The recent death of Champaign Police Department Officer Chris Oberheim has sparked a discussion when it comes to how the news media has covered this tragedy. Most news stories praised Officer Oberheim for his service, and for giving his life to the community in order to do his job.
One of the largest media sources in downstate Illinois, WCIA 3 News, ran a story about the alleged shooter Darion Lafayette, who also died that day. In a televised newscast (video of which is no longer available to view), the station used a photograph provided by his family, showing him with a halo and angel wings. WCIA subsequently received an overwhelming amount of negative feedback from their audience, including outrage from the Oberheim family. Many viewers believed running the story about Lafayette was insensitive. The station believes they failed their viewership by showcasing Lafayette in a positive light. WCIA has since apologized for running the story and implemented steps to improve their editorial process.
The audience backlash to the aired story illustrates just how much the station’s messaging reaches within and beyond our community. WCIA has been building its massive audience for decades, shaping the way our community sees itself with every single story broadcast. It is important to note that WCIA is not locally owned. Texas/New York/Chicago-based Nexstar Media owns it, as well as dozens of stations all over the country. This might sound familiar, as The News-Gazette was recently purchased by a company that isn’t based here, either. It is an important distinction to make because many people may believe local stations are neutral, but we know that isn’t the case.
In an age of Facebook threads and Twitter mentions, audience engagement is a metric for measuring success. This creates a tenuous relationship with the audience; in this case, WCIA felt compelled to respond to the loudest voices. A larger audience means potentially larger advertising revenues (which tend to keep the lights on at media companies). When advertisers threaten to stop running ads, the station’s C-suite has decisions to make. As a result of the Lafayette story, WCIA lost advertisers (a few examples here, here, and here), so backtracking to make an apology to recover seemed logical.
Like many other cable news stations across the country, WCIA is in the business of prioritizing and sensationalizing stories about crime. They have been growing an audience off of these stories for years. This isn’t a new development — people have been drawn to these types of stories for a long time, stories that confirm their biases and fears. Social media exacerbates this, with people expressing these biases and fears within the comments sections. We know that WCIA’s comment section is legitimately the worst place around.
WCIA has definitely made clear how important these audience voices are — so important it tends to allow viewers to say just about anything they want without consequence. If you dive into this Facebook thread on WCIA reporter Jen Lask’s page, you can see how another reporter, Paul Cicchini, frames the idea of moderating social media comments as a violation of First Amendment rights. Cicchini goes on to state that the fanbase is too large to patrol, stating “we have no control over how others act.” And sure, it’s impossible and unethical to control the behavior of other people, but that doesn’t mean that comments cannot be moderated in a private forum. Cicchini is neither the social media director nor the legal team, and his opinion is just more noise — and fuel — in these comment threads.
The station has an obligation to make sure hate speech and false claims aren’t running rampant in that forum. WCIA is owned by a private company, and they have the right and ability to monitor comments for things steeped in bigotry, xenophobia, and racism. WCIA’s reach is wide in our community. Let this act as a reminder that the station could use that influence for good. It has the power to influence the way its viewers think and feel about Champaign County. Just as we’ve seen The News-Gazette change its policies after hearing years of feedback, change can happen. We hope WCIA is open to it.
The Editorial Board is Jess Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.