Recently Allah blessed me with the opportunity to follow a saga in a local newspaper about a city council member who was arrested for driving while intoxicated or something to that effect.
The story goes like this: the woman was pulled over for making some late-night hair-brained turn, faced with a field sobriety test and ended up in the nearby pokey. The next day, or thereabouts, her mugshot and basic police blotter story was the lede in the newspaper based in the city she represented in government.
A few weeks later, the paper led an edition with news it was suing the state police for refusing to comply with its Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of the arresting trooper’s in-car video of the woman being pulled over. A few weeks after that, the paper led an edition with news it had won the suit. A few weeks after that, the paper led an edition with news the video had been delivered to the paper and announced it was on its website.
(It’s possible some of the technical details of this epic – such as her exact charge(s) and entity listed as plaintiff in the suit – are incorrect. Don’t worry – they shouldn’t affect the gist of this post since it’s really just a bunch of nonsense anyway.)
This situation is why people hate newspapers. It’s one example of why adults in their 20s spend four years in journalism school and think it might have been a waste of time. It is completely inexcusable.
First, kudos to the newspaper for filing a FOIA. A lot of places don’t seem to know what these are, let alone how to submit one. They’re the best example of journalistic watchdogs fighting “the man” for the sake of the public. If public officials, such as the state police or highway patrol, were allowed to pick and choose what public information they shared, corruption would be more rampant than it already is.
Second, kudos to the newspaper for getting a high-quality copy of the video online. I watched three minutes of the first (in a series of three, according to the Microsoft Movie Maker title page) 15-minute video and could hear just about everything being said.
Third, kudos to the newspaper for … something. (There’s got to be something else significant that came from so many man hours, occupation of a taxpayer-funded entities’ time and so much print, right?)
It turns out my life is almost exactly the same as it was before I was able to watch a city councilwoman chat with a state trooper. And although we’ll likely never cross paths in our daily lives, I really don’t judge a person’s character on one irresponsible choice numerous people make each day.
I was more embarrassed for journalism. I was embarrassed for all of the responsible journalists I’ve met in my career whose livelihood was a bit tarnished by the paper’s actions. Here was a news outlet that did a good job demonstrating what newspapers can do and why people choose careers in journalism, but forgot one thing: people want news in a newspaper, not a play-by-play of what has probably become the worst day of a professional’s adult life.
Receiving the video after the police refused to give it up (it’s public information) was a victory. Truth is, the highway patrol had a lot of stinking nerve trying to withhold it to begin with. But in the hustle and bustle, e-mails and phone calls and letter writing and certified mail-sending and downright pissing contest the fight for the video probably ended up being, the editors seemed to have abandoned basic – very basic – news judgment.
Who loses? This city councilwoman and her family and friends and co-workers and reputation as a humanitarian, of course. But readers don’t care about that (although they’ll tell you they do). The real losers are the young reporters who in the future have to face city council members, state troopers and regular schmucks off the street who say, “You know what? I don’t want to talk to you. I’ve seen what you newspapers do to people.” Naturally, bad news judgment to this degree generates an element of mistrust in newspapers.
The real loser when a newspaper does something like this is journalism itself.