Photos and story by Brandon Donoho / Contributing Writer
Students gathered in the Student Union’s Parliamentary Room on Tuesday to hear Jack McElroy, executive editor of Knox News, speak on the difficulties and importance of police accountability in modern journalism.
The hour long talk began with the passage of the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, which gave journalists access to several government documents and the subsequent amendments which significantly weakened it throughout the years.
In particular, McElroy drilled down on the exemptions created in 1976 for law enforcement and 1986 for national security.
According to McElroy, many journalists called the 1986 amendment the “license to lie,” as “national security,” would come to be used as a blanket defense against journalistic investigation.
In some cases, such as the famous Marcy’s law, which aims to protect victims’ identity but is often used to hide the names of officers involved in suspicious shootings, these laws garner public support for legitimate concerns but have unforeseen consequences which hinder transparency.
“We all want privacy,” McElroy said, “but the concern through this whole talk is- what does this do in the aggregate and where do we come out at the end if we consider all of these justifications for secrecy?”
McElroy went on to describe several ways in which law enforcement is gaining more surveillance power while finding new ways to shut down journalistic oversight.
“I think the pendulum is continuing to swing toward the secrecy side now,” said McElroy, “and it’s actually accelerating because of the issues we have regarding technology and the digital age.”
He described practices like cellular simulators, fake cell phone towers with which the police can pull data from phones and geofence dragnets, in which Google provides mass quantities of stored location histories on the phones of its users to law enforcement.
These and many other forms of technology are kept largely in the dark thanks to increased use of the 1986 “national security” exemption.
As a result, any flaws which may exist in the systems are rarely subjected to journalistic rigor, as was the case last month when a Massachusetts ACLU experiment discovered that Amazon’s facial recognition system would falsely identify 27 professional athletes as criminals.
McElroy quoted the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government as saying, “If algorithms are based on flawed reasoning, then government decisions based on them will likewise be flawed.”
In addition to blocking FOIA requests, McElroy points to efforts by police departments to “control the narrative,” and “cut out the middle man.”
He mentioned the annual SMILE conference, where heads of police departments learn about using social media to circumvent journalistic coverage and deliver messages directly to the public.
In reference to a recent case of officer deaths in Colorado, McElroy said, “These sheriffs used social media to share information with the public and put out what they wanted put out, but then when they held press conferences, they would only read from prepared statements, and they refused to take questions.”
“If there is information that doesn’t reflect well on the agency,” he said, “that’s not information that they’re going to distribute to the public.”
This increase in media-savvy police departments coincides with the waining power of traditional journalism.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the newspaper industry is down nearly 50 percent since 2004. This means less power for newsrooms to promote the free flow of information and push back against efforts to restrict it.
McElroy closed with this quote from Harold Cross, “The people have the right to know. Freedom of information is their just heritage. Without that, the citizens of a democracy have but changed their kings.”
To contact News Editor Savannah Meade, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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