Throats Slashed! Sold Into Human Trafficking!

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Oh my God. Did you hear? Homeless people are getting their throats slashed. Women are being grabbed in parking garages and sold into human sex trafficking. Children are being grabbed up off the streets. The media isn’t telling you about these things and the police are hiding these terrible stories from you.

More and more this is the sort of thing I see on my social media feeds and it’s almost always bullshit. The difficulty here is that all it takes is one person making something up. Then some well-meaning people share it thinking they’re helping, usually with a ‘Be careful out there’ warning to their fellow social media users.

I’ve been covering Tacoma homicides for over a decade now. Over the years I’ve received countless ‘tips’ about all sorts of horrific and gruesome murders that never happened. I will do my due diligence and contact the police department, the Medical Examiner’s office, and local reporters to see if there is any meat to the rumors, but there rarely is.

It’s gotten to the point where I can spot a lie before I research it. Here are some things to watch out for.

Lack of Detail: Exactly where did this happen? Who was involved? What did they look like? What time was it when it happened? How many perpetrators were there?

Sensationalism: If the story sounds outrageous and there isn’t any media coverage whatsoever of the story, then it’s likely false because the media LOVES outrageous stories. Last week I saw a story about a guy who stole an airplane from Sea-Tac. When it first appeared on social media I was skeptical, but within minutes the story was picked up by mainstream news because a story like that when true is worth covering.

Personal Anecdote (and nothing else): Personal accounts of terrible things are always compelling, but they’re also among the least verifiable forms of evidence. That’s not to say that everyone who tells you something terrible that happened to them is lying. But if there is no other evidence to back up their story, it’s healthy to be at least initially skeptical.

Secondhand Information: Occasionally I’ll get emails from people who will tell me that my depiction of a homicide is inaccurate because they know a guy who was there and… But of course if I ask to talk to that guy, they can’t produce him.

Now it should be noted that in all of these cases it’s possible that the story you’re being told is actually true. Sometimes things happen quickly and it’s hard to give details as to what happened. Sometimes the true story is so sensational it sounds false. Sometimes things happen to you and you have no evidence that they did. Sometimes you hear a story from someone and never talk to them again. This is why it’s good not to just assume that they’re lying to you.

Instead what I suggest is to believe the story until you find reason not to, but not to share the story until you have some sort of corroboration. Multiple sources are good. Confirmation from authorities or experts is better. Physical evidence is even better.

Ask questions. If someone says something happened and they talked to the police, ask for the incident report number. If someone tells you something incredible happened, ask for the source of that information.

Do your own research. If someone has supposedly been killed, ask the Medical Examiner’s office. Contact the police department’s spokesperson. Check various media websites.

Be respectfully skeptical. There’s no reason to call someone a liar until you have evidence that they are one. The truth is occasionally hard to prove. My rule is fairly simple when it comes to sharing information: Trust, but verify. If it can’t be verified, depending on the source I might still believe it, but I’m not going to share it.

– Jack

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The Truth Is Rarely Black & White

Over at my TacomaStories.com site I talk about Tacoma homicides. Every time someone is murdered in Tacoma I write about the victim and what happened. I’ve been doing this for years now. Before that I worked at the police department in police records. I used to spend my lunch breaks reading case files and talking to beat cops and detectives. These experiences have informed me and changed the way I deal with news when I hear about it.

So last week when an 18-year-old black man was shot by a 32-year-old white police officer in the Shaw area of St. Louis, Missouri, less than twenty miles from the spot where Michael Brown was brutally and illegally gunned down by another white police officer, I didn’t jump on the band wagon assuming that t his was just another example of racist, overzealous, brutal, militarized cops killing yet another young person.

Initial reports seemed to confirm people’s worst fears. There was talk that victim had a gun and had shot at the off-duty cop who’d been working as a security guard, but a relative said he had no gun and was holding a sandwich. The officer was also said to have fired sixteen shots. A local politician said that the young man had been shot in the back of the head.

This led to the following meme:

meme

The protests that resulted from this death and the online vitriol caused by memes like the one above accepted a certain narrative of the event that was all too familiar. A recent study shows that young black males are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than young white males. That same study shows that white cops are more likely to shoot young black males. (Although 78% of the time when a black cop shoots and kills someone, they too are young black males.) Anyone who says that there isn’t a significant problem with lethal force being used against young black males by American police officers isn’t paying attention to reality.

However, this does not mean that every shooting by of a young, black male by a white cop is automatically racially motivated or unjustified. Over the course of the next few days, we’d learn other facts about the case. Conspiracy theorists would call these revelations the ‘police changing their story’. But it’s really investigative police work.

It turns out that the police found a gun with the victim. That gun was reported stolen two weeks earlier. The 9mm pistol jammed after firing three bullets. Those three bullets were all recovered. Two had hit a hillside behind the officer and one had hit a vehicle. We also learned that the victim was wearing an ankle bracelet as part of his release pending a trial in November for eluding the police and a weapons violation.

The medical examiner would also inform us that while sixteen shots were fired, only six or seven had actually hit the victim. The latest information I could find said that they were unsure if one hole was another bullet hole or an exit wound. It was also revealed that the victim had not been shot in the back of the head. He’d been shot in the cheek.

Within a day it was clear that the meme was not only misleading, but factually incorrect. This did not stop people from sharing it without researching sources first.

By any reasonable account of the situation, an off-duty officer working as a security guard had a confrontation with an armed young man who shot at him resulting in the officer shooting back and killing the victim. Unfortunately the fact that it happened near the shooting death of Michael Brown has caused some to conflate the two incidents. This is unfortunate given that beyond the race of the participants, the occupation of the shooter, and the general geographical area, there’s little that these two incidents have in common.

It doesn’t help that our media seems more interested in stirring outrage than simply informing us. CNN.com’s first article about the shooting took six paragraphs before even mentioning that the victim was armed and had fired at the officer and typical headlines on news sites were ‘St. Louis Police Shoot Another Black Youth’.  Unfortunately things that hit our hot buttons tend to result in us clicking on them and media sites have learned that.

If you don’t get your news from multiple sources, if you don’t allow that what you think might be wrong, if you don’t allow for new information to change your mind, then it’s fairly easy to follow the narrative of outrage that some media outlets are only too happy to feed us.

We see things like the meme above and believe it’s true without paying attention to the facts of the case. When someone points out the discrepancies in that narrative or to evidence that contradicts it, we say that the media or the police are lying because both have lied in the past.

It’s good to question new information. It’s good to question the source. But when you’re only questioning information that contradicts what you’re thinking, then you’re engaging in the same sort of thought process that cults are known for.  Worse, it damages your credibility as a reliable source of information. This may seem like a small thing, but it really isn’t. When you start misinforming people due to a stubborn refusal to even entertain contrary evidence, one of two things happen: people believe the lie or people realize you’re lying. Neither option is a good one.

There are some who would say that my mind was made up from the moment I heard about the shooting and that I’m just as blind to the ‘real’ facts as the people I’m describing. I disagree. If all sixteen shots had hit the victim, if no gun or bullets were found, if no gun was reported stolen, if a hundred other things had happened instead of what the evidence shows, I’d have a different opinion about this. I would change my mind.

Why would I do this when the media and the police are known to lie? Because lies have a way of being found out. It’s how we know what actually happened to Michael Brown. Remember when there was talk that he was armed and had robbed a convenience store? That didn’t pan out. Creating effective cover ups and lies is difficult. And accusing corrupt police departments and media outlets of such cover ups assumes a level of competency that those same people never attribute to those entities at any other time.

The truth takes time. It’s why I don’t report on Tacoma homicides as soon as they happen. I wait for names to be released and the evidence to tell a story of what happened before making assumptions and creating a false narrative. I’ve also been known to change the article when new information comes to light that changes the story of what happened.

It’s good to be informed. But keep in mind that the story you’re hearing might not be the final word.

– Jack Cameron