Media mess in handling Dover shooting coverage

ictured is the general parking lot area where 21-year-old Dover man fell last week after being shot by a police officer in the 100 block of South Governors Avenue. (Delaware State News photo by Craig Anderson)

Pictured is the general parking lot area where 21-year-old Dover man fell last week after being shot by a police officer in the 100 block of South Governors Avenue. (Delaware State News photo by Craig Anderson)

DOVER — Reporters are taught in journalism classes to never seek to become part of the stories they cover.

However, in the aftermath of a police-involved shooting in downtown Dover on Aug. 28 some media reports, police say, have become part of the narrative.

Last week, Dover Police Department publicly claimed some media reported inaccurate accounts of key elements during a volatile situation involving a portion of downtown Dover on the edge of a possible riot.

In a public news release issued Tuesday afternoon, Dover Police provided more details on the shooting that wounded a fleeing 21-year-old Terrance Fletcher in a parking lot in the 100 block of South Governors Avenue.

In the release, police specifically referenced reports on the nature and severity of the suspect’s injury and whether children were on a nearby Kent Community Action Agency Inc. day care playground when the shooting occurred just after 1 p.m.

Children were not present and the injury to Mr. Fletcher was a “soft-tissue wound,” according to last week’s release.

 MEDIA ERRORS In a public news release issued Tuesday afternoon, the Dover Police Department provided additional details on the Aug. 28 shooting that wounded a fleeing 21-year-old Terrance Fletcher in a parking lot in the 100 block of South Governors Avenue. Included in the release were separate police references to what the department described as incorrect reporting regarding the nature of the man’s injury and whether children were on a nearby Kent Community Action Agency Inc. day care playground when the shooting occurred just after 1 p.m. According to Dover Police inaccuracies in media reports included: • The suspect suffered a spinal injury. In fact, police said, medical staff reported that Mr. Fletcher had suffered a non-life threatening soft tissue wound from the shot to the upper thigh, with no bones or vital organs being struck. He was released from Bayhealth-Kent General Hospital in Dover on Saturday, authorities said, was transported to the Delaware Department of Correction. • Children were on the playground of the day care when the shooting occurred. “Despite numerous incorrect reports in the media,” police said, “there were no children outside on the playground at the time this event took place. This was also confirmed by staff working at the daycare at the time of the incidents.” • An online report cited witnesses claiming that a probation officer had shot a man that was running from him. According to police, investigation found that the man was shot as he ran toward an undisclosed Street Crimes Unit officer while emerging from an alleyway. “That post is still up as of Wednesday morning,” Dover Police Department spokesman Cpl. Mark Hoffman said. • Dover Police also said a media outlet “posted a video of a reporter online saying our officer shot Fletcher at least twice.”

MEDIA ERRORS
In a public news release issued Tuesday afternoon, the Dover Police Department provided additional details on the Aug. 28 shooting that wounded a fleeing 21-year-old Terrance Fletcher in a parking lot in the 100 block of South Governors Avenue.
Included in the release were separate police references to what the department described as incorrect reporting regarding the nature of the man’s injury and whether children were on a nearby Kent Community Action Agency Inc. day care playground when the shooting occurred just after 1 p.m.
According to Dover Police inaccuracies in media reports included:
• The suspect suffered a spinal injury. In fact, police said, medical staff reported that Mr. Fletcher had suffered a non-life threatening soft tissue wound from the shot to the upper thigh, with no bones or vital organs being struck. He was released from Bayhealth-Kent General Hospital in Dover on Saturday, authorities said, was transported to the Delaware Department of Correction.
• Children were on the playground of the day care when the shooting occurred. “Despite numerous incorrect reports in the media,” police said, “there were no children outside on the playground at the time this event took place. This was also confirmed by staff working at the daycare at the time of the incidents.”
• An online report cited witnesses claiming that a probation officer had shot a man that was running from him. According to police, investigation found that the man was shot as he ran toward an undisclosed Street Crimes Unit officer while emerging from an alleyway.
“That post is still up as of Wednesday morning,” Dover Police Department spokesman Cpl. Mark Hoffman said.
• Dover Police also said a media outlet “posted a video of a reporter online saying our officer shot Fletcher at least twice.”

The Delaware State News reports were consistent with the police reports.

However, other sources had conflicting information in weekend stories.

On Wednesday, police spokesman Cpl. Mark Hoffman said the media references in the release were follow-ups to a volatile incident that needed the public receiving accurate information in the interest of safety to the scene itself and the community at-large.

“The Public Affairs office regularly monitors both traditional and social media to understand what stories are published about the Dover PD and address any issues that may arise,” he said.

“In a major situation such as this incident, it is important to monitor what the public is being fed as ‘truth.’ We have a responsibility to be honest and transparent to the public, not only throughout this investigation, but every day.

“This situation obviously caused some tensions in the community in which it happened.”
Police said Tuesday’s news release was followed by one media outlet removing an online article and deleting it off social media.

“However, some of the articles and social media posts still exist with other outlets,” Cpl. Hoffman said.

Acknowledge the mistakes

On Wednesday, Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee member and former chairman Fred Brown said media members in general should swiftly acknowledge published mistakes when they learn of them and revise material online.

“If you correct it after the fact as soon as you can with confirmed information, that does a lot to increase your credibility.”

With today’s available technology making it possible to post information within seconds, Mr. Brown said there’s often an underlying pressure for reporters to not be slow to post what they think they know.

“There’s a tendency to want to get it first, which leads to sloppy journalism at times,” he said.

“The emphasis should be on getting it right. There are still ways to get it first and get it right, and the best practice is to report something as soon as you have enough confirmation, but never go beyond what you know.”

Also, Mr. Brown said, “I think consumers of news are not as sophisticated as they should be about reliable sources.

“People tend to believe what they want to believe and sometimes they will believe the more extreme account.

“I don’t think there’s as high a level of trust in the media as there used to be.”

With a national string of police-involved shootings with often fatal consequences, Mr. Brown said observers in a similar situation are “more likely to look at any similar instance and perhaps lean toward a comparison of what has happened before.”

Dave Skocik, an adjunct instructor for communications classes at Delaware State University, stressed the importance of verifying information from credible sources, especially claims crucial to presenting a fair account of

POLICE PHILOSOPHY Following is the Dover Police Department’s philosophy regarding public information that’s included in its policy and procedures manual: While the public relies on the press, radio and television media to provide informative, current and accurate information, it is also important to recognize that the media relies on the Dover Police Department as their source for information within our jurisdiction. Every effort will be made by the Dover Police Department to ensure the maximum flow of information to the media and public without substantial disruption of police services or activities. While the Dover Police Department recognizes the public’s right and necessity to be informed of the police department’s activities, this must always be weighted against information which would result in less than the maximum efficiency of the organization. Done properly this will result in good public relations and favorable public opinion which are two key elements in determining the overall success of the agency.

POLICE PHILOSOPHY
Following is the Dover Police Department’s philosophy regarding public information that’s included in its policy and procedures manual:
While the public relies on the press, radio and television media to provide informative, current and accurate information, it is also important to recognize that the media relies on the Dover Police Department as their source for information within our jurisdiction.
Every effort will be made by the Dover Police Department to ensure the maximum flow of information to the media and public without substantial disruption of police services or activities. While the Dover Police Department recognizes the public’s right and necessity to be informed of the police department’s activities, this must always be weighted against information which would result in less than the maximum efficiency of the organization. Done properly this will result in good public relations and favorable public opinion which are two key elements in determining the overall success of the agency.

the ongoing issue.

“The goal for a reporter is to be balanced and tell what you know, but if it could cause a backlash then it should be confirmed with both sides,” Mr. Skocik said.

“You can’t just throw out there what someone says without doing due diligence to make sure the information is accurate and from a credible source.”

Police are spotlighted when it comes to the public’s thirst for information, yet have a duty to protect an investigation as well, Mr. Skocik said.

“Police have a responsibility to be familiar with what they can release legally and what benefits the transparency that the public expects more and more these days,” Mr. Skocik said.

Cpl. Hoffman said that pointing out apparent media inaccuracies was not meant to be vindictive or combative toward any organization or reporter, and characterized the department’s relationship with journalists as generally positive.

“I take a lot of pride in the department’s relationship with the media,” he said. “It’s important to have a good working relationship and I try my best to be accessible 24 hours a day, especially to our local media members. …”

Media ‘did a disservice’

However, he said, parts of the media’s reporting fell short of acceptable standards in serving the public’s interest.

“During my two years as the public information officer, I cannot recall any inaccurate reports such as the ones that circulated in this event,” he said.

“As the public information officer, I also feel it is important to defend the Dover PD when appropriate. In this case, the media did a disservice to the community by releasing incorrect details as fact.

Cpl, Mark Hoffman

Cpl, Mark Hoffman

“It was important to address those matters while releasing new information to dispel those rumors and calm any tensions in the community.”

The public and its access to video and phone cameras with images destined for social media added to the confusion, authorities said.

Onlookers quickly began posting videos as the situation unfolded, which police said added to the rising tension and confusion about just what had happened, and what could be confirmed.

“Personally, I think it helped in showing the hostile crowds the officers were forced to deal with and demonstrated the professionalism of our officers in handling the situation,” Cpl. Hoffman said.

On Tuesday, Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen said he “may have misspoke” during an interview where he claimed an officer had told him that a gun was pointed at police during the sequence.

Police would not confirm that account afterward, but did say that Mr. Fletcher admitted to having a loaded handgun at the time of the chase.

Negative community relations

While Dover Police said the inaccurate reports did not affect the investigation, “it does negatively affect community relations with the citizens of Dover,” Cpl. Hoffman said. “I believe the majority of the Dover citizens have been patient to wait for more details and did not read too much into the inaccurate reports, but many tend to believe that media reports are accurate, and for the most part they are, except in this case.”

There are benefits to releasing official information online, authorities said. Social media posts made by the police department receive “instantaneous” response to the public, Cpl. Hoffman said.

“That is the beautiful thing with social media, is that we can send information and address situations in a matter of seconds and get feedback just as quickly,” he said.

Mr. Fletcher, a fugitive from a felony case in West Virginia, was charged with carrying a concealed deadly weapon and possession of a firearm by person prohibited. After treatment at Bayhealth-Kent General Hospital, he was transferred to James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna on a $20,000 secured bond.

A preliminary hearing scheduled for Friday morning at the Kent County Courthouse was pushed back a week.

Cpl. Hoffman said police understand the reason the media has for publishing stories and quotes, “but taking the extra step to confirm what was told to them is important in any case, especially one as serious as this when accuracy should be a priority.”

The police department’s social media presence, including more than 40,000 followers through multiple outlets, allowed it to inform the public the best way it could, Cpl. Hoffman said.

“Immediately after the incident we began to see rumors swirling online from the public and media that were simply wrong,” he said.

“Our use of social media gave us the ability to address the public and media at one time, establish a media staging area, and provide details of the incident as we could make them available.”

Rapid-fire approach

Former CNN World Affairs Correspondent Ralph J. Begleiter is not fond of the term “citizen journalism” because everyone at a scene now can publish their version of events online and through social media, and Periscope can be used for live broadcasting.

“With technology, something that used to require professional training can be done by everyone with online access,” said Mr. Begleiter, the founding director for the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication.

“Everyone with a camera can tweet, post, tag and share what they choose to without the slightest training, or background, or ethics.”

The rapid-fire approach to covering events now leaves reporters with a constant opportunity to share information at

Candidates for U.S. Senate, Democrat Chris Coons and Republican Christine O'Donnell, squared off in a debate organized by Delaware First Media and the University of Delaware's Center For Political Communication in Mitchell Hall on October 13th, 2010. The debate was moderated by Nancy Karibjanian and Wolf Blitzer.

Ralph Begleiter

any time, and an endless news cycle. Thus, mistakes will be made, but also clarified as the process continues, Mr. Begleiter said.

“We should not be surprised if we demand that our news media provide ‘instant’ answers and then discover later that those initial answers were not 100 percent accurate,” he said.

Mr. Begleiter calls a breaking news situation as challenging in the face of deadlines and limited time to report what’s available in the moment at hand.

“Even professional journalists with good training can only report what they can find out within a limited deadline time frame,” he said.

“So it’s common for even professionally written news reports to contain inaccuracies in their earliest incarnations, which are usually updated or even corrected in later versions (editions) of the story,” he said. “This is especially common in broadcast news, but also occurs in print.”

The probability of a correct report rises with the time allowed to research it, but today’s society isn’t wired to wait for that long for something to read, Mr. Begleiter said.

“If we insist that every news report be 100 percent accurate, no matter how promptly they are prepared, then we will subject ourselves to waiting days, weeks, months, years, or even decades to be sure the report is exactly correct,” he said.

Inaccuracies will happen

According to Mr. Begleiter, “We don’t want to wait that long to ‘get it right.’ We want our news ‘today,’ or ‘this morning,’ or ‘this hour.’

“In the age of digital reporting, where the deadline is ‘every minute,’ we want our news ‘now.’ Quite naturally, that means some of what we see reported digitally will turn out, later, to have been inaccurate.”

There’s a trade-off for access to quickly reported information, and it may be complete reliability on its accuracy.

“Sometimes, inaccuracy in initial reporting, by journalists, citizens or authorities, is a price we pay for demanding quick information about breaking news,” Mr. Begleiter said.

But, he said, “as a reporter, you’re trained to verify.”

Addressing the media

During the Aug. 28 drama, Chief of Police Paul Bernat addressed the media during a 4:30 p.m. press conference, while Cpl. Hoffman and Lt. Jason Pires also provided information and answered questions before and after the gathering.

“It’s important to know that in a situation like this, we are in constant communication through phone calls, text messages, in-person briefings, and more so that the same message is conveyed regardless of who is speaking to the media or online,” Cpl. Hoffman said.

Chief Paul Bernat

Chief Paul Bernat

The department has continued to increase its capacity to provide information and connect with the public, spurred by the launch of its social media presence in 2013.

“Since (2013), the department has always tried to remain as open and transparent as possible,” Cpl. Hoffman said.

“We work for the citizens of Dover and they deserve timely and accurate information regardless of the nature of the incident.

“We personally believe it is our responsibility to provide accurate information directly to the public and to address rumors and concerns as we become aware of them.”

Preliminary news of the shooting incident spread rapidly and “Within minutes of the incident occurring we began receiving calls from media outlets throughout the state …” Cpl. Hoffman said.

Dover Police encourages reporters to follow the department’s social media pages, especially Facebook and Twitter.

As developments proceeded on Aug. 28, a notice was sent to reporters regarding a media gathering point in front of the Dover Fire Department on South Governors Avenue.

Mis-reporting and errant information sharing was not limited to just the media, police said.

“We are also aware of several rumors circulating on social media from news agencies, individual people, and various organizations,” according to Cpl. Hoffman.

“Overall, I can honestly say that the majority of the local media has been very fair and balanced in their reporting of Dover Police-related stories,” he said.

He pledged to continue interacting with media in a positive fashion.

“Mistakes happen and unfortunately this case was not immune to them,” he said.

“We hope that everyone learns from the issues that arose in this situation and we can all continue to have an excellent working relationship.”

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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