Don’t call them snitches. Informants help solve crimes.
It is one thing for rappers and gang members to find a pejorative way to characterize a person who tells the truth.
It’s another thing when a daily newspaper does so.
I’m referring to the term “snitch,” which appeared in big letters across the Sun Sentinel Local section earlier this month.
“Jailhouse snitch praised by cops” was the headline of a story about a jailhouse informant whose testimony has led to many other convictions. The article by Marc Freeman, who has done a very good job over the years covering Palm Beach County courts, detailed Frederick Cobia’s sentencing hearing.
Cobia has been a key witness for prosecutors in almost two dozen cases over the past decade. Jailed for a 2009 murder, he has helped prosecutors convict so many people that there is not a single prison in Florida where he would be safe, the story says.
Freeman described Cobia, who is apologetic for his crimes, as prosecutors’ “favorite jailhouse snitch.”
I don’t think this is a case of the media using an inflammatory word to attract readers, or clicks. This is a case of the media, which I still believe to be an extension of the public, buying into a narrative created by those with a disdain for our legal system. Or those looking for a way to link to the bravado boasted in the hip-hop world for the past decade.
Let’s go back a few years:
In the early 2000s, rappers and others began wearing shirts that read “Stop Snitchin’” and in late 2004, Rodney Bethea released a DVD of the same name. Other shirts with the phrases “I’ll Never Tell” and “Keep Yo’ Mouth Shut” also appeared.
A 2013 movie, titled “Snitch” told the tale of a conflicted young man who had the chance to lessen his prison sentence by providing information on a friend. His father was played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Can’t get much more mainstream than that.
Defense lawyers now love to portray inmates who feed information as snitches. Why? Because denigrating those who tell the truth makes “snitches” less likely to do so – and blocks off an effective way of putting their clients behind bars.
The media has somehow bought into this storyline. And this isn’t the first time I’ve criticized Sun Sentinel editors for using the word. (I barged into former Editor Howard Saltz’s office with the same complaint sometime before I retired in 2015.) I believe it to be unintentional, more an error of carelessness. But I ask this: Why is it that a city employee who calls out a fellow employee for, say, cheating on a timecard, called a “whistleblower,” while a person who provides information on a much larger offense, even murder, is labeled a “snitch?”
I emailed Freeman, and while I respect his response, I don’t agree with it.
He says whistleblowers are victims who speak up against an injustice at work.
“Jailhouse snitches are criminals or accused criminals who are not victims and are instead responsible for landing themselves behind bars in the first place,” he wrote. “Big difference.”
He also notes that it’s not his job to protect the image or integrity of “coldblooded killers who try to cut better deals for themselves by ratting out other cold-blooded killers.” Neither does he believe the media’s continued use of the word “snitch” will discourage inmates from cooperating with law enforcement to serve their own interests.
I still see it as a case of unintended bias seeping into our culture, parroted by those who report the news.
I confess to having a bias. Two men were convicted in the 2001 murder of my brother, Michael Sortal, in Fort Lauderdale. One man confessed. The other had a more circumstantial case until, yes, he talked a little too much in jail. A fellow inmate shared the details with our prosecutors.
You might call that inmate a snitch. Our family called him much nicer things.