Our role as the fourth estate

Holding public officials accountable is a duty to community


Many reporters these days have no awareness of their role in the democratic institution known as the fourth estate. As community journalists we go about the business of chronicling events — sometimes big but often small — that come and go in the everyday life of our communities, often without a thought to the fact that we are the first line of defense against rogue behaviour in the institutions that hold power over people’s lives. Sometimes, however, we bear witness to activity so far outside the bounds of established conduct we cannot look the other way. An extraordinary run-in with a patrolman on a major Canadian city street presented one such occasion for me, and while teaching moments for journalism students kept presenting themselves throughout the curious narrative that would play out, I found the lessons applied to my own station within the framework of our profession as much as they might to a cub reporter.

JOURNALISTS EVERYWHERE HAVE A RESPONSIBILITY to hold public officials accountable. We are bound by a sacred trust to depict reality as it is, even when that reality is ugly or portrays recognizable figures as something other than what the people — or trending sentiment — would wish them to be. Now this is not the same as “activist journalism”, nor is it akin to the unenviable position the fourth estate in the U.S. finds itself these days, where the media has become so invested in correcting what it perceives as a judgement error by voters in the 2016 federal election that it barely functions in its chartered role and is defenceless against accusations it is part of, if not the ranking, opposition to a duly elected government. Nor does holding public officials accountable share kinship in any way with spiteful-from-a-distance journalism, as the fixation on the U.S. political sideshow often manifests itself in coverage by national news organizations in Canada: a noble role as provider of sober third-party perspective on issues of consequence to the direction of western civilization is repeatedly set aside in favour of parroting U.S. reporting, in spirit and in prominence, and predictably along ideological lines.

Spiteful journalism, myopic reporting and affected narratives remove a newspaper’s license to adjudicate cases where breach of public trust is being tested. And "shrinking" journalism, where reporters shy away from unpleasant storylines, is as much an abdication of duty as would be gleeful destruction of an unpopular political figure masquerading as public service. We are the first line of defense, and rogue behaviour must be correctly identified and truthfully reported.

Your fourth estate role, in the arena of community journalism, will find itself activated most likely in the evaluation of fairness, propriety and legality in the discharge of duties by public officials, especially those who have power over the people or who have been entrusted with steering the psycho-social development of children. Elected officeholders, police and school leadership, for example, all have pledges and oaths to uphold, and any breach of trust along those lines becomes a reportable story. Unusual conduct and aberrant behaviour should catch your attention every time.

Triggering checks and balances

As journalists, we should be among the first to spot anomalous conduct by leaders in the public sphere, and the very first to point it out for the express purpose of triggering the checks and balances upon which law and order depend. Triggering the mechanism is enough; seeing that the judicial process functions effectively is not your job.

Duty does not expect you to secure a conviction on a matter of suspected impropriety, nor does it tolerate, for that matter, an action you might take to exact revenge for a perceived personal wrong, using your megaphone to do so. What duty does demand is that you not look the other way when confronted with disturbing discovery or abnormal conduct. Once reported, the public and the appropriate authorities will have had an opportunity to treat the knowledge as they see fit; to not report it, and allow the deed to continue unimpeded, is to deprive them of that opportunity.

The run-in I had with a city police officer that presented this case in point gave me pause at first. The reporting journalist having involvement in the story can be problematic on at least three counts: 1) the appearance of personal agency (vengeance, in this case), 2) a need to demonstrate ability to separate fact from experience, and 3) the tendency of residual emotion to colour the narrative. In the end, I elected to publish a story for two significant reasons: 1) no matter who was involved the subject matter would still have been reportable, from a fourth estate perspective, and 2) I trusted the police cruiser's onboard video equipment would be available to verify the facts I would describe.

Without baring all the details of what should never have amounted to more than the most minor of events, I was ultimately issued a $35 fine on the charge of crossing a side street while the Do Not Walk warning sign was active. A police officer, who happened to be second in line to make a left-hand turn onto that side street, would be the one to stop me on a sidewalk some distance beyond the intersection. Before that, though, the vehicle in front of him hesitated all the way through the subsequent yellow light before finally completing the turn, stranding the police cruiser on a red.

Onboard video shows the cruiser powering through the red light and crossing two lanes of oncoming traffic before coming to a stop pointing northward in the southbound lanes of a major artery, where the officer left it awkwardly parked as he set about redressing the infraction he believed had occurred. My first awareness of anything untoward was when the officer, supposedly having leapt from the cruiser that was behind me, accosted me on the sidewalk. In a highly agitated state, he was verbally discourteous, to say the least, and in mocking tone accused me of being self-centered in how I had crossed the street without regard for left-turning traffic. He even threatened to arrest me when I didn’t fish out my identification quickly enough to please him.

Not insignificantly, I contend, the side street he had been waiting to turn left onto was a back route officers routinely use to access the police station, which was just a short distance away.

To me, this had the earmarks of classic road rage, not matter-of-fact policing. (The abasing language he used to describe my frame of mind while in the crosswalk hinted at his frame of mind, and also its trigger.) The officer’s bombast and outrage was far out of range from the disposition of one enforcing a minor traffic statute. The threat of arrest was over the top, and the lack of discernible control in his behaviour summoned the unsettling feeling that this encounter could go sideways in a hurry. It's worth noting that visions of the Sammy Yatim horror story were still alive in the public consciousness at that time. And also materializing in my head were vivid memories of emotionally whipped black men, young and old, coming into a newsroom where I once worked to give their accounts of insignificant encounters with this very police force having suddenly turned violent. Self-preservation instincts urged me to not challenge the point — any point — with a socially-sanctioned, gun-bearing peace officer whose demeanor suggested anything other than “peace”. There is nothing that an insignificant, anonymous and institutionally disempowered you can possibly win in such a lopsided mismatch, I believed.

This would have been a reportable story in itself, had it ended there. But it was just getting started.

Suddenly I became aware that I was surrounded by three bicycle cops, who formed a mobile hedge about me while the still-emotional officer set about writing a ticket. It ramped up the intimidation factor considerably, until one of them dismounted and walked the patrolman back to his car, where he appeared to ease his apprehension in a conversation they had out of earshot.

The patrolman was merely stern and business-like after that. This suited me fine; aloof, impersonal policemen bother me no more than do $35 tickets. Belligerent armed men who pose direct threat to my liberty and implied threat to my safety, however, do. And the public has a right to know that such a threat can materialize out of nothing on their streets, in their neighbourhoods and to the most upstanding of citizens.

Reporting on the unusual and the abnormal

I wrote a story, and published it. This was the fourt estate in action. Chafed, of course, by the disrespect of person and the unnecessary intimidation, residual emotion did affect certain sentences in the early accounts. But at no time did I let the silly matter of having a debatable ticket put upon me (the video would show no evidence of an infraction having taken place) become the story; there is simply no news value in the mundane event of a citizen being handed out an inconsequential traffic ticket, whether deserved or undeserved.

The outrageous heavy handedness by police in issuing said minor ticket, coupled to the road rage implication, was the abnormality that commanded the headline. The striking imbalance in power in that curbside interaction informed the narrative: I could have argued with the angry officer about just who had been inconvenienced more until we each were blue in the face, but he had the weapon, the comrades as go-to witnesses and the winds of wrath fully at his back; I had naught but a well-honed sense of self-preservation.

Even so, the story refused to die a natural death. Curious turns-of-event continued to occur.

The police force itself was furnished in writing with my allegation of officer road rage when I marched down to police headquarters shortly thereafter and filed a Freedom of Information request to gain access to the video. I was told, in person and in follow-up phone communication, that the force had 30 days in which to comply. (I found it odd that this information was volunteered each time, and peculiar that it was delivered in a defensive tone.) Soon after that window closed it became apparent the force was dragging its feet on letting me see the video; they continued to put up what I thought were lame excuses until notification of the court date I had requested came around. Citing the standard “before the courts” mantra, they then told me my FOI request wouldn’t be honoured after all.

The court later requisitioned a copy of it for me, seeing it was being entered as evidence; the police force did not deliver, and when we finally got to court — more than six months after the incident — it was discovered they hadn’t come up with a copy for the Crown either.

The ticketing officer showed up in court, ready to do his part to make the ticket stick. (In concert with the prosecutor, his role was to convince me to plead guilty, earn a reduction in the fine and let the case end.) None of this would have struck me as odd had I not learned that he had been transferred out and reposted to another police division sometime in the months between the incident and the court date.

To a journalist, the unusual is always a story. It is not unusual for minor cases to get tossed by the prosecution because the ticketing officer fails to show up in court; as I understand it, the norm is for a cop to show up for a marquee case or when there is a sufficient number of cases to justify the logistical and financial cost of his attendance. However, to my thinking it was quite noteworthy that this officer would show up to defend a single $35 ticket he had written long ago, and in a jurisdiction he no longer patrols.

The video finally arrived, almost a year after the incident. It was so unhelpful to the police case that the prosecutor wanted it thrown out when we went to trial, and smooth-talked me into agreeing to do just that. But the headline belonged to the decision making (whether made by the force or by the cop himself) that compelled the officer to be in attendance yet again; having commuted a considerable distance to be there for this one case, he showed himself willing to devote yet another afternoon to seeing it through.

Ultimately, the police force, the courts and the public alike shrugged indifferently at a news narrative I would have expected to be received as a wake-up call in a city with a spotty history of police-civilian interactions that sometimes go inexplicably awry. The story stayed alive as long as it did only because the odd plays taking place over a $35 fine were, to put it mildly, extraordinary. Its lifespan had nothing to do with any official or public outcry in reaction to revelations about police conduct that might demand examination.

None of this matters to me, however. Nor should it. I was faithful to my fourth estate duty in bringing a matter I deemed of public concern to the attention of the authorities and the people. Causing any party to react to that information in a particular way is not part of that responsibility.

How I personally feel about the notions of being served or protected by that city's police force might surprise you, but my opinion is derived from a much larger sample size than the facts that presented for the construction of this story. That said, these facts also belong in the equation of ongoing evaluation.