Being shocked with a Taser is no joke. Nearly 300 cases of people dying after being Tased by police have been documented.
In more than 10% of those cases, medical examiners identified the Taser as either the primary or a contributing cause of death. The U.S. Justice Department considers the issue serious enough to have launched an investigation into as many as 100 Taser-related fatalities.
With several local police agencies already using Tasers and others moving toward adopting them, Central Oregonians have a right to expect their news media to treat the question of Taser use - and potential abuse - responsibly. So it was dismaying to see our only daily newspaper treat it as little more than a bit of fluffy infotainment.
Last week, The Bulletin published a story headlined "More area police forces are turning to the Taser." For the most part the story was a straightforward, serious look at the pros and cons of Taser use by the area's police and sheriff's departments.
But the main story was accompanied by a smaller story - what people in the newspaper business call a "sidebar" - that described the experience of the reporter after she volunteered to let herself be Tased by a Bend police officer.
The sidebar was accompanied by a series of dramatic photos showing the reporter grimacing in pain as the Taser struck her and delivered its jolt, and then crumpling to the floor - as grinning uniformed cops looked on in the background. (In case you didn't get a copy of the paper there's a video of the performance on The Bulletin's website.)
We have two problems with the sidebar and the photos. The smaller problem is that they seem more like a cheap stunt than an exercise in real reporting. The argument that the reporter had to get herself Tased so she could write about how it felt is specious. Reporters write about drug abuse without smoking crack, and they write about drunken driving without downing 12 shots of Jack Daniels and getting behind the wheel.
The bigger problem is that the sidebar and photos give the impression that Tasing somebody isn't much more than a harmless prank - even sort of fun. (It reminds us a little of Rush Limbaugh's remark that the tortures at Abu Ghraib were no worse than a fraternity initiation.)
The Bulletin reporter apparently suffered no lasting ill effects. But she's a healthy young woman. The outcome might have been very different if she had been an older person, a child or unwell - or if she, like most people who get Tased by police, was under extreme stress and/or the influence of alcohol or drugs.
It's unfortunate that the Bend Police Department agreed to play along with this stunt. But as journalists we're more disappointed that our colleagues at The Bulletin - especially the editors, who had the final say - decided to give the go-ahead. It was unworthy of a publication that claims to be a responsible and serious newspaper, and we're giving it THE BOOT.