Journalists, police share similarities in their jobs

SOUTH BEND TRIBUNE -- For as much as they work in close proximity, there is a surprising amount of distrust between police and journalists. That situation not only can make it harder for both groups to do their jobs, it can be downright dangerous in crisis situations. Last Wednesday, law enforcement and the media took a step toward breaking down that mutual wariness. More than a hundred police officers and journalists from eight police agencies and five media organizations spent the day together talking about mutual concerns, problems and solutions. They didn't allay everyone's fears or wrestle with every problem, but the day ended with some hope for further action. Rick Rosenthal, who led the seminar, has walked both sides of the street. An award-winning radio and television newsman who spent 10 years as anchor for WGN-TV, Rosenthal began a second career consulting with police agencies to help them deal with the media. Last week's seminar in South Bend was only the second time Rosenthal has done a presentation for journalists and law enforcement officers jointly. He began by stressing some of the traits the two lines of work share. "We're always on call," he began, noting the bad hours and holidays that reporters and police both have to work sometimes. "We're talking to the same people," he continued, such as witnesses and victims of crimes. Both journalists and police hate to be interviewed, he continued, because they're used to being in control of the questioning. And, he added, "we use each other." Journalists use police to get a good story, and police use journalists to get the word out about crimes, suspects and emergencies. "We have a lot in common," Rosenthal said. "A lot more than I thought when I started compiling this list." There is remarkable similarity between the stress, strain and exhaustion of police work and journalism, Rosenthal added. "Our families pay a terrible price." Rosenthal spent the rest of the day showing videos from other localities of incidents where police-media distrust blossomed into crises, and using those incidents to stimulate discussion of problems here. He showed a TV crew distracting and maybe endangering a SWAT team that was preparing to storm a house. The group talked about ways the media could get the story without tipping the police's hand to a hostage-taker. "The principle is that the police and the hostages have the right to see the next sunrise," Rosenthal said bluntly. He showed an almost unbelievable piece of footage from Virginia where a station irresponsibly aired footage of a distraught woman and her child after the child had nearly been sexually assaulted. That led to a discussion of whether it's proper for police to shield or advise victims who may be approached by the media, and of when the media cross the line into exploitation. Rosenthal ended the day with some examples of efforts to bridge the media/police gap in other cities. In Green Bay, Wis., police have a media academy where it appears that reporters can train handguns on suspects and blow up cars. Several of my journalistic colleagues thought this was way cool; our police colleagues seemed a bit nervous at the idea of arming reporters. But everyone loved the moment when a reporter covering the academy handed her microphone to the police chief and let him do the interview. Rosenthal suggested TV and newspapers put together a police academy where officers could get a first-hand taste of reporting, photography or editing. "You haven't seen a holy mess until you've seen a prime time news broadcast being put together," Rosenthal said. But then as the clock strikes 10 and the broadcast starts, "it's a beautiful thing." Rosenthal also urged that we look hard at what's been done in the Indianapolis area, where a police/media group meets quarterly. "If they can do it in Indianapolis, you guys could do it here," he said. Maybe we can.

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