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Omissions, bias and failure to question government claims: Grand Rapids Commercial Media Coverage of public hearing on GRPD proposal to use drones

April 27, 2023

All four daily commercial Grand Rapids-based news media reported on the Tuesday night Public Hearing at the City Commission meeting, a hearing specifically on the issue of whether or not the GRPD should purchase and utilize drones.

Now, WXMI 17 did not have a reporter in the room during the public hearing, they simply watched the video recoding of the hearing that the City of Grand Rapids provided online and on their Facebook page.

The problem with not having a reporter in present in the room is that they did see or hear everything that went down on Tuesday, in part because Mayor Bliss suspended the hearing at some point and cut the mic for some who were publicly opposed to drone use by the GRPD.

The channel 17 reporting was lazy, but the largest damage was done by beginning with lengthy portions of Chief Winstrom’s presentation, followed by the lone supporter, even though the lone supporter didn’t get up to speak until 28 people who opposed drones had already spoken. Only after the pro-drone person who spoke, did viewers see comments from those opposed, but just two people. The WXMI 17 story then went back to Winstrom’s presentation and failed to say anything about the fact that the Mayor had suspended the public hearing, or the fact that there was clearly a double standard being applied to those who spoke against drones for the cops and the lone person who spoke in favor. The channel 17 story was a classic example of constructed news that did not adequately reflect what happened at the public hearing.

WOODTV8 was another news outlet that didn’t bother to send a reporter to the hearing on Tuesday, relying soling on the City’s recorded video, also with a clear bias in the constructed news story. The channel 8 story was 1 minute and 49 seconds long, and we only hear two perspectives in the story, the first being from Chief Winstrom who was given 38 seconds of time, followed by just one of those who opposed drone use by the GRPD, who was given 30 seconds of airtime. However, the other 27 who spoke were not heard from in the story and viewers of WOODTV8 would not even know that the Mayor had suspended the public hearing because of the threatening comments from a drone supporter, followed by those who opposed the drones pointing out the double standard that exists at the City Commission meetings, where those who are anti-GRPD are berated and those who are pro-cop are given lots of freedom to violate City Commission protocol.

Now, WZZM 13 did have a reporter present, along with a camera operator, yet despite being present for the 2 hour public hearing, the channel 13 story still gave more airtime to Chief Winstrom and never challenged any of the claims he made in the presentation he gave prior to the public comment period. GRIID was present for the Public Hearing and we wrote about how problematic it was to have the Police Chief give yet another presentation on drones, knowing full well that the Chief would be given more airtime than those who were critical of drone use by the GRPD. GRIID wrote:

It is also important to note that having Chief Winstrom speak first, essentially undermined the public comment period for this Public Hearing. It set a tone and potentially intimidated people who came to speak on this matter. Lastly, his presentation also serves as an “expert testimony” on this topic, whereas the people who spoke during the public comment period are merely providing their “opinion” framework, despite the fact that those who opposed drones for the GRPD had well thought out arguments with sourced facts.

Like the stories from FOX 17 and WZZM 13, the WOODTV8 story presented Winstrom as “the expert” and those who opposed drone use by the cops as just having an opinion, despite the fact that many of those who opposed cited credible sources and had well thought out arguments.

In addition, WZZM 13 did a poor job of communicating why the Mayor suspended the public hearing and the fact that cops quickly surrounded those who spoke out against drones, even though the channel 13 camera operator was present and I witnessed them filming what happened after the public hearing was suspended. This means that the news chief at WZZM 13 made it clear that none of that footage would be used for their story. 

Of all the four daily Grand Rapids commercial news outlets, MLive did the best coverage. First, their headline was more reflective of what happened at the public hearing, More than 2 dozen voice opposition to Grand Rapids police drones.

Second, the article begins by saying that there was significant push back against the GRPD use of drones, along with the fact that they stated that there were 28 people who opposed drones. Third, before the article provided more details Public Hearing, the MLive reporter recounted the reason why the Mayor suspended the hearing, citing a comment from the lone supporter of drones who said, Grand Rapids police officer Christopher Schurr “did a great job taking a monster off our street.” Fourth, the MLive article then recounts several arguments provided by those who opposed drones, which the TV coverage failed to do at that level. 

The later half of the MLive article was weaker, since it relied primarily on recycled information from previous stories that have done on the GRPD’s proposal to purchase and utilize drones, specifically citing Chief Winstrom and City Manager Mark Washington. Where the MLive article failed, like the TV coverage, was that their reporter never questioned or challenged the claims made by Winstrom or other City officials, they merely reported what happened at the public hearing.

Overall, the coverage from local news media was often biased, omitted much of what happened during the public hearing and often framed the coverage from the point of view of Chief Winstrom. This was specifically the case of the TV coverage, which provided way more comments from Chief Winstrom than they did from the 28 people who spoke against drones. Lastly, the failure of local news reporters to question or verify the claims of City officials or Chief Winstrom is a major flaw in how they do journalism in general. 

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