Minnesota journalism group condemns KSTP story

The Minnesota journalism community has been surprisingly silent on #pointergate, KSTP’s botched police-union-planted story contending that Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges was flashing gang signs during a north Minneapolis get-out-the-vote effort last month.

But today it finally arrived at the same point journalists around the country reached weeks ago when the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists issued a statement condemning the KSTP story, although it pulled its punches in assessing the motivation for the story.

The Minnesota Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is deeply concerned about the story that aired on KSTP-TV on Nov. 7, 2014 alleging that Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges appeared recently in a photo flashing a gang sign.

The Twin Cities chapters of the National Association of Black Journalists and the Asian American Journalists Association join MNSPJ in expressing their concern and calling for KSTP to disavow the story.

The story was fundamentally flawed and based on a faulty premise — that a silly gesture made by the mayor in a candid photo amounted to a gang sign. The SPJ code of ethics urges all journalists to never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information. This story did just that.

Although KSTP is able to attribute the accusations to identified police sources, in airing the story KSTP failed to exercise its journalistic duty to ensure that the stories it airs are worth telling. Instead, KSTP allowed itself to be used by one political group to make points against its political opponent.

We have watched the reaction to this story with deep concern, but with appreciation for the challenges journalists face. We had hoped KSTP would realize this story never should have aired and take steps to acknowledge its mistake. But more than a week later, we feel compelled to speak out. KSTP needs to apologize to Mayor Betsy Hodges, the other person in the referenced photo, and to the public
that relies on accurate, relevant information about public officials.

We do not suggest that reporter Jay Kolls or KSTP are driven by an agenda in reporting this story. In fact, both have made invaluable contributions to the local journalism community through years of solid reporting and good journalism. But this story missed obvious clues about the motivations of the sources proffering the information and cannot be defended. In addition, Kolls’ characterization of the other man in the photo merely as “a convicted felon” creates the appearance that the reporter is a mouthpiece for members of the police force who have an axe to grind with the mayor’s office.

Kolls and his editors should have applied much more skepticism to the elements of this story as it was presented to him. Again, the SPJ Code of Ethics says, as journalists, we should acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. This story was deeply flawed, and KSTP and Kolls need to acknowledge that.

The organization announced it will hold a forum next month on how to avoid similar stories in the future. It’s unlikely that KSTP will participate, and the story itself was so egregious and so out of bounds and so journalistically bankrupt that no journalist should need a refresher on how to avoid falling into the trap KSTP did.

Related: What we should take away from #pointergate (Southwest Journal).