Press Matters: Journalists have no business doing PR for the powerful

“The purpose of journalism,” argues the American Press Institute, is to “provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.”

If we go with this definition of journalism, then it should be obvious journalists have no business acting as public relations lapdogs for the powerful, who have a vested interest in presenting their own stories in the best possible light. As The Nation’s Reed Richardson wrote last year about press coverage of Ferguson:

“Most of the time, when journalists pull their punches, it’s the status quo that gets the benefit of the doubt. The powerful already enjoy many advantages in this country. Count a too deferential, too credulous press corps among them.”

WAVE 3 reporter Eric Flack’s July 9 story about local activists who tried the Louisville Metro Police Department’s interactive use-of-force training tool is a case in point. Flack shows former Metro Councilwoman Attica Scott and activist Gary Bryce undergoing simulated scenarios, and explains that they were selected because of their leading roles in demonstrations outside LMPD headquarters after a police officer shot and killed Deng Manyoun in Old Louisville on June 13.

“It’s easy to be a critic,” LMPD Lieutenant Todd Motley tells Flack. Motley goes on to suggest that activists without police experience don’t really have any room to judge police officers. Soon after this quote, Flack shows Scott and Bryce doing poorly in the simulation. Bryce concedes that his actions in the simulation — shooting a man armed with a knife — might have led to protests.

Eric Flack | Photo via WAVE 3

Eric Flack | Photo via WAVE 3

When we asked Flack to tell us in his own words the purpose of his story, his only response was: “We’ll let the story speak for itself.”

For her part, Scott told us she believed Flack’s “shoot or don’t shoot” story was done “in the best way that a media personality can handle this kind of story in under four minutes and without the time to truly address the nuances of each situation.”

Scott added, “In the end, we know that our local television news media are not owned and operated by people of color, so we rarely expect coverage that is in-depth, investigative and inclusive of an analysis of community concerns. Far too often, we see coverage that does not reflect the lived reality of people who are marginalized and oppressed.”

Scott’s generally low expectations for television news reminded us of WAVE 3 reporter John Boel’s response to a question we asked for our previous column.

In an email, in reference to his story on police use-of-force, we asked Boel why he didn’t delve into the topic of “implicit bias,” a concept one of his interview subjects mentioned but that he chose not to explore.

John Boel’s response likewise pointed to the medium’s limitations. “There are many concepts I could have explored,” he replied in an email. “The story was five minutes long, a rarity in local news. I covered a lot of important ground in five minutes.”

It seems we are repeatedly being reminded to lower our expectations when it comes to television news media. Yet in light of the many shootings of unarmed people of color (mainly African-Americans), there is a really important, nuanced story to tell about police use-of-force training. There are avenues for TV news media to explore these stories — an investigative series of reports would be one way to allow for more exploration, for example. However, Flack’s report alone is not the nuanced reporting needed to advance the dialogue.

Instead, the story followed in the footsteps of a few other TV stations around the country (including Fox 10 in Phoenix — home to “the most lawless lawman in America” — and KHOU in Texas) by putting local activists through simulated use-of-force training sessions orchestrated by police.

In all three cases, the reporters go out of their way to emphasize the changed perspectives of the participants. One of the anchors at the Phoenix TV station praised the activist for “seeing it from the other side,” and the final sentence in the Texas report was “There’s a message here for communities and police as the two sides learn to trust each other more: ‘Walk in the other guys’ shoes.’”

In other words, these “news stories” were public relations efforts on behalf of police departments. Does that assessment seem a little harsh? Take a look at the email Flack sent, which LMPD spokeswoman Alicia Smiley provided to us:

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 2.32.43 PM

Flack pitched his story to LMPD as a “valuable tool to help the public and the media understand” shootings by police officers. But that’s LMPD Sgt. Phil Russell’s job, not Eric Flack’s, and there’s no effort here to have the police “walk in the other guys’ shoes.”

Role-reversal tales are popular in many cultures and are legitimate, albeit often limited, forms of storytelling. The “Undercover Boss” series on CBS is a good example, as is the Student For A Day exercise we participated in back in January. Gene Weingarten’s brilliant Pearls Before Breakfast story won a Pulitzer for turning a popular, wealthy musician into an anonymous subway busker for a few hours. But those stories are different from Flack’s in a significant way: they involved relatively powerful people briefly taking on the role of relatively powerless people in order to evoke empathy.

To be fair, it would be virtually impossible to do a role-reversal story where a white police officer learns what it’s like to be an African-American person regularly subjected to arbitrary police intervention. (Every citizen that participated in Flack’s story was black; every officer appearing in the story was white.)

But at the same time, we couldn’t find a single example of Louisville media outlets asking other critics of Louisville government agencies to perform some aspect of those agencies’ duties. No Louisville news organization has ever asked any JCPS critics to, say, teach a class of second-graders for four hours straight, or hold the attention of an auditorium full of seventh-graders for 30 minutes. No Louisville reporter has ever asked any of the folks criticizing Louisville Metro Animal Services to euthanize kittens, locate stray pets’ homes, or catch wild animals.

4BQL_GZMPerhaps that’s because journalists aren’t in the business of creating public relations pieces for government agencies — unless, apparently, it’s the LMPD, which was let off the hook by Boel’s WAVE story on police use of force.

It’s understandable why TV reporters do so much work on behalf of police, such as repeatedly using responsibility-dodging phrases preferred by police spokespeople. TV news relies heavily on crime reporting to fill all those hours of airtime, and they can’t do those stories without the active cooperation of police. For many of those stories, the police are the stations’ only source, and reporters have to maintain an active, amicable relationship with the police for that reason.

That said, Flack’s piece — just like the stories done by Fox 10 and KHOU —  functions much more effectively as PR on behalf of police than it does as journalism. Instead of addressing matters like implicit bias (which even the International Association of Chiefs of Police agrees is a problem) or the disproportionate numbers of unarmed black people killed by police, Flack is content to merely ask community activists to briefly experience a small taste of police work. To their credit, the activists responded with open minds, but of course nobody asked the police if their attitudes toward the activists might change in turn.

“As community leaders, we do not waste time with local media that attack us or that seek to use us to sensationalize a story,” Scott told us. “We make critical decisions about what will help to build community relationships. Hopefully, this interaction will be seen as part of that relationship building.”

While we applaud Scott’s openness to community dialogue, we challenge local television news reporters to advance that dialogue by tackling harder questions surrounding controversial, polarizing issues. Racial bias is an abstraction to many Louisvillians, and likely will remain so if we do not demand that television news reports achieve nuance and depth. Journalists should operate from a position of critical inquiry especially when reporting on powerful people and institutions, and never be satisfied with simple explanations that fit into a soundbite.

Because for Scott and many others, this issue is not an abstraction.

“I am not trained in the use of firearms, nor am I a trained police officer,” said Scott. “I am a mother who wants my black son to come home at night just like officers want to go home at night.”