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The ABC/Melissa Lawrence incident

A television news crew crossed the line from simply reporting the news to becoming predatory on the public, and their actions had terrible consequences for someone they initially hoped to interview.

Providence resident Melissa Lawrence’s teenaged daughter Ny’asia was shot in the back on Sunday. This week as the girl recovered from the bullet wound, the alleged shooter turned himself in. A team from local ABC affiliate WLNE went to interview Lawrence about it. But the ugliness that unfolded on camera provides a pretty clear picture of how news reporting in the United States is devolving from a public service into a self-serving cesspool of sensationalism, and leaving carnage along the way.

In video footage of the incident that went viral, WLNE reporter Abbey Niezgoda can be seen approaching Lawrence in her front yard and asking her a very original question, “how do you feel about that?” But Lawrence didn’t want to be interviewed. At one point, Lawrence threw a rock at the cameraman and missed, but the interactions leading up to that moment are edited out. The brilliantly observant Niezgoda then asks into her mic, “Are you gonna throw rocks?” The team still didn’t leave. Lawrence goes in search of a bat. A smirk can be seen spreading over Niezgoda’s face as Lawrence goes inside.

It’s hard to tell what exactly went down, because the footage is heavily edited. What’s clear is although Ms. Lawrence made it abundantly obvious she didn’t want to talk, the news team refused to go.

When Lawrence emerges with a bat, Niezgoda implores, again into the mic, “Why are you attacking us, ma’ame,” as Lawrence desperately shouts, “Get away from me!” For the record, Lawrence wasn’t attacking them with the bat. She never raised it. Instead she held it at her side. She was trying to convince them to, you guessed it, get away from her.

Apparently the rocks and bat didn’t give this crew the hint they needed, so Lawrence ordered her two pit bull terriers to go after them. I’ve seen it described in news reports they “attacked” Niezgoda. They didn’t, actually. Instinctively, two or more dogs that mean to attack will surround first, then do harm. All Lawrence’s dogs did was herd a waddling, ridiculous 24-year-old reporter away from their home. If they were out to hurt her, they would have brought her down like a limping wildebeest. I’m no Cesar Millan but I know enough about dogs to know that.

Niezgoda’s comments on the aired footage say they were “leaving,” but that’s a bullshit ploy to try and look innocent. Lawrence repeatedly told them to go, threw stuff at them, got out a bat, and as a last resort set her dogs on them — four very clear cues from this woman the WLNE crew can be seen ignoring. After all that, Niezgoda is still in her face at the end of the video.

Lawrence didn’t want to be on camera. She didn’t want to be interviewed. Her kid was critically wounded and she was at wits end. But the WLNE crew smelled good reality-TV-masquerading-as-news and wanted the juicy stuff. Their presence was triggering Lawrence, they knew it, and they were getting exactly what they wanted from her. I believe they were provoking her on purpose.

Lawrence never says anything other than variations of “get away from me” throughout the whole affair. On the other hand, Niezgoda keeps poking at her, asking her obvious things like “why are you attacking us,” “are you throwing rocks,” et cetera. She knows the answers to these questions. But they’re not questions. They’re innocent-sounding stalling tactics that were anything but innocent. They were excuses to stay at the scene, manipulatively paint Niezgoda as the victim, and push Lawrence to lash out more and more on camera.

WLNE decided to air this footage, because they apparently think stalking private citizens and deliberately provoking a violent situation makes a fine news story.

The result? Lawrence has been arrested and charged with felony assault. Animal control officers are looking to take her dogs, and who knows what will happen to them if they do. Lawrence and her family not only have to worry about their girl recovering from a gunshot wound. They have to deal with Lawrence’s felony case, the possibility her getting sentenced to prison and all domestic disasters that would engender, and animal control potentially slaughtering their pets. Way to go, WLNE.

Just to be clear, despite the fact she has been charged with a crime and has been set up by the news team to look like the aggressor to the uncritical eye, Melissa Lawrence is the victim in this situation, categorically. She’s the victim of the person that shot her child, a news team that bullied her into an emotional corner, and now a criminal justice system that never has qualms about disproportionately throwing black people in prison for relatively small offenses.

Make no mistake, Niezgoda was exploiting Lawrence. The smirk on Niezgoda’s face when Lawrence began reacting tells the whole story. Obviously, Niezgoda thought the rage of a mother with a seriously injured child was amusing. I wonder if she’d find it funny if Lawrence were white and middle class. But if Lawrence were white, would the WLNE team be hounding her for a reality TV-worthy reaction in the first place? Watching the video, I almost felt like they didn’t see Lawrence as a human being.

It’s no secret the American mainstream media has a race problem and treats people of color atrociously. In a recent interview with PolicyMic, author, intellectual and social critic Ishmael Reed succinctly describes the way media agencies talk exclusively to whites, feeding a racist narrative.

“They [the media] coddle their white subscribers by ignoring white pathology and blaming all of the social ills on blacks in order to get ratings,” Reed said.

No doubt. Blacks in this country can’t even act as heroes or be victims of crimes without the media digging through and trotting out their rap sheets. In this case, I have little doubt WLNE calculated Lawrence’s race would make her an easy target to score ratings points off of.

But Niezgoda was actually the aggressor in this situation. She was stalking Lawrence and harassing her. Had she left when asked to, Lawrence wouldn’t be facing prison time. But Niezgoda played the victim and as expected, the cops and prosecutors sided with her. No one was seriously hurt, but Lawrence is being treated harshly.

The spectacle of a white person cornering a black woman with a camera and setting her up to react badly via provocation, then basically feeding that black woman to authorities knowing she alone will bear the full consequences has ugly precedence in the U.S., a country with a brutal racist history in which blacks have been and are among the primary victims. The role of journalists should be the voice for the voiceless, as the saying goes. Their duty is to provide a platform for the vulnerable, marginalized and abused of society, not slap them around opportunistically.

I worked for a local newspaper and I’ve had to interview crime victims’ families. There’s a skill to approaching people who are in traumatizing situations, and it starts with respect. Surprisingly often, they will open up. Sometimes, they don’t want to. It’s their choice. Creating this situation and airing it on TV were also choices WLNE made. It didn’t have to happen. They could have done their story and backed off Lawrence when she told them to, then said she didn’t want to comment. It’s that simple.

For reporters to do their jobs competently, the public has to at the very least not mistrust them. Here’s a hint. If you’re going into a situation where people with good reason have trust issues and you both publicly humiliate the person you’re trying to interview then get them arrested, you are a very shitty reporter. If you think “the story” is what happens to you as a reporter in the course getting a story, you’re an even shittier reporter. But if you deliberately create a bad situation and report it as news and the public pays the price, you’re a dystopian circus act, not a journalist.

Thing is, the news media can be and sometimes is a force for good when it sheds light on injustice and exposes the truth. There are great journalists out there. I know some of them. Every day they go to work and against all odds get good stories out with limited resources. But if the news industry at large chooses to exploit people for unethical reasons like ratings or perpetuate racism by editing a situation until it produces a dehumanizing stereotype, the media isn’t just feeding social problems. It becomes a damned social problem.

People from oppressed communities see things like that and get the sense the news media is out to bring them pain, as opposed to “comforting the afflicted.” They realize they have no one to turn to when the powerful abuse them and when they are treated unjustly. But it’s the reporter’s job to be the one they turn to. In totality what WLNE did was ethically, professionally and morally wrong, and in the meantime they also lobbed a pretty big grenade into the ongoing destruction of American journalism.

I am angry that Melissa Lawrence now has to stand in front of a judge in August with felony counts hanging over her head because of what people in my profession did to her. I hope she is afforded some justice, gets the charges dropped and sues WLNE for all they’re worth. But while I may be a wishful thinker I’m not naïve. I know how things work in this country. I hope it doesn’t end this way but statistically speaking Lawrence is likely to take a plea deal to avoid facing a heavy prison sentence and a jury that sees her skin color before anything else. She may end up with a hefty fine, this thing on her criminal record and probation. Worst case scenario, she will go to prison. It breaks my heart. She didn’t ask for any of this, it was forced on her by the unethical people at WLNE. In a just world, Niezgoda and her editors would be the ones facing the judge.

Bethania Palma Markus is a freelancer based in Los Angeles.

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