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Police and the media.

He outweighed me by more than 100 pounds, and when he saw me, his face turned brick red with anger, despite the below-zero windchill on this winter night. He was a sergeant with the Minneapolis, Minnesota, Police Department, and I was an intern with the department. But, I was also a member of the media, and he hated the media. Together, we responded to an officer-involved shooting.

It is very rare when a working journalist, especially a media manager running the newsroom at a local TV station, is allowed to participate in an internship program with a police department. But, I was also working on my degree in law enforcement, and to get from the textbooks to the real world, I needed some practical training and experience.

During my meeting with the police chief regarding the internship, I told him the purpose of my education and the reason for my request. I explained that the media do not really understand the law enforcement profession, and that by working with the department, I hoped to gain some knowledge and understanding of policing that I could take back to the newsroom. After setting some firm rules regarding data privacy and confidentiality, the chief ranted my request.

Since then, I have talked with dozens of law enforcement personnel and members of the press about media issues and have learned that each group has a separate agenda. Too often, the press calls the shots, putting law enforcement on the defensive. But, I also realize that law enforcement could improve its relations with the media by merely focusing its efforts on a few important areas. Specifically, I believe that media training for first-line officers, the media's portrayal of police work to the public, and the attitudes of officers toward the media are just some of the areas that need to be addressed by police administrators.

Media Training

Departments should train all first-line personnel on media relations and not direct such training solely toward managers. It is the street officers and investigators at the crime scene or disturbance who must deal with the cameras, microphones, and tape recorders. They are the ones who should learn how to handle photographers who believe that the yellow tape applies to ever o e but them. These officers need to know how to intervene when they see a reporter interviewing a witness before they have the chance to do so. And, they should be able to deal with live TV shots.

Even if a department has a public information officer, the pictures that a ear in print or the sounds and images on the evening news often feature street officers. A misguided remark or action will undoubtedly appear in the story, and the department may have to go on the defensive to explain it. Unless first-line personnel are media-wise, they could b come the story themselves.

Media Portrayal of Policing

The community judges law enforcement personnel by what appears in the media. Very few citizens have direct contact with police officers; So, they make decisions on the police department's effectiveness based on what they read, see, or hear.

For these reasons, departments should develop a proactive approach to the media. Departments should get the good story out by calling press conferences in a timely and informative manner. One way to do this is to determine media deadlines and then provide useful information for their reports.

Television, radio, and the print media provide a forum for a department's accomplishments and policies. Law enforcement managers should appear before the public frequently to show direct involvement in the fight against crime. In other words, they should make the media react to them.


The antimedia bias expressed by law enforcement officers is often born out of ignorance about journalists and their work. Modifying the attitudes of department personnel toward the media should begin with recruits at the training academy and continue through inservice training. Until officers are educated about the effect the media can have on the department, the power of the media works against the police rather than for it.

In the same vein, inservice training for law enforcement personnel can help to dispel rumors and set standards for communication between the department and the media. Administrators can extend this exchange of information to journalism schools by working with professors to bring in officers as guest lecturers.

Camera Omnipresence

Officers should operate under the premise that cameras are everywhere. In the past, everyone was on the lookout for the bulky news camera. Now, with the smaller versions on the market, cameras can be in the hands of private citizens or hidden in various containers by enterprising investigative reporters.

Any and every action taken by an officer can end up on the 10 o'clock news or on the front page of the newspaper, Cameras are part of the ultimate "watch-dog" role of the media, but they can also be the ultimate catastrophe for a police department.

Advice to Managers

More than ever before, law enforcement departments are operating under more criticism and public scrutiny. This level of examination will continue to grow with advances in broadcast technology. Managers can either throw up their hands in exasperation or take steps to deal with it.

If managers decide on the latter course of action, they must begin by opening up a dialogue between the police department and the media. The media has the power to portray law enforcement officers in either a good or bad light to the people in the community. Unfortunately, the "bad" stories tend to stay in people's minds, which is why departments need to explain what policing is like in this day and age.

Administrators can start by comparing reality and fantasy. America has a fascination with the police, which is obvious by the countless hours and high ratings of television shows based on law enforcement. The majority show "good cops" engaged in heroic acts. The same holds true for movies. It's time for the public to learn about the good cops in your department. Police administrators need to use the media to get the message out.

Granted, the adversarial relationship between law enforcement and the media will probably never disappear. Officers who have been "burned" by a reporter will never forget it. Reporters who have been "shafted" by an officer will always remember. I know that memories of my encounter with the servant will remain with me forever. I witnessed firsthand intense dislike toward the media. But, I also realize that nothing positive can come from resentments that are allowed to fester on either side.

I urge police administrators to meet with journalists immediately after a story unfavorable to the department airs or appears in print. A healthy discussion might lead to more fair or favorable coverage in the future.

Law enforcement officers and the media need to talk, and listen, to each other. Urging officers to spend a day with a news crew or inviting media managers to participate in a ride-along without the cameras, might open the lines of communication and foster a free exchange of information. Both sides will probably end up somewhat amazed at how the other side operates. A Mutual understanding and respect for each other's profession can go a long way.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Parrish, Penny
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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