Post-Crescent Uses Clickbait Headline

POST CRESCENT |  6-9-2017


“Similarities run through Neenah, Appleton shootings”

It’s the headline of an Appleton Post-Crescent article last week.

If you have any familiarity with either of the cases referenced in the story linked above, you might be wondering, what similarities? So are we at Wisconsin Media Check Foundation.

Let’s take a look at the several instances of bias involved in this story that may help explain how it came to be.

Overall, the story exhibits several different types of bias. The tone of the story is biased by commission. It plays to the liberal-leaning view that law enforcement is inherently anti a particular race or group or organization, etc., as exhibited by this quote: “There seems to be this, ‘That’s OK type of thing. It was an accident. We’ll try to do better next time.’

“Don’t tell me if this was (Appleton) Mayor (Tim) Hanna’s son or (Neenah) Mayor (Dean) Kaufert’s son that this would have been handled the exact same way.”

It is also bias by the selection of sources used in the story. Several people with no connection to the case are quoted as “experts” that question the actions of police. However, there are no quotes in the story from any source that would support the actions of police, nor does the Post-Crescent mention that they even attempted to contact the Outagamie or Winnebago County District Attorney’s offices, the Neenah or Appleton Police Departments, or any representatives for either city.

The similarities in the story essentially end at the fact that two police departments were involved in shootings. The circumstances couldn’t be more different. In fact, the Post-Crescent even says so: “… the circumstances were different — one stemmed from a hostage situation at a motorcycle shop and the other from a fight at a bar …”

As the Post-Crescent reports, “In the Dec. 5, 2015, Neenah shooting, the victim was Michael L. Funk, a hostage who was trying to flee accused gunman and hostage-taker Brian T. Flatoff.

In the May 21 Appleton shooting, the victim was Jimmie M. Sanders, an unarmed bystander who happened to be near accused gunman Henry M. Nellum.”

The Neenah incident involved a hostage situation and a SWAT team. The Appleton incident involved a shooting in a bar involving one officer.

Despite the clickbait headline, the Post-Crescent readily admits the circumstances for each incident are different. Yet, it persisted with the narrative common in multiple stories the paper wrote about both incidents.

The first quote in this story is a classic attention-grabbing quote news outlets love to lead with. “It’s frustrating watching these cases happen, where people who shouldn’t be shot get shot,” said Patrick Piper, a retired police supervisor who worked for the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Police Department for 13 years.

In and of itself, this is a statement any layperson could make when looking at these scenarios. But the question readers should ask, is what value does Mr. Piper bring to the story? The Post-Crescent does not explain his credentials beyond his work with the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Police Department. We don’t know if he has any more relevant experience because the Post-Crescent does not explain. However, in this case it should have. Law enforcement on a college campus is vastly different than for a municipality. In fact, the only evidence the Post-Crescent offers to show Mr. Piper is an “expert” on the shootings mentioned in the story is to say he “has followed the Appleton shooting in the news.”

Here presents another example of bias by source selection. Two other men are quoted in the story. One is a professor and former police officer in South Carolina. Why did the Post-Crescent not reach out to a local law enforcement resource, such as those at Fox Valley Technical College, a local university criminal justice professor or an attorney from Wisconsin? Did they attempt to? We don’t know, but we can infer they did not. Typically, news outlets are careful to point out that they reached out for an opposing viewpoint, even if they were unable to find one. That did not appear to happen anywhere in this story.

The other source quoted in the story is himself likely biased against the Neenah Police Department. Steve Erato is the owner of the motorcycle shop where the hostage standoff took place. He was friends with the man who was killed and was previously involved in a civil lawsuit against the city of Neenah and the Neenah Police Department. Yet the Post-Crescent quotes him in the story, again with no one to counter his claims.

One last instance of bias in the story we will mention is bias by context. The Post-Crescent brings up the issue of police-worn body cameras. In both of the shootings referenced in the story, neither officer captured bodycam video. The Neenah officer did not have a camera and the Appleton officer did not have his camera on. Though in the Appleton incident, Chief Todd Thomas explained at a news conference that had the officer had his camera on, the view would have been blocked by people in front of him.

The Post-Crescent allows Erato to opine that cameras should be standard issue equipment and recording at all times. However, very few agencies have cameras for all officers. Policies on usage may vary from department to department. Also, the cameras are expensive, as is the storage space required to archive the video. The story gives no details on what state law does and does not require of police agencies in terms of bodycam video.

There are still other instances of bias in the story. Taken as a whole, the lack of counterpoints to the claims made leave readers no option but to believe that both police agencies are guilty of something.

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