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A plan for all seasons.

In the early morning hours after the execution of Westley Allan Dodd at the Washington State Penitentiary in January, the crowd of reporters dwindled, the glow of portable lights faded and the remote broadcast trucks readied for departure. By noon all that remained of the media encampment was a few acres of trampled snow.

Only hours before, the prison grounds had teemed with reporters covering the event and citizens demonstrating support or opposition to capital punishment. In an interview minutes after the execution, Joe Hart, a local television news reporter who had served as a witness, noted that the hanging proceeded in an orderly manner--without any of the gruesome consequences many in the media had forecast in the weeks preceding the execution. Speculation about a potential decapitation or slow strangulation had been regular features on the evening news. It was the first execution by hanging in more than 25 years, and reporters were eager to satisfy public curiosity about the event.

The intensive coverage of the Dodd execution is just one example of a recent shift in media coverage of correctional issues. The emergence of non-traditional television news programs such as "A Current Affair," "Hard Copy" and "Inside Edition" has shifted even the mainstream media's focus toward sensationalizing crimes and criminals. In the quest for high ratings, media coverage of corrections focuses more on the personalities and crimes of well-known offenders than on the challenges of operating correctional agencies.

Unfortunately, this sensational media exposure overshadows more mundane correctional topics such as sentencing options; staff recruitment, training and retention; health care issues; prison industries; contributions by volunteers; inmate programs; and the day-to-day realities of prison life.

Handling Crises

Every correctional administrator's nightmare is that an escape, a disturbance or a crime committed by an offender under supervision will catapult his or her agency onto the evening news or the front page of the newspaper.

With that in mind, what is the best approach corrections can take regarding handling the media during a crisis? To begin with, all agencies should have policies and procedures in place for handling media requests for information in crisis situations. The agency should designate a spokesperson to deal with the media in an official capacity. Criteria for determining what information should be released and when should be thoroughly discussed beforehand to minimize errors in judgment during the handling of an incident.

But while sound pre-incident planning is essential for successfully dealing with the media during a crisis, crisis policies and procedures are only one dimension of media coverage of corrections. The time to cultivate a relationship with the media is before a crisis situation brings them to your agency's doorstep.

Educating the Media

A common complaint by corrections professionals is that the media and the public don't understand the problems and challenges of the field. Public misconceptions about correctional issues often lead to calls for tougher sentences, fewer programs or harsher conditions when the media report on a disturbance, escape or sensational crime.

By educating the media and the public about the day-to-day issues of corrections, we make the media and the public better able to comprehend the complicated issues that arise out of a crisis situation. Here are some suggestions that may help you and your agency deal more effectively with the media:

Prepare a media packet. Include a history of your agency or institution; biographical information about key administrators; the values, goals and objectives of your agency; statistical data on staffing, programs and the inmate population; and the name of your agency's media contact. Provide a glossary of correctional terms and encourage the media to use terms such as "correctional officer" instead of "guard" or "jailer." Distribute this information to local media organizations and include it with any request for information by media representatives from outside your area.

Open your agency and institutions to the media. Host a media open house to introduce media representatives to your agency, facilities, programs and resources. Invite the media to profile your agency's programs, staff and contributions within the community. Work to eliminate stereotypes and misconceptions held by the media by inviting them to see what corrections is really like.

Develop press releases on your agency's activities. These should include news about new programs, staff promotions, appointments and other items of potential public interest. Focus on the contributions of volunteers, women and minorities in your organization. In preparing press releases, remember that the media are much more likely to use information that requires little or no editing. Be complete, concise and accurate in your press releases and provide the name of a contact within your agency if additional information is needed. Providing complimentary copies of your agency's newsletter to the local media will help familiarize them with your work.

Tell the media about your staff. If your agency has an employee recognition program, provide the media with information about the awards and the recipients. In addition, focus on staff and volunteers' accomplishments and contributions to the community. Take advantage of opportunities to tell the media about staff involvement in youth organizations, civic groups, relief efforts and other community activities.

Solicit media coverage of career days and job fairs. These events offer an excellent opportunity to provide the media with information about requirements for employment, education and professional development in corrections. Although correctional officers usually make up the largest segment in most agencies, don't overlook the contributions made by educational, medical, food service and other support staff.

Develop a "speakers bureau." Recruit agency staff who are willing to speak to the media and community groups regarding your agency's mission, challenges and concerns. Get a step ahead of the news by providing factual information on issues that are commonly misunderstood by the public.

Reward responsible media. Nominate a responsible reporter or news organization for a professional award. Even if your nominee is not selected for the award, the nomination is a great way of expressing appreciation. Awards are regularly given to the media by professional news organizations, corrections agencies and organizations, and community groups. Become familiar with these awards and the procedures for submitting nominations.

Respond to negative coverage. Whenever your organization becomes the object of unflattering or inaccurate news coverage, ask for an opportunity to respond. In the interest of fairness most media organizations contact the subjects of new stories to verify facts and obtain responses before stories are presented to the public. The media also often will correct erroneous information when the errors are pointed out.

Promoting a positive image for corrections with the media goes beyond crisis response policies. A proactive approach toward educating the media and the public about the day-to-day issues in corrections provides the public with the facts necessary to make informed decisions. This approach can enhance your agency's public image and improve your chances of balanced news coverage when a crisis puts you in the media spotlight.

Ron Andring is a correctional officer at the Washington State Penitentiary and a frequent contributor to Corrections Today.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Speak Out; corrections' press relations
Author:Andring, Ron
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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