CHICAGO — The first thing that caused newsman Rafer Weigel to blink when reading the TMZ report that “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett had been brutally attacked by Trump-supporting-noose-wielding-racial-slurring assailants was the neighborhood in which the attack was reported to have happened.
The Streeterville neighborhood is not exactly “this is MAGA country” at any time, let alone 2 a.m.
“It is our job as reporters to be skeptical,” said Weigel, a local Fox affiliate news anchor and reporter who grew up in Chicago.
How skeptical? “Well as the old adage goes, ‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out,’ so from the get go, when we heard this about Smollett, there were eyebrows raised for a whole host of reasons, just because we know the city well,” he said.
As national media often omitted “alleged” from their reporting of the attack and instead went with the line that Smollett was attacked by two MAGA hat-wearing people who were “yelling out racial and homophobic slurs” and “poured an unknown chemical substance on the victim,” the newsroom Weigel works in, along with several other competing Chicago print and media organizations, mostly stuck “alleged” in their reporting.
Local news organizations were doing what local news organizations do best: staying in constant contact with the local police, local officials, and the community, and pursing the past behavior of the victim to look for additional red-flags before going in head-first with a narrative.
A news organization’s relationship with the police, local officials, and the community is critical, Weigel said, explaining that, as a local news reporter, you often have to report on things that aren’t favorable to the community or a local official or the police force. “But because you build trust by being honest and not sensational, those relationships remain intact.”
Weigel said the newsroom worked as a team, with people working the phones and talking to detectives in person, often receiving certain information off the record that the detectives would not share with the public because they told reporters it could compromise their investigation, “So we honor that in order to keep that relationship open.” He added:
We have to have good relationships with police officers and local officials, or they will completely cut us off. It is a two-way street. If they have a crime that needs to get solved, they’ll turn to us to bring awareness to it, to get out suspects’ pictures and videos and that sort of thing. If there’s a high-profile case that’s of high interest to the public, they understand that, and they will tell us what we can, or what they can, without compromising the investigation. So, it is a two-way street.
CNN Wasn’t Ready for These FACTS About Jussie Smollett