In light of new anti-immigration law in Arizona, news media outlets need to add extra care not to fan the flames of bias with sensationalism or lack of sourcing that opens the door to errors. Here is a brief case study that contrasts The New York Post’s May 1 wire coverage about the April 30 shooting of an Arizona deputy sheriff with the April 30 coverage by The New York Times, CNN and The Phoenix New Times.
The New York Times, CNN and The Phoenix New Times sourced their April 30 reports on the deputy shooting. All three pieces properly attributed information to Pinal County sheriff Lt. Tamatha Villar, while The Post only referred to unnamed officers. Meanwhile, The New York Times’ piece was only three sentences long, but it still squeezed in two attributions to Villar. Nowhere in the six-sentence, four-paragraph New York Post piece was a source mentioned.
Compared to other reports, The New York Post’s news story was sensational, notably with its graphic description of the shot officer’s injury:
“The officer was found after a frantic, hour long search in the desert and had a chunk of skin torn from just above his left kidney.”
In CNN’s April 30 piece, the deputy’s injury was described as a “superficial wound.” CNN reported May 30 the deputy was in good condition and “comfortable,” an impression The New York Post piece might not have left readers with.
Likewise, The Associated Press report published by The New York Times April 30 calls the deputy’s wound a “superficial wound to his abdomen.”
The Phoenix New Times blogged April 30 that Villar described the wound as a “grazing.”
The New York Post did note the officer was in “stable condition” — however, this term has, as reported in Slate, little or no meaning. Slate wrote Nov. 6, 2009, that the American Hospital Association’s “General Guide” says “ ‘stable’ should not be used as a condition.” The deputy could be in “stable condition” when in intensive care and or sitting in the emergency room with a small cut.
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Does The New York Post’s torn chunk of skin suggest a superficial wound? They do not say.
The New York Post’s headline “’Illegals’ shoot Ariz. cop” left out any cautionary language like alleged or suspected. The headline suggests that the legal status of the individuals suspected had been determined. As Oklahoma State University professor Stan Ketterer noted, journalists must be careful with language used in reporting crimes and describing people.
Instead of identifying the shooter in the copy as a “suspected illegal immigrant” like The New York Post and The New York Times, CNN opted for “suspected drug trafficker” and The Phoenix New Times for “suspected drug runners.”
In fact, the only mention of the possible illegal status of the shooters in the CNN and Phoenix New Times articles came from the shot deputy’s report. CNN reported “The Pinal County deputy, who was not immediately identified, contacted authorities after being wounded in the desert, saying he had been shot by an illegal immigrant with an AK-47, said Lt. Tammy Villar, a sheriff’s spokeswoman,” and The Phoenix New Times quoted that the men the deputy encountered were “five Hispanic males, possibly undocumented.”
CNN, The Phoenix New Times and The New York Post contextualized the shooting with the recent Arizona immigration law.
Oddly, The New York Post did publish a more substantial article about the shooting April 30, sourcing other news organizations’ reporting.
Finally, unlike the others, The New York Post story also states there were five guns (“Officials said the deputy was shot after finding bales of marijuana in the desert and then encountering five armed, suspected illegal immigrants”), when The New York Times piece noted that only two of the five people suspected of smuggling drugs had rifles. Who was right?
iMediaEthics will investigate the factual contradiction and update this story soon.