“Fake news” has been a hot topic these days.  No matter what side of the spectrum you side with politically, I think we can all agree that we all want real news, i.e. reliable, trustworthy news.  Today, I’m writing to you about real news with potentially misleading headlines.  I believe it’s imperative for those interested in criminal justice reform, those of us trying to raise awareness of CJ reform issues, to promote the stories and events as they are actually happening and allow the reality of each situation to tell its own story.  It doesn’t do the CJ reform movement – or any movement, really – any good to misstate or even mislead based on a fiery headline, or worse, a headline that seemingly misleads on purpose.

Here I talk about a few different real news stories that had headlines that were incendiary and easily misused, and I think shared by some on Twitter and other social media outlets in a way that was misleading.

“Memphis police put ankle monitor GPS devices on dozens of domestic assault victims.”  This article even included what might be considered misleading photographs, shown in the picture below.

As it turns out, the Memphis police were not forcing the assault victims to wear these ankle bracelets, but rather were offering them to the women as a device which they could keep anywhere they wanted, in their purse, on a table in their house, anywhere – or nowhere at all – so as to allow the police to notify the women (the assault victims) that their assailants were in the area.  In other words, this was a move by the police to help protect potentially vulnerable assault victims – which I completely support, as I’m sure you do as well.  The point, however, is that over Twitter, the use of this headline was not only misleading, but it was incendiary.  People who wanted to have another “anti-cop” weapon in their arsenal used this headline to decry the police for these tactics.  I read things such as, “the police want to label these women, victimizing them a second time,” and “The Memphis police department should be ashamed of themselves.”

We must be fair and honest.  What the police did here in this Memphis story is a good thing. It was a completely voluntary program, the assault victims were not being monitored against their will, and therefore, the use of the misleading headline did not promote CJReform issues at all.  Instead, the misuse of these news stories only muddies the waters, and reduces important discussions down to name-calling and vitriol.  Those of us interested in substantive criminal justice reform must be willing to call good, good and bad, bad.  We must use the truth, for the truth will set us free.

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Carmella Burgess and Anthony Dickerson with their son, A.J.

The second story had the following headline:

“Georgia toddler denied kidney transplant due to father’s criminal record.”

A closer read of the story shows that the issue may not be as clear-cut as the headline makes it seem; in fact, it may not be a criminal justice reform issue at all.  As you can see, the headline makes it sound as if the boy is being denied a kidney because of the father’s criminal record, and this is how I saw the story referred to on Twitter.  The actual events may actually just reflect a healthcare procedure often followed relating to donors and donees.

It’s the policy of many hospitals across the country to screen donors in relation to what pathogens they may have come into contact with recently, what biological factors would put that donor (and therefore donee) at risk, etc.  Someone who has recently been incarcerated, depending on the circumstances, may have been exposed to communicable diseases – and this must be taken into account.  On the other hand, it must also be stated that it is possible that some bias played into the hospital’s decision.  We don’t know.  It’s important to talk about these issues and bring them to the public’s attention.  My point here is merely to caution us all with the use of such headlines over social media.  Before we begin condemning the actions of anyone, or any organization (no matter how much we may tend to dislike or disagree with them), let’s be sure we’re properly understanding the full story.

My point is not to say that criminal justice reform advocates are purposely using these articles in a misleading way, but rather to remind us that news agencies are often more than willing to use clickbait, attention-grabbing headlines, which may or may not accurately describe the contents of the story.  And we can’t play into their hands.  We must be aware of a story beyond merely reading its headline. Knowing the stories will therefore enable us to help raise awareness in the right way for the right reasons.  And we all know there’s plenty of that to go around.

I don’t need to tell you, as you’re reading this blog right now, that those who generally disagree with criminal justice reform positions view CJ reform advocates with skepticism, at best.  It is therefore all the more important for CJReform advocates to present the truth – plain and simple.  For the truth is powerful enough on its own.  The truth concerning our criminal justice system is so glaring, it needs no amplification by false or misleading means.

Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

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