Anything you say can—and will—be misattributed

December 27, 2016

Dear Zenith News:

 

I am writing to express my disappointment in the unprofessional journalism on full display in the Zenith [“Do Duluth and Superior apply community-oriented policing?” November 15, 2016]. Upon inquiring about the article, I was made aware of information which further illustrates the haste and lack of preparation responsible for robbing readers of an accurate account of how we do community policing.


Ms. Jennifer Martin-Romme called my office on November 10 and spoke to my assistant. She was requesting an interview to meet a deadline the following day. She mentioned she could not get a return call, yet she did not mention who she called. It is well known among local media that all media requests go through Ron Tinsley, our Public Information Officer. The PIO was on vacation, but was requested to help Ms. Martin-Romme make her deadline. Officer Tinsley is a tremendously dedicated employee and demonstrates this by agreeing to do an interview during his day off. He had very little time to prepare for the interview, but still was inclined to help.  


In my analysis of the questions asked, few people in our organization could speak to these questions off-the-cuff without preparation. The adage, “No good deed goes unpunished,” is apropos to what followed next. A telephone interview lasting for more than one hour is conducted, yet the conversation was condensed into literally a few sentences on topics that require significant and detailed explanation. The author creates more questions for the reader than answers. Unfortunately for our police and community, the article is chock-full of short quotes, misquotes, and taken out of context. I have personally apologized to my Citizen Review Board (CRB) for the article and the comments referenced. Initially, they attributed the comments to Officer Ron Tinsley, but it is clear this was taken directly from language in the city ordinance. This information was not quoted or sourced and is plagiarism, which is a violation of journalistic ethics.


Now more than ever, reporting on police and community stories needs journalists who strive to be accurate and balanced in reporting. The words used or not used can incite strong emotional responses and perpetuate feelings of fear and distrust in police. Police officers are facing one of the deadliest times in our history and do not need a flippantly authored article to cast an ominous shadow of doubt upon the good work we do each day. We strive to be a community- engaged, progressive, forward-thinking police department. This article portrays the Duluth Police Department to be arrogant, flippant, and outdated in our approaches.


This cursory article fails to highlight the tremendous work we do each day to meet and exceed community policing benchmarks and recommendations for best practices. We use The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing as our guide. It did not detail how we strive to find and adopt best practices, nor does it tell the story of our innovation in policing. While this may or may not concern the Zenith, what might be a concern is that your readers see a shoddy, incomplete work product. This work product will, for some, erode trust and delegitimize the journalistic ethics and integrity of your newspaper. Our work is important work and touches the lives of the entire community, including all those who live, work, and play within the city of Duluth. Safety and perception of safety can be very fragile. When we talk about it, we must ensure the messaging carries with it the accuracy, thoroughness, balance, and responsibility, commensurate with the significance of the message. Anything less is irresponsible and reckless.  


I accept and own our shortcomings in preparation. I encourage staff to be accessible to requests for interviews, sometimes with insufficient notice or preparation time. I do this because I believe in transparency in government, especially in policing. We all live and learn, many times by our mistakes. I will see to it all future requests for interviews by your publication will require a reasonable amount of advance preparation time and a list of questions in advance.


To fully provide me, my staff, the CRB, and the community reparations for the irresponsible and unethical journalism featured in this article, I respectfully request a correction and/or publication of this letter in your paper. Most critical to correct is the statement attributed to our Citizen Review Board (CRB), which was taken directly from the ordinance and should not be confused to be attributed to Officer Tinsley or the Duluth Police Department.

 

Respectfully,
Michael T. Tusken

Chief of Police

Duluth Police Department

 


Jennifer Martin-Romme replies: Thank you for your letter, Chief Tusken. I am very sincerely sorry there was a misunderstanding that sounds like it caused some painful feelings all around and made trouble for you.  


Indeed, the line in my article (A Citizen Review Board began in 2012, but it has no authority and limited access to records•••) is based on both a state statute (Minn. Stat. 626.89 sub. 17) and a city ordinance (12-030-O). However, I respectfully disagree that this constitutes plagiarism; it is simply stating a fact. By the same token, I’m not sure what the Zenith might correct, since it doesn’t appear we have any dispute about the accuracy of that sentence. I regret the difficulties that apparently ensued, but I simply had no way of anticipating that anyone would impute to Officer Tinsley a sentence that was not in quotation marks nor in any way attributed to him. Considering that the CRB’s lack of authority is a matter of state and local law, I’m not entirely sure why anyone would care if he had said it—but, no, he did not.


I’m honestly bewildered as to how you feel my article portrayed the department as arrogant or flippant or outdated. While journalism explicitly should never be promotional, neither the Superior nor Duluth Police Departments came across to me in such a negative light. Officer Tinsley was not unprepared. In fact, he provided me with even more sources of information, which I found quite helpful. At times, it did seem like he felt pressured to demonstrate that the DPD incorporates every single aspect of community-oriented policing. But that’s not realistic and it’s probably not even desirable. I fear we’ve made COP the “Gold Standard,” when it’s merely one (flawed) way of talking about police work.


•••There could potentially be disagreement as to whether the law limits the CRB’s access to records. Minn. Stat. 626.89 sub. 17 does not classify any data as public or not public, whereas according to Minn. Stat. 1205.0400, if the CRB is “within the entity” and their duties require the ability to view not-public or confidential data, then their access to records possibly should be more extensive.

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