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The real journalistic question of Pointergate

If you don’t believe that Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges was knowingly flashing a gang sign, then there is no story.

Video of last night’s public forum courtesy of the UpTake.

The brouhaha over the so-called Pointergate story has mostly blown over, but the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists put on a panel Monday night to explain why they had publicly criticized KSTP’s handling of the story. Both KSTP and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges declined to participate, which would have made it a lot bigger deal. Most of the discussion, like much of the long-running social media traffic, revolved around the racial angles of the story.

But for me, the actual journalistic question was answered clearly by one of the SPJ panelists, Duchesne Drew, managing editor for operations of the Star Tribune. The Strib had been approached by whoever was peddling the story and decided to pass. As a news story, if you don’t believe that Hodges was knowingly flashing a gang sign, then there is no story, Drew said.

Everything else that has blown up around this instance of journalistic malpractice by KSTP should keep coming back to that question. It’s hard to believe that anyone could believe that this common pointing-at-each-other photo pose is evidence that whoever is pointing is showing solidarity with a particular gang who might also use a finger-pointing sign.

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KSTP, which has aggressively defended the story, has never actually said that they believe this to be so, only that their police sources say it is so. In his courageous but nonetheless ill-advised public appearance at Augsburg College to defend the story, KSTP owner Stanley Hubbard fell back on a tired old journalistic trope that we-didn’t-didn’t-say-it-was-a-fact-but-it’s-a-fact-that-some-police-said-it-was-a-fact.

In the long original Pointergate story itself, a retired policeman asserted on camera that it was a gang sign and that the public was endangered by the mayor showing solidarity with a gang. And the president of the Minneapolis police union also went on camera to state that the incident raises the question about the mayor: “Is she gonna support gangs in this city or cops?”

Yikes. That would be a powerful question for anyone who believed that the mayor was knowingly flashing a gang sign. But, as Drew suggested, there is no evidence for that. And in the absence of any such evidence, what KSTP had (and the Strib also had but declined to pursue) was either a non-story or a powerful piece of evidence of just how bad relations must be between the mayor and some elements of the police force for whom the union president is a spokesman.

The latter might make an interesting story.