Daily Archives: March 14, 2010

“Victim”? No.

Generally speaking, police officers expect fair scrutiny from the news media.  They know there are bad apples in their ranks.  If the media helps weed them out, good cops will cheer us on.

But like the rest of us, police officers recoil from cheap shots, real or perceived.  More than anything, they get defensive very quickly when reporters question their judgment in life-or-death situations.

Fellow WAGA ex-pat Bernard Watson raised such a question in this WGCL story, and police reacted harshly.

Watson has company; a WSB-TV reporter spent years living down a similar story.  Based only on e-mails and word-of-mouth among cops, legions of them badmouthed the reporter and vowed to never speak to him (or worse).  That was before Youtube and blogs.

The DeKalb Officers Speak blog raises two points about Watson’s piece that any reporter ought to take into consideration when producing such a story.

“Victim.” Be careful who you describe as a “victim.”  If the person killed died while attacking a cop (or anybody) with a knife (or anything), he started the altercation as an “attacker.”  If his grieving relatives say he’s a “victim,” take extra care to attribute the term.  Don’t use it on your own.

Viewpoint. Despite our pretenses to objectivity, journalism frequently carries a viewpoint.  Corrupt public officials are bad, murderers are grotesque, potholes are a pain.  DeKalb Officers takes issue with Watson’s question to an eyewitness:  “Some are saying it’s not right for this man to die in his own home.”   Unfortunately, Watson’s generic attribution was insufficient.  The question sounded like the reporter’s viewpoint.

It’s legitimate for the news media to ask questions when police officers use deadly force.  But if the story appears to focus on a “victim” of police excess, then the reporter needs strong prima facie evidence.  The “victim” needs to be a 92 year old woman, or have died in seriously questionable circumstances.

And if the eyewitness tells you, essentially, that the cop was legitimately in fear for his life — then that raises a big ol’ red flag about the premise of your story.

No doubt, Watson cobbled together a last-minute script while sitting in a dark live truck with a looming deadline. Could be that an inexperienced producer was after him to tell the “victim’s” story.  But ultimately, it’s Watson who has stand by his reporting.

Last weekend, WGCL news director Steve Schwaid contacted the anonymous DeKalb Officers blog to express regret for calling the dead man a “victim.”

Used to be, your story was “out to Pluto” by the time the broadcast was over.  Now it somewhat lives forever on the web, including the ones you kinda hope nobody noticed.  Along with your contact info.

I’d bet my paycheck Bernard Watson has no “agenda against the police” as DeKalb Officers suggests.  But his inbox is probably a rough place to visit these days.

…as is the inbox of the Atlanta TV reporter that cops are now calling “Doughnut Boy.”  Which is a whole ‘nother story…