Bomber’s confession should be released as transcript

Chas Moore, Austin Justice Coalition; Brian Manley, interim Austin Police Chief; Emlyn Lee founder and chief Collaborator of Brave and Gilbert Rivera speak on a KUT radio panel at Carver Museum in East Austin about the deadly Austin bombings and the response by police, the media and the community. Thursday, March 29, 2018. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

Nearly a month after Austin’s serial bomber took his own life by blowing himself up in his vehicle as police closed in, Austin still is in the dark about the words he spoke on a 28-minute recording he left behind.

Revelations about the Pflugerville resident’s reign of terror on Austin won’t come anytime soon because his confession is being kept secret from the public by the Austin Police Department.

That doesn’t bode well for transparency on issues that pit the public’s right to know against law enforcement’s right to withhold information. And it signals a shift in the way things were handled at the police department when Art Acevedo was chief.

On a visit to Houston last week, Acevedo, who now is chief of that city’s 5,200-officer department, told me he would release a transcript of the recording with any sensitive information redacted in an effort “to balance public safety with the public’s right to know.”

That would allow people to make their own judgments about the bomber’s confession without the filter of law enforcement, Acevedo said.

Interim Police Chief Brian Manley has said the 28-minute recording won’t be released because it is part of an ongoing investigation.

“We will revisit the decision on releasing the audio once the case is closed,” Manley told me.

Texas law permits that; I respect that. But at what point does “an ongoing investigation” become an excuse to keep the recording secret?

Manley also has said that releasing it might inspire copycats or glorify a bomber who terrorized and killed without regrets. For proof, he sent me research that backs up that point, including an article that references the “contagion effect.”

As described in a March 8, 2016 Washington Post article, the “contagion effect refers to the tendency of some people to model or copy behavior or activity portrayed by news or entertainment media.”

In other words, fame, or notoriety, is a powerful incentive for would-be mass killers. And some have studied the habits of others in plotting their killing sprees, such as reported by the New York Daily News this month.

According to the article, “Nikolas Cruz studied the Columbine High School massacre ahead of his own deadly rampage in Parkland, Fla. earlier this year.”

On the social media front, ABC news reported on findings by researchers Jennifer Johnston and Andrew Joy in 2016, which examined studies on when gun massacres occur and profiles of the perpetrators. The pair looked at a 2015 study that examined 57 billion tweets. Of those 72 million used the word “shooting” and 2 million the words “mass murder” or “school shooting.”

The news report stated: “One of the most startling of Johnston and Joy’s findings is that the more tweets that occur about a mass shooting, the higher the chance of another gun massacre occurring soon after. If, after a school shooting, at least 10 out of every million tweets mentions the incident, the likelihood that there will be another school shooting increases to 50 percent within eight days after the initial violence and to 100 percent within 35 days afterward, according to the paper.”

Reading the research opened my eyes to some things journalists could do better, such as not publicizing the names of mass shooters or killers and avoid showing pictures and videos of their faces. I get that.

But researchers also noted that beyond taking steps to avoid naming serial or mass criminals or showing their images, journalists should report “every other detail so the public gains a better understanding about these tragedies.”

We can’t do that without the bomber’s confession. Give us a transcript.

Viewpoints: Race, Russian bots and the angst around #AustinBombings

Five bombings in the past three weeks, with two dead, four injured and the culprit still at large, is plenty to put all of Austin on edge. But another incendiary layer to this saga is playing out on social media.

The hashtag #AustinBombings has been trending on Twitter in part because of all of the media coverage — and in part because of complaints about the perceived lack of media coverage, even as the bombings have dominated the Statesman’s online and print editions, not to mention all of the reporting from local and national TV and radio outlets.

Yes, there’s the obvious: Some people aren’t exactly keeping up with the news, especially in their self-contained social media bubbles.

But go deeper, and you’ll find real anxiety about race and distrust of the media.

Go deeper still, according to NPR, and you’ll find Russian bots amplifying the whole thing.

The first three bombs killed two African-American men and injured a Hispanic woman, raising the specter these might be hate crimes, particularly because the two slain men belonged to prominent East Austin families connected to Wesley United Methodist Church. The Statesman has provided extensive coverage of those bombings and the growing investigation, including the latest explosion that injured two white men in Southwest Austin and the early Tuesday explosion of an Austin-bound package at a FedEx facility in Schertz. But for some observers in other cities who, for whatever reason, initially heard little about these bombings, the storyline tapped into longstanding concerns that the media does not cover tragedies in communities of color with the same vigor as calamities affecting whites.

“In general, people don’t trust the media,” Mia Moody-Ramirez, a University of Texas journalism grad and Baylor University professor specializing in media and race issues, told me by phone this week. “They think some stories will be highlighted more than others.”

These reactions reminded me of the social media outrage in 2015, when some indignant posts asked why the terrorist attacks at a Paris concert hall and restaurant drew far more media coverage than did the  slaughter of 147 people in a Kenya school attack. Only the facts didn’t bear that out. Every major news outlet did cover the Kenyan terrorist attack and in great detail.  

Some critics don’t understand why the Austin bombings haven’t drawn the same kind of round-the-clock national TV coverage as other big stories, such as Hurricane Harvey or the contentious 2016 election, Moody-Ramirez said. But these bombings are the subject of an intense investigation that has produced very little information to sustain the cable news channels’ attention.

The American-Statesman has memorialized the victims of these bombings, chronicled the anxiety of a community, illustrated how other bombing suspects were eventually caught and questioned the Austin Police department’s early efforts to tamp down fears by suggesting the first bombing was an isolated incident.

But we don’t know who’s unleashing these attacks and why, or how the victims were chosen — if they were purposely chosen at all.

“I think regarding the bombing, people want a different kind of coverage,” Moody-Ramirez said. “They want answers the media can’t give right now.”

And thanks again to social media, what would normally be the complaints of a few become retweeted and “liked” tens of thousands of times with the help of another divisive force.

NPR’s national security editor Philip Ewing reported Monday evening that some of the activity on Twitter “appears initially to be connected with the Russian social media agitation that we’ve sort of gotten used to since the 2016 presidential race.”

How can we tell?

“There are dashboards and online tools that let us know which accounts are focusing on which hashtags from the Russian influence-mongers who’ve been targeting the United States since 2016 and they, too, have been tweeting about Austin bombings today,” Ewing reported.

And as they did after the Charlottesville protests, last year’s Alabama Senate campaign and the tug-of-war over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, Ewing said, the Russian bots are jacking up the volume on social media debates to make Americans feel even more bitterly divided. All of this comes amid new reporting on the alleged Facebook abuses by Cambridge Analytica to potentially sway elections.

When people distrust reporters and feel overwhelmed by the conflicting noise on social media, some tune out altogether. Jena Heath, a former Statesman editor who now teaches journalism at St. Edward’s University, is glued to current events, but she can understand why some people opt out.

“We live in a surreal time,” she said. “I think people feel bombarded, I think they feel overwhelmed, less in control of the levers of their society, less able to affect change. And so when people feel this way, they pull back, they stop participating.

“Then something really directly relevant to their lives happens, and there’s a sense of, Why didn’t anybody tell me about this?

Haruka Weiser’s death and the right to know

A University of Texas police officer stands nearby as students gather at the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center near Waller Creek to lay flowers and pay their respects for slain student Haruka Weiser. RODOLFO GONZALEZ /AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN
A University of Texas police officer stands nearby as students gather at the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center near Waller Creek to lay flowers and pay their respects for slain student Haruka Weiser. RODOLFO GONZALEZ /AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

As we at the American-Statesman have reported on the death of University of Texas student Haruka Weiser, we’ve received some pushback on social media and in story comments from readers who think we’re going too far.

Last night, Statesman reporter Tony Plohetski was the first to report that Weiser had been strangled and sexually assaulted. The report, based on carefully vetted sources whom we did not identify because they were not authorized to publicly disclose these details, answered one of the basic questions surrounding the case a week after Weiser’s death. It also raised the possibility of additional charges related to sexual assault, pending DNA results.

To us in the Statesman newsroom, this was a newsworthy development. Some readers weren’t so sure, as this story commenter put it:

I hope at some point in time the press and media will stop sniffing for yet more and more information about this woman’s demise to blab to the purient public.  If necessary, pls put all such information in supermarket rags or TMZ and not in legitimate press.  It is no one’s business other than officials and family about the grisly details of how she died.

We understand such concerns, of course. We have those very same discussions in the newsroom. We take the public’s right to know seriously, and we’re not just talking about a “prurient public” interested in horrific details. We’re talking about public safety, university security, law enforcement and prosecutorial accountability and, yes, even ensuring that the rights of the accused are protected. Manner of death in a high-profile homicide is the most basic of questions — one that had been asked by our readers for a week.

We understand that reading about any case will be difficult for the victim’s family. Like you, we feel for their loss. But we also have a responsibility and a mission to inform, and, unfortunately, that sometimes means reporting information that the victim’s family will not want to read. In a case like this, that will happen countless times as the case goes through the legal system. We took that into account with Tuesday’s story, making sure that law enforcement had a chance to notify Weiser’s family before our story published. We also exercised restraint in which crime-scene details to publish and which to omit at this time.

Today, some on Facebook took offense to our posting of an interactive timeline tracing the events outlined in Meechaiel Khalil Criner’s arrest affidavit. Others have requested that we not run Criner’s mugshot. Of course, those are the basics of a story that will continue to be reported out and followed by media not just here in Austin but around the world.

We understand that the details are not pleasant, but we believe that pursuit of those details is vitally important.

— John Bridges, managing editor

A mildly contrary view of ‘Spotlight’

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Steve Carell in a scene from “The Big Short,” which was nominated for an Oscar for best picture.

A few thoughts about two Academy Award-winning films and their portrayals of journalism before the Oscars fully fade from our perpetually shortening short-term memories, and while we wait for results from Super Tuesday to start coming in:

Journalism in America can use any validation and vindication it can get. Sunday night, validation came in the form of a best picture Oscar for “Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe’s investigative series in 2002 that exposed the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse by priests. As Viewpoints editor Tara Trower Doolittle wrote in a previous entry on this blog, “The award was a bit of vindication for those who toil in metropolitan and community newsrooms doing the important work of daily journalism.”

Though I think another best picture nominee, “The Big Short,” is a better movie than “Spotlight” (more about that in a moment), I have no problem with “Spotlight” being named best picture. It’s a good movie, and The Globe’s work was a key part of one of the most important stories of the last decade. But there are lessons in “Spotlight” that journalists shouldn’t overlook as they celebrate Sunday’s “win for journalism.” Despite their great work, The Globe’s investigative team was late to the sexual abuse story. Years late. The National Catholic Reporter was the first publication to write about the scandal, and it did so in 1985. Investigative author Jason Berry wrote a book titled “Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Abuse and the Sexual Abuse of Children” in 1992, which Eileen McNamara, a Globe columnist, reviewed for the paper.

McNamara wrote columns about the sexual abuse of children by priests in the 1990s, but her work largely was ignored by news editors and reporters at The Globe until new executive editor Marty Baron arrived on the scene and directed the investigative team to look into what McNamara had been writing. And not to rain on the “Spotlight” parade more than I already have, because I do like the movie and as a journalist I am proud of the work it portrays, but a victim had given the paper evidence of the sexual abuse by priests years earlier and the editor who would later lead the investigative team that would expose the scandal had buried the story inside the Metro section.

To its credit, “Spotlight” doesn’t avoid these failings. They form part of the film’s plot to varying degrees. And the important thing is, once the investigative team committed to the story, The Globe corrected its shortcomings and redeemed itself. Better to have done the work late, than never to have done it at all.

As I mentioned above, I like “The Big Short” as a film more than “Spotlight.” There’s a lot to be said for the straightforward way “Spotlight” tells its story, and it takes a special talent to turn a story of journalists thumbing through church directories and making phone calls into a watchable movie. But “The Big Short” tells its story — inspired by true events about the 2007-08 financial crisis, and also featuring people walking around talking on phones — in a creative, darkly humorous and ultimately devastatingly cynical way. Director Adam McKay and Charles Randolph deservedly won Oscars for adapting Michael Lewis’ 2010 book to film. I’ll spare you a full movie review, but “The Big Short” regularly breaks the fourth wall to tell us what’s going on, and its use of celebrities to explain mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations was funny and remarkably clarifying. Nowhere else have I seen or read such complex financial transactions so clearly explained.

Sure, “The Big Short” is about Wall Street fraud and corruption, and not about journalism. But the fraud succeeded because journalists failed to expose it. There’s a damning scene in “The Big Short” when two of the film’s characters, realizing that the collapse of the housing market that they’ve been betting against also means the collapse of the economy, take what they know to a reporter at The Wall Street Journal. The reporter passes on the story, because to pursue it means risking his relationship with his Wall Street sources. And without his sources, he not only won’t get to the heart of the housing bubble, he’ll be shut out of reporting on other stories, too. This reporter — he no longer depends on sources, but has become dependent on them and too cozy with them — ignores the fact that he has two excellent sources sitting right in front of him. But what they are pitching is outside the conventional wisdom.

Of course, the conventional wisdom turned out to be clueless. Like the false claims that were reported during the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, or the false equivalence that routinely finds its way into any number of news stories, especially stories about climate change, this one scene in “The Big Short” stands as a case study in how journalism sometimes fails the public.

A quotation often attributed to Mark Twain begins “The Big Short”: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

It applies to the world of the film, but is offered as a general warning to us all and could apply to journalists in particular: Beware thinking you know something is true that isn’t true. Beware thinking something just can’t be that not only can be, but is.