Our Views: Regret over 'We Back the Badge' signs

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Gazette Editorial Board
Thursday, May 18, 2017

In the spirit of being a good corporate citizen, The Gazette recently joined radio stations WCLO and WJVL, also owned by Bliss Communications, in sponsoring the printing of “We Back the Badge” signs for residents to display at their homes or businesses.

But in retrospect, some in the newsroom believe attaching The Gazette's name to the signs was a mistake. Many people view the signs as having a political meaning, and some people could view The Gazette as aligning itself with those who oppose efforts to expose racial injustices.

Our intent was to draw positive attention to law enforcement, but some people, minorities in particular, might feel The Gazette is taking sides in the public debate over law enforcement's use of deadly force.

We feel the Janesville Police Department and Rock County Sheriff's Office have been proactive on racial justice issues. Janesville has been fortunate to avoid a high-profile racial incident, and law enforcement deserves credit for resolving tense situations without resorting to excessive force.

That some people might view the signs negatively is a concern for The Gazette. Our staff, and particularly our journalists and editors in the newsroom, work to ensure readers perceive the newspaper as impartial in its coverage. The placement of The Gazette's logo on these signs could raise questions about The Gazette's impartiality. It shouldn't. Our job is to remain impartial.

The Gazette's involvement with the signs was not prompted by any racial incident. A police department official recently mentioned the department had run out of the signs, and Bliss Communications offered to help print more signs as a “thank you” to law enforcement for its dedication to keeping the community safe during the 10-day Joseph Jakubowski manhunt.

A corporate vice president checked with the editor to see if the newsroom had any concerns about putting The Gazette logo on the signs, and knowing the reasons why the signs were being made, he didn't raise an objection.

In hindsight, the question deserved more consideration.

We are unaware of anyone calling The Gazette to complain about the company's connection to the signs, and so this editorial is not in response to any public outcry. Rather, some Gazette reporters expressed concern about The Gazette's connection to the signs.

The Gazette's editors expect reporters to be impartial in their coverage of political issues, candidates in particular. We wouldn't want our reporters to have bumper stickers or signs in their yards promoting candidates because The Gazette is committed to being perceived as impartial.

Therefore, it seems hypocritical to demand impartiality from our reporters only to have The Gazette link itself to a political issue. Political positions belong on the Opinion Page.

The “We Back the Badge” slogan and signs could be perceived as associated with the Blue Lives Matter movement, which formed as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Black Lives Matter formed to bring attention to racial injustices, and we of course believe in the concept of racial justice. But this issue is fraught with political overtones (as President Donald Trump demonstrated this week in announcing plans to light the White House blue in honor of law enforcement on Memorial Day).

Most people support law enforcement in that they want to feel safe in their communities. Most people want to know law enforcement will be there for them during a crisis, and The Gazette obviously shares these sentiments. As good corporate citizens, The Gazette and WCLO/WJVL support many local organizations, and that support doesn't sway our editorial coverage.

But we live in a world of coded language. Words that mean one thing to one person take on a different meaning when heard by someone else, and “we back the badge” can be construed as a politically charged statement.

If we had to do it again, the newsroom would have asked for The Gazette name to be kept off the signs, and out of respect for our journalistic mission, management would have agreed.


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