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Uncritical Reporting on a Biased Baltimore Spy Plane Poll

A close examination of a poll backed by a business group reveals loaded questions, undisclosed conflicts of interest, and the shortchanging of very real privacy concerns.

Anne Peterson/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The public’s perception of crime is often significantly out of alignment with the reality. This is caused, in part, by frequently sensationalist, decontextualized media coverage. Media Frame seeks to critique journalism on issues of policing and prisons, challenge the standard media formulas for crime coverage, and push media to radically rethink how they inform the public on matters of public safety.

A private company in Baltimore has proposed a plan to deploy three surveillance planes, equipped with cameras, ostensibly to monitor the city for violent crime. The planes would fly 45 to 50 hours a week, according to the Baltimore Sun, and collect approximately 32 square miles of data at a time using technology made by Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems

A recent poll suggests there’s wide support for the endeavor: Over 70 percent of residents expressed support for the planes, according to the Sun.

But the poll, reported credulously by some local TV and radio outlets, is deeply flawed. Not only is it funded by private business interests who have openly expressed support for the planes, but it also contains loaded language that neglects the serious harm such surveillance would pose to Baltimore.

Those who commissioned the poll have direct ties to the Baltimore business community, which has been agitating to implement the program, but some local news outlets failed to report on the conflict of interest.

Rev. Alvin Hathaway Sr., senior pastor of Union Baptist Church, commissioned the poll using a $40,000 grant from the Abell Foundation, a nonprofit that has been a major promoter of the spy planes. Both he and Abell Foundation president Bob Embry serve on the board of directors for the pro-business group Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC), which has also been open in its support for the planes. Embry “has been a prime agitator for [the spy plane program’s] adoption among Baltimore’s business and civic leaders,” the Baltimore Sun noted in its report, “arranging for [Persistent Surveillance Systems founder and president Ross] McNutt to speak with them.”

But one wouldn’t know any of this from reporting done by CBS 13, FOX 45, and WBAL. All three outlets presented the poll solely as a project of a local pastor. CBS 13’s Rachel Menitoff told viewers only that “the poll was commissioned by a Baltimore pastor and conducted by Hart Research Associates.” WBAL, in its coverage, only told listeners that “the polling was commissioned by the Rev. Alvin Hathaway Sr., senior pastor of Union Baptist Church.” Fox 45 mentioned the Abell Foundation in its report, but gives the viewer no context as to what that means or how Hathaway and Abell are connected to the GBC. In addition to its website write-up, WBAL aired a softball interview with McNutt by Brett Hollander. Hollander also cites the poll and doesn’t examine its funding sources.

The poll also employed fraught questions. In a scathing editorial, the Sun described one question—which suggested the planes would help solve crime—as “leading.” David Rocah, a senior staff attorney for ACLU Maryland, agreed, calling the survey a “push poll.” “If you ask people whether they would like to reduce murder in Baltimore, who would say no?” he told The Appeal in an interview.

Rocah also noted that the questions glossed over the program’s proven ineffectiveness in solving crime. In 2016, as Bloomberg Businessweek revealed, a Persistent Surveillance Systems plane was spying on Baltimore residents without notifying––much less getting the consent of––City Council members. Public outrage grounded the program.

According to the Sun, the police received data from the plane for five of the 100 homicide investigations that occurred during the period when the plane was flying. “In one of those [cases], it turned out the person had committed suicide,” said Rocah, “and in another, the charges were dropped against the person. And it’s not clear if in the other three the data actually served any necessary purpose in bringing charges against the other three people.”

When asked how many murders the 2016 program helped solve, McNutt, the plane company’s president told The Appeal, “We provided information on all of five [of the murder cases] in question.”

Most alarmingly, the coverage of the poll lacked meaningful context about privacy. “That same data [collected by the spy plane] can also be used to know who’s going to political meetings or demonstrations, who’s going to what doctor or clinic, what house of worship someone goes to,” Rocah pointed out. “Any other infinite number of intensely personal private information that is simply none of the government’s or the police department’s … business.” 

If previous police efforts in Baltimore are any guide, the surveillance planes will most likely disproportionately affect the city’s Black and Latinx population. A 2016 U.S. Department of Justice investigation revealed widespread targeting of Black residents and significantly disproportionate arrests rates for people of color by the Baltimore Police Department. And rampant police abuse has marked the police department since the DOJ report.  

“It’s all about who controls and stores the data and who has access,” Ralikh Hayes, a Legal Defense Fund community organizer, told The Appeal last year. “We are heavily opposed because the government doesn’t need more tech to watch Black bodies.”

Local media must bring a more critical eye the issue of surveillance. It is irresponsible to gloss over key context about who and what interests lie behind private law enforcement programs like the surveillance plane in Baltimore. In a story where public support—or lack thereof—is crucial to determining whether a new, invasive surveillance method will prevail, Baltimoreans deserve more than surface-level reporting.