Since it’s not always easy to broach a topic like “What if the police are lying to you as a journalist?” and because trying to keep students’ attention at around the six-week mark of class can be quite difficult, here’s a potential conversation starter for your reporting class. Comedian John Oliver took on the way in which crime reporting works on Sunday’s episode of “Last Week Tonight.” It has a lot of interesting jumping-off points as well as some important looks at how reporting shapes our worldview in terms of safety, race and the law, among other topics.
Before you consider showing this in class, a couple brief caveats:
- He swears an appreciable amount, something that might be problematic if you work somewhere that requires penance if you use the word “damn” in the classroom.
- He will often take a bit a little too far. He’s done far worse before, but there is at least one reference to Miss Piggy’s sex life, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.
- The piece picks at broadcast news A LOT, which seems a bit unfair, given that a lot of media outlets follow the same basic pattern of taking police press releases and running with them.
- He has a point of view. If you’ve never watched “Last Week Tonight” before, it’s worth mentioning, in that he fact checks the heck out of stuff but like most things with a point of view, he points to things that support his POV. Some people call that cherry-picking, but there appear to be a lot of cherries around this story.
From my own experience in working with the police and covering crime, let me add these thoughts:
- The reliance on press releases as a sole source is a bad practice across the board. Oliver points out that a lot of the problems in how narratives are cast comes from press releases from public-information officers. Journalists should essentially know that all press releases come with a point of view, not just those that come from the police. Relying on a press release from Dyson will probably lead to the story, “Study finds U.S. needs more, better vacuum cleaners.”
- A lot of the problems here are germane to all of journalism these days, in which the importance of filling the grist mill leads to grab-and-go journalism. A lot of our problems come from not being able to be at the scene or develop trustful relationships with sources or waiting to tell a story until it’s fully fleshed out. This is as true in political coverage, education coverage and other forms of coverage as it is in crime coverage.
- In some cases “police said” carries with it a special layer of protection, based on certain interpretations of qualified privilege, in which journalists can rely on official sources acting in an official capacity without fear. That’s why it’s there. Also, he mentions some places are using “police claim” as a substitute for being deferential to police. Please don’t follow this path. “Said” is supposed to be neutral. The problem is that we lack other people on the other side of the issue to do some “saying” for us. Also, if you stick allegedly in there as another potential fix, please know that every time you use allegedly, God kills a kitten.
- He always ends giant segments like this with the “not all (fill in the group) are bad people who act this way” after spending 28 minutes telling you how crappy that group can be. I’ve had my share of crappy PIOs in various departments, but I’ve also worked with some really good police, deputies and other law-enforcement officials over the years. I follow the simple idea of extending them the level of trust I would like them to extend to me. When one of us violates that trust, now it’s game on.
With all of that in mind, here’s John…