In the line of duty

When I was a journalism student many years ago, my college profs encouraged me and my fellow classmates to think about ethics in every class. History of the Press, Newswriting and Reporting, Critical and Editorial Writing, Layout and Design… each course introduced us to discussions about what was ethical, what responsibilities we had as journalists, and what our role was in the telling of an objective story. Should we get involved if we saw someone getting hurt? How do we blow the whistle, if that becomes necessary? What would make it necessary? Should we, truly, report just the facts and not interfere? If we did, how large an impact would/could/should we leave?

That one was hard for me; at times I thought journalists should absolutely intervene although they didn’t. Other times, I saw them do so at great risk. And in still other discussions, the focus of which I can’t recall now, I remember thinking it’s definitely not a reporter’s duty to step in.

In the years since I started having those discussions, I have thought about them regularly. I read The New York Times every day, and I read The Argus Leader, my “local” rag as much as I can (there’s only so much high school sports coverage a person needs). I see how other writers are doing this, or not, in their work. When I teach, I think about responsbility and ethics and “truth” from a literary perspective now too. And in the DEI work I currently do as a full-time gig, I’m always thinking about how the truth is shaped and curated and the questions and answers we leave out and what kind of impact that has on “the story.”

Today as I was reading the Argus I thought about a journalist’s responsibility and my (still) murky feelings on how much to be involved, or how to get involved, in the telling of the news. And I thought about how a skilled journalist can help steer a story. However, even as I write this post, thinking as I do now, I’m not sure if a journalist “should” steer a story, and yet in this case it’s hard not to think that.

Maybe you’ll help me see more angles here?

The article I read details a new $5000 incentive being offered by my local police force to draw people to law enforcement. The reporter touches on the realities of workforce challenges for all employers, notes that law enforcement is facing those issues and provides some background on previous incentives and where staffing sits currently for our local PD. The chief of police is quoted (from a previous interview) but the article draws heavily on police spokesperson Sam Clemens. Finally, the article ends by noting that the department is trying to bolster diversity.

It was a fine enough article, and I agree that being a cop has probably always been hard and probably isn’t any easier today than it’s ever been. I agree any workforce suffers when it isn’t running at full capacity. And I definitely don’t believe “all cops are bad.” So I’m sympathetic to the outcomes the PD hopes for and what this article could have done for those needs. But where the article lost me, and where I began wondering if the reporter could have/should have done something different boiled out at me in the eighth paragraph (of 17).

“In a perfect world, you’d have an unlimited number of cops, but the realistic side of that is, there’s a cost that comes with that,” Clemens added. “So the chief works closely with the mayor and the city council and trying to find that balance of what that number of employee is provided.”

“In a perfect world, you’d have an unlimited number of cops…”

The line burned in my brain, and with it came a set of questions: In whose perfect world? Unlimited? Why wouldn’t you have unlimited mental health support, or translators, or afforable housing? Or addiction and rehab services?

I knew Trent Abrego, the writer, was just doing his job, quoting Clemens. But in the paragraphs that followed, which focused on the importance the PD places on diversity, I did not feel like things were matching up. I knew, logically and practically speaking, the PD rep was saying that in ideal circumstances, there would be enough officers so that no one would have to work too many shifts back to back, and that more patrols might mean safer streets, and that all employees feel better when their teams have enough people to do the work.

But given the nature of who’s envisioning a “perfect world” with “unlimited cops” and who we often see behind bars and why, this line felt to me at best like a bit of an injustice to the police department and more starkly, a totally tone deaf statement issued by the person hired to speak on behalf of the force.

But who’s job is it to make sure optics and output match up? Is it the reporter’s? No. Is it Clemens’? He certainly works for the police department, whether or not he’s a cop. It’s more his job than Abrego’s to make sure things sound the way the PD needs them to. But had Abrego asked for clarity or a rephraseing of that statement, might I have finished the article without feeling hot over it? Might he have asked some other questions, such as, “what if it’s not unliminted cops we need, but other resources?” He might have put down his pen or stopped his recorder and said “Dude, do you realize how bad that sounds, after you just spent 20 minutes telling me you want to do a better job supporting diversity?”

But that’s not his job, either.

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