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CBS News Slides into Gutter with V.I. Murder Story

CBS News dove head first into the gutter last week, posting an article with the inflammatory headline: "VIRGIN ISLANDS POLICE TO BLAME IN NJ MAN’S UNSOLVED MURDER?"

On its face, the CBS News headline implicates the V.I. Police Department in a murder, while one must read reporter Stephanie Slifer’s entire article to find out the parents of victim James Malfetti III are not accusing the VIPD of complicity in murder, but of not solving the case fast enough. (See full CBS article in related links below)

CBS News put a question mark at the end of the headline to soften the (wildly misleading) assertion. But a question mark is not a free pass to say anything they want.

No journalism review has made the case better than comedian Jon Stewart, who mocked Fox News’ heavy use of the punctuation, saying in 2006 that "Fox has figured out that by simply putting a question mark at the end of something, you can say (expletive) anything." (See: "The Daily Show: The Question Mark" in related links below)

Slifer ends her article citing the 56 V.I. homicides in 2012, cherry-picking one of the worst years in V.I. history, and ignoring much lower totals in 2011 or the most recent, 2013, in which there were 32 homicides territorywide. With that, CBS News again misled its readers, apparently to make the territory sound as scary as possible in order to make the article as juicy as possible.

I say "apparently," because CBS News has not responded to multiple phone messages and emails from the Source asking about these issues, left Feb. 13 and 14.

Citing a Daily News article, Slifer ends her article with the sentence: "The paper reports police in the territory failed to make arrests in about two-thirds of homicides in 2011 and 2012." This is just put out there, without context, as an indictment of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The Wall Street Journal, a wide array of New Jersey newspapers and a New York CBS affiliate all printed very similar stories about Malfetti’s parent’s concerns and the intervention of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ). Numerous articles quote Menendez saying he is "deeply troubled by reports that the police treated a grieving mother and father as a nuisance to be ignored," and asking for the FBI to join the investigation.

But only CBS News chose to put up a misleading headline and put in misleading, cherry-picked homicide figures.

No one can fault the Malfettis for being upset and wanting more police action. And the VIPD can drop the ball, even when the victim is a V.I. police officer.

But that does not excuse CBS News’ misleading report. And the massive press coverage and direct intervention of a senator from New Jersey are troubling because of their selectivity.

Sen. Menendez, the city of Newark, New Jersey, which you represent, saw 111 murders in 2013. That’s 39.9 per 100,000 residents – higher than the U.S. Virgin Islands that year.

Newark had a clearance rate of about 31.6 percent in 2009, according to the ACLU – that’s lower than the territory.

How many letters of concern have you written about the 70-plus unsolved Newark murders last year? How many Wall Street Journal articles and CBS News articles were written excoriating the Newark police department for not solving them?

I hope the FBI does get involved and that they find the person or people responsible for this man’s murder. Maybe Menendez’ letter will somehow make the difference.

But CBS News should be embarrassed. And all the other non-Virgin Islands news outlets who leapt into action when they got this press release while ignoring hundreds of unsolved New Jersey murders lacking a senator’s press release should take a long look in the mirror and think about how they choose one story over another.

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