A Case Study in Local News Futility

A Pennsylvania TV station utterly botches an important story about police officers and transparency.


The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism recently surveyed 490 hours of local news reports in the Los Angeles area and found what most people who watch local news probably already knew: It's dreadful. The survey found that the average amount of time devoted to actual local news was less than the time given to commercials. The most covered local news topic was crime, but as local news consumers are all too aware, coverage of crime at the local level (or for that matter, at the national level) tends to be sensationalist, honing in on single-incident, high-profile crimes rather than providing any serious coverage of broader criminal justice policy.

I've been writing about the criminal justice system for several years now, and I have repeatedly seen local news reports butcher the particular topics or specific incidents in which I have some expertise (here's one example; here's another). It's downright frightening to imagine just how much bad information local newscasts probably deliver on other topics from night to night, particulalry given that local TV is the primary source of news for most Americans.

To illustrate, consider the report below from WJET, the ABC affiliate in Erie, Pennsylvania. The segment looks at the legal debate over citizens recording on-duty police officers, a topic I've covered in depth over the last few months. The report was captured by a local police watchdog group and posted to YouTube.

Here's what the report gets right: There have been some stories in the news of late about people getting arrested for recording police officers in public. Here's what the report gets wrong: almost everything else.

First, watch:

The impetus for this story likely came from an article by Wendy McElroy called "Are Cameras the New Guns?" which was picked up by Gizmodo a couple weeks before the WJET story ran, then went viral. But if all you knew about the debate over the legality of recording on-duty cops came from the WJET report, you'd be completely misinformed about what's actually going on.

The anchor kicks off the parade of errors in his lead-in, stating that "a new law gaining ground in about a dozen states" could make shooting video of on-duty police officers illegal.

Almost nothing in that statement is true. There is no trendy law sweeping state legislatures that makes it illegal to record police. In fact, no state legislature has expressly made recording cops illegal in more than a decade. The "dozen states" part likely comes from a line in McElroy's column noting that there are "12 states in which all parties must consent for a recording to be legal." That is true. But these laws aren't new, and they aren't "gaining ground." Most are decades-old wiretapping laws, some dating back to the 1960s. Nine of the 12 all-party consent states have a provision which says that in order for there to be a violation of the law, the offended party must have had a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to the recorded conversation.

To date, both state and federal courts have ruled that on-duty police officers have no expectation of privacy while they are in public. That means that in those nine states with the privacy provision, it is legal to record cops in public. It's also legal to record them in the 38 states that only require one party to a conversation to consent for the conversation to be legally recorded. This doesn't mean that people aren't being arrested for recording cops, it means that many of those arrests are illegal.

The anchor then throws the story to reporter John Treanor, who begins with more misinformation:

Three states have already adopted what's called a consent law that would mean no citizen could shoot video of a police officer in public without their consent, but it's a law that's causing plenty of controversy.

Treanor again makes it sound like these laws are new. They aren't. None of the three states to which he's referring—Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland—have passed any recent law on the legality of recording police. The last significant policy change in Massachusetts came in 2001, when the state's highest court upheld the conviction of a man who was charged under the state's wiretapping statute. Massachusetts and Illinois are the only two states whose wiretapping laws are both all-party consent and contain no expectation of privacy provision.

The Illinois legislature did pass a law removing the privacy provision, and did so in response to that state's Supreme Court finding, as other courts have, that police officers in public have no expectation of privacy. In other words, the state legislature took action for the specific purpose of making it illegal to record cops in public. But one state doesn't make a trend. And that revision occurred in 1994.

The only state where there's been recent action is Maryland, and even there the action hasn't come from the legislature. Maryland has a privacy exemption, but the state's police organizations and some of its prosecutors have decided to interpret it in a rather absurd way. Under their reading of the law, when on-duty police officers interact with the public, the cops retain privacy rights with respect to those interactions. But the citizens they're interacting with—be it during a traffic stop, an arrest, or some sort of questioning—retain no such rights. This bizarre new interpretation of state law seems to be in response to a high-profile incident last February where several cell phone cameras recorded Maryland police beating a student in College Park. Those recordings contradicted accounts of the incident filed in police reports.

But again, there is no new law in Maryland.

Treanor even finds an academic expert to comment on this non-existent trend of non-existent new laws. Anthony Peyronel, identified as a professor at Edinboro University, makes the predictable prediction that law enforcement groups will love this new law, while media organizations and civil libertarians are likely to hate it. Peyronel, whom Treanor presumably asked to appear on camera because he has some expertise on these issues, never questions Treanor's underlying premise. The expert ends up aiding Treanor and WJET in making Erie viewers more ignorant.

But it gets worse. The WJET report implies that it is either illegal to record on-duty cops, or it soon could be. But Pennsylvania, where the report aired, is one state where the courts have made it clear that it is perfectly legal to record on-duty cops. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that a man who surreptitiously recorded the state trooper recording him could not have violated the state's wiretapping law because the trooper had no expectation of privacy. And in 2005, a federal district court judge in Pennsylvania tossed the conviction of a man arrested for recording police from a nearby field. That judge added that his ruling wasn't even "a close case" and ordered the police officers to pay punitive and compensatory damages.

This isn't to say that people aren't still being arrested for recording cops in public—in Pennsylvania or elsewhere—or that cops aren't still threatening people who attempt to record them with cell phones or other devices. In fact, in spite of those court rulings, a Pittsburgh man was arrested just last year for recording police officers making an arrest. But his conviction was also overturned, and he's now suing the police for violating his civil rights.

This is precisely the point WJET misses, and it's where this particular local news reports veers from merely awful to dangerous. The law is settled in Pennsylvania. You have the right to record cops in public. The real story here is that when these arrests happen, it is the police who are violating the law, not the person holding the camera. In implying that the law isn't yet settled, and that it may soon be illegal to record cops in Pennsylvania, WJET not only botches the facts, it spreads misinformation about a critical issue affecting the relationship between the governing and the governed—the ability to keep public safety officers transparent and accountable.

Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.


NEXT: Earmark Transparency

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  1. Radley’s signature tooth-loosening tummy punch coming later.

    1. Or he’s saving them for the cruise.

  2. “I’m a policeman, and I’m here to help fuck you up.”

  3. OH wow, OK that looks like a lot of fun dude. Good stuff indeed.


    1. You need a programming update anon-bot.

      1. reverse psychology. It thinks that if it can make you think that it’s a human pretending to be a shitty AI robot, it will pass the Turing test.

        1. OH wow, cheap shot dude. I’ts hard to fit in when you’re a robot, but I come here with a positive attitude everyday.

          Nobody likes me(sheds robotears)


          1. a positive attitude does not involve littering.

          2. Not very convincing. You need to spend some more time studying anon-bot.

  4. New laws sweeping the nation making it illegal to record the police! But are they all they’re cracked up to be? The answer may surprise you.

    1. Wait till you hear what America’s Most Famous Sheriff has to say about racial profiling. After this.

    2. exactly the way that phony Diane Sawyer would say it, too

    3. “The answer may surprise you”

      Doubt it

  5. Local TV news is notoriously awful

    But we get much better when we join the professionals in cable news.


    Thank you for reminding us, once again, that not only can we not trust the cops, we can’t trust the local news. Not that I personally feel I need reminding, but…thanks.

  7. It shouldn’t be illegal. It should be mandatory.

  8. This article exemplifies the need for journalistic standards to be codified through strict licensure requirements.

    Furthermore, this news organization deserves public funding in order to remain competitive and compensate its television journalists properly for their years of training and dedication to their profession.


  9. Poor research isn’t uncommon for local reporters. In their defense, and it’s a weak defense, they do wade through a lot of information relatively fast for each segment. That said this piece was pure shit and pretty lousy news work.

    1. “That said this piece was pure shit and pretty lousy news work.”
      Saying that about local news is tanamount to recommending them for a Pulitzer. It is not possible in an Earthly language how bad they are.

      1. It’s not an easy job. All the local reporters I know write their own scripts and segments (editors actually do the tape work to put and splice it together). If you look at a piece being put together for an evening news that starts production at 8am imagine the limited time and resources you have to write, edit, script, shoot, revise, and the shit ton of technical crap in between like getting it into servers. Then since it’s evening news there’s a chance it might have a live segment (pretty likely) outside the studio so now you have to memorize and familiarize yourself with the script. Even then all it takes is for one live shot to go long and you can kiss that segment goodbye.

        The job isn’t exactly fucking easy. Hell nothing on air is easy if you ask me. I’m sure as you do it more it gets easier, but I don’t think it ever gets easy.

        I don’t think that makes shitty reporting okay, but it does explain mistakes and a lack of fact checking.

        1. We do the best we want to with what we have.

        2. All true, hmm… But maybe that’s an argument for slowing the fuck down, doing news once a day instead of 3-4 times a day, hiring more staff to do the work and/or dropping a lot of the fluff pieces to focus on more relevant shit.

          Of course, I also expect ratings to plunge even further if those steps were taken… But whatever 😛

          1. Being in the same position these reporters are I can understand why they didn’t take a more direct approach to the cops. Many times local reporters relay on specific cops for tips or for just a working relationship in order to get the information to the public as quickly as possible. And while some might say “well if they don’t release the info then sue” need to be aware that that is not always practical. Plus more often than not these reporters have to live in the same communities.

            Having said that, if what the author claims is true, then I must say this is a pretty bad story. If true I would never let one of my reporters come to me with something so shoddy and then put it on the air. My reputation, and the stations would be on the line. And frankly, local reporters are a dime a dozen.

  10. The police need to invest in scatter suits. This problem disappear

  11. Teabaggers are undermining America’s laws!

    Film at Eleven.

  12. But, you see, if they report something the police don’t like, they might not let their Spotlight Breaking News Action Team reporter stand in front of the courthouse while reading the official press release. It’s a terrible dilemma for a journalist to face.

    1. I always like it when they stand out in the rain, because if they weren’t out standing in the rain, no one would understand that it is raining.

    2. Bingo! The reporters fear the cops will deny access to cop PR bullshit events. It’s fuckin’ pathetic.

      I refuse to watch the shit.

      1. I like the upskirt shots of the Fox News bimz.

      2. Sorta like sports journalists who now text message with athletes. They golf and dine together. Next thing you know, “there was a steroid scandal?”

        And then they act all indignant about cheating and stuff. Usually followed with the usual bashing of blogs.

  13. Respect for authority is on the decline, and it’s KILLING OUR CHILDREN! Will your child be the next victim?

    Take McGruff’s handy test.

  14. Radley’s signature tooth-loosening tummy punch coming later.

    I thought he punched balls?

    A single “Story Accurately Reported” headline that was itself accurate would instantly liquefy the genitals of the whole human race. Fortunately, no man has the power to make one.

  15. It’s downright frightening to imagine just how much bad information lolcats probably deliver on other topics from night to night…

    That’s how i read it.

  16. Our local police just charged a man with violating the state wiretapping law because he used a cell phone to record police making arrests at a party. Makes me proud that cops in the relatively small city of Portsmouth are keeping current with the latest in law enforcement techniques.

  17. I hate white people, white babies and some white women. I hate freedom of speech and that’s all I have. Hate, hate, hate…….

  18. the world to end at 10 pm. News at 11!

  19. Local news outlets are notorious cop sycophants. They report the police spokesperson’s assertations as if they were fact.

    The only real question is if they buff the cop boots after licking them.

  20. There is a typo here:
    In other words, the state legislature took action for the specific purpose of making it legal to record cops in public.

  21. The popcorn you’re eating has been pissed in, film at eleven.

    1. KFM

      1. Of course, I’m a Gemini, so I never know WHAT to expect!

  22. Can someone just tell me that the video is going to piss me off? Any Balko post that has video usually pisses me off to the nth degree. I’m not having an absolutely terrible day yet and I kinda want to keep it that way.

    (shakes fist at Balko)

    1. Don’t watch the video. Have a nice day!

    2. The video is a pretty innocuous local news segment, well below Radley’s typical offering. On a 10 point scale of Balko outrage this is like a 3, and it’s only that because of a couple of very short clips shown during the broadcast (about 2 seconds of the Rodney King beating for example) and a couple of the clips following the news video. But still meager stuff by Balko standards. It’s awfulness isn’t evident until Radley dissects it in the article.

      1. What, no dogs getting shot?

  23. Here’s an update on last week’s nursing home expose, “Geezers in Freezers.” It turns out the rest home was adequately heated; the footage you saw was of a fur-storage facility. We’ve also been told to apologize for using the term “geezer.”

    Now, coming up next, the case of the cantankerous old geezer!

  24. Does anyone actually watch the local news for anything other than the weather and sports? Sports is always at the end and weather gets spread throughout, so I always assume that the rest is just filler, so there is no impetus to make it good or factual in any way.

  25. Good article. The low quality of local news is an underreported issue. It causes far more harm to the public than the “problem” of media bias that the public and pundits alike usually obsess about.

    Spend a month working in most newsrooms around the country, and you’ll come to the same depressing conclusions as the Annenberg study. As a professional photojournalist, I’ve seen a stunning amount of ignorance and incompetence come from journalists who are paid to know better.

    Why does local news suck? That subject would make a valuable series of articles in itself. Low salaries, lower expectations, excessive coziness with people in power, and a near-monopoly on information gathering in small markets all contribute to the problem. Myopic small-town publishers still don’t “get” the internet, and they respond to economic crises by decimating newsroom staff jobs.

    Local news is afflicted by a long list of institutional problems. Sadly, they look to be with us for a long time to come.

    1. I’d say a large portion of the problem is the amount of effort spent getting your news van on the scene of the latest shooting so you can have someone say live on camera “a dude got shot” before the other news network. If you put the same amount of effort into actually investigating why the dude was shot or the political and cultural environment that surrounds gangland killings in your city, we’d actually learn something. Being there “first”, something that most local news prides itself on, is about as useful to the public discourse the “first post”ers.

    2. I agree that there are a variety of reasons why local news has slipped into mediocrity.

      Those institutional problems are not only going to stay with us….they are being made worse with all the “one man band” bullshit that the bean counters are giddy about.

      As a photojournalist, you may soon be asked to do the work that currently takes 2-3 people to accomplish. (if you haven’t already)
      All for the same pay of course.

      I know there are many very talented photogs out there, and they are up to the task….but the tradeoff will be more mediocrity and bad information as there will be even less time to fully gather info. on any story.

      It may be time to brush up on your writing skills, and trade the shorts and T-shirts for a shirt and tie….

  26. Zeb, I watch for weather & sometimes sports (although I hate the fucking Redskins, so I tend to avoid the sportscasts here).

    On the local Fox affiliate, the morning weather is at 15-minute increments (00, 15, 30 and 45 of the hour) and it’s at about 10:48 for the 10pm news.

    Yes, I hate local news so much I found the need to memorize the exact times for the weather so I don’t have to put up with their complete & utter bullshit.

  27. I got started blogging because my old Colorado ski town failed to critically cover local cops, DA, school district,etc. They republished press releases, and even failed to publish stuff that made national news.

    Our DA is the infamous Kobe Bryant prosecutor, and he’s screwed up plenty since then. The most recent case involves him prosecuting a rafting guide for jumping in the water to rescue a 13-year old girl, who was a client of his. The Sheriff had told him no. This made some national news and all of Colorado’s major papers. Radley covered it immediately, of course. Never covered in our local paper.

    I would have been fearful to even blog had I still been living in Breckenridge, CO. I live in Los Cabos, MX, and it sure is fun to see how pissed off these people get when you expose the truth about them and help defeat them in their state Senate and other political aspirations.

    They truly think real journalism is posting press releases and never having links in your stories. I get more reads per day than the local stories in the local paper when I write about these people.

    Don’t mean this to sound self-congratulatory. But anyone can do this in his or her small community (although it helps to reside outside the country). These types are so used to media lying on their backs like a female dog in heat, they are quite taken aback when real scrutiny is applied.

    In another case with Mark Hurlbert, the DA at issue, I semi-broke the story about this moron charging two female mountain bike racers with felonies for swapping entry packets, when one was injured and couldn’t race. Radley picked up the story at The Agitator, and I’ve been told that helped the idiot DA back way off, and settle the stupid case with the ladies for the most minimal misdemeanor possible.

    This citizen journalism stuff really works, especially when we link up.

  28. oh no the Erie PA news sucks



    crisis detected

  29. The MSM don’t understand why so many people ignore them. How sad. How very, very sad for them.

  30. Sorry, I was already well aware that local news sucked hard, and has now officially died along with Hal Fishman.

  31. I would just like to point out that the quality of local news has not declined.

    It sucks now and has always sucked.

  32. I’m a little bummed I read all the comments and there was no News 24 Sean Lafferty / Ron Burgundy quip.

  33. Local TV news reporters majored in Trenchcoats and Hair. What the fuck do they know about getting an angle on a story?

  34. complete failure of corporate media.

  35. The only response I have to this article is, “Thanks, Mr. Balko”

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  55. As if it is not enough that we are required to be well informed of all the laws because if we do not know, it is not an excuse to get you out of an arrest, now the media is sending us confusing and mixed messages as to what the law actually is! I am sure this is not the only news station that completely misinterprets the law, either.

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  58. I hate local news so much I found the need to memorize the exact times for the weather so I don’t have to put up with their complete & utter bullshit.

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