawrence Mower – Yes and no. I mean, frankly, after it was published, I was shocked by how little things changed. It was kind of like crickets. It was bizarre. And I was very down about it because you spend all this time and nothing really happens. The dam really broke. I didn’t know what the Justice Department was doing behind the scenes at this time, but they were in contact with the sheriff’s office. Then in early 2012, Metro shot and killed an unarmed disabled Black man who was mentally ill and happened to be a war veteran. He was an Iraq War veteran or Gulf War veteran. It was on video, and it was just an absolute outrage. I mean, even people in the police department told me this was genuine outrage; something was really wrong here.

The Justice Department, soon after that, I think, announced they were looking at Metro. I got a lot of pushback. Some of my sources in the police department were like, wow, you’re right. But this is tough to see, and I’m not happy to see it. My sources got a lot of blowbacks. Because you want to protect the people willing to speak with you on the record, pretty much more than anything, her absolute priority is to protect those people. The DOJ office used our reporting as a template for reforming other police departments around the country.

TRS – Coming back to what you just said about your sources. You know there’s a risk for them, obviously. What do you tell them ahead of time when you’re working on a story? 

Lawrence Mower – I tell them I try to be as straight up as possible. I say, hey, are you comfortable saying this on the record? Because here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to get blowback here. You have a high chance of losing your job, and some people know that. Some people aren’t. Anytime you deal with sources, they fall into two categories. Those who are experienced dealing with the media and being a public figure and those who aren’t. And the people who aren’t are the ones you got to be really careful. I’ve quashed stories. I had to figure out another way to tell the story because my source would be too exposed. At the end of the day, you’re the one who is supposed to be looking out for them. We’re in a tremendous position of power in our business, which we need to keep in mind all the time. And if a source is going to lose their job and livelihood, you have to ask a serious question: is this story worth it? And let’s be honest, the impact of a news story is probably less than it was 20 years ago, 30 years ago. And so you’ve got to weigh that factor in here. 

TRS – Now you’re covering politics for the Tampa Bay Times in Tallahassee. And so talk about Florida politics. What’s been the most enjoyable part of the job and the most significant challenge? 

Lawrence now covers politics for the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times from Tallahassee.

Lawrence Mower – Well, I should back up. I was hesitant to take the job up here because I’m not a huge fan of politics. Politics, in general, doesn’t interest me. I’m much more of a policy person. But it has been a pleasant surprise. The part of the job I really do like is the people. I really do enjoy meeting the politicians, the staffers, and the lobbyists. There’s a perception out there that many of these people are good or bad. And really, it’s just a gray area. You’ve got a collection of people up here who have their own motivations. And some of those motivations are bad. Some of those motivations are good, and some are somewhere in between. Most of them probably are. You may hear a lawmaker have some kind of big, blustery speech or something, and then you sit down and talk to them for a while. And you find out they’re just regular people. I really enjoy learning about the different issues up here. The best thing about journalism, in my opinion, is you’re always learning about new stuff, new topics.

You try to become an expert on different topics, from tax policy to law enforcement to environmental policy to voting; it just never ends. The hard or difficult part is that things are toxic right now. Politics is pretty toxic. I get angry e-mails from people on both sides of the issue all the time saying I’m either in the camp for DeSantis or I hate DeSantis. There’s obviously been an effort to kind of demonize the news media, traditional news media. I do think some of the criticism is legitimate. But it’s just flat toxic, more than it used to be.

TRS – If you’re talking to a group of people who judge the news media but don’t know us? What do they get wrong about us?

Lawrence Mower – There’s a lot. One thing that I think they should keep in mind is that we are just people. We are just regular people who are generally trying to do the right thing. We’re trying to do the right job here. We don’t want to get things wrong. That is still a big black mark on a journalist’s reputation is getting stories wrong. We are badly outnumbered. Nowadays, there are far fewer of us than ever before, yet more demands on us than ever. I don’t know how long they will be independent journalists. As I said, the financing model is kind of going away. Frankly, most papers are shrinking. At least local papers are shrinking. There are some local outfits or nonprofit outfits that are trying to fill the void. As far as independent journalists, there are not many of us left anymore compared to what there used to be. 

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Published by Luis Hernandez

I'm blessed. Most of my professional career, almost 20 years, I've spent as a journalist. Some of it was in print, a little in television, but most of it in radio. I've worked with some wonderfully talented producers and directors in those two decades. It would take pages to elaborate on all of the experiences I've had as a reporter, producer and host. Needless to say they include opportunities talking with leaders of state, religious leaders, civic leaders, writers, artists and entertainers. The last couple decades have been a lot of fun. But, the next couple decades will be far better.

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