Some Points on #Pointergate

KSTP, the ABC affiliate in Minnesota’s Minneapolis- Saint Paul metropolitan area, got skewered over the past week thanks to a story about a photo it says shows Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges standing next to a convicted felon while they both flash a “known” gang sign.

The story and the controversy it caused became known as #Pointergate on Twitter. Twitter users – myself included – criticized KSTP for airing a story based on questionable evidence and ethical decisions.

The story is available here.

(video from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFwb8z0A5nM)

The mayor and the man, who is not in a gang according to KSTP’s police sources, posed for the photograph as they were knocking on doors for a get-out-vote even in Minneapolis. The gesture, KSTP anchor Bill Lunn said, concerned law enforcement officials, who “think the mayor has put the public and police at risk.”

In the video report, a retired police officer says gangs can take the photo and say “even the mayor is with us.” The president of the Minneapolis Police Federation also questions in the report whether the mayor will support “gangs in the city or cops.”

“The allegation was so ludicrous that two reporters at the Star Tribune ignored it after it was pitched to one of them by someone in law enforcement,” wrote Joe Tevlin, a metro columnist Star Tribune, in a column posted online about the story on Tuesday.

Since the initial backlash to the story, several websites reported the organization that put on the get-out-the-vote event also posted photos and a video on its blog that shows Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau, Mayor Hodges and the man at the event together.

The initial report raises several questions about the ethical decision made during the reporting and airing of the story.

Specifically, how is the hand gesture a “known” gang sign? If the hand gesture is a gang sign capable of inciting violence, why did KSTP broadcast it across the metropolitan area? Why is the criminal record of the person in the picture with Mayor Hodges relevant to the story? Who are the law enforcement officials that are outraged?

I emailed Lindsay Radford, KSTP’s news director, with my concerns and questions on Sunday. She is out of the office and forwarded my email to Jay Kolls, who reported the story.

“I am not the story,” Kolls replied to my email. “We did everything ethically. But, fine. Put them in writing and I will respond to each one.” He also responded to some of the concerns I mentioned in my first email.

As of press time (abuot 9:00 pm. EST on Tuesday) Kolls did not respond to my additional questions.

It’s safe to assume – based on the video posted by the organization behind the get-out-the-vote event – that the sign Mayor Hodges and the man are making in the photo is not a gang symbol. Instead, it’s more likely a spur-of-the-moment gesture.

Additionally, a simple Internet search does not show that hand gesture as the sign of any large gang.

An attempt at independent verification, which is included in one of leading principles within the Society’s Code of Ethics, should have at least made KSTP’s editorial leadership question whether or not that specific hand gesture is a “known” gang sign.

Additionally, if KSTP trusted its sources and believed the sign is capable of inciting violence against the police and public, it leads to the question: Why would they broadcast it across the Twin Cities?

The Code speaks broadly about “potential harm.” Violence against police and the general public would fall under that language.

“He posted the photo on Facebook,” Kolls wrote in his original reply to me. “It was already publicly available, so broadcasting it was not releasing it.”

The picture may have been publicly available on Facebook, but it’s safe to assume the number of people navigating to the man’s profile is less than KSTP’s viewership.

In the same vein of minimizing harm, one of the tenets of the Code, KSTP should have questioned whether the criminal record of the man in the picture with Mayor Hodges is relevant to the story.

Yes, criminal records are public documents, but the  Code is clear that the legal right to information does not justify the ethical decision to publish or broadcast that information. Also, “private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures.”

Kolls wrote to me in his original reply that they “went out of our way to not identify him or his organization to not make him the focus of the story. Others did that; not us.”

The video story flashes the man’s court records across the screen toward the beginning of the report – although they appear anonymized. The accompanying print story also details the man’s criminal records in its second paragraph. Clearly KSTP made this man is a prominent figure in the story.

Lastly, the fact that no named law enforcement official associated with the unit that discovered the picture came forward to air their concerns should raise red flags – as it apparently did at the Star Tribune.

Sources should be identified clearly, according to the Code. “The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.”

What’s more, the Code is clear that journalists need to consider the source’s motive for requesting anonymity. The journalist also should explain why anonymity was granted.

While these concerns should – hopefully – cause editorial teams to reconsider publishing or broadcasting a story like this, KSTP aired an additional report and issued a statement following its initial story.

While the Society’s Code may not answer every question journalists may encounter, it can at least provide sufficient guidance in publishing or broadcasting reports that at least meet basic best practices: Seek Truth and Report It, Minimize Harm, Act Independently and Be Accountable and Transparent.

In this case, KSTP’s report fell short in many places.

 

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