Kids Die, Cops Lie
The media has to stop uncritically repeating whatever law enforcement tells them
The narrative around the Uvalde elementary school shooting has disintegrated—and shown just how damaging it is for reporters to take police at their word.
Initially, we heard brave police officers had stormed the school to rescue children after attempting to stop the shooter from entering in the first place; that the shooter was wearing body armor and had barricaded himself in the school. That storyline has completely collapsed.
What we know now—which may well have already changed by the time you read this—is that there were nearly two dozen Uvalde officers in the hallway outside of the classroom where the shooter was slaughtering 19 children and two teachers; that they didn’t enter out of fear for their own lives/an assumption that the damage was already done despite continued gunshots; that the shooter was wearing a tactical vest but not full armor; and that police kept an elite Customs and Border Protection team from entering the scene.
The officers were apparently inside the school minutes after the shooter and stayed in the hallway outside for nearly an hour. Panicked 911 calls from the students still inside the room didn’t make a difference. And all the while, outside of the school, more officers actively kept parents from going to the school and rescuing their children, handcuffing and pepper spraying them.
Again, that’s what we know now, as I’m writing this. I can only imagine what we still have left to learn.
Conflicting reports around what happened inside Robb Elementary School are, to my mind, based in two things: efforts from the police to cover their asses after probably the most catastrophic school shooting failure in US history and the willingness of the media to uncritically repeat whatever cops tell them.
“Journalists should be angry at how often false police statements undermine their own reporting,” Ravi Mangla wrote in 2020. “If a private citizen lied with the ease and frequency of police, they would no longer be trusted as a source.”
I started my career in local media. In the newsrooms I worked in, like newsrooms around the country, we were often instructed to just write up police reports as news hits.
On the night shift especially, where early-career writers are frequently stuck, I was expected to check in with local police departments to make sure there aren’t stories I was missing before signing off. Those stories were not expected to be written with any other input than from police. Their statements alone were assumed to meet the standard of proof for print.
Not everyone starts reporting in small, local newsrooms today—those papers are dying out. Many people cut their teeth in the blog world, content mines, and other more online-exclusive news outlets. The central tenet from newsrooms around the country that authority-speak is credible enough to print is the rule.
“Cops lie” isn’t a particularly interesting or novel take. It’s a pretty banal comment on a well-established fact. But for some reason the news media continues to default to taking law enforcement at their word. It’s time to leave it in the past.
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