CHICAGO — The first thing that caused newsman Rafer Weigel to blink when reading the TMZ report on "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett being brutally attacked by Trump-supporting, noose-wielding, racial-slurring assailants was the neighborhood in which the attack was reported to have happened.
The Streeterville neighborhood is not exactly "MAGA country" at any time, let alone 2 a.m.
"It is our job as reporters to be skeptical," said Weigel, a local Fox affiliate news anchor and reporter who grew up in Chicago.
How skeptical? "Well as the old adage goes, 'If your mother says she loves you, check it out,' so from the get go, when we heard this about Smollett, there were eyebrows raised for a whole host of reasons, just because we know the city well," he said.
As national media often omitted "alleged" from their reporting of the attack and instead saying that Smollett was attacked by two MAGA hat-wearing people who were "yelling out racial and homophobic slurs" and "poured an unknown chemical substance on the victim," the newsroom Weigel works in, along with several other competing Chicago print and media organizations, mostly stuck "alleged" in their reporting.
Local news organizations were doing what local news organizations do best: staying in constant contact with the local police, local officials and the community, and pursing the past behavior of the victim to look for additional red flags before going in head first with a narrative.
A news organization's relationship with the police, local officials and the community is critical, Weigel said, explaining that as a local news reporter, you often have to report on things that aren't favorable to the community or a local official or the police force. "But because you build trust by being honest and not sensational, those relationships remain intact," he said.
Weigel said the newsroom worked as a team, with people working the phones and talking to detectives in person, often receiving certain information off the record that the detectives would not share with the public because it could compromise their investigation. "So we honor that in order to keep that relationship open." He added: "We have to have good relationships with police officers and local officials, or they will completely cut us off. It is a two-way street. If they have a crime that needs to get solved, they'll turn to us to bring awareness to it, to get out suspects' pictures and videos and that sort of thing. If there's a high-profile case that's of high interest to the public, they understand that, and they will tell us what we can, or what they can, without compromising the investigation. So, it is a two-way street."
As any good local news reporter knows, those working relationships are critical. At the same time, it doesn't mean reporters don't hold them accountable. When there was evidence of a police cover-up of the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald by a police officer, the local Chicago media broke the story. The officers involved ended up going to trial. While they were acquitted, the police understand reporters have a job to do. As Weigel said: "We work in close proximity with these people. We know them by their first name, and so therefore, the local media will always have an advantage over the national media swooping in at the last minute, because we already know these people."
National news organizations, the ones with the most Twitter followers or influence on social media, cannot possibly work those kinds of relationships in a meaningful way. But many of them let the story stand without using "alleged" in their reporting, often retweeting celebrities, presidential candidates and influencers who personally condemn the attack, rather than prefacing the attack as an alleged attack.
That kind of omission, including any inference used in the delivery of a story, is damaging to our credibility as dispassionate deliverers of the news.
That behavior is not one a local news reporter can entertain.
On a national level, it took seconds for the story to become that Smollett was a victim of a hate crime, and that once again, supporters of President Trump are racist homophobes who are out for blood. It just stood there for weeks, getting spread by Hollywood, social media and conversations offline. Like so many other false stories recklessly spread, it became an axiom.
Except it wasn't.
The most important lesson of this debacle is not that national news is bad but that local news matters at the very same time it is dying.
It is a death that does no one good, certainly not the cities and towns and municipalities that need someone holding their water authorities, school boards, police officers, mayors and city councils in check.
We need them to cover the abuses of power, corruption, and dark secrets and associations that lurk in their past. We need them to follow the money.
Newsroom employment across the country has bottomed out at local newspapers, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics. Its survey data shows a 23 percent job loss in local news from 2008 to 2017.
We need more reporters like Rafer Weigel. We need more reporters like the ones I used to work with in Pittsburgh. But there is no quick fix, or perhaps any fix, to this crisis. Technology has changed the media industry.
Like any industry changed by automation, the horse is out of the barn.
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