Privileging ‘official’ sources

A look at journalism’s unethical reliance on police claims

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

Even when the Winnipeg Free Press newsroom is empty, it’s rarely silent. There’s an undefined but ever-present, mechanical hum. The wall-mounted TVs play different channels, all at a low volume. The police scanner is perpetually on, and, every so often, notices crackle through the static. At least, that’s how it was in 2016.

I was months out of college and one of the paper’s only Saturday reporters, responsible for covering weekend events and tuning in to that scanner. On days I worked from home or coffee shops with strong wifi connections, I relied on my email instead.

When the Winnipeg Police Service or RCMP sent out a news release, I rewrote the text, filed 300 words under a generic byline and moved on. If I picked up the phone, it was often to call my editor, not another source. He often expected these articles within minutes, which, at least initially, didn’t leave time for further legwork.

More research is “often easier said than done, especially given the realities of shrinking newsrooms and the constant deadline pressures imposed by the internet,” two Washington Post reporters explain. “With fewer reporters handling more stories, the reliance on official sourcing may be increasing.”

There simply isn’t time to follow up on every story. Reporters must – and are often pressured to – trust police as official sources, at least early in an investigation.

This gives police control over public narratives, as departments choose which details to omit or include. Reporters on tight deadlines often parrot the detached phrases police use in their news releases, like “officer-involved shooting” or “discharged their weapon.”

One recent Global News article used the phrase “police said” six times while describing how a woman was “shot, assaulted and left in a crashed SUV” in Winnipeg. No one else was quoted or seemingly interviewed.

On March 27, the CBC initially published a six-sentence online article after the body of a missing 18-year-old woman was found in northern Manitoba. It also only cites the police.

Media coverage that relies solely or even heavily on police claims is inherently biased. An American Bar Association (ABA) reporters’ guide describes how police reports are often considered the “earliest, uncontested written accounts of an incident.” They’re also unreliable.

“In their initial public statements about George Floyd’s death, for example, Minneapolis police didn’t mention that one of its officers knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. It noted only that Floyd ‘appeared to be suffering medical distress,’” Paul Farhi and Elahe Izadi write for the Post.

As the ABA guide explains, “Without eyewitness cellphone video and robust media coverage, the world likely never would have known that a police officer killed George Floyd, let alone how.” In all cases, “rote reliance on police reports gives police the first opportunity to both shape and define their own violent encounters with the public.”

The practice is blatantly unethical. “The basic (journalistic) principle should be (to) treat the police like any other source, with the same degree of skepticism as you treat any other source,” Susan Chira, the editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project, told the Post.

Put simply, as author and editor Maya Schenwar tweeted in 2020, “using police as your only source is bad journalism.” Despite the practice’s ubiquity, that’s still true, in Winnipeg and beyond, almost three years later.

A former sports broadcaster, Danielle Doiron is now a writer, editor and educator. Find them in Winnipeg, Philadelphia and, occasionally, on the airwaves.

Published in Volume 77, Number 24 of The Uniter (March 30, 2023)

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