As protests confronting rampant police brutality continue across the United States, some media outlets are relying on police statements to report on the events without independently corroborating or verifying them. This practice presents a unique threat to police accountability, as well as protester safety.
Most people saw media’s reliance on police accounts during the infamous case in Buffalo, New York, last week where Buffalo police officers were recorded shoving Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old man, to the ground at a protest. Gugino hit his head as he fell and laid bleeding while the police stepped around him. Though the video portrays a straightforward example of police brutality, Buffalo police initially refuted the allegations claiming the man “tripped & fell.” As critics pointed out, in this instance the police account of the incident was challenged only because of the first-hand video that showed the reality.
Police releasing demonstrably false statements is not exclusive to Buffalo. Media outlets have long been overly deferential to the police, trusting its account of events without much pushback. In a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review, Alexandria Neason described how police departments have historically spread misinformation in the press, noting that “journalists have struggled to tell the whole story” in cases of police brutality.
The New York Police Department is another example of the police repeatedly falsifying accounts of violent escalations at protests, but some New York media outlets have continued reporting police statements as objective truth. The New York Post, owned by Rupert Murdoch, has become well-known for publishing information from the NYPD without any additional verification, and other local media outlets have fallen into the same trap as well.
Given the number of lies promoted by the NYPD alone in recent weeks, journalists should think twice before relying solely on police for their interpretation of events.
Aided by the NY Post, the NYPD spread lies about the conduct of protesters and “weapons” used to target police
- On June 8, the New York Post reported that an NYPD internal alert was warning officers about protesters using “concrete disguised as ice cream” as potential weapons. People quickly pointed out on Twitter that the alleged weapons were actually test samples of concrete for a construction site. The Post article initially did not include the context about the construction site when originally published and updated the article with the details later.
- NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea tweeted images of what he called “tools of criminals bent on causing mayhem & hijacking” seized from people arrested in the Bronx. But Twitter users, including lawyers Shane Ferro and Max Kennerly, pointed out that there were commonly used bike repair tools in the images. An article in the Post included a link to Shea’s tweet and promoted his claim that the items were “proof” protesters intended to be violent.
- The New York Post published an article titled “Looters swipe $2.4M worth of watches from Soho Rolex store: police sources.” But the store in question was not a Rolex store and the original article even included a statement by a store spokesperson denying that any watches had been stolen. The Post later updated its headline to: “Conflicting reports of looting at Soho Rolex store.”
Outlets uncritically repeated NYPD lies about outside agitators
- On June 1, PIX 11 reported Shea’s and other leaders’ incorrect claim that outside agitators are the main source of violence during protests, which Shea later backtracked.
- On June 5, the New York Daily News reported Shea’s untrue statement that a Bronx protest was led by “outside agitators” attempting to loot the area. Gothamist, a New York news website, pushed back, writing, “The NYPD did not immediately provide evidence of the protesters being outsiders.”
Outlets pushed NYPD lies about arrests and violence at the protests
- On June 3, Shea posted a video on Twitter of “caches of bricks & rocks” that he said were “strategically” placed by “organized looters” on street corners. Yet, as Vice reported, “no protests, looting or rioting actually occurred” in the area, and a local city council member tweeted it was construction debris. Despite the obvious questions posed by Shea’s allegation, local outlet WABC published a story repeating the commissioner’s claims. New York’s CBS affiliate noted pushback from the council member while still privileging Shea’s claims.
- A DoorDash deliveryperson was arrested while working after curfew although the NYPD initially claimed that the person was not on the job. Spectrum News NY1 pushed this false claim by the police, before updating the article when DoorDash later refuted that statement.
- PIX 11 published Shea’s false claim during a June 4 press conference that no protester had been seriously injured. A report on the press conference in the New York Times called it “an assertion that reporting by The Times appeared to contradict.”