Monday, June 24, 2019

Get Your Hands Up, Part Two

In my last post, I discussed a specific instance of police brutality and abuse of power in Phoenix, Arizona, where a pregnant woman, her fiance, and a one-year-old child were each physically assaulted, threatened at gunpoint, and intimidated with vulgar language and wild threats of extreme violence. Every time one of these incidents happens, and they happen far too often, there is a knee-jerk reaction from some to look past the violence and abuse of power and immediately take the side of the police, or at least give them the benefit of the doubt. As much as I hate to say it, there is this tendency with a lot of us who don't look like the victims in these crimes to identify with the police. On some level, I get it. We need police to protect us and enforce laws. We look up to them and respect them for the sacrifices they make to serve the community. But it's hard sometimes to get out of our own heads and look at things from someone else's perspective, to understand that others might have an entirely different experience and expectation with the police. That probably accounts for a lot of the division we see when we talk about this subject.

But that myopia isn't limited to the viewers of these incidents. The reporters of these events also have their own ways of seeing and expressing them, and that also contributes to this feedback loop of perception, this inability to see things from another perspective. If all of our sources of information are slanting the facts towards a specific worldview, then how can we ever break out of our own prejudices and challenge ourselves to think more critically about society?

Whether it's on Facebook or face to face, I talk with people all the time about these issues, and one thing I notice is that people are not only prejudiced about what they believed, but also prejudiced about where they get their information from. I can't even count how many times someone has told me they outright refuse to consider a source because of it's supposed reputation or so-called agenda. And I'm not talking about a healthy skepticism about internet sources. We should all be wary of unproven and unaccountable websites that specialize in lies and propaganda, but the people I'm referring to are refusing to even listen to long-standing and vetted news sources, whether they are online, broadcast, or print media. I've seen posts, shares, and comments in my Facebook feed from people who will believe anything, no matter how ridiculous or how easily disproven, as long as it confirms what they already believe. The irony of these people is that they will reject a well-known and reputable source because of it's "politics," but stand by information from some little known website that is clearly propaganda and often even completely made up, supposedly "satire," if you scroll all the way down the home page and read the six-point type at the bottom. They pan a source because it's supposedly got a left or right leaning agenda, or because it says something that questions or attacks one of their core beliefs, or just because it disagrees with them, but embrace the most questionable sources because they fit right into their prejudices. Consider the idea that if you are one of these, one who refuses to even hear a report that comes from a source you disagree with, then you are really locking yourself into an unquestioned and unaccountable frame of mind, sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting whenever any facts challenge it. This is the very definition of cognitive dissonance.

On the other hand, if you're one who says that certain news outlets have a slant, then you're right, or actually only half right. The truth is that they all have aslant. But if you choose to only follow news that slants in one direction, then you'll keep sliding down that slope towards ignorance. In a way, two slant an cancel each other out and lead to balance. Even reputable sources of news and information have a slant, no doubt, but locking oneself into one side of an issue and refusing to hear any others is a quest for confirmation, not truth.

So what does all this have to do with racism in police departments, and specifically in Phoenix? Let's consider two different reports on that horrific incident, from two very different sources, both of them national, accountable, and reputable, but admittedly, with different slants. The first is the Washington Post, and the second is Fox News. Before we look at the reports, just beware, if you're already rejecting one of those sources, saying that it can't be "reputable" because it leans a specific way or doesn't agree with your worldview, or has said things you disagreed with in the past, then you're on that quest for confirmation, and we're probably done here anyway. But if you're willing to look at both sides, let's start with the Post.

Both sources contain the facts of what happened, but it's the way they report them, the emphasis on what parts of the story, and the bias towards one side or the other that makes the difference. The Washington Post article starts with a headline that emphasizes what the police did wrong.
Not only does the title state what the police did, without much bias really, but it refers to the video, which is embedded in the article, for support. When I say there's no bias there, I mean that there are no adjectives describing the police (they are not described as "honorable" or "dishonorable" in any way), no adverbs describing their actions (just "pulling a gun" instead of "viciously" or "courageously"), not even a verb that carries any connotation or emotional context whatsoever.

Furthermore, the article goes out of its way to cite sources and legitimize it's reporting. It quotes the mayor of Phoenix decrying the police officers' actions,

includes quotes from the victims' lawyer, specifically emphasizing that these quotes were not just copied and pasted from other sources, but personally obtained by the Post staff itself.
Even the statements attributed to the Phoenix police department are cited, and the writers want you to know that they reached out to the Phoenix police for comment, but received no reply.

Even though this source is clearly trying to establish its credibility, it still has a slant to it. It  not only posts the video, but also uses the text to call attention to specifically brutal actions by the officers that amount to abuse of power,
and notes that the police violated their own protocols in ways that can't be seen in the video.

On the other hand, the Fox News article, while covering the same event and published within two days of the Post article, has a clearly different slant. It's title emphasizes the size of the victim's claim against the Phoenix police department, instead of the actions of the police themselves, and couches its report in what the claim "says" instead of what the video "shows," as the Post title does.
While the Fox report also quotes the police chief, like the Post does, it makes sure to not only report that she is "disturbed" by the incident, but also emphasize that she said that this is "not representative" of the police department in Phoenix. This is the classic distraction that asks us to shift the focus from the problem and place it onto some more positive spin. In fact, the Fox article doesn't quote the mayor at all, when it was she who made the more definitively accusatory statement, saying that "There is no situation in which this behavior is ever close to acceptable." Besides omitting the mayor's quote, the Fox report also doesn't include most of the brutal words and actions of the officers, and doesn't even post a link to the video to corroborate its version of the story. Not only does it present a gross lack of detail in describing what the officers did wrong, whenever it does mention the slightest abuse of power, it makes sure to connect it to the "claim" or the "lawsuit" so that the emphasis still stays on this young couple suing the department, instead of the officers violating these civilians.
Where the Post article goes to great lengths to show that the writers can source their quotes and that they got their information, as much as possible, directly from the people involved, or from supporting evidence like the video, the Fox article doesn't seem to have any sources at all. There's no mention that the writer reached out to anyone for comment, and even the details of the event are not linked to any specific statement released by either side. Just note how many times the Fox article says "Police said ...," as if those statements should be so inherently true as to not need any sort of supporting evidence. Did the police say this in an interview with the writer? In an official report? In a press release? We don't know; we're just expected to accept it because the police said it.

This is what slant really is. It's not a lie, just a shade, just a different emphasis that reveals the writer's bias. The Post article is clearly the fairer of the two in its reporting style, but it's purpose and agenda is to highlight the criminal actions of the officers, which is the real story here. On the other hand, the Fox article neglects to mention what the police did, and chooses to focus on what the victims did wrong instead. If you only ever read one of these sources on the topic of police brutality, you would definitely have a very one-sided view of the issue.

And it's not just this one event. Look at two different reports about the most recent update on Sandra Bland's case, one from The New York Times and the other from Fox News. The facts here were that three years after her mysterious death in police custody, attributed to suicide, her own phone video of the beginning of her encounter with Texas police surfaced, and it exposes some of the inconsistencies in the police report. It's also a case where the police department was caught covering up the incident by altering the dash camera video of the stop, which started with a failure to signal a lane change. Read them both for yourself and try to notice the way that each one colors the event differently. Again, one source is focused on what the officer was doing, while the other is focused on what the victim was doing. Again, one posts the video and specifically points out what the officer did that was wrong, while the other doesn't even post the video, even though the title of the article makes it seem as if it's the focus of the piece. Again, they both use a quote from someone close to the victim, but the Fox source cuts the quote short, including the words "Open up the case, period," but leaving out what follows them, "We know they have an extremely, extremely good cover up system."

So if you're limiting yourself to one source of news and information, or excluding other national and vetted sources because they don't meet your political requirements, just know that you are headed down the road of willful ignorance. You can always find sources that agree with what you already think you know, but if they never challenge you to think differently, if you never see any facts or opinions that might change your mind, you get trapped in that feedback loop of thought, and the longer you stay there, the harder it is to get out.

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