Several years ago, a friend of mine shot and killed several people. I had only ever known him as quiet, mild mannered, and always willing to help others, so this violence shocked me.
Actually, “shocked” probably doesn’t go far enough to accurately describe the emotions I felt.
The experience resensitized me to violence. For years, I couldn’t stand violence in movies and TV shows anymore, especially graphic killing. Portrayal of death in the media nauseated me, literally.
Another thing the experience did was teach me that the media is obsessed with the idea of portraying perpetrators of crime as one-dimensional. They’re interested only in portraying such perpetrators in the worst way possible, because the more sensational the image, the headline, the story, the more views and clicks they get.
The experience helped me realize that every time a local news outlet parrots a Lethbridge Police Service crime release, they feed into the pro-police, anti-criminal narrative. Just like the crime release they copy and paste, they focus on the supposed actions of the accused individual(s) in the release.
And because they want to be the first media outlet to share a link to their regurgitated story onto their social media accounts to get the most comments, likes, and retweets, none of them put in the time to research the history of the accused.
When I was editor-in-chief with Lethbridge News, a citizen journalism website run exclusively by volunteers without funding or ad revenue, we did the same thing. But when someone came to us at a later date and told us that their charges were dropped, we followed up with the court system. And if the charges had indeed been dropped, we updated our story.
No one else did.
There was one time, when a particular story of a crime came across our news desk. I had some time on my hands, and something about the story struck me, so I told the team that I would take it. And I spent some time researching. I discovered that the accused had lived a hard life. Grew up without a father. His mother died when he was young. Lived with his grandmother. Dealt with poverty. Had run ins with the law. I learned that his story was a complex one.
We were the last ones to put out a story about that crime release that day, but ours was the most comprehensive. We didn’t do that all the time. We couldn’t afford to; we were all volunteers with our real jobs. The traditional media outlets, however, could. They had paid staff whose jobs was to investigate news, not simply share what the cops told them to.
Their story begins and ends with that crime release. To the writer and the reader, there is no person before the crime. And the only thing that matters after the release is that the person is put in jail. “Way to go, LPS!” appears over and over in the comments section of the multiple copies of the same story on the many Facebook pages of the local media outlets and the LPS.
In 2017/2018, Alberta had 56,260 court decisions related to Criminal Code violations, as well as violations of other federal statutes. Of those, 417 were acquitted, 917 were found to be not criminally responsible or were waived out of province, and 23,479 were either stayed or withdrawn.
To make the math easy for you, 56% of the total crimes in Alberta that went to court ended up with a guilty verdict.
Do you think that the fact that 44% of the cases ended without a guilty verdict was reflected in the stories published by the local media? Do they ever recant their stories? Do their stories ever reflect the reasons why they weren’t found guilty? Personal history, false charges, lack of evidence, racism and other prejudice, any of that?
Like I said, their story begins and ends with the crime release. The local media can’t be bothered with reporting the truth. Or at least not all of it.