We’ve had some questions and concerns over the story we published Thursday night about a Waterville Fire Department portrait that was featured prominently on its Facebook page.
As part of an ongoing effort to better explain how the newsroom works, I’m sharing our reasoning and process here.
The photo in question was brought to our attention by a reader. At issue was the hand gesture from one of the firefighters, which has been used elsewhere to espouse white power. (Here’s a New York Times story that gives more context on the symbol).
Given how often the gesture has been used by people who promote hate, it’s legitimate to ask questions of a public institution when it appears in an official portrait. Our audience expects us to scrutinize those who work in the public trust.
So we reached out to the fire department to ask questions. Did it consider the gesture to be racist? What was its response?
When Fire Chief Shawn Esler responded — strongly — that he took the incident seriously and planned to carry out an investigation, it became an on-the-record decision from a public official, which made it a publishable story, and one that we could not ignore.
We wrote a follow-up story the next day explaining the fire department’s ruling: that the firefighter did not intend anything racist by the pose.
The big picture here is that we live in an upside-down world where formerly harmless symbols have taken on complicated and at times, hateful connotations. Just like you, we’re trying to make sense of it while adhering to our core principles: Public institutions should be scrutinized and the meaning of words and symbols matters.