By Mike Cavender, RTDNA Executive Director
The proliferation of fake news this election season was bad enough. Now, we learn of a decision by a California police department to issue fake news of its own, ostensibly to prevent two murders.
Santa Maria, CA Police Chief Ralph Martin authorized a phony press release. And he said he’d do it again under similar circumstances.
It involved telling the media that two men, accused of identity fraud, were arrested and turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities. The fact is they had not been and were, instead, being held in protective custody by the Santa Maria police. The deception came to light after an investigation into the story by a local newspaper, the Santa Maria Sun.
Martin says his reasoning involved his belief that a local gang had issued a “hit” order on the two men and by saying publicly that they had been transferred elsewhere. He believes he saved their lives.
We’re not in a position to question Martin’s motive for acting as he did, but we do oppose his methods. RTDNA believes there is no justification for purposely lying to the public. There must have been other ways to accomplish the same goal.
Releasing false information, especially by a public safety agency like a police department, seriously damages any credibility it may have in the future. How is the public to know what’s real and what’s fake the next time around? Such actions are not only unethical, but directly conflict with one of the most important tenants of a good relationship between citizens and the police: that of trust.
This is less an issue of duping the media than it is one of being dishonest with the public by using the media as a conduit to promote that dishonesty.
Americans already give journalists low marks when it comes to whether we can be trusted to report the truth. While incidents like this one compound that problem, the real losers are all of us — the media and our audiences — because the line between truth and falsehood no longer exists.