Publisher’s column: An apology for our Rifle shooting coverage
When I was the Colorado Press Association CEO, I encouraged media organizations to explain coverage decisions — and admit mistakes.
We made a mistake and owe an apology with our choices covering the Rifle Police fatal shooting of Allan George on Aug. 5 — specifically, the two stories published based on videos of the shooting.
It started when two Rifle Police officers pulled George over the evening of Aug. 5 to arrest him for possession of child pornography. Details have not been released as to what happened when police first arrived, but George had a gun and the situation escalated. George died at the scene.
The initial story was published Aug. 6, but little information was made available – details like George dying at the scene. There was a follow-up story but still many details were missing, and we were waiting for the final investigation.
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On Aug. 13, we received an anonymous email that showed someone recording a video of the shooting – a video of a video.
After watching it multiple times, we noted concerns, one being the distance it was shot from. We sent the video to trusted peers and organizations and sought feedback. The consensus was to do a story.
From viewing the video (repeatedly), George appeared to be running away from officers when he was shot. And from the angle and distance, he appeared to be restrained. We asked investigators if that was the case; they declined to answer.
A factor in our decision is we thought the agencies had been less than forthcoming with information about the incident and this video gave some insight to it.
Regardless of how information was released or when, that is their prerogative, and we own our mistakes. Ultimately the main factor in running the story is all who watched the video agreed as to what we saw on the video.
On Aug. 16, we published the story, “Video raises possibility police shot Rifle man in the back.” We strived to avoid sounding definitive, noting it “appeared” George was shot in the back while his arms were restrained. There was a line about us asking if he had been handcuffed.
A day later, Aug. 17, we received an email from another person stating they had a second video providing a much closer view. We were told the video showed George was running when shot but not restrained. The person offered to sell us the video.
I have never been with a media company that purchased source information before, outside of public records. But if we had the story wrong, I was concerned about the damage that could do to the Rifle Police and its officers — and our credibility.
We agreed to purchase the video if we could see it first and get consent, which took time, ultimately getting the video on Aug. 24 — a Saturday.
We published the follow-up story on Aug. 27 — a Tuesday — so we had a chance to ask officials about it.
Although the video’s audio produced only small segments of what could be heard, it was closer, cleaner and longer than the first. From my vantage point it appeared the Rifle Police were being patient trying to talk George down from shooting himself with a gun.
He put the gun in his pocket and acted like he was going to jump in the river, and officers continued to try to talk him down. He then got off the bridge and started running toward Rifle. While he did not have a gun in his hand, it appeared he still had it in his pocket and he was running toward town — unrestrained. You could hear the police yell “stop” at least twice before shooting.
With this new video, we published another story.
Yet oftentimes, a follow-up story does not stop the previous narrative. People may not read the second story. Or people may simply choose to believe the first story.
So, a couple of items.
First and foremost, as the paper’s publisher, the buck stops with me on all mistakes.
I want to apologize to the Rifle Police, the officers and their families. Those crucial lines — even though we couched them to be non-definitive — no doubt made a hard situation worse.
I want to apologize to our readers. Trust and integrity are the foundation of who we are. Without that, we have nothing.
We discussed at the outset that we didn’t want this to be a Washington Post incident, in which one video shows something and is reported, and then another video shows a different view. These incidents are rare in a small town, and attempted to do our due diligence.
We failed at that.
We will continue to reflect on what we learned and how we will handle things moving forward.
American psychologist Mark Goulston said, “Speak the truth. People will forgive an honest mistake; they won’t forgive you if you lie.”
Please note, this was an honest mistake. We apologize.
Jerry Raehal is publisher of the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and the Rifle Citizen Telegram. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 970-384-9133.
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