Mirror, Mirror: News Media’s Glaring Double Standard Concerning Coverage of Crimes Committed By Police

To the left: Photo of Jared Elkin’s being arrested by the SDPD used in ABC 15 Arizona’s reporting. To the right: Photo of Jared Elkin’s pulled from social media used in CBS 8 San Diego’s reporting.

It’s time that we once again had a discussion about the power of the press and the influence that local news, in particular, has on our communities. In this article, I’d like to discuss why it’s so very important to call out our local news media when they drop the ball in their reporting or fail to equally apply and uphold their own standards in their coverage of local events. News entities, particularly local news broadcasters are not only tasked with the responsibility of reporting the raw facts of a story. They are also charged with the responsibility of giving proper background, context, nuance, and an overall frame of reference to local events to help viewers become better versed in local and regional affairs. The local news media serves as a platform where viewers can properly interpret and make sense of the events taking place around them in their own community and hopefully ultimately draw the clearest, most informed conclusions from the coverage. In essence, the local press is instrumental in the framing of perception, and perception is key in news coverage. Especially when many news segments are condensed and regulated to brief articles or at best one perhaps two-minute television segments edited down to be as condensed and brisk possible. On top of this, local news picks up stories that oftentimes the national news overlooks, or they are first initial responders to covering events that eventually balloon into larger nationwide stories. Bigger national news outlets regularly pull from smaller local broadcasters all the time in their coverage, in fact it is that first initial coverage from local press that oftentimes not only sounds the alarms when something nefarious has taken place, but also sets the tone to how stories are reported and covered when they make that jump onto a national platform. However, just as with all media local news broadcasters are not without their own biases; and one particular bias, unfortunately, tends to extend to a group I’ve covered extensively here the police. Just as with the national news, perhaps even more so due to their proximity to one another, local news media can be very tepid with running reports and coverage that are critical of local police and law enforcement. Local news media relies heavily on the cooperation and good favor of local police departments in obtaining information for their coverage of stories and many are extremely leery of potentially alienating an important source of information in their coverage. This being said, there comes a time when it seems some news media takes this a step further and not only shies away from critical reporting but, seemingly goes out their way to paint police officers accused of and charged with serious crimes in a more favorable light than they ever would extend to the average person accused of the same or similar charges. And while this bias can be witnessed in many more obvious, conspicuous interactions it can also manifest itself in much covert and insidious ways than one would normally expect or be vigilantly looking out for and deserves to be brought to more attention than it has received thus far in the press.

To illustrate this point I would like to point to an event that took place in my own hometown of San Diego, California. This past Monday, a variety of local affiliate news stations here in San Diego ran a follow-up story on an earlier report covering the rape of a 23-year-old woman in the mid-city neighborhood of Kensington by an out of state police officer this past summer. The case centers around Jared Elkins, 33, an off-duty Yuma police officer and seven-year veteran of the force who was arrested on September 15th by the SDPD on the suspicion of rape by force of fear along with other charges stemming from the assault after the victim’s mother dialed 911. On Monday, November 27th, Elkins appeared in court and entered a not guilty plea. CBS 8, ABC 10 News, Fox 5, and KUSI all local news media reported that Elkins was formally charged with eight felony charges, including forcible rape. In addition to forcible rape, it was also reported that Elkins was charged with rape of an intoxicated person, two counts each of forcible oral copulation and oral copulation of an intoxicated person, forcible sexual penetration and sexual penetration of an intoxicated person. While the details of the case are both shocking and revolting it does sound like fairly standard by the books reporting until one looks at the visuals that all of these outlets supplied in their reporting of the charges brought up against Elkins. Strikingly, instead of running a mugshot of Elkins, or even a photo of Elkins being arraigned at his own hearing in court, CBS 8, ABC 10 Fox 5 and KUSI instead opted to run several smiling, personal photos of Elkins taken from his social media accounts that quite frankly looked more befitting of an eHarmony profile pic than that of a suspected rapist formerly charged with eight felonies. Now, one could make the argument that the SDPD hasn’t officially released a mugshot of Elkin’s to the public or the media; and that no better photo exists on record. This is why all the aforementioned broadcasters decided to run the photos taken from social media as the cover of the story detailing the charges brought up against Elkins. While the first scenario is certainly a possibility, especially given the immense secrecy of the police in the rare instance that one of their own is actually charged with a crime; the second would not only be exceedingly unlikely, it is in fact downright false.

The truth is, not only have other media outlets obtained more appropriate photos to run of Elkins in light of his arrest but, to add insult to injury video of his arrest exists and has been used by other news media as well in their reporting! ABC 15, a news station based out of Phoenix Arizona, reported on the story when Elkins was first arrested in San Diego back in September and opted to run both videos of Elkins arrest, as well as using photos taken of him sitting handcuffed, detained in the back of a police car in their report. It’s a powerful, sobering image and one properly befitting that of a suspected rapist. It’s perplexing how a news station based out in Phoenix, Arizona; in a completely different state from where the arrest took place at that. Somehow not only managed to do a much better job at covering Elkin’s arrest; but, also managed to report the story much more accurately nearly two months earlier without plastering a smiling, glowing personal photo of an accused rapist and sexual predator like a majority of local news media here in San Diego did. Local news media here in San diego clearly has no problem or reservations running mug shots of suspected criminals formerly charged with crimes as one can see from their past news coverage; and any news stations worth their weight surely had to have been aware that photographs and video of a cop being arrested on multiple charges of rape and sexual battery exist in their respective regions. Especially when other local and even out of state news media at that, is including such critical details and components in their own reporting. So how and why did a majority of San Diego’s local press manage to present his story so wrong, while others not even located in the region did it right?

To be frank, its exceedingly doubtful that CBS 8, ABC 10, Fox 5 or KUSI, all professional news team who employ dozens if not hundreds of journalists, beat reporters, producers, writers, editors, and fact-checkers were all completely unaware that both video and photographic evidence from Elkin’s arrest on the night of September 15th existed. In fact, ABC 10 actually did run brief snippets of video from the arrest in their report, as well as shots of a dressed up, sunglass clad Elkins arriving at the court hearing. However, ABC 10 still opted to run a smiling snapshot Elkins for both the cover photo of the station’s web article and the video’s featured thumbnail as the first thing viewers saw on the report. This in and of itself negates any doubt that local stations in the region were unaware of other means to identify Elkins. They simply weren’t. What is far more likely however, is the likelihood that editors and/or producers over at these outlets likely made the conscious decision to purposely run photos that were flattering of Elkin’s, or one’s that at least wouldn’t further degrade or tarnish his image more than it already has been in the public eye and court of public opinion. And this brings us to the bigger problem at hand. One that goes far beyond the editing rooms of these broadcasters, the city limits of San Diego or even the state of California. We need to have a serious discussion about the bias that much of this nation’s news media still largely shows police officers; especially white police officers who are accused of and charged with serious crimes. Whether a deliberate strategic move or simply one made out of hastiness to use to the easiest photo acquire to put out a quick report to clear tight deadlines; it seems that when regular everyday members of the public and greater community are charged with crimes, that news media has no absolutely problems or qualms gathering details, combing records and archives no matter how outdated or obscure to craft a narrative around such incidents. This is important, remember proper necessary background, context and nuance are essential in effective news reporting. However, when cops and other law enforcement are accused or charged with those same exact crimes details are suddenly scant, hard to come by and the police are almost always gingerly painted and portrayed in the most positive and flattering manner possible e.g., personal/family photos in leu of mugshots and arrest video screenshots. This sad reality is made that much more infuriating, especially given the fact that time and time again the media continues to demonize, and run mugshots of Black and Latino men, women and children who are actually victims of police violence abuse, while in the same breath actual criminal cops (who many times already have a prior histories of violence and misconduct) are handled with velvet gloves and painted in the most flattering manner by the news media. In fact Black and Brown victims of police violence are routinely scrutinized far more heavily by media that most cops charged with crimes ever are; and cases such this one explored here don’t even begin to scratch the surface of wider, far deeper nationwide trend that time and time again continues to raise its ugly head at an increasingly more frequent and regular basis.

It’s hard to imagine any other profession or status where a person accused of committing a crime, a suspected rapist at that, would be given the privilege of having their own smiling vanity shot serve as their own mugshots in news coverage detailing their criminal activity. Yet his luxury is continually extended by the media to cops who lie, steal, rape, murder and commit other heinous crimes time and time again. The media’s double standard concerning the coverage of these crimes is not only inconsistent, it’s disingenuous and sets a dangerous precedent when one set of ethics is applied to the general public while cops and other law enforcement are treated like a special class, placed on a pedestal above the scrutiny and critical analysis of the press. There’s a problem when news media goes out of its way to further protect and insulate and already disproportionately powerful and elite bracket of society by purposely painting them in a more favorable light whether it be to gain favor and good standing or just general bias deferring to authority.

Featured above: Photos used by local press in coverage of Jared Elkin’s arrest in San Diego.

It’s time that not only in our own communities but we as a country, nationwide confronted blue privilege which is almost always extended to law enforcement by the media, even when they are formally charged with most disgusting and vile crimes imaginable. It’s time we confronted white privilege which also by in large extends softer, less critical coverage to whites suspected of crimes than people of color accused of the same exact crimes yet nonetheless eliciting far harsher and critical general coverage. Far too frequently and for far too long cops who commit crimes and break the law have been portrayed as harmless, happy go lucky everyman bestowed every benefit of the doubt imaginable by the press. Or, they are faceless, anonymous ‘bad apples’ not representative of the police yet their identities are still hidden away and concealed, with the utmost secrecy for as long as a department can manage to do so. Even local stations such as NBC 7 who did not run photo’s from Elkin’s social media in either of their reporting from September or November is guilty of this, rather opting to show no photographs whatsoever in their reports. And that in and of itself is a serious a serious problem as well, because it leaves the public with either one of two options. Accept the practice that cops are either routinely portrayed as immaculate saint’s and boy scouts who can seemingly do no wrong or are allowed to remain as faceless, nameless phantoms on bare-bones reports who are allowed to conveniently hide under the cover of anonymity and slide into obscurity. None of these options are acceptable because not only does it rob a story of significant proper background, context and nuance; it’s a blatant distortion of reality which has real-world consequences that go far beyond just local news coverage. Larger news entities such as the New York Post (who pull much of their coverage from local news stations) also ran the Elkin’s story and as you can imagine almost all of their reporting, nearly line for line was taken from that done by the press. That includes Elkin’s personal photos which were used by the local media to identify him, and thus broadcasted to larger nationwide audience when they relayed the story. The fact of the matter is this country still has a very, very long way to go in terms of crafting and administering true, genuine, hard-hitting and far-reaching reform policies in police departments across the nation. However, if we can’t even bring ourselves to confront the police’s blue and white privileges which currently allows them to be charged with felonies such as rape and still have the luxury of having a family photo be used by the media rather than a mugshot, how can can we possibly expect to challenge greater obstacles manifesting themselves which currently impede, stifle and roadblock true, genuine police reform in this country?

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