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Commentaryby Evan Serpick12:52 pmSep 3, 20220

Local media’s missteps are hurting Baltimore

Two recent examples show how bad information and spin, accepted unquestioningly from law enforcement, reinforce racist narratives about our city [OP-ED]

Above: Screen grab from Fox 45’s August 29 report on a (later debunked) report of an extortion threat at the location in Baltimore where the “Lady in the Lake” TV series was filming. (YouTube)

It was a story that seemed to fit right in with the prevailing view of majority-Black Baltimore as a chaotic war zone ruled by criminals:

Production of “Lady in the Lake,” a TV series starring Natalie Portman based on local author Laura Lippman’s book, was shut down after a gang of armed drug dealers threatened to shoot crew members if they didn’t pay a $50,000 bribe to continue filming on Park Avenue near Lexington Market.

Local media, including the Baltimore Banner, the Baltimore Sun and all television and radio affiliates, ran with the titillating police version of events. (Going further still, Fox 45 included unsuccessful state’s attorney candidate Thiru Vignarajah and others opining on the matter.)

It was quickly picked up by national and international outlets, including CNN, Fox News, NBC, Variety, the Los Angeles Times and, perhaps most luridly, by the UK’s Daily Mail, which reported that “Baltimore ‘drug dealers’ threatened to ‘shoot up’ Natalie Portman show.”

Far-right commentator Jack Posobiec tweeted that story to his 1.9 million followers and got 1,029 retweets. Just another black eye for what many Americans perceive as a ravaged, broken Black-led city.

Just one problem: It wasn’t true.

A day or two after the sensational story reached millions around the world, helping to further cement the popular racist caricature of our city, the police “walked back” their story.

They acknowledged in a press release that claims that anyone brandished a gun or demanded $50,000 were “inaccurate.”

The latest explanation is that a local clothing vendor approached crew members, upset about not receiving compensation for lost business during the shoot, and was awaiting paperwork to complete the process.

“Youth Carjacking Scourge”

This wasn’t the only damaging false storyline pushed by local media over the last week.

On August 26, WYPR aired and published a story stoking panic about a supposed plague of youth carjackings terrorizing the city.

The second sentence of the story, which was subsequently republished by the Baltimore Banner as part of a “joint operating agreement,” states: “Police say the majority of individuals carjacking residents are minors.”

Again, a problem: There’s no evidence this was true.

Juvenile Public Defender Jenny Egan pointed out the many inaccuracies of the story in a detailed Twitter thread, including the fact that the Baltimore Police Department’s own statistics indicate that minors do not commit the majority of carjackings in Baltimore.

As the Banner’s data editor Ryan Little admitted in a Twitter thread responding to Egan’s, “the story got the data wrong in a lot of ways.”

“Of 49 [carjacking] arrests YTD,” Little noted, “17 of those arrested were under 18 years old.”

Or barely a third.

Less “Police Say”

This story was just as wrong as the “Lady in the Lake” story. And like that coverage, it contributes to an entrenched, racist narrative about Baltimore.

Perhaps the only reason the Jack Posobiecs of the world haven’t latched onto and weaponized the youth carjacking story, as he has so many others, is that it lacks the star power of Natalie Portman.

First off, a reminder to journalists reporting on these stories: Police lie. All the time. Never forget the initial police report on Freddie Gray that said he was arrested “without force or incident.”

Never forget the initial police report on Freddie Gray that said he was arrested “without force or incident”

Stop relying so heavily on “police say,” that magical phrase that’s meant to get you off the hook.

Verify the facts, expand your sources, interview community members, residents, business owners, drug dealers and the people who are squeegeeing.

Weaponized Words

If you’ve spent any time in Baltimore, you know that national media usually get things wrong about us.

This was never more apparent than during the 2015 Baltimore Uprising after Gray’s death in police custody.

I was editor of Baltimore City Paper at the time and reflected on the important role that local on-the-ground media can play to report the truth that national and international outlets inevitably miss.

That role has become even more important as we’ve seen the way right-wing media has weaponized prevailing narratives about cities generally – and in majority-Black cities like Baltimore in particular – to stoke racist fears of crime and violence and leverage them to elect white supremacists and fellow travelers.

Our best defense against these skewed narratives is a robust local media willing to do tough but nuanced reporting, challenge storylines offered by institutions like law enforcement and city government and lift up the voices of the community members most impacted by what happens around here.

We need to demand that existing media outlets do better and support independent, nonprofit, Black-led outlets like the Baltimore Beat.

Until city residents can speak for themselves without the filter of out-of-town, corporate and usually white gatekeepers, accurate stories about Baltimore are unlikely to break through the noise.

Evan Serpick is program manager for narrative change and communications at Open Society Institute-Baltimore and a former editor of Baltimore City Paper. The opinions here do not necessarily reflect those of OSI-Baltimore.

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