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Media Trends and the Public Information Officer.

During the past 20 years, the news media has struggled to meet a changing set of challenges and opportunities. Today, conglomerates own many of the media outlets that families once owned. Tremendous cutbacks in news gathering have resulted in dramatic changes in the appeal of the profession and how the media currently views their public responsibilities. More than ever before, the media, as a profit-making center, has a vigilant eye on ratings, subscriptions, and advertising dollars.

These changes have contributed to a number of media trends that affect the public information officer (PIO) individually and the law enforcement community organizationally. Some trends have evolved progressively for many years while others, such as emphasizing crime reporting during an actual reduction in violent crime statistics, represent more recent trends.

Progressive law enforcement agencies that have institutionalized proactive media relations programs understand that this endeavor translates into a sound public relations program--a crucial component of effective law enforcement. Law enforcement proactivity with the media begins with an in-depth understanding of the current role and function of the media and characteristics of the journalism profession.

Newsroom Changes

Most media companies have experienced a monetary decrease for newsroom operations, which translates into layoffs, budget cuts, smaller wage increases, and more hours of work. Within the past few years, media companies have eliminated more than 3,100 newsroom jobs. [1] Fewer human resources have resulted in less employees to cover the news functions of liaising, investigating, preparing, and reporting.

Competition represents one of the main reasons for newsroom downsizing. It has forced the media to buy new equipment and redesign newspapers to include new page design, format, and color. [2] Substantial improvement expenses have focused on greater efficiency and profits, resulting in cutbacks and starting salaries of approximately $20,000 per year for a journalist. [3]

Besides financial issues, reporters experience frustration in other areas as well. To make information more newsworthy, editors sometimes exert their influence on the size and angle of journalistic efforts. They emphasize packaging to get the maximum coverage by making an article or newscast more appealing to a wider group of readers and viewers over a geographical area. [4]

Because of these issues, a law enforcement agency's PIO probably will encounter a news reporter struggling to become a subject-matter expert in many areas and content to have landed one of the few jobs in the media. [5] Recognizing that the reporter may not know the difference between subpoenas, indictments, or summonses, proactive PIOs should assist the reporter in learning about and understanding the law enforcement profession. Likewise, PIOs should use contacts with the media as an opportunity to better understand the job of a reporter. PIOs will have a much greater understanding of the difficulties reporters face when they attempt to reduce 20 pages of notes into an article printed in a 6-inch newspaper column. Ultimately, this results in a win-win situation because PIOs, as well as reporters, learn about each other's profession.

TV Ratings and Newspaper Circulation

Most television executives begin their day by viewing their program ratings from the night before. Similarly, newspaper administrators examine circulation statistics. These numbers reveal whether viewership and newspaper sales have increased or decreased. [6] Obviously, with higher ratings and circulation, more profits come from increased advertising money. Because of the fierce competition among the numerous media outlets for readers, viewers, and listeners, the media tries to "out scoop" each other for news. A progressive police department will make sure that good stories reach the media. To do this, each department should bring newsworthy issues to their PIO's attention.

Consistency and fairness with all media outlets marks a cornerstone of effective media relations; therefore, departments should make the same information available to all reporters. In addition, agencies who trust PIOs with information concerning research on an upcoming story or program should respect the wishes of confidentiality extended by reporters. Reporters will remember a betrayal of their enterprising efforts during the competition for news.

The overwhelming search for news should warn law enforcement that the media will get their story one way or another. Cooperating with the media remains the most reasonable avenue for PIOs to take to advise the public of the department's position. Ultimately, the reporter and the reader or viewer probably will understand the agency's viewpoint.

Media Mergers

Media mergers represent the newest and most far-reaching trend in the media and entertainment industry. Cable and long-distance telephone companies have joined to form large conglomerates. [7] These mergers result from relaxed regulations concerning ownership. [8] The Federal Communications Commission repealed its regulations concerning financial and syndication interests, which gave networks, investors, and major corporations the power to own and syndicate programming, and has resulted in their ability to own and control more of their product. [9]

The wave of media mergers sweeping the country will continue, pushed forward with the help of relaxed federal regulations. Large companies will continue to acquire and sell newspapers. The era of the local paper will end as giant corporations of the publishing business acquire them.

As a result, law enforcement should remember that with media mergers and buyouts, liaison that once existed with the media may change quickly. Bonds of trust can break when a new owner begins cutting operating costs and releases higher-paid employees and then replaces them with others for half the salary. The owner's determination to make a profit and a name for the new company, as well as the reporter's desire to move on to a larger media outlet, can ruin the former liaison with law enforcement agencies.

When establishing a relationship with a media representative, PIOs should determine the background and ethical standards of the reporter. Good reporters will not hesitate to explain to PIOs what considerations and factors they use in creating a story or writing an article. Second, representatives of the media should be willing to provide PIOs with their supervisor s or editor's name and phone number. If the media representative fails to do this, a caution flag should raise in the PIO's mind.

Complete News Coverage

The recipe for constructing a complete news story requires that it contain the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the issue. Reporters may find that the acquisition of requisite information satisfying the why and how questions proves very difficult to obtain. Law enforcement usually does not provide this information immediately. As journalists attempt to report on the why and how of a crime, they begin to speculate on motives for the crime and actions of the police. [10] The possibility of speculation becomes even more acute when considering reporters' deadlines, hectic schedules, extent of subject-matter knowledge, and the competition they face. A misleading and oversimplified story in the news may result.

Realizing the importance of answers to the why and how questions to the reporter, PIOs must provide information that will result in an accurate piece of investigative reporting. The PIOs should anticipate the why and how questions and provide as much information as law, regulations, policy, and common sense dictate.

Crime Reporting

For several years, the media has heralded the fact that serious crime has decreased in the United States. Oddly, increased media coverage of incidents of crime have occurred. Several reasons exist for this trend. First, for years, the media has given priority to this type of news, and old habits remain hard to break." Second, consumers of electronic and printed media still follow crime coverage. Polls show that this information still holds people's interest. [12] Third, crime coverage is easy, loaded with good visuals and sound bites, and relatively inexpensive to cover. [13] A news station simply has to listen to a police scanner, send out a reporter, get pictures and sound bites, and broadcast it. The fact that many viewers and readers say that crime news is important to the community remains another reason for covering criminal matters. They want to know crime patterns and how to find a solution for them before they get larger. [14]

In view of the media's reluctance to decrease the reporting of criminal matters, law enforcement must continue furnishing details of criminal activity, but it also must establish a strategy for soliciting community and media interest in nontraditional issues, such as proactive programs for a safer community. To garner media interest, law enforcement must become better at packaging their messages and making them more attractive. [15]


These trends represent only a portion of the changes taking place in the media. Although the media has undergone some radical changes in the past 20 years, it still remains one of the most powerful forces in U.S. society. As a result of that power, some law enforcement personnel may dislike, fear, or mis-trust the media. Law enforcement professionals can influence the media process; therefore, they should create a liaison with the media to ensure accurate reporting. If PIOs understand how ethical reporters and journalists think and realize what factors influence their profession, they can deal successfully with the news media.

Special Agent Staszak serves as a media relations instructor in the Law Enforcement Communication Unit at the FBI Academy.


(1.) Richard Harwood, "When Downsizing Hits the Newsroom," Washington Post, April 2, 1996, see. A, p. 13. See also Clarence Jones, Winning With the News Media (Tampa, FL: Video Consultants, Inc. 1999), 1-8.

(2.) Jon Katz, "Old Media, New Media and a Middle Way," New York Times, January 19, 1997, sec. 2, p. 1.

(3.) Richard Harwood, "Lost Muscle of the Newspaper Guild," Washington Post, December 15, 1995, sec. A, p. 25.

(4.) Howard Kurtz, "The Bad News Starts at Work in Nation's Newsrooms," Washington Post, October 30, 1995, sec. A, p. 1.

(5.) Matthew Robinson, "The Big Media Make Big Errors," Investor's Business Daily, July 28, 1998, sec. A, p. 1. See also Sydney H. Schanberg, "The News No One Dares To Cover," Washington Post, August 29, 1999, sec. B, p. 1.

(6.) Robert Samuelson, "Network Fadeout," Washington Post," January 13, 1999, sec. A, p. 1. See also Howard Kurtz, "On Web, Newspapers Never Sleep," Washington Post, September 7, 1999, sec. E, p. 1.

(7.) Lorraine Woellert, "Deal Makes News Corp. No. 1 in Stations Owned," Washington Times, July 18, 1996, sec. B, p. 7. See also Stephen Labaton, "Many Media Voices of a Few Merged Masters," New York Times, September 12, 1999, sec. 3, p. 1.

(8.) Paul Farhi, "Their Reception's Great," Washington Post, February 16, 1997, sec. H, p. 1.

(9.) Paul Farhi, "Too Close for Comfort," Washington Post, January 7, 1996, sec. H, p. 1. See also Paul Farhi, "Clap If You Love Mega-TV!" Washington Post, September 12, 1999, sec. B, p. 1.

(10.) Richard Harwood, "The How and Why of It All," Washington Post, August 14, 1997, see. A, p. 21. See also Philip Meyer, "Confrontation Part of Reporter's Job, But It Cuts Both Ways," USA Today, November 1, 1999, sec. A, p. 29.

(11.) Richard Moran, "More Police, Less Crime, Right?" New York Times, February 27, 1995, sec. A, p. 15. See also Fox Butterfield, "Serious Crime Decreased for Fifth Year in a Row," New York Times, January 5, 1997, sec. A, p. 10.

(12.) Howard Kurtz, "The Crime Spree on Network News," Washington Post, August 12, 1997, sec. D, p. 1. See also Philip S. Cook, Douglas Gomery, Lawrence W. Liebty, The Future of News, (Washington, DC: The Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1992), 14-15.

(13.) Associated Press, "TV News Puts Focus on Crime, Study Says," Washington Times, May 12, 1997, sec. A, p. 7. See also the New York Times News Service, "Broadcast of Man's Death Rekindles a Debate in Los Angeles," New York Tunes, November 28, 1999, sec. A, p. 16.

(14.) "Fox Butterfield, "Crime-Fightings About Face," New York Times, January 19, 1997, sec. 4, p. 1.

(15.) Michael Winerip, "Looking for an Eleven O'Clock Fix," New York Times Magazine, January 11, 1998, sec. 6, pp. 31-63. See also Bridget Samburg, "Deep Into Crime," Brill's Content, January 2000, 88-91.

Suggested Reading

* James Fallows, Breaking The News (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1996).

* Herbert J. Gans, Deciding What 's News (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1980).

* Clarence Jones, Winning With the News Media (Tampa, FL: Video Consultants, Inc., 1996).

* Howard Kurtz, Media Circus (New York, NY: Times Books, 1993).

* Martin Mayer, Making News (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1993).

* James W. Robinson, Winning Them Over (Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing and Communications, 1987).

* Larry J. Sabato, Feeding Frenzy (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1993).
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Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2001
Previous Article:Focus on Surveillance.
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