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Media Critical of Law Enforcement Per New Study
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 02/25/2019

Police officer
Has Media Support Changed?

The study below from “Police Quarterly” states that media coverage of law enforcement suggests, “a broader shift in mainstream news reporting away from supportive attitudes towards the police.” In short, opinions regarding police and criminal justice agencies have changed.

Your response is, “no kidding,” or something a bit more colorful.

I’m going to suggest that your media relations effort can make a significant difference in the way the media and larger public views your agency. Good media relations accomplish operational objectives like crime control, pay, recruitment and retention.

The problem is that most law enforcement and criminal justice agencies don’t understand the media relations process or keep their spokesperson on a very tight leash. That’s a recipe for failure.

The Care and Feeding of Spokespeople

After thirty-five years of representing national and state criminal justice agencies (including law enforcement), I discovered that explaining my job is almost impossible.

Your chief spokesperson and those assigned that function greatly influence the tenor and tone of media coverage and public perception. To get to the point where spokespeople have influence, there has to be a considerable amount of trust between management, rank and file, and those speaking. There has to be an equal amount of trust between the spokesperson and the media.

Look, your spokespeople will engage reporters, editors, media management, bloggers and everyone else who makes news decisions. There will be endless battles and you are not going to win them all, but to be successful, your media representatives need a considerable amount of autonomy.

You have to have the freedom to explain police shooting policies. When an editor asks why the officer didn’t shoot the defendant in the leg instead of more lethal actions, you have to concurrently explain policy and reality while protecting the investigation. This could take hours or days.

Example, “While I can’t address this incident until after the investigation, this is what we train officers to do.” “Please come to out shoot-don’t shoot facility and learn what really happens.”

Some will go nuts with my examples, but are you saying that we can’t address training?

When an offender on parole and probation supervision commits a violent act, and he has twenty technical violations but no new crimes, you have to explain that this is normal in the world of community supervision. If we revoked everyone with twenty technical violations, we would send everyone back to prison. We would fill the prisons to capacity and beyond in six months. The correctional system would collapse.

What We Do

I have either guided or personally done tens-of-thousands of media interviews with every news source from the nationals to local bloggers. Trust me when I say that we spend thousands of hours explaining the nuances of the job as well as breaking events, most on an off-the-record basis.

You have to be honest. You have to be helpful. You have to be knowledgeable. You have to available. But beyond all of this, you have to talk, explain, defend and admit errors when warranted.

You have to aggressively and proactively market your agency through useful content (i.e., photos, audio, video, human interest stories) via social media and email.

You have to advocate for the legitimate rights of the media. If you want fairness, you have to give it.

Screw Them

But few in law enforcement or government want that level of discussion. “The media are pigs,” they insist. “They have lower public approval ratings than car salespeople.”

“Look at Trump,” many say.“ He knows how to handle them,” without realizing that there is an immense difference between what politicians can do and what we can do.

I have never figured out why we have immense community and media relations problems. Yes, it’s obvious that some of us shouldn’t be in law enforcement and some have made incredibly stupid mistakes and there is a long and negative history with some communities.

But the overwhelming number of cops and justice employees are decent people and every day we go out there and save lives and come to the aid of endless numbers of people. Yep, we make our fair share of mistakes and yes, some cops are jerks. But by and large, we are the good guys.

If we are so good, then why is much of the news about us so negative?

Why don’t we collect the stories of lives saved or service and sacrifice that occur daily? Everyone wants us to record stops.

Why don’t we record the endless things we do right?

Better Media Relations

Your spokesperson and supportive staff will be your most important hires. Most have no idea what they have to do each and every day to get along with reporters and influence stories.

Spokespeople do two things; they tell your story and they end negative news through denial. Their reputations for knowledge, honesty and fair play are their primary weapons.

Most people don’t have a clue as to what cops and other justice employees do and how they do it beyond watching television shows. Your spokesperson will spend hours explaining context and facts. He will meet with senior management, editorial boards, editors and media planners. She will have constructive influence if she’s playing her cards correctly.

Folks, you can’t micromanage this process. Spokespeople need the flexibility to call shots and to make decisions under really tough circumstances. Media decisions happen instantly and all news people seem to quickly move in the same direction; a pack mentality. Media reps simply do not have the time for endless consultations with management.

In my training sessions throughout the country, I encountered people who want to “control” the process. I have met senior management who want to be the primary spokespeople without realizing that there would have to be three of you to meet media demands on a 24-356 basis.

There needs to be an understanding if justice employees are going to get their rightful due, there needs to be a corps of very smart people who are willing to stand in between management and officers and the media and get something that constitutes a win for all sides.

Tired of the Negatives

I’m tired of seeing good employees and agencies trivialized by the media and society in general.

But I’m also tired of seeing agencies who do not understand the media relations process and what it takes to succeed. Once we start doing the right things and proactively market our people and agencies, things will get better.

We are mostly good people doing honorable jobs.

Why isn’t that story being told?

Losing Cops

The number of law enforcement personnel reached a peak of 724,690 in 2013. Police departments lost 23,500 officers over the next three years, according to a 2018 report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Many departing officers counsel friends and family members to find another career path, Pew. The same is happening in corrections.

Study-From The Crime Report (edited for brevity)

The media is shifting to a more critical view of law enforcement behavior, according to a forthcoming analysis in the Police Quarterly of how three mainstream newspapers covered a series of police shootings.

Arguing that their findings suggest a broader shift in mainstream news reporting away from supportive attitudes towards the police, the study authors suggested the change was fueled by the occurrence of high-profile incidents within a short time span and the “growth of new technologies that the mainstream media can exploit.”

“The former makes it more difficult to dismiss an incident as an isolated event or attribute it to a single rogue officer, and the latter (video recording and social media discourse) can contribute both evidence and a counter narrative to the police account,” concluded the authors.

“The news media typically relies on authority figures as primary definers of events and, in the past, structured news regarding police deviance around official claims,” the study added. “Our findings suggest that this paradigm may be breaking down.”

The study found that the coverage took a more skeptical view of police claims, with the reporting emphasizing police misbehavior that may have led to the incident more than twice as often as behavior of the victims (32.5 percent vs. 14.5 percent).

The researchers performed a content analysis review of newspaper coverage the deaths of Michael Brown, shot in Ferguson, MO on Aug. 9, 2014; Walter Scott, killed by Michael Slager, a white officer, in North Charleston, SC on April 4, 2015; and Freddie Gray, who was dragged into a police van in Baltimore, MD after his arrest on April 12, 2015, and died a week later.

They selected the three incidents because each involved a highly publicized police killing of a citizen, occurred within a fairly narrow time span (eight months) and garnered substantial local and national news coverage.

The authors cited earlier studies suggesting that when similar police incidents are clustered together in a smaller time span, the public is more inclined to draw connections between them, in a kind of “contamination by association.”

They collected a total of 578 articles from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Post and Courier and The Baltimore Sun.

Approximately 37 percent of the articles contained content describing responsibility for the incident.

Also notably, 54.2 percent of the articles discussed general policing issues beyond the particular incident.

“Because of these developments, news media coverage of incidents involving the police may be having a larger impact on public perceptions and official responses than reporting of similar events in the past,” the authors concluded.

Source: The Crime Report.

Reprinted with permission from http://www.crimeinamerica.net.

Contact us at crimeinamerica@gmail.com or for media on deadline, use leonardsipes@gmail.com.

Leonard A. Sipes, Jr has thirty-five years of experience supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. He is the Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and the Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. He has a Post Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of the book "Success With the Media". He can be reached via email at leonardsipes@gmail.com.


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