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Commercial news coverage of the GRPD proposal to purchase and use drone technology in Grand Rapids

March 29, 2023

On Tuesday, the Grand Rapids Public Safety Committee met to listen to Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Winstrom present his latest proposal to purchase and utilize drones for the GRPD. You can watch the Public Safety Committee meeting for March 28th, at this link.

However, if people were not watching the meeting on Tuesday or haven’t looked at the recorded video of the meeting, they might have come across stories in the Grand Rapids commercial news media. MLive and all 3 Grand Rapids-based TV stations – WOODTV8, WZZM13 and WXMI17 – all of which ran stories about the latest proposal by the GRPD to purchase and utilize drone technology. What follows is a deconstruction of that coverage.

Sources cited in the coverage

It’s always important to look at which sources are cited in these kind of stories, since we are not only talking about Grand Rapids government policies, but because the GRPD has come under significant scrutiny in recent years.

The only source cited in the MLive article, was Police Chief Winstrom. WOODTV8 cited Chief Winstrom and the Grand Rapids NAACP President Cle Jackson, but Jackson said he believed that the drones would be used for “public safety.” In the Channel 13 story, the only voice we heard was from Police Chief Eric Winstrom, although the WZZM 13 reporter did say that the group Defund the GRPD already began a campaign to oppose them, though viewers did not heard directly from anyone with Defund the GRPD. Lastly, in the WXMI 17 story, Chief Winstrom is once again the only source cited.

How were the stories on the GRPD proposal for drone use framed? 

How news stories are framed is also an important part of how the public navigates the news, especially about critical issues like policing. The MLive article headline reads, Grand Rapids city leaders to decide on moving police drone conversation forward. The headline alone doesn’t tell us much, but it does communicate that there was no public opposition to the GRPD use of drone technology. Beyond the MLive headline, the rest of the article essentially uses the information from the GRPD presentation during the Public Safety Committee meeting, often using word for word bullet points, without any critical assessment or verification of the claims made by the GRPD on drone use.

The channel 8 online post headline reads, Chief says GRPD ‘late to the party’ on drones, which clearly reflects the perspective of the GRPD. In the rest of the story, as was mentioned, the President of the NAACP is cited, but he doesn’t challenge the Chief of Police and believes that the surveillance policy that the NAACP help to write with the City of Grand Rapids will guarantee that drones will not be used in a negative way. More importantly, the channel 8 reporter allows Winstrom to make a statement on camera, without challenging the head of the GRPD’s claim. Winstrom said: 

“There’s a lot of common sense in this town. When it comes down to it, and when you really understand what we’re going to be doing with these drones and how that’s going to benefit the people of Grand Rapids,  I think the city’s going to come together and say ‘yeah, it’s probably about time we utilize this technology for the benefit of the city.”

WZZM 13 also frames much of their story around what the GRPD presented during the Public Safety Committee meeting, again using the same list of talking points on drone use that the GRPD presented. Channel 13 is the only news source of the four GRIID looked at that provided an oppositional point of view, but they limited the reasons for the opposition by Defund the GRPD to just one talking point, despite the fact that they have numerous talking points to oppose the GRPD’s purchase and use of drones, which you can read on their Facebook page.

With the WXMI 17 online story about the GRPD and drones, their headline reads, Grand Rapids Police Department pitches a plan for drones. This headline is somewhat neutral, but the content of the article essentially parrots the same information and talking points used by the GRPD. 

What is missing from the coverage on the GRPD’s proposal to purchase drones?

There is a great deal that is missing from Tuesday’s coverage on the GRPD proposal to purchase and use drones. First, there are not nearly enough oppositional voices/perspectives presented in most of the coverage, especially since no person or organization was actually cited with comments that were oppositional. Second, there are no comments or perspectives shared by the members of the Public Safety Committee, whether they were elected officials or volunteer committee members. If you watch the Public Committee meeting it is clear that there were people who ask questions. Now, for the most part the questions were not oppositional, but there were some questions that at least challenged the GRPD on their drone proposal. 

Third, while the GRPD used the argument that everybody uses these drones, the local news coverage did not investigate to see if there was concern about use of drones by police departments around civil rights or privacy issues. There are national organizations that have raised significant issues about police use of drones for several years, specifically the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

All of the news sources GRIID looked at did mention that the next step in the process for the GRPD to purchase and use drones, will be the public hearing that the Grand Rapids City Commission will initiate, along with possible community forums to discuss the issue. However, if the public were relying on the local commercial news media to make an informed decision about the GRPD’s proposal to purchase and use drones, they would be rather disappointed. As we said in the beginning of this post, since the GRPD has come under significant scrutiny in recent years, it is imperative that we seek out information, perspectives and opinions that do not sold rely on what the GRPD is telling the public about drones. 

Editor’s Note: Tomorrow GRIID will post our own analysis of the GRPD’s drone proposal at the Public Safety Committee meeting.

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