Even in this cynical age, government institutions have inherent authority. They’re the ones with inside information and experts, expected to serve the public interest even-handedly.
They also, of course, have their own agendas and motives for spinning information to advance political goals.
So how should the media react when government officials offer up developments on a hot topic in a way that seems designed to elicit coverage, even if the information looks thin?
Such was the dilemma facing Civil Beat last week when, over two days, the state of Hawaii held two news conferences on the protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope that, directly or not, cast aspersions on the Mauna Kea protesters.
In the first one, the Department of Land and Natural Resources reported that endangered anunu vines had been cut or yanked out of koa trees at Puu Hulululu, which has been occupied by the protesters blocking the road to the TMT site for some two months. Though officials offered no evidence the protesters did it, they clearly implied there was no other explanation. It was inevitable, they said, when so many people occupied a sensitive ecosystem.
Other endangered plants had been trampled, they said, although the plants appeared to be recovering. Also, a wildlife manager said the crowds may have discouraged the Hawaiian goose, or nene, from landing in the vicinity, and driven away the endangered wolf spider, opening the door to invasive insects.
The next day, Gov. David Ige held a press conference to ask both sides in the Mauna Kea dispute to remain civil. Ostensibly, the message was that both sides needed to avoid the kinds of inflammatory messages that had been popping up on social media.
But the headline, predictably, turned out to be that Ige and other state officials had been threatened. Once again, the state cited no evidence that the protesters were behind the threats. But officials pointed to public statements by the protesters that characterized law enforcement as ready to use force, which Attorney General Clare Connors said “sets a tone.”
In both cases, the protesters tried to counter the government messaging, offering up alternative explanations for the environmental damage on Mauna Kea and pointing to steps they had taken to protect sensitive flora, such as blocking off some areas. They distanced themselves from the threats to officials, reiterating their commitment, from the start, to the principle of kapu aloha.
But the damage, in effect, had already been done. The headlines and TV leads focused on the state’s warnings, and the protesters were on their heels.
Was the state using its authority to undermine the protesters, and turn more of the public against them, possibly to pave the way for an action to remove them from the road leading to the TMT site?
A week or so earlier, we had faced a similar quandary when the protesters announced they had information that law enforcement was about to break up the occupation. The protesters did not divulge their sources, so as in the case of the death threats, we had no way to independently verify them. In the end, we decided to send a reporter. But the crackdown never came.
The day after the anunu press conference, it seemed that every media outlet of any size in the state had covered it, except us.
So what to do about the state’s press conferences? We wondered if the media was being manipulated by the state. Officials weren’t announcing any action, asking the protesters to agree to any measures. Why did they hold the press conferences if not to discredit and put pressure on them?
We decided to hold off on a story – not easy, considering environmental issues are important to many Civil Beat readers. It gets even harder to trust your decision when other media outlets run with the story. The day after the anunu press conference, it seemed that every media outlet of any size in the state had covered it, except us.
Then came the death threat press conference. Given the lack of specific information, it seemed important to add context. So we asked the state how often the governor gets death threats unrelated to Mauna Kea? What about rank-and-file state workers? It’s hard to believe that Child Welfare Services workers, for instance, who make decisions over who will have custody of children, are not routinely threatened. If so, why the disparate attention from state leaders?
We asked. But the state never answered.
In the end, we decided to do a story, but lead with the political consequences for the protesters, casting it as the latest move in a long-running chess game. The story included the substance of the state’s charges, but put them in the context of the PR battle rather than making them news in and of themselves.
It’s possible we were overthinking it. Maybe we should have just reported the news.
But it’s a good example of what we and other media outlets confront on a daily basis. We try to do more than just regurgitate what officials say, to look for the larger story, the unstated motivations, the context.
Despite what our critics say, we really do try to play it down the middle. But sometimes the middle can be hard to find.
Editor’s Note: Readers often wonder about the reporting and editing process and other news practices. We think it’s important to explain our decisions and do so from time to time in our ongoing series called “Behind The Story.” For even more information about how Civil Beat and other news outlets do their journalism, check out our “Understanding The News” section.
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