Dothan Police Chief Steve Parrish was livid Wednesday when he met with reporters to deny charges that members of the department planted drugs on people. The only reason he called the press conference is a small website that, until recently, went unnoticed by most.
The Henry County Report cited police documents that are 15 or more years old in making claims that several officers planted drugs on young black males. The documents appear authentic but it’s difficult to conclude from them that drugs were ever planted.
A few hours after the article went viral, Parrish stood before television cameras and print reporters to deny the allegations. Until recently, he likely would not have responded at all but in the everybody-can-be-a-reporter day things have changed.
Parrish points out that Henry County Report and its writer, Jon Carroll, recently claimed a police officer--not a Dothan one-- killed two teenagers in 1999. It was the rage of the internet for days with some people claiming mainstream media refused to report the story because it didn’t want the truth made public.
The fact is mainstream media didn’t touch the story because the report did not have what’s called in the news business “legs”. In other words, there was no credibility or evidence that the allegation is true. In fact, the sister of one victim who first seemed to support the report later said on her Facebook page she was duped by Carroll.
Duping, if that’s what he did, is easy when a few strokes of a computer keyboard can set off a global media firestorm. Regarding the planted drugs story, Parrish said he received inquiries from London and even the New York Times. As of Wednesday night, the Times had not published the story.
While that publication may have passed, others didn’t. AL.com and less mainstream media such as New Republic, Raw Story, Refinery 29, and Mint Press did choose to publish the story---one, true or not, generated by a man that stroked those computer keys.
Some have threatened lawsuits against Carroll for false reporting though, to our knowledge, none have been filed. However, the man behind the Alabama-based website Legal Schnauzer was recently jailed for several months after refusing to remove unproven reports involving the son of former Alabama governor Bob Riley.
Winning a lawsuit against the media is difficult---many attorneys won’t take a defamation case against a news organization. Journalists have great latitude in what they report. It’s what keeps the free press----free.
Public figures, such as government officials, celebrities, well-known individuals, and people involved in specific public controversies, are required to prove actual malice, a legal term which means the journalist knew his statement was false or recklessly disregarded the truth. (Medialaw.com)
Thus, the issue with litigation. Malice is a difficult to prove. In other words, if you’re in the public eye not much is off limits even if it’s not true.
There’s not a seasoned journalist that is mistake free in their reporting. There’s not one that has not been threatened with a lawsuit because somebody didn’t like what they reported. Journalists need legal protection to remain the public’s watchdog.
The problem is, these days, it’s hard for some to separate real journalists from the wannabe’s---the bloggers. And that begs the question---is free press too free?
(Ken Curtis is the senior reporter with WTVY/WRGX. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org)