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Why do the police control the news?

Published Friday, June 18, 2010 @ 1:29 AM EDT
Jun 18 2010

I spoke with an editor at the Post-Gazette Tuesday. He called after receiving a letter to the editor I submitted based on my Monday rant.

The gist of the conversation: the P-G (and other local media which covered the incident) didn't identify the driver of the pick-up truck responsible for the Friday, June 11 crash, because Pleasant Hills police wouldn't release his name.

Some background:

In 2008, the state legislature passed the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law, which requires certain state and local government entitites, including police departments, not to withhold information from the public.

The act contains certain exclusions, including one which the editor says police departments routinely abuse.

Officials can refuse to release information if doing so would, among other things, jeopardize an ongoing police inquiry. By claiming an incident is "under investigation," the police can essentially shut out the media from obtaining the details about any law enforcement activity.

This certainly wasn't the legislature's intent. Indeed, the act specifically states, "This paragraph shall not apply to information contained in a police blotter... and utilized or maintained by the Pennsylvania State Police, local, campus, transit or port authority police department or other law enforcement agency or in a traffic report..."

A "police blotter" is defined as a "chronological listing of arrests, usually documented contemporaneous with the incident, which may include, but is not limited to, the name and address of the individual charged and the alleged offenses."

In one challenge before the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, the Pennsylvania State Police claimed it did not maintain a chronological listing of its activity. Instead, officers filed "incident reports," used to describe "investigative actions." Through this little exercise in disingenuous semantics, the state police maintained all of its actions were recorded on incident reports, which are by their very definition "investigative," and therefore exempt from disclosure.

Fortunately, the Office of Open Records and several Commonwealth Court rulings have blown away this obfuscation, specifically stating the names of drivers involved in traffic accidents do not constitute "investigative material."

Which brings me back to my conversation with the P-G editor. He noted that scores of stories which appear in his paper and in media throughout PA lack basic information due to police claims of, for lack of a better term, "investigative privilege."

How many? Click here. And here. And here.

The searches are inexact, and not all of the hits deal with non-disclosure issues, but the number is nonetheless impressive- and disturbing.

When did the police decide they would determine what constitutes news? And why is the media, including the P-G, not shouting this disturbing development from their front pages and "breaking news" chyrons?

Because of the time and costs involved, the media isn't particularly fond of dragging governments into court. But they're ignoring perhaps the best venue available for obtaining justice: the court of public opinion.

Instead of positioning the ubiquitous "police refused to disclose" notice at the end of the story- or not mentioning it at all- stick it in the lead paragraph. Or, better yet, promote it to the headline. Make the stonewalling a major part of every story.

The public is unaware that the media has been kneecapped, because the media isn't making an issue of it. A couple days of "Two shot, police refuse to name victims," "One hurt in accident, police shield driver's identity," "Police won't name burglary suspect," on every story in which authorities aren't forthcoming, and pretty soon people will start showing up at council meetings, calling their mayors and township supervisors, and asking some pointed questions of those who are supposed to serve, not conceal.

Why dwell on this?

The media- local newspapers in particular- are a major social force. They inform and educate. And, by publicizing the names of those who impugn or injure their communities- like the unidentified reckless driver who decimated a bride's family the day before her wedding- deter others from engaging in such anti-social behaviors.

By failing to pursue the matter, the media is also failing to fulfill its public function and responsibility.


The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehood and errors.
-Thomas Jefferson

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