EDITORIAL: Helfrich's Trumpian attack on journalism

The Dispatch Editorial Board

This past week, York City Mayor Michael Helfrich called an impromptu media gaggle and offered his solution to the plague of misinformation that's wreaking throughout the developed world.

Sounds like big news, doesn't it?

Unfortunately, York's mayor didn't offer a thought-out plea for fact-checking. He didn't provide an erudite lecture on seeking out legitimate sources over social media trolls. He didn't make a bold stand for the important role government transparency plays in public confidence.

No, according to Helfrich, the practice of journalism is, in and of itself, the real problem.

First, some context is in order. 

Helfrich's meandering diatribe Wednesday came a day after the fatal shooting of a 5-year-old boy, Elias Dowlatram. Now, details are still sketchy, but police have said the boy was in a vehicle driven by Adrian Moye at the time of the shooting. 

Moye was charged with several felonies, including two counts of child endangerment.

Reports of the shooting were quickly picked up by media throughout York County — print, radio and television alike. The stories, typically sourcing official police statements, spread across social media.

Mayor Michael Helfrich speaks during the York City Police Department promotion ceremony at City Hall in York City, Friday, July 19, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

And, according to Helfrich, at least one unidentified outlet got it wrong and reported the boy was killed in a shootout, which in turn fueled rumors and panic.

Based on Helfrich's statements, that media outlet received bad information from someone claiming to provide a first-person account.

And seeking out eyewitnesses — you know, doing journalism — is a danger to public order, according to Helfrich's reasoning.

Any media outlet has an ethical imperative to check their sources and get the facts straight. And it's equally important that errors are corrected promptly and clearly. It's impossible to speak to the specific instances here, as Helfrich declined to identify the source of the bad information.

But, at its core, his rant is an attack on the foundations of journalism itself. By Helfrich's own words, a single outlet published an erroneous story. 

And yet, a democratically elected public official considered that error enough lambast journalism itself.

There's always an inherent tension between government and a free press. That's especially true when police agencies are involved. 

Most journalists realize that some information can't and won't be immediately released. Their job is to get as much as they can. But, on the flip side, any government agency worth its salt is keenly aware that releasing as much information as possible is, in fact, in the public interest.

It's the best defense against the very type of rumors and panic against which Helfrich this past week railed.

With a single, clear statement, City Hall could have quelled any misinformation. It could have addressed the known facts without threatening the police investigation. It could have provided the taxpaying public enough information to stall the rumor mill.

Instead, York's mayor opted to adopt the red herrings of those who consider "the media" as a monolith instead of a collection of people in direct competition with each other. He opted to chide a basic journalistic technique that gives a voice to average people each and every day. And, in so doing, he contributed to a national war against journalism, an endeavor so foundational that it's enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. 

We've sadly come to expect such base rhetoric from the White House, but not from York City Hall.