In Sunday's "Last Week Tonight" episode, John Oliver spotlighted local media outlets that glorify crime and often get the stories wrong because they buy into whatever police tell them.
In a super-clip of news reports, over and over, local news anchors repeated the words "police say." The way the local news business works follow the adage, "if it bleeds it leads." Oliver makes the argument instead of non-stop crime that promotes the lie that it is running rampant across the country, newsrooms should do their jobs and uncover what actually happened.
In one local news report, the local media reported the shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald, by interviewing the police union president who arrived on the scene to say that obviously, the cops didn't do anything wrong because McDonald had a knife. The police union representative acted as if he was an eyewitness when he was nothing of the sort, and the local news didn't tell their audience. As it turns out, McDonald was walking away from police, not threatening them with a knife, and they shot him 16 times in the back.
An analysis found that in a four-year timespan, the FOP spokesperson Pat Camden provided the initial version of events 35 times on behalf of police who were part of shootings, Oliver cited from the Chicago Reader.
Perhaps one of the most important news stories in recent history was the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. After the death, local news reported the police department's own statement, "man dies after medical incident during police interaction." that "medical incident" was police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on his neck for nine minutes, including after he begged for his life, said he couldn't breathe, and the crowd watching begged Chauvin to stop. There was even a video filmed of the incident that was ultimately posted online, but instead of doing the search of social media or interviewing people at the scene, the local news reported a man died during a police interaction due to a medical incident.
The most recent example is the panic over "rainbow fentanyl," which local news outlets to Fox News have claimed is being colored to try and convince children to take it. As Oliver pointed out, children aren't generally the target market for drug dealers and they don't generally hand it out for free or slip it into someone's Halloween basket unless the child paid for it. In fact, even local news reporters admit that there has been zero incident of children mistaking "rainbow fentanyl" for candy and then trying to buy it on the street from drug dealers.
Oliver argued that these lazy outlets are complicit in the coverup when police break the law and they're so desperate for news they'll publish whatever they're told without doing even the basic Google search first.
"I'm not saying all crime reporting is bad," Oliver explained. "There's some incredible coverage out there. We feature it on this show all the time and a lot of what I told you tonight came from great investigative reporting. But the daily crime beat, whether from lack of resources, lack of scrutiny, or lack of follow-through far too often takes police at their word and not as an interest group who should be treated as such."
Some of the policies that have come out of the movement for better local news reporting is that the Arizona Republic will follow every story to its conclusion so that when someone is wrongfully arrested or accused, their name isn't forever destroyed due to a report.
Experts have also suggested that instead of using the phrase "police say" to "police claim" instead. The USA Today Network has stopped publishing police mugshot galleries because they "feed into negative stereotypes and are of limited news value."
But more than anything, local television stations should probably stop reading police press releases on air verbatim, or if they do, at least say where the claims are coming from and that they haven't been investigated.
See Oliver's report in the video below:
Crime Reporting: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) www.youtube.com