UPDATE: Smollett charges dropped amid calls to investigate prosecutor’s office

Indictments against Jussie Smollett have been dismissed. Chicago police and mayor  insist Smollett perpetuated a hoax. In light of this continuing saga, how should media cover hate and hoaxes? Living Ethics presents some guidelines.

On March 8, a grand jury delivered 16 felony indictments against “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett in an alleged hate-crime hoax involving two men who purportedly beat the actor while making homophobic and racial slurs. On Tuesday, the prosecutor dropped all charges stating it reviewed the case, considered his volunteer service and took into account that Smollett was willing to forfeit his $10,000 bond.

The Chicago Police Union is calling for a federal investigation into whether State Attorney Kim Foxx was involved in the decision to dismiss charges. CNN used an open records request that revealed a friend of the Smollett family, attorney Tina Tchen, former chief of staff for first lady Michelle Obama and a lawyer, contacted Foxx last month.

Smollett, an African-American gay man, told police in late January that two men put a noose on his neck and doused him with liquid, claiming he was in “MAGA country,” a reference to President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan, according to the New York Times.

Smollett used the occasion of the dropped charges to continue to affirm his innocence, claiming he was exonerated.

For weeks now, the media have covered this case, emphasizing the hoax rather than the harm of hate crimes, which have risen 17 percent in the past year.

To balance coverage in the aftermath of the Smollett case, journalists should:

  1. Add content in hoax reports about the damage such lies do to legitimate causes involving diversity, identity, inclusion and equity.
  2. Document wasted resources on hoaxes and where those funds might have gone to deal with legitimate community concerns.
  3. Report safety concerns sparked by hate crimes and hoaxes, following up on any related incidents or protests. 
  4. Provide updates on hate crime statistics, including localized stories about any uptick or downturn.
  5. Craft human-interest and multimedia stories to highlight the harm of hate and courage of hate’s survivors and families.
  6. Investigate organizations, affiliations and people perpetuating hate as well as efforts to confront such groups and individuals.
  7. Cover court cases in which offenders have been charged with such crimes, following up on indictments, appeals and verdicts.
  8. Do service journalism about resources for and legal rights of survivors of hate crimes.
  9. Cover schools and universities that support or neglect issues associated with diversity, identity, inclusion and equity along with publicizing resources and pertinent policies.
  10. Continue efforts to diversify newsrooms as well as access coverage for and service to under-represented groups.

These tips will become more important in weeks to come as the Smollett saga intensifies with court appearances.

The case against Smolett went viral when Eddie Johnson, Chicago police chief, held a news conference criticizing the actor. Johnson also referenced the news media, wishing families of gun violence received that much attention:

“Why would anyone, especially an African American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations? How could someone look at the hatred and suffering associated with that symbol and see an opportunity to manipulate that symbol to further his own public profile? … I only hope the truth about what happened receives the same amount of attention the hoax did.”

Johnson’s wish was granted. News of the hoax has been intense with Smollett’s attorneys proclaiming his innocence. Now with 16 new indictments for disorderly conduct, coverage will escalate, competing with reports about China tariffs, North Korea negotiations, Mexican border walls and the Mueller investigation about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Even more concerning, the news media may not fully balance the record with reports about hate crimes, especially race-related ones and attacks on the LGBTQ+ community.

Hate crimes continue to rise, according to the FBI’s latest report, with 8,493 offenses, including spikes associated with race and sexual orientation, upon which Smollett based his report to police. Crimes against African-Americans and gay men led both categories.

Living Media Ethics (Routledge 2019) dedicates a chapter to bias and identity. Here’s the abstract:

BIAS: Recognize and Resist It   

This chapter inquires whether you are actually acknowledging diversity in your online and interpersonal activities. Statistics are presented showing that the United States is becoming increasingly diverse. Even so, advertising, journalism and public relations may not be realizing those population trends in news coverage and campaigns. Experts and professionals from across platforms share personal accounts that concern the specter of bias in newsrooms, agencies and organizations. As in other chapters, the history of media bias is recounted, including proactive documents such as the 1947 Hutchins and 1968 Kerner reports. Methods to diversify mass communications and create inclusive content are cited along with challenges of doing so. In that respect, stereotypes are explored extensively, with recommendations to identify and resist them. End-of-chapter personal and communal journal exercises probe lessons and truths that you may have learned—for better or worse about diversity—at home, school and work.

This website will provide updates as occasion arises concerning hoaxes and hate crimes and balanced coverage thereof.

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