Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Press releases: Crimes and hoaxes

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Portlanders collectively sucked in their breath with fear when the story broke last Tuesday morning on Facebook and the local news media: a 20-something woman had reported to police that she had been attacked and sexually assaulted by a group of men while she was walking on Baxter Boulevard at 9:30 pm the night before.

The story, as told by the police to the press, was scary: the woman was followed by five men, who forced her to the ground, held her down, and assaulted her until a passing motorist yelled and scared the assailants off. After the bizarre one-punch killing of Eric Benson in Monument Square in May, it seemed like random horrific violence might really have come to Portland after all.

Tuesday afternoon, Portland Police Chief James Craig held a press conference near the suspected site of the attack, asking anyone who had seen or heard anything to come forward to help with the investigation. But less than an hour later, Craig was telling the media that the woman had made up the whole story and was herself being charged with the crime of filing a false report.

The city's mood went from terrified to bewildered. Why would someone make up a report like that? (The best, though still decidedly murky, answer on offer so far is that the woman had some kind of fight with her partner.) And then, how could someone have snookered the police and the media so thoroughly? The media and police have long had to deal with hoaxers and their ilk — but those isolated incidents are magnified with the power and speed of online social networking. So while both parties rushed to judgement — and will probably do so again — the audience was a lot bigger for the entire debacle than might have otherwise been the case.

It is sad but true that most assaults, even rapes and murders, in Portland and elsewhere are not random violence involving a victim and aggressor who have never met, but rather between people who know or are even related to each other. An attack may be horrific and tragic, but it rarely means there is a serial assailant on the loose. The incident is newsworthy, but less urgent, giving the police and the media a little bit of time to assemble facts and issue a more complete report.

But when information comes in that suggests that a group of unknown marauders is out attacking unknown victims, the police and the press rightfully get alarmed, and want to warn the public as quickly as possible — in hopes of preventing anyone else getting hurt for lack of timely warnings.

That urgency, though, means fact-checking time is limited. Even more than usual, the media are stenographers for officialdom — whatever the police say is broadcast, published, and posted online. And even more than usual, the police give an incomplete version of events — what they say is utterly dependent on a single person's anguished report.

This scramble happens a second time when the story is found to be a hoax. Police and the media rush to retract their earlier warnings, eager to reassure people that no, in fact, there is not a mob out attacking women, but rather a disturbed woman telling stories for unexplained reasons.

And then the rest of the information comes out — the police had known the woman was reluctant to go to the hospital to allow medical staff to collect DNA samples as potential evidence. And wait — isn't that specific stretch of the boulevard, between Hannaford and the road to North Deering, fairly well-traveled even after dark?

Those red flags might have caused a cop — or a reporter — to pause and ask more questions, but not in that rushed situation. Those inquiries came later, in the follow-up investigation and reporting. But just as Craig says he'll respond the same way to similar reports in the future, it's just as likely that the media will too.