Two guys get into a fender bender. A profanity-laced shouting match ensues.
And it turns out one of them is a racist.
Is it news?
That was a question we wrestled with this past week, when the latest video surfaced of a roadside dust-up in which the participants hurled profanity and racial epithets at each other.
If both of the participants were “just a guy,” odds are it is one of those videos that go viral on social media but don’t rise to the level of “news.” We know there are racists among us. Their existence, while an abhorrent reality, isn’t necessarily “news.”
Contrary to what most people may think, there are specific factors or “values” that play into news judgment. Like any kind of judgment, it’s inherently subjective. I might think something is news that you don’t give a rip about, and vice versa. But in our business we try to weigh specific factors to help determine relative significance of stories.
Traditionally, those factors include things like these:
Immediacy or timeliness: Is the potential news event current? Is it relevant to the audience now, today, in this moment?
Conflict: It’s a fact of life that conflict makes news. When was the last time you saw a news headline that said, “Everyone got along today! Film at 11.”
Prominence: The more prominent someone is, the more likely it is they make news. An average couple having a baby isn’t news. A Kardashian has a baby, and stop the damn presses. In short, the “who” matters.
Proximity: Is the story “local” or does it have cultural proximity for your audience? The bigger the story, the less “local” it needs to be.
Novelty: Dog bites man — not news. Man bites dog? That’s what we call a “Hey Martha” in the newsroom, as in, the guy reading the story says, “Hey, Martha! You gotta see this…”
Impact: If something doesn’t affect anyone, it’s not likely to be news. If it affects a lot of people in a significant way, it’s news.
Emotion/human interest: Does the story evoke an emotional reaction? Does it make you angry, sad, happy, or tug at the heartstrings?
Some stories possess all of these qualities. Some just one or two. Degrees vary.
So when we heard this past week about the racial-slur-riddled roadside dispute, the question arose: Is it news?
It turns out one of the participants was a retired L.A. Police Department detective — a white guy who called the Black man in the altercation the N-word and told him, “Go back into your little cage until the monkey controller gets here.”
“Monkey controller.” That is oddly and disturbingly specific.
I was reminded of the Comedy Central show “Tosh.0,” in which one of the recurring segments was, “Is it racist?”
A white guy calling a Black man a monkey and a “dumb” N-word?
Yep. Definitely racist.
In fairness, the young Black man was no angel in the altercation, either. He clearly has a command of all the best swear words in our language, and he dropped the “soft-R” N-word on the white guy a couple of times. Society gives him a pass for using that offensive word because he is Black. Is that appropriate? People debate the double standard and I’m not even attempting to settle it here. I understand the arguments on both sides.
But pretty much everyone with half a brain or half a conscience recoiled when they saw what the white guy said. The vast majority of people would agree, his conduct was repulsive and it seems fair to conclude that it provided a window into his racism. Those things don’t come out of your mouth unless they’re already in your head.
But is it news? If the white guy was “just a guy,” I’d lean toward no. It’s a viral social media video depicting despicable behavior, but you can’t swing a dead cat through Instagram without hitting one of those. They’re not all news.
That’s where the “who” of the story comes in. As a retired cop, the white guy will inevitably be held to a different level of scrutiny, especially considering the events of the past year. It sucks for all of the non-racist cops out there who most likely thought to themselves, “Oh great. Here we go again. Another incident that is going to make our impossibly difficult job even more impossibly difficult.” The backlash against cops in the past year over issues of race has been tremendous and often entirely unfair. I’ve heard personal stories from cops about protesters hurling everything at them from invectives to rocks, bottles, feces and bags of urine. Good cops don’t deserve that, and most cops fall under the category of “good.”
And this guy, on the side of Valencia Boulevard last Saturday, just added fuel to that fire. “You’re welcome, fellas. Wanna meet for lunch at Bergie’s?”
So, I was leaning toward “yes, it’s news,” because of the “who,” though initially it wasn’t quite a slam dunk. It was a newsroom debate and it wasn’t unanimous at first.
Then the other shoes started to drop, and it became a slam dunk: The LAPD issued a statement saying they would be reviewing 370 of the former detective’s cases. Was racism a factor in any of his investigations?
Then District Attorney George Gascón jumped in, saying his office would be reviewing cases in which the retired cop was a witness, and informing defense attorneys in those cases. Gascón is always on the lookout for excuses to put criminals back on the streets — everyone please sign the recall petition at your first opportunity — and this incident gives him cover to attempt to do just that.
Remember the news value called “impact”? There it is. Numerous criminal cases will now be called into question. Is it possible there were innocent people caught in the racist cop’s net? Sure, that’s conceivable. But it’s also conceivable that clever defense attorneys will seize the opportunity to help guilty clients walk. I can hear the attorneys salivating as we speak.
And that impacts all of us. One 60-second video, in which a white guy dropped N-bombs and called a young Black man a “monkey,” could have actual, real impacts on criminal cases and public safety, for good or for bad.
Add up the factors present in the story: timeliness, proximity, prominence, novelty, impact, emotion, conflict.
Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. And, check.
Yep. It’s news.
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal.