Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Profiling and public relations ... Tucked away at the bottom left of the Times frontpage today is a story which lacks the scope of the other lead stories, but is, in a sense, more telling than any of them.

The story concerns a Justice Department official, Lawrence Greenfield, who was picked in 2001 to head Justice's independent research branch, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), but was recently asked "to move on." Although Greenfield has been with the BJS for 23 years, in his new post he apparently ran afoul of his political supervisors:

The flashpoint in the tensions between Mr. Greenfeld and his political supervisors came four months ago, when statisticians at the agency were preparing to announce the results of a major study on traffic stops and racial profiling, which found disparities in how racial groups were treated once they were stopped by the police.

Political supervisors within the Office of Justice Programs ordered Mr. Greenfeld to delete certain references to the disparities from a news release that was drafted to announce the findings, according to more than a half-dozen Justice Department officials with knowledge of the situation. The officials, most of whom said they were supporters of Mr. Greenfeld, spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss personnel matters.

Mr. Greenfeld refused to delete the racial references, arguing to his supervisors that the omissions would make the public announcement incomplete and misleading. Instead, the Justice Department opted not to issue a news release on the findings and posted the report online.

Some statisticians said that decision all but assured the report would get lost amid the avalanche of studies issued by the government. A computer search of news articles found no mentions of the study.

Aside from the obvious perils of racial profiling, there are three things worth highlighting here. First, the Justice Department's behaviour in this instance is consistent with the Bush administration's general pattern of prioritizing political expedience over the nonpartisan integrity of an internal, independent branch. Second, given the current controversy over confidential sources, this would seem to be the perfect example of why and how they should be used. The anonymous sources cited in the article were all necessary to the story, had no obvious ancillary motives for speaking out, and, finally, clearly could not have spoken on the record without fear of severe professional recrimination.

Third though, and to my mind most important, is the way the story illustrates the central role that public relations has come to play in our press. Note that the alleged misconduct here was not that the BJS had to shelve its report; the misconduct only arose insofar as its release was not overtly publicized.

The nature of that offense speaks volumes, however implicitly, about the current state of our media coverage. As the article notes, the report was on-line and available to all, but not one newspaper ran a story on it. Now, I realize that the federal government, despite its current penchant for secrecy, still produces so much information that sifting through it is a Herculean task. But sifting through the titles of those reports is not -- and nor is following up on reports that appear as if they might be revealing at the time they are commissioned.

In this instance, for example, all a reporter would have had to do was visit the BJS homepage and click on "what's new" rather than on "press releases". In April 2005, that reporter would have seen that three reports had been released, on Prison and Jail Inmates, on Jails in Indian County, and on Contacts between the Police and Public. Yet only one report -- on prison and jail inmates -- warranted a press release. Now, if that reporter was a good journalist, wouldn't his or her instincts have been to immediately check out the other two reports? And more, if that reporter were working a paper's judicial or criminal beat, wouldn't he or she always be checking, if only once a month, the handful of reports that are released against the one or two that are publicized?

All I can think of for why reporters don't do this is that perhaps they've become accustomed to relying upon press releases. Not for specific cases or crimes themselves, of course, but for more general reporting. Even though I'm not a reporter, I certainly get enough press releases now that I can see how you could eventually just rely on them to fill in the holes.

But here's the thing: I've deliberately never run one. If someone has to publicize a report or product, then they either don't trust that it would stand on its own or they've got an attendant interest which they presume you share. Either way -- and especially if you're trying to develop a professional reputation for journalistic integrity -- that's not enough to stand on.

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