A journalist should report that the Fairfax County cops arrested 2,600 people for drunk driving last year. That is what a journalist should do. The role of the press, after all, is to report issues that need attention. But the role of the press is also to publicly hold government leaders accountable to the people and that can’t be done if government is using the media as a tool for its own self-praise or if individuals in government are using the press as a means of self-promotion to advance their career, to say, police chief as an example.
The other vital role the press plays in a free society is to educate citizens so they can make informed decisions on pertinent issues and this is done by asking questions. As an example, in regard to the drunk driving story, a good journalist will ask, “How many of those arrests resulted in conviction?” because Fairfax County cops justify themselves through a body count. A good journalist would also ask:
“In how many of those cases did the cop fail to show up in court?"
“And how many of those cases were simply tossed out of court?”
“Who was stopped? White people? Black people? Asians? Latinos? ”
The good journalist should examine that side of the issue because racial profiling by the police is a serious national issue.
The good journalist would also put the arrests in perspective. There are about 5,600,000 people in the greater Washington DC Area and in one year Fairfax County police arrested 0.0004 of them for drunk driving. In a county of 1,200,000 citizens, the 2600 arrests would total less than 0.002% of the population.
Drunk driving arrests are down 2.5 nationwide in 2011 and 2012. In fact, in the past two decades drunk driving fatalities have declined by 35% in the general population and almost 60% in the teen driver population.
So with those facts in mind, facts that were not covered in the story, why were there so many Fairfax cops trying to arrest drunk drivers on a recent Saturday night, enough so that “the lights atop Fairfax County Police Department cruisers along Leesburg Pike lit up the night sky like swarms of blue fireflies".
Poor management seems to be the answer. Shouldn't the cops be doing something more productive and less intrusive to the community? (A community where less than 9% of the force lives.)
The summation of the drunk driving story appeared to be one of two things; one that the story was that drunk driving is a non-issue because arrests for drunk driving are down. So what was the point of reporting this story at all?
The other slant may have been a cop glorification feature piece which was based on the baseless claim by the Fairfax County Police that they lowered drunk driving in the county through sobriety checkpoints, directed patrols and business compliance checks.
The problem is that slant discounts reality based on the facts above.
But there was a story here if the journalist had taken it one step further, one step into the uncomfortable, and had asked the cops (and thereby the reading public) if they see any danger in randomly stopping citizens to find out what they can be arrested for.
A journalist should ask if those random “sobriety checkpoints” touted by the Fairfax County cops, have a place in a democratic society. Should cops be stopping people they suspect of committing a crime based on magical and slightly scary “sixth sense” as one cop claimed to have, when it comes to spotting drunk drivers?
Even more disturbing than that is the fact that the cop in question has an engineering degreefrom Virginia Tech but would have to work the third shift in a bedroom community “sensing” drunks on the road.
The journalist could have asked the obvious question…..if drunk driving barely scratches the judicial surface then why are the cops turning out in force to address this secondary issue. This could have led to two very obvious answers, both are generally assumed to be true by the general public. One is that the cops are bored and don’t have much else to do and the other is money. Drunk driving fines range from $250 to $1,000, ($625 average fine X 2600 fines=$1,625,000). All of that revenue is poured into the county coffers and eventually into the behemoth budget of the Fairfax County Police.
Is there any truth to this commonly held rumor? We don’t know because the reporter failed to go that far. However, we do know that the cop who would rather work nights has a “lucky flower” in the car's visor.
Move over Carl Bernstein, there’s a new gunslinger in these here parts.
But it was Bernstein who said it best. The reporter’s job is to "achieve the best obtainable version of the truth" and, I would add, the best obtainable version of the truth for the public’s good and not for the benefit of the government’s profile. It is crucial that the press be an outsider and never, ever, under any circumstances share the same aims as government, the legislature, religion or commerce. The only responsibility the reporter has is to their own standards and ethics. This is no small thing because the free press is part of a larger right of free expression, a right that the public assumes that the press will help to protect.
So in that light, a good journalist would ask “Is this story free PR for cops at the expense of the free press?” And if the answer, even vaguely, appears to be “yes” then that is a very serious infringement on the role of the press in a free society and should not be taken lightly, no matter how innocuous the story.
The craft of reporting, and it is a craft, is found in the reporter's ability to research, to ask questions, to observe, to sift through self –serving propaganda disguised as news and then to place it in context so that the public can evaluate where the truth is. All of that makes the reporter the community's witness to the process of government. Crossing the line makes the reporter part of the government. So what was this drunk driver story?
The press is a powerful instrument which must exist independently from the other main centers of power in society because, among other things, it is often in the best interests of those other power centers to control or quash the press.
This rule of separation is especially true in dealing with the well-heeled Fairfax County Police Department, which is widely considered to be the least transparent law enforcement agency in the state of Virginia. The Fairfax County Police have failed, repeatedly, to show that they understand the simple truth that the free flow of information is a civic responsibility because information, even when it makes a department look bad, is the fuel of democracy. Instead, the department has mastered the art of avoiding public scrutiny by simply refusing to deal with the press….unless the press wants to do a fluff & kisses piece about them. And that’s what is wrong with plopping down the non-issue drunk driving feature piece. Reporting balanced news is vital to the health and well-being of a democracy as is the cop’s responsibility to inform the public that pays them. When journalists start backsliding down that very slippery slope by writing glory stories when the cops don’t deserve it, it is dangerous, unethical and sets a very bad precedent.
It’s about integrity. If the reporter loses their integrity they have lost everything and they have lost it forever, for themselves and their publication and it is easy to lose integrity because the damn thing about a free press is that the fight to keep the press free never ends. Rather it is a battle that is never won because the prize is much too valuable for other powers not to want to control it and to manipulate it. And those battles to keep the free press free are rarely epic, rather they are tiny skirmishes, say, as an example, a police department noted for playing a one sided game, trying to get a local reporter to skim over the facts and avoid the comfortable questions and write what they want to see in print.