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On Its First Swing, WWLP Whiffs Big on Police Commission Story…

UPDATED 3/4/23 1:56PM: To clarify the nature of the original WWLP on-air story and include additional comment from Nexstar denying the use of AI.


Pobody’s Nerfect. (WMP&I)

Media coverage of Springfield municipal politics is at a low ebb, which is not unique nationally. Critics will say most outlets privilege Mayor Domenic Sarno’s version of events or subject his side to no more than contrasting he said/she said claims. However, one report on the Police Commission ordinance debate this week was different. WWLP, the Springfield-Holyoke market’s NBC affiliate, aired a garbled description of events that confused and misinformed.

The push to void Commission powers, ostensibly to benefit incoming Police Superintendent Lawrence Akers, after years of work and litigation touched a nerve in city politics. It activated state legislators who usually avoid direct intervention in municipal issues. All Springfield media covered it to some extent. Only WWLP succumbed to a parade of errors ranging from minor to factually wrong. The nature of the writing and that it contradicted earlier WWLP reporting raises questions as to whether artificial intelligence played a role.

Local journalism has declined precipitously over the last 20 years. Western Massachusetts media is no exception. This has been evident in the reduction in local stories on Masslive and nightly newscasts as well as plummeting staffing at news organizations.

Despite its relative brevity, the original version of WWLP’s story incorrectly described the litigation at the center of the Police Commission dispute, misrepresented the problem with the Commission’s exercise of power and aired doubts where none existed.

The errors could have an impact, too. WWLP is widely understood to have the higher ratings for local television news. Its competitor Western Mass News, which broadcast on WGGB and WSHM, also aired a story. However, this report did not air errors of such magnitude.

In response to requests for comment from both WWLP and its parent company, Nexstar Media Group, Robert Simmone, the vice-president and station manager of WWLP, initially said the matter was under review. The station subsequently revised its story on Saturday to be more accurate, longer and with more detail.

Ciara Speller

A screenshot from the original report that anchor Speller read on February 26, since removed the web. (still via WWLP)

The accompanying video was removed from the website. It was not clear whether any on-air correction would occur. Simmone declined to comment further.

“We’ll let the updated story speak for itself,” he said in an email.

However, the story, is tight-lipped about what happened. As revised, it carries no note of correction, retraction or clarification. The original story’s web address now redirects to the revised story.

The entirety of WWLP’s original story, most of which remains available on the Internet Archive, amounted to five paragraphs and one minute of tape. Evening anchor Ciara Speller read the story, almost verbatim, when it aired on Monday night. While the story included an interview of State Rep Carlos Gonzalez, no on-air reporter on site at City Hall appeared in the clip. Its byline attributes the story to news producer Rory Regan. Regan’s byline remains on the revised story.

It had not been initially clear whether AI played any role. Concerns that publishers may turn to the technology have only risen in recent years. Some news outlets have already beclowned themselves by publishing AI-generated content that suffered from errors and hallucinations. The stilted and random juxtaposition arrangement of facts echoes some past hallucinating robo-reporters.

However, subsequent to the originally posting of this article, a spokesperson for Nexstar said it and WWLP had a “strict policy” against using AI in reporting.

Part of the issue with the original WWLP story was the tone and tense of the article. For example, the story had stated the “Supreme Court [sic] of Massachusetts has ruled that the city of Springfield will now have a fully authorized civilian police commission board.” The erroneous titling of the commonwealth’s top court aside, the implication that the ruling is recent is simply wrong. Moreover, the Court did not actually rule what Springfield would have. Much of this was removed in the revision.

In 2022, the Supreme Judicial Court rejected Sarno’s contention that the City Council lacked authority to reorganize Police Department leadership.


The SJC hearing the mayor’s appeal of the Council’s lower court win in 2021. (via Suffolk U/SJC)

“We conclude that the city council may so reorganize the police department, based on the plain language of the relevant statutes and city ordinances, and therefore affirm the Superior Court’s entry of declaratory judgment in favor of the city council,” the SJC wrote two years ago.

This pointed to another problem with the original story.

“The city has now won two court cases in regards to the decision to have a civilian police commission,” the story reads.

Several outlets reporting on the clash over the Police Commission last week declined to fully explain the nature of the case before the SJC. The case name is City Council of Springfield v. Mayor of Springfield. However, only WWLP characterized the case as a suit that involved the city winning something.

Law professors might debate questions of standing and the parties’ relationship, but the case was fundamentally an interbranch dispute. As the case name implies, the Council, acting as a body through votes, filed suit against Sarno in his official capacity as mayor. In a most literal way, the city did win because it could not lose—it was suing itself.

In reality, the City Council, not “the city,” won twice. The Council prevailed in Superior Court and again when the mayor appealed to the SJC. WWLP’s own report in 2022 made this clear. This section entirely disappeared in the revision.

The story gets some other small things wrong, too, other than misnaming the SJC. It refers to the Police Department’s day-to-day leader as the “superintendent of the police commission.” There is a dispute over whether that leader is a superintendent or chief. Whatever the title, that person would be the leader of the department, not the leader of a board or commission.

Springfield City Council Public Safety Committee

Sarno, in tan jacket, at a Public Safety Committee meeting just before the hearing at issue in WWLP’s report. Akers is at the mayor’s immediate left. Incumbent Commissioner Clapprood at far right. (WMP&I)

That naming dispute is much less significant than who has authority to hire promote and discipline police. The story claims the superintendent “previously” had this prerogative. Cheryl Clapprood, the current superintendent and previously the sole “commissioner” of the Police Department has exercised these powers since her original appointment. (The ordinance revisions this week ensure Akers will, too).

The whole point of the court case was to say those powers, as well as discipline, belonged to the Police Commission. After Sarno lost, he still refused to let the Commission exercise most of these powers. Final decisions on discipline did move over to the Police Commission. That has been the status quo for roughly two years. This section was largely corrected to reflect the history more accurately.

Yet, WWLP had concluded its piece by saying, “it has yet to be determined how the board will handle disciplinary action going forward.” This, too, is incorrect.

“Board” appears to reference the Police Commission’s formal name, the Board of Police Commissioners. While controversy still surrounds the Police Commission’s exercise of discipline, there is no real question about how it will handle discipline itself. This is spelled out in the city’s consent decree with the US Department of Justice. This revision largely removed this section, but it now correctly notes the power to discipline that lies with the Commission.

These errors in WWLP’s story are especially notable since the station has covered the SJC litigation and the powers of the Commission before. The case has attracted media attention consistently since the Council sued the mayor in 2020.

Prior to this story, WWLP’s owner, Nexstar, had not made any public comment about affirmatively using AI. Therefore, these errors may have nothing to do with the new technology. However, there have been several high-profile examples where fake information appeared in news stories.

Nexstar did not answer any other questions about the WWLP story, other than denying the use of AI.

Whether AI had a role in this case, its imperfections pose a risk to local journalism. Of course, if these mistakes did not involve any such technology, it does not bode well for the status quo in the 413’s media ecosystem either.