Beyond press release journalism and official stories

Police break up Colorado drug ring! Oops — no, they didn’t. What actually happened: police arrested 40 people on the basis of unreliable and vindictive informants, splashed their names and faces all over local front pages and TV news, and later dismissed all the charges. This story of policing — journalism — gone wrong demonstrates the perils of relying on the “official story.”

Police and prosecutors in Trinidad, Colorado announced 40 “drug ring” arrests in the week before Christmas 2013. The Columbia Journalism Review reports that a television station ran a “re-written news release from the cops that included the 40 names under an ominous graphic of handcuffs and the words ‘Drug Bust.’” Local newspapers didn’t do much better. Some of those who were accused saw “their lives trashed—jobs lost, publicly shamed, compelled to start over in a new town.”

Local police had based the entire “investigation” on informants who flat out lied and accused people to settle grudges. Local newspapers and televisions stations failed to investigate even easily-verified claims of innocence. The eventual dismissal of every single one of the charges got nothing like the front page coverage of the arrests and accusations.

David Santistevan is a former reporter. He told CJR that he lost his job back in 2012 because he wanted to follow up on police information instead of just publishing what they said. Santistevan now publishes #Trinidad and Las Animas County News on Facebook, and he reported there on the unfolding story, as the cases fell apart. Denver’s alternate weekly, Westword, followed up at the end of November with a lengthy exposé: The snitch who stole Christmas: How the Trinidad war on drugs attacked the innocent.

The Colorado fiasco highlights the importance of local reporting. CJR calls the Westword story “a media critique: a reminder that we need strong, attentive coverage of local government.” After the alternative publications’ reporting started getting national attention, and after CJR called out local media on their failure to report the whole story, some did update their coverage.

In 2011, an FCC report warned that the independent watchdog function of journalism is at risk at the local level. Over the past decade, “dramatic newspaper-industry cutbacks appear to have caused genuine harm to American citizens and local communities,” with less investigative reporting and “less daily beat reporting about municipal government, schools, the environment, local businesses, and other topics that impact Americans’ future, their safety, their livelihood, and their everyday life.”

Great local reporting still happens. MPR and Madeleine Baran’s coverage of sex abuse in the Catholic Church is an example of both in-depth investigative reporting and the long-term commitment that news organizations must make to support it.

A good reporter on the city hall or public school beat will get to know the players: the politicos, the administrators, the union leaders, business owners, and so on. The beat reporter knows the issues, remembers what happened last month and last year, remembers who has given straight information and who has ducked and dodged questions and maybe even bent the truth.

In contrast, when media act as the mouthpiece for police or local government officials or businesses, uncritically repeating their statements, we abdicate our responsibility to the community. The United Kingdom’s Media Trust report on the news needs of local communities summed it up well:

“Local people seek reporting from those they know understand what goes on locally, or who are at least willing to learn. This means having a local presence, being seen to ferret out information, dig behind it, and make sense of it. They want analytic depth and scepticism regarding those in power, meaningful context, and robust debate.”

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