Milwaukee pubcasters go deep on problem of imprisonment of black males

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A community forum in Milwaukee Tuesday will cap a seven-month reporting project by two of the city’s public broadcasters on their county’s astronomically high rate of incarceration among black males.

“Black Men in Prison” grew from a collaboration between WUWM-FM and Milwaukee Public Television. It marks the first time that the radio station has expanded its in-depth reporting initiative, titled Project Milwaukee, to include the public TV station, which is independently licensed. WUWM’s Project Milwaukee reports have typically spanned just a week. But the partners decided that the magnitude of the incarceration problem merited a much closer look.

WUWM usually undertakes two or three Project Milwaukee topics each year. Previous subjects have included compensation of public workers and the state’s skills gap. Stories have aired on Morning Edition, All Things Considered and WUWM’s local public affairs program Lake Effect.

“Black Men in Prison” was inspired by 2010 U.S. census data and a 2013 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study that found Wisconsin has the country’s highest rate of incarceration of black men, with one of every eight black men behind bars. The state’s 12.8 percent incarceration rate among black men is well above the national average of 6.7 percent. Oklahoma, in second place, has a rate of 9.7 percent, according to the study. In Milwaukee County, more than half of all black men in their 30s have spent time in prison.

WUWM’s news staff began focusing on the subject in November 2013. Unbeknownst to WUWM’s team, MPTV’s programmers decided around the same time to pursue in-depth coverage of the topic., and MPTV’s public affairs programs Black Nouveau, 4th Street Forum and ¡Adelante! planned interviews about the issue.

When producers at the stations learned of each others’ plans, they decided to extend the Project Milwaukee initiative to include MPTV, share reporting resources and co-present community forums.

The stations decided that a week of coverage wouldn’t suffice, said WUWM General Manager Dave Edwards. “It was really driven by the journalists who work on this story,” said Edwards. “The more they talked about it, the more they began to realize that this was such a multilayered issue and wouldn’t be something that was possible to deal with in a typical week’s worth of programs.”

MPTV and WUWM have partnered before, including when they applied for grants and produced programming for CPB’s American Graduate initiative. But “Black Men in Prison” is “probably the grandest of all of our collaborations,” said Ellis Bromberg, g.m. of MPTV.

WUWM reporters devoted more time to the project’s investigative angle and appeared on MPTV shows, while the TV station mainly produced interviews on the subject. The reports have focused on the causes of the incarceration rate, including high rates of poverty and joblessness and the state’s harsh drug sentencing laws; the impact of incarceration on the community, including its effect on families and the career prospects of prisoners; and possible solutions, including greater investment in drug courts, mental health courts and job training.

Most of WUWM’s Project Milwaukee sessions have culminated in community forums with hosts leading discussions. WUWM and MPTV organized two forums for “Black Men in Prison.” The first, which outlined the problems facing the county and state, was held March 11. The May 20 forum will focus on potential solutions. More than 360 people have signed up for the event; previous forums have averaged 100 attendees.

WUWM and MPTV hosts will jointly anchor the forum, which will be taped and later broadcast on Lake Effect. MPTV will not broadcast the forum but will use it as the basis for a June 11 episode of Black Nouveau, which focuses on local African-American issues. After the project ends, WUWM will host the series on an enhanced page of their website with additional community-engagement resources.

Station leaders say they’re open to future long-term reporting collaborations when topics merit the treatment. “We don’t believe in collaboration for the sake of collaboration,” Edwards said, “only when we feel like it expands the topic and builds to an important conclusion.”

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