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Explaining #pointergate: The missing context

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Mayor Betsy Hodges
Mayor Betsy Hodges poses for a photo in a screengrab from a KSTP news report. The report claims that she is flashing a gang sign in this photo.
KSTP

The Internet moved into full-on parody mode Friday after a KSTP report on Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges flashing what the story called "a known gang sign" in a photo.

• NewsCut: 'Gang sign' story backfires on KSTP

The story has gone viral, with coverage everywhere from Vanity Fair to The Huffington Post to Slate to the Daily Kos. But there's more to the story than a digital double-take and plenty of references to The Onion.

• The Daily Circuit: How a gesture from the Minneapolis mayor became #pointergate

What does the KSTP report say?

The story hinged on a photo that was provided to KSTP by "law enforcement sources," that the station describes as "a photo of Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges posing with a convicted felon while flashing a known gang sign."

Retired police officer Michael Quinn said in the story that Hodges put cops at risk with her gesture. "The fact that they're flashing gang signs back and forth at each other, showing solidarity with the gangs," Quinn said. "She's legitimizing these people that are killing our children in Minneapolis."

John Delmonico, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, said the mayor should know better. "Is she going to support gangs in the city or cops?" Delmonico said in the story.

Kolls reported that Police Chief Janeé Harteau declined to comment. Hodges declined an on-camera interview, but said in a statement, "The more supportive we all can be of people making better choices now, the better off we will all be in the future." A spokesperson also responded that she and the man were just pointing at each other.

More: KSTP's story

How has KSTP responded?

Reporter Jay Kolls defended the story on his Twitter account late Thursday night, replying directly to 34 people. Here are a few of his responses:

KSTP released a statement on its website late Friday morning:

"Law enforcement sources alerted KSTP-TV to a photo they believed could jeopardize public safety and put their officers at risk, especially given the recent increase in gang violence. Multiple sources from several law enforcement agencies told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS the photo had the potential for undermining the work they are doing on the streets. 5 Eyewitness News blurred the individual's face and did not name the group he was working for because police called into question only the judgment of Mayor Betsy Hodges."

What's Hodges' response?

Mayor Hodges has not directly addressed #pointergate and would not comment on the issue at Friday's press conference on the rollout of the Minneapolis police body camera pilot program.

She did, however, tweet some Garth Brooks lyrics early Friday morning that appear to address the controversy:

Some context

It's worth noting that Hodges isn't a stranger to striking the finger-point pose:

Here's how the photo in KSTP's story came about:

What's the backstory/history here?

MPR News' Bob Collins points to recent tensions between Hodges and the Minneapolis police union. After community activist Al Flowers was arrested and allegedly beaten by Minneapolis police, Harteau and Hodges called for an independent investigation of the incident, angering the police union.

• NewsCut: 'Gang sign' story backfires on KSTP

Hodges also drew the ire of the union when she wrote an open letter to the city outlining her plans to improve the police department. In the letter she wrote, "Some officers abuse the trust that is afforded to them, and take advantage of their roles to do harm rather than prevent it. ... These officers do not represent a majority of the department, but their behavior disrupts community trust for all officers in the community."

Delmonico, president of the Minneapolis police union, took to the Star Tribune to respond, writing an op-ed that said, "While that may well be your perception, it is a perception that is as malicious as it is false."

Why's everyone worked up about this?

The #pointergate hashtag has blown up the Internet for lots of reasons. It's become a story of race, a story of journalism ethics and a story of diversity in its many forms. 

Pair that with the virality of the Internet, and soon #pointergate emerges. This story, though, is different from most of its kind because the criticism of KSTP's report cuts across political, social and other lines. The derision — and, soon after, mocking — of the story has been biting and swift on Twitter and elsewhere.

Race. The Daily Kos was quick to notice the story, saying #pointergate "may be the most racist news story of 2014."  

Nekima Levy-Pounds wrote in the Star Tribune's Your Voices section Friday that the story reinforces racial stereotypes in a city already rife with them: "For white Minnesotans who do not personally know any young African American men, it is all too easy to take the media's word as absolute truth and embrace the negative racial stereotypes that are being perpetuated about the young man in the photo."

Journalism ethics — and diversity in newsroom leadership.  MPR News' Bob Collins has been following the story — and the reaction — closely since he first wrote about it Friday morning. "It's shocking and frightening" to every journalist he's discussed it with, he said.

Why? The story is missing the context in which the photograph was taken (Hodges and Harteau had spent the day on a get-out-the-vote effort with the Neighborhoods Organizing for Change group); it implies that the man in the photo, Navell Gordon, is a gang member (though later in the story, it says there's no evidence Gordon was part of a gang); and the fact that it worked its way through the TV station's editing process indicates that the newsroom lacked the kind of voice along the way that might say, "Wait a minute."  

"It's not a gray area. It's way out of bounds," Collins said. "Nobody else [in the newsroom] apparently thought, 'What else could it be?'"

But it also ignores the underlying story, he said, the story of a kid who can't vote because he's a convicted felon, but is working to change his situation: "He's trying to turn his life around because he's trying to make his community a better place. He's 22. That sounds like a good story. Better foundation to doing that story than doing 'the mayor's a gangster.'"

The outrage of the internet.  It doesn't take much to fire up Twitter. But this time around, the acrimony has been decidedly unified — and witty — as social media roundly mocked the report and made #pointergate a trending hashtag:

How far has this gotten?

It is fair to say that the story has ricocheted around the Internet:

• Al Jazeera: #PointerGate shakes finger at local US news station

• Huffington Post: If Pointing Is A 'Known Gang Sign,' We're Pretty Much All Gangbangers  

• Daily Kos: #pointergate may be the most racist news story of 2014  

• Poynter: TV station accuses mayor of 'flashing a known gang sign,' sparks '#pointergate'

• Jezebel: Local news thinks Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges is in a gang

• MinnPost: KSTP savaged for Mayor Hodges 'gang sign' story

•  Slate: Local news station reports people who pose for pictures are in gangs

• Vanity Fair: "PointerGate" Is the Most Pathetic News Story of the Week

  •  Mediaite: "ABC station under fire after accusing mayor of 'flashing a known gang sign'"