Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Press Releases: Question authority

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Maine journalists appear to disbelieve their own eyes, decline to do their own research, and prefer to quote officials instead of relying on independent knowledge and experience. Heck, the public editor of the New York Times recently asked readers if reporters should verify public officials' claims — and seemed surprised and defensive when the overwhelming response was "Yes, you dummy. And what kind of idiot would even ask this question?"

A recent local example of this was the ridiculous hysteria around gang violence and membership in Maine. The subject arose because of a legislative proposal that would have allowed a court to extend someone's jail term if they were convicted of a crime that was somehow believed to be connected with a gang.
Gangs are indeed a problem around the country. And an FBI report (which was recently removed from the agency's website) claims our state has as many as 4000 gang members. So the Maine Gang Task Force asked Scarborough Republican Representative Amy Volk to propose the bill.
But the MGTF's leader, Eric Berry, has questionable credibility. He may head a task force involving federal, state, and local law-enforcement officials, but he declines to name the other members of his task force, citing unspecified "security reasons." He also refused to say which gangs are active in Maine — though that would seem a crucial piece of evidence to support his claim that gang activity is here at all.
Then, in a legislative hearing, Berry told lawmakers gangs account for "over 30 percent of crime in the state."
Sure enough, when faced with an official claiming that there is an unseen, unheard epidemic that has become the state's second-leading cause of crime (after domestic violence), reporters leapt to publish the material without really checking it out. That quote itself was carried on MPBN, and multiple similarly credulous, long, high-profile pieces were published in the Bangor Daily News, the Lewiston Sun Journal, and the Portland Press Herald. (MPBN later reported the FBI stats might be flawed, but didn't change its first story.)
But verification wasn't that hard. The Portland Phoenix's Lance Tapley asked Berry for evidence behind his claim, at which point he changed his tune entirely, insisting he meant to say instead that gangs account for more than 40 percent of "violent criminal charges" in Portland and Lewiston-Auburn. A quick call to the Portland police revealed that they had no data available to confirm or refute that claim.
But every beginning journalist should have known the answer already, from reading local police logs, where gang activity is almost never mentioned. It's also really easy to check public statements by prosecutors and police, who so rarely talk about gangs that it makes statewide headlines when a biker gang (which we do have in Maine) runs afoul of the law.
In truth, Maine probably does have some small level of gang activity. And indeed, anti-gang bill supporters in the House Republican Office issued a statement that 24 people arrested around Maine in 2010 had been accused of membership in various gangs.
That number appears in an August 2010 federal announcement touting the results of a New England-wide roundup of people with alleged gang connections, led by immigration officers. Which leads to the apparent conclusion that the only gang-related arrests in Maine in 2010 were those 24.
That gangs are barely here is bolstered by the fact that in May 2011, when the Maine Department of Public Safety issued its "2010 Maine Crime Stats Report," gang activity didn't merit even a passing mention. The report did say that 47,820 adults and 6492 juveniles had been arrested statewide — which means that 0.04 percent of the state's arrests that year were related to gang activity. Hardly a problem, and almost impossible to determine whether it's "rising."
Perhaps it's time to form a gang. We can call it "Actual Maine Journalists." That should really strike fear into the hearts of government officials — and give hope to regular Mainers.