I’m hesitant to write about this because the yelling has died down. It’s been at least 12 hours since someone told me to rot in hell, and almost as long since someone told me I would have blood on my hands in the hypothetical case of a Davenport police officer getting shot.
I’d like it all to die down, but there was enough dialogue this week, I want to talk about it. Or I’d like to try.
When I stepped out of the office Wednesday evening and the streets were quiet and the sun was shining, I was surprised. I spent the day answering angry calls and emails from people blaming me for the potential riots and the violence. By that evening, I had internalized so much of that blame that I was actually disoriented by watching people going about their business. I was terrified for the police, just as our readers had been, so close on the heels of Dallas.
There was a singular tone to the rage and outrage that came from readers this week.
The rage didn’t start on Monday when we published a story online that police were on administrative leave, per policy, after shooting a man. We ran the story in print on Tuesday and the man who was shot called us to tell his side of the story.
Whenever people directly involved in a court case or a high-profile incident offer us an interview, we take the opportunity. The more information we can collect and provide, the better informed our readers will be.
Before Brian Wellner drove to Iowa City to interview the Rodricco Parks, we discussed his approach to the story. Ask the police for their side. Do a background check on the guy and include any past brushes with the law in your story. Take a photo of him.
That photo was the first thing to set people off. Wellner shot a photo with his iPhone of the man with his head against a pillow. The photo is the only indication that Parks is a black man. There is no reference to race in the article. I find that to be a significant omission, actually, but I also see the reporter and editor who worked on this piece were being careful considering the present climate. Still, that’s what the calls, online comments and emails were about last week -- race. We were accused of race baiting, of trying to stir up controversy to sell papers and inciting violence in the process.
People said they saw our bias in the photo, but interpretations of the image varied widely.
“Why are you trying to make him look like an angel? You shot the photo so he would look innocent,” one person said. Then another person said, “He looks like a thug.”
People looked for our bias in the wording of the article. They dissected it line by line, and we dissected it with them. We questioned ourselves every step along the way, pulling the trigger phrase “officer-involved shooting” out of the online headline, but choosing not to take the article down completely as many people requested.
But “we’re just doing our jobs,” felt like a hollow answer this week, even though I believe that. I’m not sure there was an answer I could have given to salve the anger people felt, because it about something larger than the article or the photo or even our placement of it.
“Why are you bringing this here?” someone asked me.
I sat at a stoplight Thursday morning listening to a radio piece about a black man, shot by police this week in another part of the country. Police were still investigating and couldn’t release the details, so the reporter collected and shared what witnesses could remember and what could be gleaned from documents.
As I listened, the voice of an angry reader echoed in my mind, “You should have waited until the police investigation was done before we released any of the information.” When the investigation is done and police are free to speak about it, we will be there to report every word.
But, are we so raw and afraid as a nation that it is better to stay quiet or better not to interview people beyond the official news release? From the response this week, it feels the answer is yes and my heart aches for all of us.
I’d like it to die down, but I know we’re going to continue to cover this, and as we do I promise we will do so fairly, ethically and honestly, with an eye toward everyone’s safety.