Many of you have heard the old adage: "If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? This new column, "The Police and the Press," which I am honored to provide for PoliceOne.com, revolves around the concept that the police need the media so that the public we serve can hear us, our story.
It is my hope that this column, and future pieces, will help PoliceOne readers to explore how a close relationship with the media will help to provide better services to the public.
The premise is simple: The police need to learn to market themselves. In order to do this, we first need to move away from the adversarial relationship that law enforcement tends to have with the media.
Actually, I have found, as a police chief and public information officer, that the police and the media have more in common than you would think. For this first column, it might be useful to realize that the "enemy" has a face and it could very well be a mirror image. Let's look at some of the commonalities:
1. Both are in the Public Eye.
The public sees the work performance of the print, radio, and TV folk, much like they see the high profile work of law enforcement. The work product of both occupations is open to public scrutiny and comment. Mistakes, when they happen, are seen by many and are often replayed and second-guessed for months after the fact. Few occupations are as high profile in the public as the police and the media.
2. Both Confront Deadline Pressures
Officers reading this can certainly recall supervisors or dispatchers asking if they have the report or written voluntary statement done yet. It is a similar daily existence for reporters who have to get that interview done in time for either the work in the edit bay or the even scarier live feed.
3. Both Have Limited Resources
With external pressures coming into the organization to cover various stories/calls, both groups have to prioritize where to send their finite amount of manpower and marked vehicles.
4. Both Make Life-Altering Decisions
Law enforcement has to make decisions that can radically affect people's lives with their community reputation, jobs, and relationships. While not to the same extent (reporters don't tend to use deadly force), the media can hit the same dynamics in a powerful way.
5. Both Have Supervisory Oversight
While officers have sergeants, lieutenants, and on up the chain of command, so too do media types have their supervisory structure. With assignment editors, news directors, and station managers looking over their shoulder, reporters also have some field independence, but have their work scrutinized by managers.
6. Both see People in Crisis Situations and Keep Odd Hours
Much like the police, members of the news media do not tend to show up for a routine dinner at Grandma's. The police and the news show up, for the most part, when bad things happen at any hour of the day or night. The human beings in both the professions have to put their personal feelings aside and do their jobs. Oftentimes, after the fact, the realization of what has been witnessed hits home.
7. Both Tend to Distrust the Other
Most interestingly, as much as the police tend to distrust the media, so too do the media tend to question the information they get from law enforcement. A handful of incidents has colored the others' perceptions of their counterpart. Much as we would prefer to not be painted with a broad brush caused by the actions of an errant individual, so too should we in law enforcement not taint our view based upon a negative experience with an overly aggressive reporter.
By sitting down with your local members of the media people and realizing that the common issues are actually more prevalent than the differences, each side will see that the respective "enemy" has a face. Many of the issues mirror one another. The strides towards a positive relationship will be a nice reflection on your law enforcement agency.