Friday, August 01, 2014

Manufactured 'news' is unethical

So there I was — walking around the Merchant's Building at the Niagara County Fair Wednesday evening when a colleague walked up to me and asked if I'd seen the Lockport Police Department Facebook page.

At a bit of a loss because I'm not used to other people telling me the news — it's supposed to be the other way around — I sheepishly said "no." So he takes out his phone and shows me the Facebook post that's since gone around the world: "Question: Is the word 'negro' an offensive word or just an outdated word?"

I'm not going to lie; I was kind of floored. I had no idea how or why that could have made it to the LPD Facebook page. My first thought was that someone had hacked the department's Facebook account and this was their effort at saying that Lockport's Finest are racist. Option two, which was a very distant second, was that someone who maintains the LPD Facebook account had accidentally posted that while having meant to post it to their personal page. Those were the only two possibilities that went through my mind. There was no possible way that someone had posted that question on purpose.

Of course, I didn't have the back story.

I was told that Channel 2 was all over it. So, of course, I checked out Channel 2's website and saw the story about the LPD document that listed Shamir Allen as a person LPD was looking for ... and the fact that his complexion was listed as "negro-da" (dark). It went on to talk with three prominent black leaders in the city of Buffalo, all of whom were outraged by it.

Channel 2 had just what they were looking for: a moral outrage story about a racist backwater police department in a racist backwater town.

Of course that's the story they had — they pretty much created it. To me that's bad journalism. And it gives those of us who don't engage in those practices a bad name.

In the list of "least trusted professions," journalists rank near the top — right along with politicians and car salesmen. It's because people think we "spin" the news to say what we want it to say. And that, frankly, is because some of us apparently do.

In truth, I can talk to the right people and pick the right quotes and construct a story that says whatever I want to convey. If I go in to a story desiring an outcome, I can just keep asking questions until I get the answers that fit that outcome. Like if I want to make Lockport look like a racist backwater town with a racist backwater police department, for example, I could take a document with the word "negro" on it and ask three "race experts," none of whom live in the city of Lockport, "Hey, aren't you outraged by this?" I've never done that in my life. I was trained not to. It's unethical. It's just plain wrong.

Getting back on track ... I saw the Channel 2 story Wednesday night and recognized it for what it was: a hit job. That didn't make the Facebook question better, but I understood where it came from; It was an effort by LPD to do a little PR. It was a horrible effort, mind you. But I got where it came from. I thought, or at least hoped, that others would get where it came from, too. I didn't want to add fuel to the fire and give Channel 2's story legs so I opted against publishing anything about it.

Thursday morning I woke up to a story from Gawker, a NYC-based website that deals mostly in media and celebrity news ... with a smattering of everything else. Gawker bought Channel 2's story hook, line and sinker. And it used the LPD Facebook question as proof. If the police department is asking whether it's okay to use "negro," then obviously it is a racist backwater police department from a racist backwater town.

Now I had to do something with the story. Ignoring Channel 2 is one thing. Ignoring channels 2, 4, 7, the Buffalo News, US&J, USA Today and Gawker? I didn't want it to look like East Niagara Post didn't know what had happened. And whether I thought it was newsworthy no longer mattered. The spread of the news made it newsworthy — like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I called Lockport Police Department's community policing aide Mark Sanders and Chief Larry Eggert to get their take on how it all went down. Eggert was diplomatic, as he always is. Sanders pulled no punches, though. He said outright that it was a hit job:

This guy from Channel 2 came in guns loaded. He already had the story written. He just needed the video.
Sanders explained that the LPD Facebook question was borne from a question on his own Facebook that had generated a good discussion. The department hoped they could recreate that discussion on a larger scale on their own Facebook. Instead, they got chaos.

"When I'm asking without the police, great responses," Sanders said. "You put a shield on it and all hell breaks loose."

Yeah, I could have told Mark that would happen. There have been claims of racism within the ranks of LPD for years. I did a story on it over a decade ago. I don't recall the details, but I think maybe the ACLU filed a report about the disproportionate number of black people who get arrested within the city of Lockport?

Long story short, if given the chance to say that police are racist, some people are going to take them up on that. The Facebook question was an invitation to do just that. People accepted the invitation. All hell broke loose, to paraphrase Sanders. And the department pulled the question from Facebook, which actually made them look even more guilty in some people's minds.

Channel 2 got just what they wanted. They manufactured a story and LPD played right into their hands.

And it's a shame really. For so many reasons.

Fun fact: I've never been black. I was born a goofy looking white kid with red hair and freckles. I'm now a goofy looking 39-year-old white guy with red hair and freckles. I've never veered from that path. So I've always been treated like a goofy looking white kid/guy with red hair and freckles. I've never known what it's like to be a person of color. So I cannot say definitively how anyone from LPD treats people of color when the doors are closed. But I've never seen overt racism from anyone within that department. And I've never heard anyone there use the term "negro" or the other, much uglier "n-word." It's always been "black" or "African American," depending on who you talk to.

The fact that the word "negro" was on a computer program drop box menu is really a shame. In 2014, that term is truly outdated. And yes, offensive to many. It should have been fixed years ago. In fact, based on how old they're saying the software is — 20 years or so — it never should have been an option. But it's hardly the smoking gun it was made into. It's hardly proof of rampant racism at LPD. Should someone have fixed it years ago? Sure. Would I rather have them fixing terminology on computer drop boxes or fighting crime? I'll take the latter.

Here's another fun fact that doesn't get said out loud often. The relationship between police and media is tenuous. We get along. We're all polite to one another. But there's a certain level of distrust. I gather that it's because we just come at things from different angles. Police like to control information. They keep things close to the vest, releasing only what they have to when they have to. Media types think all information should be public. So people with secrets are suspect to us. As such, police are generally viewed as questionable. The other side of that, I'm told that police think we get in the way and get everything wrong.

The Channel 2 story on Wednesday did nothing to help that relationship. Channel 2 is media. Channel 2 went out of their way to make LPD look bad. So "the media" went out of their way to make LPD look bad. I'm media. I could see why local police would be more hesitant to talk to me now. In fact, I was somewhat surprised that Sanders and Eggert took my calls Thursday morning.

I'm glad they did because writing the story that ENP ran Friday morning would have been pretty much impossible without their input. In fact, a lot of ENP content would be impossible to get without talking to members of the Lockport Police Department — something we do every single day here. And something I imagine Channel 2 does a couple times a month at most.

So dear readers, please be careful where you get your news from. I disagree that journalists are untrustworthy. But I understand why some feel we are; It's because of examples like the Channel 2 story Wednesday night.


This column was originally published on East Niagara Post