I have a love hate relationship with the media on the best of days. I kinda am one of them somewhat, if you call writing for several publications “media”. I am by no means part of the mainstream media and for that I am thankful. I was sorting through some old articles and came across an op-ed that I wrote shortly before the Wilson grand jury returned a no bill on charges. This day I was fed up and disgusted with the media circus and the hood rat element that had destroyed a city (and this was prior to the grand jury decision) all without consequence.
After reading it today, I realized how many of the things I summarized in this article actually happened after this was written or got worse. Think NYC, EDP, Government, the media and social justice groups and read on:
Originally published Sept. 15th, 2014
Police deaths: Is the need for the media to be first, contributing to public mistrust ?
I’ve resisted the urge to write about this topic at length previously, but as I scroll through the endless pages of social media available to all of us. I come across notification of the 3rd law enforcement murder in just over 24 hours, I sit here in bewilderment at the disgusting trend that has increased since the media circus that was Ferguson, Missouri a few weeks prior.
Let me first qualify that I am a journalist, and also a former police officer. So I have an understanding of both sides of the fence here. On one side you have the largely liberal media, who are more than willing at this point to put anything that they hear, truthful, verified or not, out to the public in their need, with the onset of digital media to be “first”. Regardless of the accuracy of their reporting, or verifying any part of the information as fact before airing it. More on this later.
On the other side of the fence, you have the Police. From both large and small departments, just trying to do their job. Sometimes, that job requires them to put themselves in danger to protect the innocent. When I became a police officer, there was the usual disrespect and loathing that comes from people that are caught breaking the law and have no justification at all, so project it on to the arresting officer. This is the “why are you doing this to me” or “you’re just doing this to me because I’m **insert minority, gender or socioeconomic class here**”. You come to expect that in the job. Criminals are not regarded as the sharpest knives in the drawer most of the time, usually finding a way to bring themselves to your attention when they have done something wrong. Their excuses range from the creative, to the absurd (these aren’t even my pants…).
I probably read thousands of posts in relation to both sides of this situation over the ensuing weeks, but social media, as much as it has done for connecting people globally, has done equally as much to divide it. The abuse was flying from both sides of the fence relentlessly. Spawning a truly disturbing trend that has sadly, started to become reality in the day to day lives of law enforcement officers.
Posters to Facebook sites such as “Cop Block” went from being a group of dope smoking kids who were mad at the police for pulling them over and arresting them mid joint, under the guise of citizens being on the lookout for so called “rogue officers”, to people posting their rampant hatred for all levels of law enforcement with some wishing death, or promoting the murder of law enforcement officers. some of the more macabre and disgusting posts, I duly reported to Facebook. This included postings of leaked or stolen images from crime scenes showing graphic pictures of murdered officers.
What was Facebook’s response to these macabre images or the threats made to kill officers you ask? Well, it was to say that the posts that were reported were not in violation of their community standards… Of course, I am not naive enough to think that a real person reviews all post reports. With 11 million pictures uploaded to Facebook daily (Yes, 11 million, that’s six zero’s).
However, the faith placed in algorithms that are supposed to vette what I am sure is millions of reports daily, also serves as a point to this article. In the digital age, when emotionally disturbed persons (EDP’s), are able to access this kind of violent content, it may just hit a nerve with a single EDP on the right day, that they decide to go out and commit a heinous act against law enforcement.
The mass social media frenzy after the Ferguson incident had almost everyone taking sides. Those who were screaming “police brutality” and “he could have shot him in the arm” etc. to those staunchly in the corner of law enforcement with retorts such as “play stupid games, win stupid prizes”. The reality of the matter, no matter which side of the fence you chose to sit on was this.
The media, government and the civil rights groups all descended on Ferguson, Missouri and before the sun went down that day, the media was reporting that the criminal was shot in the back multiple times by the officer and the criminal had his hands up :according to witness reports”. Other deplorable reporting, such as continuing to refer to the offender as “an unarmed teen” proceeded unabated. This shaping the mental picture of a small defenseless kid in the public’s mind, being accompanied by a picture of a 13 year old wearing headphones, while it took days for the media to actually report that he was over 6 feet tall and almost 300 pounds – far from a defenseless unarmed teen that is a model student that goes to church on Sundays as was being purported.
I could go on for an entire posting about the deplorable reporting that went on in this case and 50 others, but the reality is this. This type of negative, careless reporting has consequences. This played a large part in the rioting that occurred in direct response to all of the inaccurate reporting taking place. Much of which has been slowly debunked through evidence, not speculation. However, the media machine was comfortable enough to feed off the rumor and suggestion of one single witnesses account. This account provided by the one guy that had motive to lie, having just been present during a strong-arm robbery that they just committed together.
As someone who prides themselves on accurate fact checking of stories that I write in magazine publications, I wonder what the journalists of today think when they publish content that they know they have not verified as fact? Do they look at it online or on the television and smile with satisfaction as something they are proud of? Do they look at the riots in Ferguson, Missouri after a situation like this and feel guilt that their reporting may have contributed in part to the larger situation that occurred? Or are they that ingrained to being first, to winning this imaginary news race that each network runs every time something juicy happens, that they have no regard for the ramifications of their ill informed reporting its being first that matters. Be damned the consequences, right, because they were FIRST! knowing that in a few days, they will be on to the next story and never pay consequence to the mess they leave behind?
The things that situations like Ferguson, Missouri teach us, is that the media as a whole, and also our government for that matter, have set a dangerous precedent. They have both condemned the police officer without any evidence at all and sided with the criminal element before one single verified fact of the incident was known. The Governor of Missouri even called for the officers prosecution, without knowing any of the facts or seeing any evidence. This to the people of Ferguson was a red rag to a bull, compounded by the non-stop reporting of the incident and minute by minute updates in the case being beamed into houses around the country.
The larger problem is perception of law enforcement. When the government, from the level of the state Governor all the way up to the federal DOJ and the President, are condemning this officer and this department with no basis, what kind of message does this send to the public about the confidence and support that police officers can expect from these government bodies? Well, that’s easy, it’s already been demonstrated that without evidence, they are convicted in absentia, without due process, by the media and the government figureheads trying to appease their voter base with rhetoric and checks they can’t cash. Something that every person in the country is guaranteed to be afforded by the constitution, is the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty by jury of your peers. This is something Darren Wilson has not been afforded by our government.
How does this equate to the original point of the story you might ask? Well, the last few days have been rough on law enforcement, if the trend continues, this year will be a record for the highest number of law enforcement fatalities in many years. In the last 36 hours, there have been 6 officers shot by offenders, 3 of which died from their injuries. One on a traffic stop was murdered by the person he pulled over, the second was one of two officers in Pennsylvania that was ambushed while just walking into their state police post. The third officer, succumbed to his injuries this morning after being in a gun battle with a suicidal emotionally disturbed person (EDP).
These officers were fathers, brothers, sons, uncles and friends. Why should their job, require them to give their life before the end of their shift because someone decided that today was the day that after watching a government official condemn the actions of a police officer without knowing any facts or reading the thousands of social media posts full of hate, spite and vitriol towards law enforcement, was the day that they were going to leave their house, intent on killing a police officer.
Ostensibly, a police officer is a person that has the willingness to defend the weak and to run towards the gunfire instead of the instinctive human response to run away from danger. But what no officer signs up for, is to expect to be assumed guilty if they have to take defensive action to save their life or the life of someone else.
The knock on effect of this kind of mentality, is that when the media becomes involved, and in their rush to get the scoop on a rapidly developing story, they are willing to go to print or to air, with nothing more than speculation and third or fourth hand information, regardless of its truthfulness. This by its very nature, when it involves a case where there is any variance in a suspects race, ethnicity, age or any one of a million other things that may make it newsworthy, will bring out the news media in large numbers, willing to cover any angle they can. Even if the angle may have negative consequences, such as the media coverage of the officer in Ferguson who remained nameless for a long period. Members of the media took it upon themselves to broadcast live from the neighborhood he lived in, the street he lived on, and even from in front of the officers house while featuring the number of the house on live TV.
Is this what journalism has come to? Reporters are now more interested in getting a good story than protecting the life of someone at the center of a firestorm of controversy for just doing his job? The selectiveness in which the media will cover a story is deplorable in many ways. There has been an increase in officers being assaulted and killed since this incident, but there has been exactly zero news coverage of this statistic. For anyone who had any doubt that the mass media has an agenda and takes sides, that is a pretty damning thought to ponder.
I was once told a story by another officer about an interaction with a reporter at a scene after a spate of particularly negative media coverage of his agency. He asked the reporter why the media hated the police so much. The reporter smiled and said “we are not anti police, we are just pro controversy”. In this case and many others like it, my question to the media is this: At what point does being pro controversy dictate that you should report so irresponsibly that it has the potential to jeopardize or end someone’s career, end someone’s life or completely destroy a city?
As someone who has walked a mile in both sets of shoes, I choose to take the dignified high road and check my facts to avoid anything I write causing anyone undue harm, both personally and professionally. Sometimes, it is more important to protect someone who would be clearly in harm’s way if you reported something, than to be first, or best or the winner. Maybe it’s because I have walked the beat and know right from wrong more than a 24 year old who has done nothing but graduate college and work for a newspaper and has not one single thread of life experience to draw on, who knows? I only wish that those in government and the mainstream media would entertain the same thoughts. It could just save another officers family the heartbreak of them losing a father, mother, husband, wife, son or daughter…