Editorial: Us vs. us

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Tension between government and press has existed since the founding of our nation. It is not an accident that the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution deals with the issue specifically.

These tensions flared from time to time but generally eased. In the end the sides worked through their differences because the public expected it and it was the right thing to do.

In the 20th century, the field of public relations changed the nature of the relationship between government and the press. Government disseminated information in ways and times meant to optimize public opinion, even if optimizing public opinion meant simply minimizing negative press.

The press responded by becoming more prosecutorial, probing to find that which had been obscured or withheld. Again, in the end the sides reached an accommodation, uneasy at times, as each got comfortable with the new rules of the game.

The press has abdicated its responsibility to act fairly. The police department has abdicated its responsibility to be open and forthright with the press, who are not only acting on behalf of the public but also are members of the public.

In the 21st century, social media is again changing the dynamics of the government-press relationship. No longer do the two need to engage; both can use electronic media to communicate directly with their audiences.

This dynamic is taking place in Worcester right now between the Worcester Police Department and the press, specifically the Telegram & Gazette. (A good summary is Patrick Sargent’s article on GoLocalWorcester.com)

At issue is the role the Worcester Police Department played in the Massachusetts State Police raid at 17 Hillside St. last month in which the wrong apartment was raided and claims were made that police acted inappropriately.

Worcester Police Chief Gary Gemme published releases on Aug. 29, Sept. 2 and Sept. 5 to answer specific questions from reporter Brad Petrishen and columnist Clive McFarlane, and claims his department has been responsive and transparent.

In response, on Sept. 5, Petrishen tweeted questions he claims the police have not answered (here and here), with one tweet reading, “In the interest of actual #transparency, here are questions #Worcester chief didn’t answer about the raid last week.”

On the same day, Tom Quinn of Worcester Magazine weighed in with a tweet that read, “WPD hasn’t answered an email from me in 205 days. So I trust their statements on transparency. Go @BPetrishenTG!”

Uneasiness and mistrust between the Worcester police and the press have existed for years. This latest back-and-forth takes matters to an entirely new and unacceptable level.

We believe both sides have abdicated responsibility here.

The press has abdicated its responsibility to act fairly. The police department has abdicated its responsibility to be open and forthright with the press, who are not only acting on behalf of the public but also are members of the public.

Most importantly, both sides have abdicated their responsibility to resolve their problems.

The press and the police have a shared goal: a secure, well-functioning community. It is plenty to aim for. They should communicate on that level, and spare us the noise.

Social media, with its limitless ability to connect people and convene groups of like-minded individuals, enables very easily an us-vs.-them mentality. What it doesn’t do nearly as well is remind us that when problems occur between two factions — all members of the same physical community — the issue is really us vs. us. Modern communication, especially among professionals, still needs the old-fashioned component of mutual respect.

The police, the press and the residents of Worcester deserve more, they deserve better.

 

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