OPINION: When the media fails, a heavy price is paid

tarbox-christiaanAnybody who reads my columns will hopefully get the impression that I’m an ardent defender of journalism and the Fourth Estate at large. In a day and age when media outlets are increasingly being labeled “fake news” for having the temerity to relay facts that sometimes may be inconvenient for certain people, I’ve become more and more protective of an industry that I hold with great regard, especially when said institutions – at their best – serve the public interest and hold those in power accountable.

But believe it or not, there have been occasions when fellow journalists and media outlets managed to fail their duties and betray the very principles that they’ve ostensibly vowed to uphold. Recently, a revelation on a years-old tragedy became one of those moments.

Here’s the story: In a disturbing and highly upsetting expose by City Pages on April 26, it was revealed that during the November 2015 #Justice4Jamar protests in North Minneapolis – where hundreds of demonstrators rallied in front of the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct Police Station to protest the police shooting of young African-American man Jamar Clark – the city of Minneapolis planned to have officers remove the protestors, have fire officials extinguish any blazes in the area, and then for sanitation employees to clean up any refuse left in the protest’s wake.

But as the City Pages article goes on, Brooklyn Center resident and sanitation worker Alan Ditty – a decades-long city employee – had concerns about his co-workers entering a potentially dangerous environment, since his department reportedly wasn’t trained to deal with riots.

Ditty’s fears were exacerbated when he saw reports that white supremacists were threatening protesters, and after being told by his manager that Ditty and his co-workers had to go to the area to clean up, Ditty decided to send a news tip to the KARE 11 television news station.

Ditty did this to protect his fellow sanitation workers. But instead of protecting his identity as a firsthand source, KARE 11 reportedly turned over his tip to Minneapolis police, email address and all.

His leak of the planned police raid exposed to the city, Ditty was suspended and eventually fired, a few years shy of being able to collect his pension. A week after losing his job and pension for talking to the media, the 54-year-old Ditty hung himself in his Brooklyn Center home.

Now, a lot of blame can be assigned for this unspeakable tragedy. After reading City Pages’ heartbreaking chronicle of the city’s invective towards Ditty, both the city of Minneapolis, its Public Works department and police department clearly conspired to punish Ditty for what was clearly his genuine concern for his colleagues’ safety in what was clearly a volatile work environment.

But Ditty would possibly still be with us today were it not for the reckless behavior of KARE 11. According to the City Pages article, Ditty sent the tip in hopes that a media presence would keep protesters from being violent towards city employees. But hours later, an unknown KARE 11 employee had sent the email to a MPD spokesman, complete with Ditty’s email address. Instead of maintaining the confidentiality between source and reporter that is crucial to the media’s responsibility as a pillar of society, Ditty was effectively thrown to the wolves.

Per City Pages, KARE 11 claims that it’s investigating what caused the tip snafu on its end. And whether it was a simple mistake or a brazen act of recklessness, it doesn’t matter. A good man who was trying to do the right thing had his life destroyed. And now he’s gone.

As journalists, our job isn’t just always to inform the public. It’s also our responsibility to protect those whose livelihoods or even lives would be at stake when they risk everything to call out those more powerful than them. If KARE 11 did their due diligence to maintain their constitutional right to keep a source’s identity private, this tragedy would have never occurred.

As such, the media failed Al Ditty. And it’s on us to make sure we never commit such a failure again.

Contact Christiaan Tarbox at [email protected]