Shannon McDonald thought a ride-along with a Philadelphia Police officer would make a good story for her capstone journalism class.
Though she received an ‘A’ on the report, she is now embroiled in a controversy that might not have been worth the grade.
“I just wanted to get some crime specifics and information on [the neighborhood] and … to see how the officer interacts with the community,” said McDonald, a senior magazine journalism major and managing editor of The Temple News.
McDonald wrote the article, titled “Black and Blue,” for the Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab, the capstone course for journalism seniors. The article was published to MURL’s Web site in early February.
In it, she quotes Officer William Thrasher, 24, as using derogatory terms and expletives in describing the district he patrols, which has a large African-American population.
“These people are f—— disgusting,” Thrasher reportedly said per McDonald’s article. “It’s like they’re animals.”
Additionally, McDonald reported that Thrasher allegedly talked with his lieutenant about what they called “TNS,” or “typical n—– s—.”
“I remember being surprised that he was acting so openly when he knew it was being published. I was sitting there with my pen and my pad,” said McDonald, a lifelong Northeast Philadelphian.
The story began surfacing to Philadelphians and media outlets about two weeks ago. Thrasher has since been put on desk duty by Commissioner Charles Ramsey pending an Internal Affairs investigation, said Lt. Frank Vanore of the Philadelphia Police Department.
“If it’s true, [Ramsey is] going to take it very, very seriously,” Vanore said. “He immediately removed Officer Thrasher from street duty. He ensured there was an investigation under way into the comments that were made.”
Thrasher has not spoken publicly about the article since he was put on desk duty more than a week ago.
“I didn’t know he was going to say all these things, so I went in there thinking I was just going to do an article on crime in Strawberry Mansion and how cops go about making the community safer,” McDonald said.
McDonald rode with Thrasher on Jan. 30. She signed a waiver with the 22nd District, which encompasses Strawberry Mansion, for the ride-along. She said Thrasher knew she was doing a report for a class and that the story would be published.
McDonald said she didn’t respond directly to Thrasher’s comments.
“I was there to learn and not to judge,” she said.
Throughout the ordeal, professor Christopher Harper, co-director of MURL, has supported McDonald.
“I feel proud with the way Shannon handled herself – reporting the story well, handling the pressure of being in the media’s eye,” Harper said. “I’m proud of how Temple and its faculty and staff stood behind a journalist.”
Harper offered to remove the article from MURL’s Web site, but McDonald didn’t mind keeping it live.
“It is 100 percent accurate,” she said. “Everything I included in the article came directly from my notes, which came directly from my observation and interactions with the officer. Nothing was ever off the record.”
Harper said McDonald’s reporting is the epitome of MURL.
“I think that what Shannon does is representative of what MURL is all about. We have people go out and cover stories in neighborhoods that are under-covered, except when something bad happens,” he said. “We have people out there in the streets of all kinds of neighborhoods, and we come up with good stories.”
As of Monday, Thrasher remains on desk duty in the 22nd District. The Internal Affairs investigation continues.
“If it’s discovered the comments were made, [Ramsey is] going to take the appropriate action,” Vanore said. “That’s up to him.”
The controversy surrounding McDonald’s article is more of a frustration than anything else, she said. Though some have pegged her as a naïve student journalist, McDonald continues to stand by her reporting while focusing on other things in her future.
“I’m graduating in 40 days,” she said. “Here I am, this person who is still very connected to what I’m supposed to know about journalism and trying to start a career. So you’d think I’d be a little more on my game than people are giving me credit for.”
FULL DISCLOSURE: As stated in the article, McDonald is the managing editor of The Temple News. Other than the interview, she played no role in the writing or editing of this story. TTN is committed to accuracy and objectivity in its reporting.
Chris Stover can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.