Thursday, February 13, 2014

TV News. Always fair, always accurate?

I got in a little shoving match with a news editor at Channel 8 earlier this month.

It was the day after an escape from one of the prisons in Ionia. I became frustrated with the way the TV reporters were describing the escapee. In some informal chatter, one reporter gushed, “How does a mass murderer escape from prison?” Then, in a related story, another reporter on the same channel said, “We talked with family members of the people he killed.”

My blood was boiling as I emailed the newsroom. We knew that Michael Elliot was an escapee. We knew that he was a carjacker. But we DID NOT KNOW that he was a mass murderer. I knew that Mr. Elliot had claimed that he was wrongly convicted of a quadruple homicide in 1993, and has claimed his innocence ever since his arrest.

Granted, this doesn't make him innocent, but the famous Rubin Hurricane Carter once told me that if a prisoner refused to budge on a claim of innocence over the years, “You better listen to him.”

My position as a broadcast journalist was simply that the TV station should at least use the word “alleged” when talking about the escapee, and I told them so. Having worked on the Maurice Carter case for nearly 10 years, I've had a little experience with wrongful convictions.

Here is the reply from Ch 8's Brandon Lacic, word for word: “I disagree. He was convicted of killing 4 people. His appeals were denied as baseless and credible. Our policy is when someone is convicted of a crime, they are guilty and no longer alleged to have committed a crime.”

I'm pleased to report, however, that from that day on Ch 8 referred to Mr. Elliot as a “convicted” murderer, which is just fine. That's the way it should be.

And guess what? Last night on Ch 8 news, a major breaking story: Co-defendant: Elliot is not guilty of 4 murders. A man who was sent to prison for the same four murders as escapee Michael Elliot says Elliot is innocent.

Granted, this doesn't mean he's innocent, either. But it does underscore a solid newsroom policy of using words like "alleged."

Wonder how that crow tastes, Mr. Lacic.

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