Remaining Unbiased

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?

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2 Responses to Remaining Unbiased

  1. sashline2016 says:

    This post reminded of a picture that one of my friends shared on Facebook recently. You should be able to view it here: .
    If you cannot see it, it reads “Muslim man tries to convert people to Islam then beheads an Oklahoma woman and the media call it ‘workplace violence.’ Hey media…why don’t you stand up for America once in a while?”
    This picture/meme seems to be referring to a very recent story. Here is a New York Times article about the crime:
    However, the New York Times does not appear to refer to the event as a case of ‘workplace violence.’ In fact, it goes in quite another direction, quoting the offender’s Facebook posts that show his views about America and stating that the FBI has not been able to connect him to ISIS. The New York Times acknowledges that its readers may view this as an act of terrorism and provide them with as much information about the offender so that the readers can determine his intentions themselves. I think their coverage is a good example of presenting all of the angles while not taking a stand.
    When I first saw the meme, I thought, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” Had the media referred to the case blatantly as an act of terrorism, people would be standing up claiming bias and asking, “Where’s your proof?” when there really isn’t any definitive proof. Yet on the flip side, people are angry because the media was trying to sound objective by saying it was a case of ‘workplace violence.’
    The truth of the matter is that there is always the chance someone will find something wrong with your wording. People are willing to cast judgments because they don’t know what it is like to be a journalist. If they had to weight out the consequence of each word themselves, maybe they wouldn’t be so quick to start slinging mud.
    I think the coverage of Eric Frein that you referred to in your post and the coverage of this offender, Alton Nolen are pretty similar in a lot of regards. In either case, I would consider it a good idea to include the offender’s criminal background because I think it gives the reader some sort of insight about the person’s character. As for the fact that the Huffington Post mentioned that Frein speaks Russian and Serbian…that’s a very difficult decision to examine. If he spoke French would it be part of the story? Probably not, that has nothing to do with the charges. Based on this idea that we mentioned in class – flipping the story on its head, in this case substituting a different language – I would say that no, information like that should not be included in the story.

  2. Reading this, I thought back to the “If They Gunned Me Down” tweets, in which people posted different pictures of themselves that portray them in different lights and questioned which one media would use. Like these two different pictures, words, descriptions, and presence/absence of facts paint people in different lights. So, yes, what these reporters chose to write about Eric Frein very much paints him in the light people want to see him as–a cop murderer. I don’t claim that he could not be, but I do claim that no matter how much he were to come out and defend himself, media have done their part and unsurprisingly fixed a negative image of him on their audience. As you mentioned, they don’t cover why might have prompted him to do this. Instead, they cover a set of seemingly irrelevant facts, such as the languages he speaks, to uphold a viewpoint many already hold. Say he weren’t actually the suspect the cops were looking for. I wonder how bad many people would feel and if they’d be able to pinpoint where those bad feelings stem for. I’m sure some of them would come from the influential sources that further ingrained an idea in them.

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