Can Simply Quoting ‘Facts Given by Police’ be Called ‘Reporting’?

By Mark Joyella 

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If you’ve got a police report, you’ve got a story, right? Sometimes. Other times, you’ve simply got half the story.

CJR raises the question of whether it’s really “reporting” when you simply quote police, in a post about a WJBF story by reporter Deon Guillory:

“The coverage is a prime example of the kind of quick-hit TV reporting that leans heavily on one version of events—often the official version provided by authorities—but does little in the way of offering additional perspective. There’s a mug shot. There’s a police report. There are “facts given by the police.” An ominous graphic featuring the silhouette of a very young girl and the text, “Aiken County child neglected” flashes on screen as anchor Brad Means kicks the story to Guillory with “details of this investigation.”

But in this case, the story wasn’t so much the “child neglected”, but a debate over whether a mother letting her 9-year-old go the park unsupervised was perfectly acceptable, or reason to handcuff and jail the child’s mother. As Lenore Skenazy argues at Reason, the news coverage was entirely one-sided:

Watch the news: It sounds like Debra Harrell committed a serious, unconscionable crime. The reporter looks ready to burst with contempt. But what are the facts? She let her daughter play at the park for several hours at a time—like we did as kids. She gave her a daughter a phone if she needed to call. Any “danger” was not only theoretical, it was exceedingly unlikely.

But, “What if a man would’ve come and snatched her?” said a woman interviewed by the TV station.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that in the anchor intro to the WJBF story, the OTS doesn’t say “Child Neglect?” It says “Child Neglected”. Fact. Happened. Mom did something wrong. After all, the police say so.

When asked about his story by CJR, Guillory defended the story, saying “I reported the facts I was given by the police.” But that’s not really “reporting” as many of us would define it. And adding MOS to the story–in the form of concerned parents–fills time and adds a sense of drama, but it doesn’t bring a critical eye to the decision by police to take the child into custody.

So sure, sometimes a police report is more than enough to rush to air. In other cases, it’s merely the beginning. And without doing some reporting to put the report in context, reciting “the facts I was given by police” is perhaps worse than doing nothing at all.

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