Friday, July 15, 2011

Friday Media Rant: T M I

Too much information? I think so. Last night the local TV stations named the three Dane County Sheriff’s Deputies (often referred to by weekend talent as “Sheriffs”, as though each county had several Sheriffs) involved in the shootout at a west-side motel earlier this week.

Two of the local TV stations still insist on calling this sort of thing an “officer-involved shooting”, as though it were the job of the news writer to attempt to use every bit of police jargon possible; but, that’s another rant for another day.

This morning, the State Journal ran a small item, also identifying the three deputies by name.

Is this news? I don’t think so.

Is the fact that the three deputies were involved in a shooting incident sufficient reason to identify them by name? The media don’t generally identify firefighters by name, when they respond to a fatal fire, unless they’re getting an on-camera (or, in the case of print, on-the-record) comment from the Captain or Battalion Chief on the scene.

I think the reason the local media identify the deputies by name is that the Sheriff’s Department put out a news release with the names. So, perhaps, the larger question is, if so, why would the Sheriff’s Department do so?

Do you care who the three deputies are? Didn’t think so. They are highly-trained professionals who do a job that often puts them in mortal danger. And, as most people know, when officers of the law are involved in an incident where another person is shot or killed, the officers are placed on temporary leave, presumably to spend time recuperating from the mental shock of having to shoot someone.

I’m not sure for what reason the deputies were identified, not sure what, if anything, it adds to the story; and I’m pretty sure it’s not really “news”. Perhaps someone better versed in this than I can explain it to me.


  1. I seem to recall, several years ago, there was a Town of Madison police officer who shot multiple fleeing suspects over the course of a couple years. If I remember right, he was eventually fired. In Milwaukee, there was the infamous Frank Jude beating. People want to have confidence that their law enforcement officers are not too trigger-happy. I am assuming that these deputies were behaving as professionals and have no paper trail that would indicate unprofessional behavior. If the same deputies are named in a similar press release a year from now, I might be concerned.

  2. The term "officer-involved shooting" must have once been in a widely circulated copspeak memo of some sort. Many a police department, including the NYPD, have since adopted that stilted bit of argot in press releases.

    The lazy copy-and-paste technique (radio folk called it "rip-and-read" in the Teletype days, as I recall) assures that such official-sounding nonsense will be relayed ad nauseam to the rapt attention of the news audience.

    Coming back to a story to update it with irrelevant details is an artifact of online journalism. News reports are done weblog style, and Web operations must generate page views, because that is what drives advertising revenue.

    Creating a new entry "updating" an old story is an easy and effective way to generate extra page clicks. Never mind that the so-called update is the news equivalent of empty calories. And never mind that clicks are clicks; they do not have any really quantifiable value.

    As long as that business model is in place, look for the practice to not just continue but increase markedly.

  3. What you've said about page views/more clicks explains it, Mr. Knickerbocker. Never thought about it, but it makes complete sense. I was thinking the addition of the names of the deputies doesn't advance the story one bit, but now I understand.

    As to the "officer-involved shooting", that's right up there with "the incident remains under investigation."

  4. I'm with you on the cliche and jargon bit, but would argue in favor of identification. There is no justification for keeping it secret. I wouldn't lede with it, unless there are multiples involved, but it is part of the story. It's not a private security force. How many times should a person be involved in a shootout before Mr. Morrissey would consent to identifying that person? Three? Six? What about when the Madison police chief's gun went off in his kitchen oven? Identify there? What about when a deputy's gun was fired accidentally in the sheriff's office, an event kept secret for some time? What about when a dispatcher ignores a 911 call? Once you relent to secrecy, there is reason for it to happen again. Then the lawyers step and you need a court order to get an accident report.