When reporters attack
With the Keith Lacey/Osoyoos Times/RCMP thing having died down, I want to look at the hubbub from a journalism aspect.
Since I’m doing so anonymously, I’m consciously going to tread lightly and not burn Lacey too much. There’s not much point in piling on and it’s hard for him to defend himself.
That said, I think there are important lessons to draw from the incident.
There are the obvious ones of course:
The column clearly needed more editing than it got (the last of which probably should have been to just say “Fuck It,” and hit the delete button). And it was definitely one of those that needs to simmer a while in the edit-later box before being posted or printed. A couple edits, I think, gets rid of some of the indulgences Lacey allowed himself with the piece.
But mainly, I want to address some the larger questions.
1. Let’s deal with naming the officer. Lacey regrets doing so, and it was clearly the name that got RCMP brass so upset. But if you’re going to publish the article, is there any journalism-ethics reason to omit the name?
I don’t think there is (although there is clearly a tactical reason, vis-a-vis one’s relationship with the RCMP). You have a name, you print it. That’s kinda how it works, so long as you have a story in the first place.
2. The first thing I thought when I read the RCMP reply was that the communications officer in question seemed to be putting himself in an awkward position. To allude to a video, but then not to release it, seemed strange and not exactly kosher.
3. The word slander is thrown around far, far too much.
4. It’s important, I think, to build relationships behind the scenes with RCMP officers and to show them that you are willing to be fair, even if they aren’t always going to like what you write.
I had an officer casually threaten to throw me in jail once. It was nothing big and it was an empty threat to get me to move out of a quasi-police scene.Seeing that I was on my way out, already, I left without making a scene. But after it happened, I casually mentioned it to a contact at the local cop shop, who said that shouldn’t have happened. The issue was solved, my point was made and my contacts were reminded that I was reasonable and fair.
There are too many problems created when people—journalists and non-journalists—feel attacked and decide to go on the offensive. We see it happen too often at all levels of every profession and it almost always ends badly, with little resolved.
Sure, sometimes you need to write a song like “United Breaks Guitars,” but only after you exhaust all other options (as the singer did in that case). The right to legitimately and ethically launch a written attack on someone or something for a personal slight is a privilege that must be earned through repeated and prolonged suffering and humiliation. (Which is why it’s important to put down the attack piece for a day or two and consider whether your feelings simmer.)
Here, with his two cents, is Jeff Lee’s opinion on things from the comments section of the original story:
The real problem with this story is that it has the potential to hurt a lot of serious and well-meaning journalists.
The RCMP have, in recent years, seemed to crash from one side of the room to the other with publicity and credibility gaffs. The Robert Dziekanski taser incident. The handling of the Pickton investigation. Allegations of harassment of female Mounties by their own colleagues. Etc. etc. etc. They don’t really need our help in pointing out their flaws.
But at their basic they’re also professional force and for every bad apple there’s a whole orchard of good people. Sometimes they mess up. But more often than not they do a fine job.
In this case, I am surprised and disturbed that a member of the media would use a forum such as an editorial for such a personal attack. The old saying “never get into a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel” isn’t a license to attack someone who is doing their job, even if you don’t like the job they’re doing.
I’ve lived in small towns and I’ve seen cops – human beings – do stupid things as much as the guy next door. But I also would expect them to do their job and if that means pulling over someone who is coming out of a bar, restaurant, whatever, that shouldn’t be too surprising. I once watched the Boston Bar RCMP detachment set up a roadblock at closing time outside the only bar in town, much to the imbibing population. A lot of people walked home that night.
The appropriate thing, if you think you are being unfairly targeted, is to take the officer’s information and make a complaint to his superior or to the RCMP Public Complaints Commission.
Getting into a very VERY public pissing match with the officer – especially in a small town where everybody knows each other and your kids are likely to be on the same minor hockey team – doesn’t usually end well. This editor is going to have a credibility problem, and in our business credibility and integrity are the only tangible commodities we have.
I’m not suggesting one should roll over when faced with a bully cop. But cool heads, common sense and the shelving of ego and sense of entitlement as a journalist would better resolve these kinds of disputes.
Frankly, as a journalist of more than 30 years, I would never gratuitously wave my credentials around. In fact, if anything, journalists need to be held to as high a public standard as police, judges, politicians and others they cover.
We live in a goldfish bowl, and to mix metaphors, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
Personally, I want to see the video. I also am curious to hear what the owner of the newspaper has to say about this