When cases of police brutality appear on video, members of the local media tend to shut off their collective critical thinking skills and even side with the police. The coverage of the now-infamous video of off-duty Boston Police Department officer Edward Barrett attacking a pedestrian who hurt his feelings is a prime example of why you can’t rely on the mainstream press to get the story right. Luckily, we’ve compiled some important tips that we hope local journalists will follow in future coverage …
On Using Language Appropriately
Let’s start with the word “allege” and its synonyms. The Associated Press Stylebook warns journalists that “[t]he word must be used with great care.” But the stylebook authors didn’t foresee the need to advise journalists to actually learn what the word means in the first place. Many Boston outlets don’t seem to understand that when a police officer’s violent behavior is on video, it stops being an allegation and becomes a fact. So we end up with turds like this:
“A video of the incident ... allegedly shows an officer in a Red Sox jersey pinning a man to the ground with his knee.” (Boston Magazine)
“The off-duty officer who was video taped allegedly roughing up a pedestrian has been accused of using excessive force before.” (Boston.com)
“Boston Police are investigating a viral Facebook video allegedly showing an off-duty police officer arresting a man he says cracked his car window with an umbrella.” (WBZ)
“The video purportedly shows the officer, wearing a Red Sox jersey and not presenting a badge, holding the man to the sidewalk and dragging him down the street to his car around 5:30 p.m.” (NECN)
“Boston police have launched an investigation into a video depicting a confrontation where an off-duty officer allegedly forced a civilian to the ground in the city’s Back Bay neighborhood.” (Associated Press)
One of the dumbest cases is probably Metro: “Boston Police are investigating an alleged confrontation following a crosswalk altercation between an off-duty cop and a pedestrian near the Arlington T station which was recorded by a passerby and posted online. The video of the confrontation, which happened around 5 p.m. on Tuesday shows a man on the ground with another man wearing a Red Sox jersey pinning him down with his knee on his lower back.”
But the worst offender here is the Boston Herald, which used the headline "BPD to investigate incident with off-duty cop allegedly holding down jaywalker”—directly above a picture of said off-duty cop holding down said jaywalker.
Reporters should also be careful when choosing what words they use to describe a bulky police officer forcing his knee in the back of a pedestrian half his size, then parading the victim down the street by his shirt collar. Words like “scuffle” (Boston Globe, Boston Magazine), “altercation” (NECN), and “confrontation” (WBZ, Associated Press) aren’t as precise as the ones we’d choose to describe a one-sided road rage attack.
On Understanding Your Sources
Most of the Boston media got ahold of the official police report about the incident depicted in the video, but we couldn't find one instance of them pointing out the most obvious and important aspect of it: The police report makes no mention of Barrett chasing the pedestrian, using force against him, or arresting him, nor does it mention Barrett falsely claiming that the pedestrian had cracked the cop’s car window. The report doesn’t even mention that Barrett was a police officer. The only third-party witness mentioned in the report was a woman who—go figure—backed up Barrett’s story and made no mention of his road rage.
This alone should have set off alarms, but it’s even more significant because Stephen Harlowe, the guy who shot the video, told multiple media outlets that the police refused to take statements or contact information from him and other witnesses to Barrett’s attack. And yet the only Boston media org that came anywhere close to pointing out that the police report did not contain any information about the attack was Fox 25, which said the report “shows only one witness account made it into the record.” Several outlets noted that the BPD internal affairs investigators are now trying to get statements from witnesses, further showing that the responding officers did not perform a real investigation.
But because Boston media often refuse to notice the systemic problems that enable police brutality, we wind up with columns like the one by the Globe’s Yvonne Abraham, who criticizes Barrett but insists that “BPD does community relations better than those in many other parts of the country.” This a talking point often spouted by Commissioner William Evans, and if people in the media are watchdogs rather than flacks for the police, then they shouldn’t be parroting cop talking points it unless it’s deserved. Boston media will not be credible on the issue of police abuse until they are willing to routinely take BPD to task for fostering a culture where police cover up for each other.