“Don’t shoot the messenger” is a common phrase many in our industry use to describe the barrage of angry remarks we receive when reporting something the public may not want to read, or would prefer to hear from someone else.
It came to the forefront May 2 when The Washington Post announced the United States Justice Department would not seek charges of federal civil rights violations against to Baton Rouge police officers in the July 5 shooting of Alton Sterling.
Many argued the Post should have waited until the Justice Department made the official announcement nearly 24 hours later, but the newspaper did its job when it broke the story. In this case, the blame clearly falls on the shoulders of Justice Department.
The Justice Department, the nation’s foremost agency for the enforcement of law and administration of justice, bears the responsibility of rendering a decision and ultimately keeping it in confidentiality until it announces it to the public.
The decision somehow leaked – obviously from within – even though the Post carefully avoided a direct accusation against the DOJ when it broke the news.
A large chunk of the general public responded with a sense of skepticism when the Post broke the news. It may have seemed justifiable, considering news agencies, large and small, have dropped the ball at times.
The New York Times and Associated Press followed with similar bulletins within hours, but the official announcement the following day in Baton Rouge silenced the doubters.
The Justice Department decision drew sharp division not only among those in the Baton Rouge area, but throughout the nation. The leak of the decision, however, has drawn outrage from both sides.
Regardless of the Post’s scoop, which is the nature of our business, the credibility of Justice Department now falls under question because of the fumble of such a highly volatile decision.
The fumble on announcement was unfair to several parties.
The mere nature of a job in law enforcement involves intense preparation for all aspects of what the work entails, but the DOJ leak – without prior notification to authorities – created a heightened level of undue stress. Law enforcement agencies and all levels of our state government heard the news through bulletins based on the Post story, some which was inexcusable.
It also meant the family of Alton Sterling had to hear the news from the same source, which was entirely unfair. Sterling was by no means a model citizen, but his grieving family deserved better than to hear the news from a party other than the one which investigated his shooting.
Finally, the general public deserved better. An underlying stress has festered from the days after the shooting. The ambush murders of law enforcement officers less than two weeks later – coupled with the August flood – directed the stress elsewhere, but thought of the impending decision remained a not-so-distant thought for many.
We hope Attorney General Jeff Sessions does not ignore how the leak could tarnish both his reputation and that of his agency. He should strongly consider an internal investigation of his office if he wants to preserve credibility for both.
The responsibility ultimately falls on his shoulders.