Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the author's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Security magazine.
UPDATED January 13, 2015; changes marked with an asterisk*
The deluge of cop bashing continues from the media. And recently CNN borrowed a play from that playbook to go after the security industry as well. And while some of their points and recommendations about the security industry were valid, like their coverage of the police, their analysis wasn't balanced.
Getting the story right is important, whether it's a local news story about a shoplifting incident or a national story about police misconduct. The manner in which the media spins the information can affect us as much as the information itself. We're taught that journalists have a duty to provide accurate, fair and balanced information – but we know from experience that it doesn't always work that way.
We can recall the time when the Duke Lacrosse Team and more recent University of Virginia gang rape coverage was appallingly, almost criminally wrong. We can recall the nausea we felt when "60 Minutes" got the Benghazi story wrong or when three AP journalists falsely accused gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe of lying to federal investigators days before an election (thereby possibly affecting the outcome).
The media's new approach is to sell and tell a story. The more shocking, sensational, and divisive it is, the more it sells. Repeated often enough, by the right sources, and these stories become etched in peoples' minds as "facts."
Objectivity in journalism, doesn't exist much anymore, if it ever did. Today many so-called journalists mix their opinion into what are ostensible news stories in an attempt to persuade an audience to see things their way. It's a vital reminder that many things we are told are biased, unbalanced and formulated to dupe you into forming a flawed opinion on a matter.
So it is with the recent CNN and Center for Investigative Reporting story about security officers and deadly consequences. There's a subtle but clear anti-security and anti-gun message in their "year-long investigation." It's a short body of work for such a long investigation, nonetheless I asked Roy Rahn, Executive Director of CALSAGA, to help balance things out.
So let's get started:
Investigative reporting is an essential pillar of a democratic society. We need it to keep politicians, businessmen, and unscrupulous actors in check. But who is watching the reporters?
In CNN's story there were at least five participants: Ryan Gabrielson and Shoshana Walter from CIR and Scott Zamost, Drew Griffin and Anderson Cooper from CNN. Three out of the five demonstrate an anti-police/security bias, which isn't immediately obvious.
In researching Walter and Gabrielson, when they write about the police, they focus almost exclusively on anti-police stories. So there's no surprise that they'd find the same negative angle with security. *
When we researched the stories contributed by the CNN team, Scott Zamost has authored a long list of anti-police articles, Griffin hasn't written much about the police, and Cooper just reports what is written for him.
To be fair, each of the story's contributors are investigative reporters. Their job is to uncover corrupt officials and situations that are against the public interest. But foremost, their duty is to be straight with the public and demonstrate a fair and balanced methodology. Yet, in our research, they almost always take a "blame it on law enforcement and not the perpetrator" approach.
And so no surprise, the same methodology can be seen in their story about the security officer industry. According to Roy Rahn, "CNN got it wrong; I disagree with their characterization because they only discussed the absolute worst case scenarios and did not represent the industry fairly." In other words, the reporters used the absolute extreme outlier examples of the industry's transgressions and failed to balance it with the millions of situations that are handled properly and fairly.
Do any of us really think that these transgressions would paint an entire industry as negative had the whole picture been revealed? No, we do not. Yet their irresponsible examination will encourage CNN's audience to associate security guards with a group of untrained, trigger happy thugs. This is how the CNN and CIR reporters want us to see security officers, through their lens of anti-police and anti-gun.
The CNN story claims the entire industry is like the "Wild Wild West" which in many cases is leading to deadly consequences. This type of extreme hyperbole hurts the credibility of CNN and CIR and takes away from some of their more valid points (like lack of standards for security training and background checks).
If the story were truly a balanced view of the industry, the reporting team would have researched the amount of deadly encounters versus all total encounters with security guards and reported those findings along with the rest of the story. Instead, they distort the situation by screaming about a very small percentage of cases that ended badly.
Allow me to demonstrate how this tactic has been used before by one of the investigative reporters. Gabrielson is well known for his claim that African American males are 21 times more likely to be shot than white men. But what hasn't been publicized is that Gabrielson's total sample size was just 62 nationwide incidents! Worse, in this NPR interview, Gabrielson admits that when African American officers were involved in one of those shootings, "78 percent of the victims were black." Yet, [I believe]** Gabrielson's conclusion, which has been widely publicized and used in countless media stories, is that the police force is biased and racist.
According to the NY Daily News, Gabrielson's reporting was "based on worse than unreliable data" and that he didn't make it clear that only 1.2-percent of the police departments in the country reported the numbers. Even worse, the article goes on to say, "the very few police departments that do report are predominantly urban areas, which tend to have much higher concentrations of blacks. This skews the numbers to over-represent black deaths."
So we know journalists themselves are biased, and in some cases (like this one) they'll skew the information to paint a picture that is much more dangerous than reality. That's just bad journalism. I asked Rahn for his assessment, and he told me: "There are over one-million security guards in U.S. and only a handful of shooting deaths? Sorry... seems like an overblown issue to me."
It's overblown, but surely there are bad security officers just as there are bad journalists. Bad journalists lie, bad journalists harm people (with the pen or the camera), and bad journalists ruin careers. But we shouldn't demonize all security officers because of a few bad apples. And that of course is why the CNN/CIR isn't really a story at all – but a cautionary tale about a few outliers.
CNN/CIR did bring up some valid points that we should recognize. Does it make sense that we don't have standardized training for security officers? That we don't do background checks on a security officer? I don't think so.
Rahn agrees, telling me that the CNN/CIR reporters did made some valid points, "When you give a security guard a gun, you need to feel confident that the security guard has had the proper training."
So the industry might look to create tiered training certification programs and equip security officers with the right defensive tools based on the work environment's threat levels. That way the public is better served and the security officer can command higher pay because of their increased knowledge and proficiency. Higher pay will lead to better, more qualified security staff and provide security officers with better career options.
And it makes sense to have higher levels of accountability in security. The industry should explore programs where security officers are equipped with body cameras to monitor the people they're interacting with. Yes it's an increased cost, but it could save millions in future lawsuits. "We live in a world where if you are charged with public safety, you need protection for yourself and the people you're interacting with," Rahn concludes.
We also need higher levels of accountability in the media. Clearly, CNN/CIR didn't meet the minimum threshold for an objective story here. It's clear they saw an opportunity to ride on the current anti-police news media coattails and publish their story now. In fact, Walter started her research in May of 2012 when she solicited private security officer stories (and only received four replies). It's no coincidence that the story is only being released now.
In the end, I don't think these reporters believe that the security officer industry is shady and know that each of the other reporters don't believe it. Yet they are bound together by a common code and a common guilt – all in the interest of ratings. But it does beg the question, how fast do you think they walk past their own security officers?
*The author of the book was incorrectly identified, according to Ryan Gabrielson and Shoshana Walters of CIR, and the following sentence was removed. "Also, although not disclosed, Gabrielson's written a chapter for a published book called 'Glory: A Nation's Spirit Defeats the Attack on America,' his chapter is the one titled 'Get Rid of Guns.'"
**Emphasis from Security magazine.