Monday, October 3, 2016

Character Assassination: The new News/Police Dynamic

Blake Dava

"News reports often headline claims from police or other officials that appear unsympathetic or dismissive of black victims. Other times, the headlines seem to suggest that black victims are to blame for their own deaths, engaging in what critics sometimes allege is a form of character assassination." -The Huffington Post

2016 is only the most recent year of questionable police killings in the past decade. But the past few years' events have drastically changed the relationship between the police and the media. 

Ever since the widely televised events of Ferguson, Mo. back in 2014, the police have become hesitant in releasing information to the media for fear of negative backlash from the stories. And the rise of protests stemming from the wide-spread "Black Lives Matter" movement have only increased the negative publicity, which makes this potentially small rift even larger. 

Brian Collister, an investigative reporter, began gathering research on the killing of Sandra Bland; a black woman who was killed by an officer after being pulled over for a traffic violation. 

When he approached the Texas Department of Public Safety "they didn't budge," said "The Texas DPS stalled for four months before giving Collister what he wanted."

Eventually, the information Collister received was used to expose the state troopers for skewing the stats by disproportionately recording some of the Hispanic drivers they stopped as white. 

This difficulty in information acquisition is only one of the many problems coming from the unstable relationship between the news and the police. And some police are stepping forward to say that their hesitancy to share information is warranted.

"Everyone who is watching it is watching it with their own baggage, their own set of circumstances, their own set of experiences, and with jaundiced eyes," said Seattle assistant police chief Perry Tarrant. 

Certainly there are situations that warrant a withholding of information, but there have been clear attempts to hide the more corrupt sides of the police. Any argument that information should be hidden in order to avoid public scrutiny should be immediately dismissed. It is the job of the reporter to inform their audience, and to do so from an unbiased perspective. To avoid objective reporting to prevent subjective interpretation is unethical as a journalist.

Also, when police only release certain information on a criminal, or a victim, or a potential threat, it shapes the stories the news can put out. When a story focuses on the negative aspects of a shooting victim who happens to be black, or focus's on the positive traits of a white victim, the story is guilty of character assassination. The story begins to either justify or nullify the events by influencing the readers' opinions of the victim.

In this problem, the police are certainly responsible, but the media is also to blame. It's arguable that focusing on highly negative or positive social aspects of the victim's life can create a more sensational news story. The media's an equal contributor to character assassination.

As a journalist, I believe that our job is to keep those who have power in check. If the police wish to make the acquisition of information difficult, than they're simply only making things worse for themselves. Journalism should not give into this trend, nor should it craft pieces to influence their audience's opinion of the story by way of character assassination.

Finally, as a colored citizen of this country, I want to feel safe. There is a struggle within America's police force, and the solutions are not yet clear. But I would want to know what's being done about this. That means keeping a close eye on the police force and an equally close eye on those who write about the police force. 

It's a dangerously unstable relationship, where either the police or journalists could act irresponsibly. And it's other journalists who must maintain that balance of power.

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