Category Archives: Responsible Citizens

Ferguson and Baltimore: Lessons on Respect

Baltimore was in chaos. Earlier this week, hundreds of people set fires, looted stores and confronted police. The disorder was triggered by the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. Thousands of troops and outside police have now been deployed, a weeklong curfew has been announced, and many schools and businesses have closed.

I wonder if the actions of the violent protesters will give them what they want? Will burning property and hurting police officers really give them justice? Value? Respect? Will the good people of Baltimore be able to thrive with a new, gentle police force, with a tranquil atmosphere throughout the community after this? Will the houses of worship, businesses, educators and government employees be able to enjoy a peaceful and quiet life as a result? Will more people prosper?

When I was 11 years old I watched Detroit burn. People burned businesses, cars, and neighborhoods. As my family watched 2,000 buildings burn on our little black and white TV, I remember my Dad saying that good people would move away from Detroit, the city would steadily decline and find itself in at least 50 years of poverty. Now it is fifty years later, and we regularly hear about the deprivation that plagues Detroit.

My observation is Ferguson made the same mistake. As I watched them destroying their own neighborhoods, I thought that all the wrong people were in charge. The good people were silenced, and my guess is responsible family and business leaders were quietly thinking about where they could relocate sometime in the next couple of years that would be a better environment.

Methodology matters. We do know how to improve the world. In our lifetimes we’ve watch the impact of Gandhi, King, Mandela, and many others take horrific situations and give future generations an opportunity to improve their lives. I’ve listed three things that might help.

  1. Value Relationships.

Relationships, civil government, and healthy community environments all seem to have some fundamental laws that are universal. History has proven we human beings can create a civil society when we are trustworthy and respectful of others, and when we seek to mutually benefit one another. As a Christian, I believe biblical love means living for the good of the other. In secular terms, when all of us treat each other respectfully and provide goods and services that benefit others, everyone can be better off.

I am persuaded that when we all think in terms of serving one another and using our strengths to improve our own lives and the lives of others, that our communities can be healthy.

  1. Use Chain-Of-Command Wisely.

In order to understand our roles, we have developed chain-of-command structures. When relationships are respectful, chain-of-command is helpful and efficient. When relationships are disrespectful, chain-of-command can be dehumanizing, hateful, and harsh.

When relationships break down, people typically resort to chain-of-command authority to bring order. When command authority is not lubricated with considerate relationships, disorder is looming, and the use of power is likely. We see this in families, businesses, and communities. If there are not cooperative relationships within our chain-of-command structures to get work done and maintain order, resentment starts to replace happiness. All governments, workplaces, homes and places of worship have to understand chain-of-command in order to define roles and maintain order. And when positive relationships fuel chain-of-command structures with those in charge caring and subordinates cooperating, people feel respected and satisfied.

  1. Understand the Purpose of Brute Force.

But when chain-of-command becomes ineffective, someone will use brute force. Obviously, we prefer those in charge to be just and fair, and those under their authority to be respectful and cooperative. However, when those attributes are not present, some type of force is typically used to bring order. It’s not surprising to me to see a police officer respond with excessive force when a citizen disrespects them, disregards their orders and flees. It’s not right, but it is predictable.

Throughout time, we can observe this progressive series of responses in families, communities, companies, and even international relations. I believe we are all created to be in healthy, respectful relationships. When our relationships need order, we depend on chain-of-command. When chain-of-command is disrespected or needs enforcement, or subordinates need protection, we use force.

Yesterday President Obama responded to Baltimore’s chaos by saying, “That is not a protest. That is not a statement. It’s a handful of people taking advantage of the situation for their own purposes, and they need to be treated as criminals.” Gov. Larry Hogan told reporters, “What happened last night is not going to happen again.” Predictably, disorder was followed by an overwhelming police force, which may be followed by the exodus of good people out of the area and years of disadvantage. I don’t think that is what Baltimore wants.

Today, Baltimore’s citizens have an opportunity to build respectful relationships through their cooperation. And Baltimore’s leadership has an opportunity to facilitate a civil community by serving with empathy and fairness.

Manners matter. If we want respectful relationships, we need to thoughtfully invest in the elements that will create them.

We do have a choice.

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The Press, Blogs, and Our Responsibility

The first amendment to our constitution prohibits the government from infringing on the freedom of the press, which forces all of us to be wise consumers of their information and, when necessary, hold them accountable when they misreport.

Finding responsible reporting is difficult. Very often initial reporting on a story is incorrect to some degree. But typically as time passes, fact and fiction separate and, if the story still merits coverage, more accurate information is published. This, of course, does not happen if there is no follow-up reporting clarifying facts, or if the narrative is so entrenched in the public’s mind, no typical reporter would challenge it with mitigating facts.

Public misunderstanding is exacerbated by the reality that later, more refined reporting is often not as well placed or well read as initial stories because the story has grown old. And on the web, when an interested person wants to read about an archived story, very often the initial story, that had the most errors, will come up first, before the corrected story, because it received more hits or is linked to more sites. Take that problem, add bloggers who have no editor, no supervisory board, and can’t be fired for dishonest or shabby reporting, and it becomes difficult for the average consumer to get the story right.

Let’s start with reporters.

 Local reporters are generally underpaid, overworked, and trapped in their careers. Their greatest hope for promotions, larger markets, or increased pay is to get a story that is picked up by a national audience or noticed by the national press. Thus, local reporters have great incentive to be sensational in hopes of getting more interest in their story.

This is why a politician’s slip of the tongue, drunken spouse or wayward child is more newsworthy than their work in office. It explains why we so often think we’re getting the facts about a court case, and then when the jury, who actually hears and sees the pertinent evidence first hand, makes a decision contrary to the filtered and incomplete evidence presented to the public through the press, we think they’re wrong.

Though I believe all responsible reporters try to be objective, they too perceive things just as we all do, through the lens of their own values, experiences, and knowledge. Their values include their beliefs, which shape their worldview, and personal needs, which often include a need to get their story earlier in the broadcast, on the front page above the fold, or interesting enough to be distributed by other outlets. Regardless of their training and intentions, their experiences do color the way they see things. Thus, two honest reporters covering the same story might report very different accounts.

Typically reporters re-report what other reporters have written, which is why reporters are often accused of being incestuous and lazy. Reporters often re-report information that has either been discredited or modified. If they do not invest the time, or lack the ability and relationships to research their material thoroughly, misinformation is perpetuated.

Take that and then have the managing editor of a newspaper cut the story down to fit into a certain number of column inches, or the broadcast news editor shrink a story into a 45 second segment, and consumers are left with only the most dramatic impressions being presented as news.

Sadly, it does not stop there. For the print media, the headline writer forms the first impression of the story in the mind of the reader. Typically, the headline writer is not the reporter who investigated the story, but someone else whose job it is to generate interest in the story in the space and size type that works for the layout. Their job is to make the article even more interesting. The vast majority of readers DO NOT READ complete news stories. Most simply read the headline, thinking the headline is a summation of the story. A few more read the lead, and a small minority read the complete story. Thus we may have a headline that accurately reads “Mayor Johnson Accused of Sexual Assault” while the body of the story reports that the police department investigated and found no basis in fact for the accusation, and that the mayor has been exonerated.

Or, worse, the first story is about the accuser and the accusation, some comments on the gravity of the accusations, and background material on how many people in authority commit sexual assault, which implies that the mayor probably did assault someone. The story exonerating the mayor might not appear for several months. Typically the exoneration story will not be well placed or well read. By then, the mayor’s career, family and future are ruined and the reporters have moved on to their next story.

Headlines are not the story, nor are they necessarily truthful. They are advertisements for the story, and the person who wrote the headline might not have even read past the lead in the story to write the headline.

There are a few exceptions on the national level. Seldom, but sometimes, national reporters are held responsible if there is no way their bosses can justify the misrepresentation. If they make up quotes, lie, or intentionally do lazy work, they are more likely to end up like Brian Williams, Dan Rather, or more recently, Rolling Stone magazine. But the above-mentioned were discredited only because their distortions were so obvious to all that their bosses had no choice but to respond to them publicly. And remember, bloggers who have no bosses can’t be fired, they just keep writing.

Which leads us to the internet.

 Recently, I read on the web that Abraham Lincoln warned all of us about believing what we read on the internet because sources are difficult to verify. So I decided to check it out and learned that aliens had impregnated a Methodist woman in Kansas, that George Bush planned 9/11, that we never landed on the moon, that Barak Obama was going to stay in office a third term but the Clinton Foundation set millions of dollars aside to get him to endorse Hillary and step aside, and that Macaulay Culkin killed himself again!

Misreporting happens all the time without follow-up corrections or any consequences except to the subjects of the stories. News organizations have pressures that force them to move on rather than report their own misreporting. Wikipedia, which is largely composed from press reports, is so unreliable no credible academic institution will allow its students to reference it as a source. Sadly, millions refer to Wikipedia daily believing it to be reliable and factual, which it can be if we all do our part.

We as average citizens have to do our part to enhance a trustworthy press by being VERY responsible ourselves and wise to its shortcomings. Contrary to the press’s view of itself, it is made up of human beings, many of whom want to serve the general public, but who are fallible. The press not a branch of the government and it is not lofty, noble, or necessarily helpful. It is a business searching for influence and power, just like so many other businesses. But any alternative to the free press is even worse, so we have to protect it. How? By being thoughtful, informed consumers who understand there is always more to the story, by rewarding accurate reporting, and by holding those who misreport accountable.

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