In class on Tuesday, we discussed the role that the Amherst Police Department had in the riots that surrounded the famed celebration of “Blarney,” an Amherst tradition that occurs in the weekend leading up to St. Patrick’s Day. It was also discussed how militarizing police departments may be a new concept to many Americans, but to UMass students past and present, this is something that we have always been used to. And if someone were to see pictures from Blarney or the Red Sox riot from October 2013 without knowing the context of the picture, one might think that these were soldiers preparing to raid a terrorist group in some foreign country, and not breaking up large crowds of drunk college students.
Whether or not you agree with the increased militarization of police departments or not, or whether it is necessary, we saw another recent case of police militarization taking place where the police went into full military gear. Although the reasoning for this is much more understandable, I always wonder how journalists should cover stories that involve the police so that they are able to tell a story without jumping to conclusion or making assumptions.
This question stems from the recent murder of a Pennsylvania State Trooper. Hundreds of police officials have been searching for 10 days now for the man accused of ambushing two Pennsylvania State Police officers, killing one and serious injuring another. Although we could sit and debate all day whether or not the amount of officials searching for one man is necessary or not, I think it would be wiser to debate how to cover a story like this instead.
In the NBC Boston Affiliate WHDH article from last Wednesday, we see the description of Eric Frein, the man wanted for the murder described as “self-taught survivalist” who modeled his behavior off of soldiers from the “Cold War-era eastern Europe.” As the article states, his criminal record includes “burglary and grand larceny after police accused him of stealing items from vendors at a World War II re-enactment in Odessa, New York.”
My biggest question that I have is on how to remain unbiased in covering a story like this, where the man is accused of killing a State Trooper, although he has not been charged in the court of law yet. Although all the evidence points to this man as being the cop killer, should we as journalists refrain from making that assumption, or portraying the suspect a certain way, even as hundreds of police officials search for the man and say he is in fact the one responsible for the death of a State Trooper?
In the article, his description includes him having “shaved his head in a wide Mohawk, evidently as “part of the mental preparation to commit this cowardly act.’”
In a Huffington Post article of the same nature, the suspect is described as someone who “has participated in military reenactments and has studied the Russian and Serbian languages.” The same article says those reenactments he participated in were “Vietnam Era war-reenactments.”
I guess what I am asking is whether these certain descriptions that the media is using to describe the suspect are actually necessary, or if they are instead reinforcing stereotypes that many groups of people have tried to rid for so long now. Is it actually necessary to include the fact that he knows the Russian or Serbian languages in his description? Does that make him a terrorist and a cop killer?
Do I believe that this guy is absolutely guilty to murdering a cop? Yes. But if I were covering this story as a journalist, I probably wouldn’t include these certain details. And yes, his criminal record states that he has indeed committed crimes like burglary and grand larceny, but are those necessary in describing a man wanted for murder? If his record stated that he has killed others, than yes, I would include that, but if it’s only a crime such as burglary, which is a completely different scale in comparison to murder, I think the journalist should leave it out. I feel like including the fact that he stole is like saying that he got a speeding ticket back in 1997. Yes, he broke the law but it doesn’t exactly show he is a murderer.
And what exactly is a Vietnam War Era reenactment? Without describing what that is, which the Huffington Post doesn’t do, it leaves readers to automatically associate with the deadly war that Vietnam was?
Why isn’t there more focus on what situations made Eric Frein into the kind of person he is today or what made him to have such a grudge against law enforcement officials? I would think articles like those, instead of trying to make connections to his past to explain his current state, would be more efficient in trying to tell this story.
I think these are all things to keep in mind as we cover stories involving police. The police are going to say things and give descriptions based off the fact that a fellow brother in the Police Department was just killed. They too have one angle to the story. But as a journalist, one must remember to remain unbiased, and separate an opinion that a person might have from the actual truth.
This remains the truth, whether covering a story like Blarney, or a story like the murder of Police Officer.
With that being said, did the articles about the wanted cop killer do a good job at keeping bias out of the stories, or did they indeed include details that could have been left out. If so, what would you include or not include when telling this story, or how could we go about another way of telling this story?