“Reporters are faced with the daily choice of painstakingly researching stories or writing whatever people tell them. Both approaches pay the same.” – Scott Adams
Since a very young age (like the age of eight), I have considered myself a journalist. I made classroom newspapers in fourth grade, created the Pine Lane Linguist in seventh grade by roping in some friends and forcing Microsoft Word to cooperate with my plans. My senior project in high school was to create a news magazine, The Legionnaire, which was a bunch of really smart people I met in summer programs providing copy to something that’s like The Economist, but by a diverse cast of young people. And I’ve maintained this blog for over three years.
So I’ve long since internalized the norms of journalism, as taught to us in handbooks and All The President’s Men. Get the facts. Weigh the sources. Don’t get suckered. And for the love of god, don’t become a tool of outside forces.
The body-cam footage of Ray Tensing shooting Sam Dubose once- clearly and intentionally- in the head, is horrifying. If you do want to see it, here’s The Stranger with the best short breakdown of what happened. What has happened since shows how the rest of society bails out the police when it shouldn’t.
A claim repeated over and over in every media story was that Tensing was dragged by the car prior to the shooting. This despite the fact that early on it was established that there was a body-cam recording of the traffic stop, and early reactions from people involved in the case were that the video was very, very bad. The only reason these media outlets reported this initial sequence of events was because Tensing and another officer, Eric Wiebel, said it was what happened. Dubose wasn’t available for comment on the story because he was shot once in the head at point-blank range.
This is the norm, both in cases where the victim was killed or when they are still alive and have their own account. The first narrative is the police narrative, which sinks into the consciousness. A later correction to “oh, the main claims by the officers were nonsense” doesn’t erase the mark set. How many people have you talked to that know about some current event but not the newest developments? Huge numbers of people still think Tensing was dragged by Dubose, prompting the shooting. It can never be fully cleansed from people’s minds.
Because of this acceptance of police testimony, in cases of rival narratives we often doubt the victim. There is a built in sense that even if they did nothing wrong, they have a criminal nature. A recurring tactic is to leak information about a victim’s drug history, asking the media to speculate from there. This happened (and its importance later debunked) with Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin, using three high-profile examples. These cases become referendum on the behavior of those who have been beaten or killed- something the media is willingly complicit in. I’m pretty tired of stories with leading questions as their title. Nowhere near the amount of speculation is made about police officers, and their lives are never picked over the in the same crass manner.
Shaun King is a nice source of sanity- his Twitter account is a great resource for those of us who are passionate activists, but also loyal to getting things right in a particular, ethical way. Journalists should always factor in the one huge, monumental elephant in the room. If an unarmed person is killed by the police, the officer(s) involved, and their bosses have every reason in the world to lie. Maybe the police are a good source of information about the number of arrests made at a drunk driving checkpoint. But often they have their careers at stake.
Treating the police and the justice system as an rock-solid authoritative source is dangerous, and leads to the current fiasco with Dubose. A guy selling you his used car off of Craigslist would like you to take his story at face value. However, it would be more sensible to go to a third-party mechanic and ask their opinion. A third-party can evaluate the car and establish facts, independent of the stakes involved.
Journalists are supposed to be the mechanic, not a booster of the story the buyer wants to spin.
In the days of the original muckrakers, journalism was a force for liberation and taking down the powerful. It spoke for those who are not represented in the rest of society. Writing is a weapon, which can be used for good or evil.