On any given day, in any city across this great nation of ours, one can read a headline emblazoned across a local newspaper containing words similar to these: "Cops Shoot Man Who Has Toy Gun," or perhaps, "Unarmed College Student Killed by Cops." Recently, we were reminded by the press, ad nauseum, of just how murderous we cops really are, vis-a-vis the Sean Bell case. In particular, the New York papers reported, with what seemed to be a sense of glee, that Mr. Bell had been killed in a hail of 50 bullets.
Whenever we read reports such as the ones mentioned above that are purported to be factual, we never hear much about what prompted the cops to use deadly force. Moreover, most victims of police shootings are eerily represented as cut from the same cloth - they were minding their own business, they were respected members of their community, they were loved by everyone, they were hard-working, and none of them had ever said a bad word about anyone. Sound familiar?
The news media sink their collective teeth into police shooting stories, especially if the cops are white and the individual killed was black. Racism, or the mere hint of it, sells papers. Circumstances and justification rarely factor into reportage. No doubt you've heard the old axiom, "If it bleeds it leads." Any police incident in which cops have fired their weapons is front page news more often than not. I have no qualms about the media reporting incidents involving police gunfire. Indeed, all of us as citizens expect that the news media will report the events that shape our communities every day. What seems remarkable however is that most shootings that are reported are couched in terms of the police having done something untoward.
The manner in which many of the shooting occurrences are reported seems to insinuate that the cops were wrong or that they were covering something up. This unethical, and often times inflammatory reporting, only serves as kindling to ignite a bonfire of hatred and mistrust by demagogues who purport to be spiritual or civic leaders of the community. It causes one to think that perhaps the media is in a partnership with hate-mongers, and those that would stir up emotions to the point of civil unrest.
The ethics question that immediately comes to my mind is this, "How does a reporter justify not reporting a story in-depth, i.e., only covering the side of the alleged victim, and not fully investigating the police explanation of what occurred?" How does that qualify as a fair and balanced analysis - an unbiased account? The quick answer is that unless they frame the story in terms of a "defenseless, innocent victim," the story has no legs.
The other aspect of how the media shoots us with their "paper bullets," is how many people think about the mechanics of killing. To the extent that the television and movies have portrayed unrealistic expectations of shootings, i.e., the ability to shoot a weapon from someone's hand or Dirty Harry killing someone with one round that blows that individual through a plate glass window, the media, just like a few of us, expect that police can wound or kill somebody with one well placed round. When that fails to happen in the real world; when someone continues to fight even though struck several times with what proves later to be lethal rounds, the media jumps all over the authorities demanding an explanation. Yet, when for whatever reason, the police fail to use deadly force, or in the instance of an active shooter, they fail to move on the shooter immediately, the media are quick to assign blame for cops' reluctance to act.
In terms of the ethical responsibility involved in reporting and documenting deadly force situations, I not only fault the press, but contend that our own departments share the blame as well. We are reluctant to hold the media's feet to the fire. When bad reporting happens, we need to get out in front of the cameras and set the record straight. Police work doesn't just happen on the street; police work involves every aspect of the job. Just as we advise the people we serve in matters of legalities, so also must we advise the social structure that surrounds our community. The cops that hold admin positions are still sworn to back us up when the need arises. If that means addressing cases of media inaccuracies, then our own media reps need to have our backs. If we allow the press to continue down the path of sensationalism without stopping them, then we unwittingly sanction all that they say and do.
As a writer, I have an obligation to report all of the facts surrounding a story, not just those that I cherry pick. In prosecutions, to withhold any exculpatory evidence is unethical behavior as well. Just as we are expected to adhere to the highest of standards, we should also demand that our media operate within those same parameters. When they do not, we need to be proactive in our effort to reboot the reporting process to get it back in sync with reality.
Stay safe brothers and sisters!