Two controversial deaths Aug. 9 are prima facie evidence on how reporting news has changed since I began my career in 1964 – surprised to be hired for The Post-Crescent’s New London bureau.
I reasoned that nobody else wanted the job. To me it was big money that paid $187.50, twice a month for a 44-hour work week. It looked pretty good to somebody whose best pay to that time was $1.25 an hour.
Don Kampfer, acting regional editor, stressed, often in not too gentle words, that readers depend on the paper for truth and fairness.
“Make sure the story is fact and can be substantiated. Do not print rumors. Use reliable sources that can be proven,” he preached in the dreaded daily phone calls.
It haunts me to this day and is why I am critical of how today’s media reports news.
This column is based on reporting the death of a race car driver struck by a car driven by Tony Stewart and the death of a man shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
Little of what I have seen, heard or read on both events would pass scrutiny of a news desk years ago without severe editing, questioning if it could stand scrutiny in court and an order to rewrite before going to print. Television and radio news people had similar standards, and news was not on a time clock where today short blocks limit discussion of issues.
Today, the public does not give the profession the respect it once had.
The use of these incidents is only to critique how the media is reporting them.
Stewart is a veteran race car driver who has competed on every type track and driven every type car. Stewart’s car struck and killed Kevin Ward, a driver who had gotten out of his damaged car and was on the dirt track when hit.
The 24/7 media typically cited facts and did not blame Stewart, ‘but’ immediately began critiquing blurred videos, speculation about intent and built a case against Stewart, that it was more than a tragic accident and a criminal investigation was likely.
Most of those on the sports networks do not have a news background and the benefit of an editor preaching about “just the facts” to them.
Even Joe Friday seemed boring with his “Just the facts ma’am, just the facts” on Dragnet.
After reporting the scores, sports broadcasts often rely on rumor and speculation and fans relish it and often embellish with their own take on the story de jour even making facts more obscure. The chatter is an extension of sports itself as part of entertainment.
Hard news is different because a real tragic event involves real people and can cause real damage to those involved.
That is the case of the shooting death of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson.
In the aftermath, nearly nightly demonstrations have deteriorated into riots and looting and conflict with police and Missouri National Guard. Demonstrators from both coasts have been among those arrested and activists from across the country have spoken to the issue.
So far it is a legitimate, non-controversial account of the last three weeks in Ferguson.
Accounts of the shooting shows that eyewitness are not always reliable, as several people have given entirely different accounts of what took place leading to and during the shooting.
Three autopsies have been performed on the victim, with one showing the bullet wounds on a diagram. (That diagram led me to make a conclusion about the shooting, but it would not stand up in court or the scrutiny of Don Kampfer.)
Police and other investigators have released only basic information about the incident. This is common practice with police, who reserve making a final decision based on the facts – which often change during the investigation.
Journalists in general do not understand police procedures and often view law enforcement from an adversarial viewpoint.
Today’s media also has an immediacy because of the demand to fill a 24/7 news hole.
A third party in the current flow of news, is social media that spreads rumors and half truths with little thought other than hitting “send.”
It contributes to the old adage, something repeated often enough becomes perception which becomes reality.
A grand jury has been empaneled to view evidence and take testimony to determine if any charges are to be filed in the shooting. It is as it should be.
As Kampfer often warned: “Verify and verify again. Making a mistake can never be made right.”