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How a Black-owned news website in Kansas City reported the story of Ralph Yarl

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

When a Black teenager rang the wrong doorbell and was shot by a white man in Kansas City, Mo., last month, the story spread rapidly. The news outlet that made it go viral - a local Black-owned website. NPR's Sandhya Dirks has this profile of the Kansas City Defender.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: Ryan Sorrell's phone was lighting up. He kept getting DMs - folks sending him this local news story.

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UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER #1: First here at 5, Kansas City police say someone inside a Northland home shot a teen in error after the boy...

DIRKS: Sorrell couldn't help but think something was missing, and he couldn't help but notice no one was mentioning race, so he went straight to social media.

RYAN SORRELL: That was when I figured out the identity of Ralph and found out that he was a Black child.

DIRKS: Ralph is Ralph Yarl, the 16-year-old who was shot. Sorrell found and contacted Yarl's aunt. Then he wrote the piece that made the story go viral in the Kansas City Defender. The headline reads, this is a hate crime.

SORRELL: Every single person in our organization is an organizer, and I'm an organizer before I'm a journalist.

DIRKS: Sorrell grew up in Kansas City and went to Chicago for college. He was shaped by the Black Lives Matter movement. His freshman year, Michael Brown was killed by Ferguson police. Laquan McDonald was killed by Chicago police. And he felt like most media was getting the story wrong.

SORRELL: We were always having to, like, beg these white-owned news outlets, ask them to cover our stories, to cover our protests.

DIRKS: When the pandemic hit, Sorrell went back home to stay with his parents in Kansas City. After George Floyd was killed, Sorrell jumped into and helped lead a lot of protests. Out of that, he founded the Defender.

SORRELL: We see ourselves as, like, defenders of Black people in our city.

DIRKS: Sorrell says he's following in the tradition of the abolitionist Black press. Historically, that meant the abolition of slavery, then Jim Crow and other systems of oppression. For Sorrell, it's a natural leap to the abolition of the prison-industrial complex. Pretty quickly, the Defender started to make waves, especially among young people, and tips for stories started coming in.

SORRELL: We started to get reports from people on our Instagram account that there were multiple women who were missing from this street called Prospect Avenue.

DIRKS: Sorrell shared the Facebook post of a community member claiming a serial killer was targeting Black women. Instantly, Kansas City police denied the story. It was unfounded. There were no missing women, they said.

GWEN GRANT: The media criticized the KC Defender.

DIRKS: That's Gwen Grant, the CEO of the Kansas City Urban League and a mentor to Sorrell.

GRANT: You gave more credibility to the police. And you're looking at this young African American, probably in their minds, upstart who had the audacity to enter into this space.

DIRKS: Grant also had some questions about the story. She says Sorrell's source might not have been the most reliable, but a couple of weeks later, a Black woman was found half naked, wandering the streets of a nearby city. A white man, Timothy Haslett Jr., was arrested for assault and kidnapping.

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UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER #2: The victim, a 22-year-old woman, told police Haslett picked her up on Prospect Avenue in Kansas City in early September.

DIRKS: It's not clear that the rumors Sorrell publicized were connected to this missing woman, but the overlapping details are eerie. Sorrell says he learned not to rely on a single source, but he says he wasn't the only one who made that mistake. For some other media, their single source was the police.

SORRELL: If we took the police's word at face value, we would lose trust from people in our community.

DIRKS: After the woman was found, Kansas City police said in a statement they had no missing persons reports for Black women. In an email to NPR, they wrote, quote, "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." They pointed to another story the Defender published - an accusation of racism at a local restaurant that turned out to be inaccurate. Sorrell owns his mistakes and says he's working to get it right. All told, he's had a positive impact, says Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas.

QUINTON LUCAS: The Ralph Yarl story is not known to America without the KC Defender. The missing persons unit at the Kansas City Police Department probably is not restored without the KC Defender.

DIRKS: Lucas says by centering Black people, Sorrell and the Defender are finding stories others are missing.

Sandhya Dirks, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Sandhya Dirks
Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and the lead producer of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. She approaches race and equity not as a beat, but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting.