Last weekend, when an online video surfaced apparently showing a violent beating inside a Normal apartment, the public didn’t find out about it through a local newspaper, radio station, or TV newscast.
Like so many local cops and crime stories over the past six years, the story first broke on a private Facebook group called “News Happening in Bloomington Normal McLean Co Area and All Over.” The video—including a possible victim and partial nudity—was posted there Sunday morning. It wasn’t taken down until the group’s moderators heard from police that the public’s help was not needed.
It was the latest troubling episode for an increasingly popular local news source that’s come under heavy criticism as it has grown. Those who run the group say they were only trying to help identify the attackers and didn’t realize there was nudity in the video before it was shared.
“The downside is, that video which is upsetting to see out there, is now out there,” said McLean County State’s Attorney Jason Chambers. “And that’s the type of thing that can never come back. Additional dissemination of that stuff is upsetting to see sometimes. But also awareness among the public of things has a benefit. … A lot of social media has its positives and its negatives.”
The “News Happening” group has grown to more than 22,400 members, with 4,000 more on a waiting list to get in. Driven initially by interest in reading reports taken right from a police scanner, the group’s reach among news consumers now rivals—and at times outranks—that of The Pantagraph, WGLT, WJBC and other Bloomington-Normal media outlets.
Critics, including those who’ve been kicked out of the group, say its growth has spawned a spread of nasty comments among members—sometimes with racial overtones—as well as incomplete or inaccurate information. They say those who run the group are politically motivated in what they post and allow others to post.
Defenders say the group helps people. Members share information about companies that are hiring, lost dogs, families struggling and needing a helping hand. Its supporters say the group provides a vital unfiltered news source at a time when some media outlets are doing less original reporting.
The group’s creator is Mark Embry, 50, a Bloomington-Normal native. Embry created the group six years ago because there was a “lot of local news that wasn’t being reported.”
Embry said he doesn’t consider himself a journalist. He worked as a union laborer until he suffered a head injury. Anyone who’s interacted with Embry online knows he’s a staunch conservative, an ally of law enforcement, and more than a little brash. During a recent GLT interview, Embry sported a long, wiry goatee and a sleeveless shirt that showed off his tattoo—almost a biker look.
“I look like I could be a mean guy,” he joked.
Embry spends eight, 10, 12 hours a day (or more) running the group—reviewing comments, sharing what he hears on a police scanner, and policing—sometimes banning—his members.
He seems exhausted by it now. He admits he’s considered shutting it down several times.
“The page has just gotten too big. It’s not as nice as it was,” Embry said.
Some of that isn’t his fault. Any online forum tends to bring out the worst in people. But the vitriol on the News Happening group feels different, critics say.
Arlene Hosea, a Normal Township trustee and retired Illinois State University staffer, recently left the group over her frustrations.
She first noticed problems in January as the group discussed a proposed Bloomington Police substation on the city’s west side. Hosea said she saw some troubling racial overtones in the conversation. Over time, as Hosea felt attacked by other commenters, she began to think that people of color had their voices muted within the group.
Embry and the other three group moderators are all white. Hosea, who is black, said the group suffers because none of its moderators are from diverse backgrounds.
She left the group after feeling the attacks so personally she’d begin to cry.
“There’s something that’s good about this group,” Hosea said. “But there’s another part, underneath it all, there’s something really unhealthy. And why is that? And what does that mean?”
Getting Unfiltered News
Bloomington-Normal isn’t alone in dealing with the changing way people consume news. Two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans report they get at least some of their news on social media, according to a recent Pew Research Center study. In other markets, online news publishers—homegrown or corporate-backed—have sprouted where daily newspapers have shuttered.
This emerging form of news raises new questions for consumers: If people say they want more unfiltered news, what happens when they get it?
Critics were troubled Oct. 4 when Embry posted a photo of students at Normal Community High School, allegedly dressed up as gang members and posing together. Some comments said Embry was jumping to conclusions based on incomplete information, and it was “blown out of proportion.”
Watching this unfold was Dayna Brown, the director of communications and community relations for Unit 5 school district. She’s a member of the group as a private citizen, not a Unit 5 staffer.
“Facebook makes the world open. It makes the world connected,” Brown said. “But it’s also just a brief glimpse into a larger picture, and I think sometimes the entire story isn’t always told on Facebook."
In fact, the students weren’t walking around the school all day together dressed as a gang, Brown said. They were wearing those clothes as part of Character Day, a schoolwide dress-up day. The teacher in the photo was trying to disband the group, she said, not take part in their photo.
“It sometimes gets frustrating when people think the school is disregarding things and not taking them seriously, because that’s not the case,” Brown said. “But I honestly don’t believe there’s maliciousness in those statements (on the Facebook group). I think that’s truly what people believe. We support people’s rights, but we do want to protect those students.”
Embry’s own political beliefs may fuel his critics.
Last month in a Facebook post featuring the confederate flag, Embry said slavery was not “one sided” and blacks also owned slaves. He shared a post that said police brutality isn’t a problem—it’s the fault of a “generation of spoiled entitled brats who believe rules don’t apply to them.” In a separate post, Embry shared a graphic that poked fun at transgendered people.
Embry denies he’s a racist, among other accusations. (Embry says he voted for Barack Obama for president in 2008.)
Still, his beliefs put some left-leaning members in the group in a strange position—getting their news from someone they disagree with politically. That’s rarer and rarer in modern media.
“I’m not perfect. I don’t claim to be perfect. But I’ve been accused of all kinds of lies,” Embry said.
Embry said one of the reasons he still runs the group is because he likes to help people. He said he’s regularly asked by members for money or some other helping hand.
“Sometimes it just gets overwhelming,” Embry said.
Critics also say Embry is too capricious with deciding who gets banned from the group. Embry said he’s transparent about the rules, which he occasionally posts when a batch of new members join.
“We do shut down comments on many posts, either for getting out of hand, or it's just time to move on. We remove posts as admins see fit. No grammar police, no name calling, bullying or being a jerk. Opinions are fine. Being an ass is not,” Embry said in a Facebook post in early October.
“It is a Facebook group. Move on. It is not the end of the world. We have the right to remove anyone at any time for whatever reason,” Embry told members. (Posts about national politics are generally banned.)
Disgruntled former members have created Facebook groups of their own. Melissa Stich, who lived in Bloomington-Normal from 2004 until 2016, helps run the “I Was Banned from ‘News Happening in Bloomington/Normal’ Support Group,” with 328 members. Another unhappy spinoff group, the hilariously named “News Happening In Bloomington Normal McLean County and All Over 2,” has 3,600 members.
Stich said she was banned from Embry’s group after arguing a post about the Black Lives Matter group violated the group’s rules because it was overtly political. Stich said she told moderators “they were stirring the pot to share political propaganda, and I was subsequently booted.”
Stich, who now lives on the West Coast, said the News Happening moderators are “very intolerant and have been known to bully others if their views do not align.”
“Social media sharing of what individuals deem as 'news' is a slippery slope in my opinion,” she said. “Not only is it sometimes inaccurate, but it can invade the privacy of citizens, present too much speculation, can be biased towards the original poster’s beliefs, and overall it can interfere with legitimate investigations.”
During a recent interview, Embry and the group’s other primary moderator, Karin Mountjoy-Miller of Bloomington, said they were aware of the spinoffs. (As a way of arguing that he’s fair about who he bans, Embry said he banned his own mother from the group for several months.)
“I’m not getting paid to do this. If you’re gonna go, you’re gonna go. Nobody’s making you stay. Nobody’s making you join,” Embry said.
He said he’s lost lifelong friends because of his political views. Mountjoy-Miller said she takes pride in the good work the group and its members do together. She considers herself a messenger, not a journalist, though she admits her online tone can be a bit harsh. “I’m trying to soften my edges,” she said.
“I don’t look at people and go, ‘You’re a liberal. I can’t be friends with you. You’re an independent, I can’t be friends with you.’ You’re not that. You’re a human being just like I am,” Mountjoy-Miller said.
Like Embry, Mountjoy-Miller is a staunch supporter of law enforcement. Her dad was a retired Bloomington cop. She worked in the justice system too, for lawyers doing criminal defense.
There are several local police officers and others in law enforcement who are group members. McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage is a member, as is Normal Mayor Chris Koos, McLean County Clerk Kathy Michael and her Democratic rival Nikita Richards, just to name a few. Several GLT staffers are in the group.
Chambers, the state’s attorney, is a member and will occasionally comment if someone asks a question about a procedural issue and it doesn’t compromise an active case, he said.
Chambers said the group has occasionally been helpful to law enforcement, especially when sharing information about a suspect sought by police. But Chambers also notes those sharing news don’t do a lot of follow up. What if that report of shots fired ends up just being fireworks?
“It’s a communication tool. And like any other tool, if used appropriately, it’s not a problem,” he said.
Embry spends much of his day listening to the police scanner, sharing bits and pieces as first responders are called out. Embry, who grew up around cops, has been listening to scanners since he was a kid.
Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner said the public sharing of unfiltered scanner information could potentially threaten police tactics, though he says there are ways for police to mitigate that risk.
“I would prefer we didn’t have that but that’s the world we live in today, so we work around it,” Bleichner said. “Just because I don’t like it, doesn’t mean there’s anything illegal about it.”
Embry said he’s occasionally waited to post information from the scanner until police verified what was happening—a common practice for journalists. But Embry defers to the urgency of the information.
One example: At 11:01 p.m. March 16, 2015, Embry posted a simple update from the scanner: “Accident with injuries Lincoln and Bunn motorcycle vs car,” it read.
Turns out, Embry’s son, Cameron, was involved in the crash, which killed someone. Embry didn’t realize it until later. His son later pleaded guilty to aggravated driving under the influence and is now in prison.
“Posting things as quick as we do, it gets eyes out there quicker,” Embry said. “People know more about what’s going on around them. And it helps solve some issues.”
“I know there’s stuff we post that a lot of the city officials would rather not be posted but that’s what’s going on around us,” Embry added. “People need to know that it’s a nice place to live, but there is crime and issues everywhere.”
GLT’s Charlie Schlenker contributed to this report.
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