Journalists worried about losing credibility with the public.
Police investigating a notorious gang in a city on California’s central coast issued a fake press release that the chief credited with saving two men by deceiving gang members who wanted to kill them, but the ruse was criticized by news organizations who reported it as fact.
Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin defended the rare tactic this week when it came to light, saying he had never done such a thing in his 43-year career, but he wouldn’t rule out doing it again.
“It was a moral and ethical decision, and I stand by it,” Martin said Friday. “I am keenly aware and sensitive to the community and the media. I also had 21 bodies lying in the city in the last 15 months.”
The phony announcement issued in February was discovered in court documents and only reported this week by the Santa Maria Sun, a weekly newspaper in the city 140 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
The daily newspaper and local television stations were unaware the information in the release was false when they reported that two men, Jose Santos Melendez, 22, and Jose Marino Melendez, 23, had been picked up for identity theft and handed over to immigration authorities.
In fact, detectives eavesdropping on the deadly MS-13 gang had raced to the home of the two cousins in nearby Guadalupe and took them into protective custody after learning hit men were on their way there.
Kendra Martinez, news director at KSBY-TV, said she was “deeply troubled” that police misled the public and news organizations.
“While we strongly support the police department’s efforts to protect citizens in harm’s way, we are concerned this type of deception can erode the basic trust of our residents and viewers,” Martinez said.
The sting comes to light as news organizations try to set the record straight as truth and fiction blur amid a proliferation of “fake news” spread by social media.
Jonathan Kotler, a professor at the USC Annenberg journalism school, said there was nothing illegal about what police did, but it could raise questions about the department’s future credibility. However, he said the public is unlikely to appreciate the importance of that issue, particularly when the police said it was matter of life and death.
“If the press cries foul here, saying they were led astray by a false release, then you’ve got the press being angry about being misled,” Kotler said. “But on the other hand, the cops would say, ‘But look we saved lives.’ In that kind of PR battle, who do you think comes off looking better, the press or the police?”