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How to douse an inflammatory headline

Like moths to a flame, the assumption that police action is not only wrong but outrageously and gratuitously violent, seems to be irresistible to reporters and editors


“Shocking video shows black man being 'beaten, punched and kicked by six North Carolina police officers'” shouts the headline on the UK’s Daily Mail website and echoed by many media outlets. It makes me wonder if they were reporting on an appendectomy whether the headline would read “Woman drugged and stabbed by masked gang.”

With the media’s credibility under unprecedented scrutiny, the explosive bias of headlines like these harms their own cause in addition to straining law enforcement’s image. Like moths to a flame, the assumption that police action is not only wrong but outrageously and gratuitously violent, seems to be irresistible to reporters and editors.  

Police remain silent

Brian McKnight, Drug Enforcement Administration special agent in charge, speaks at a news conference, Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018, in downtown Chicago. (AP Photo/Annie Rice)
Brian McKnight, Drug Enforcement Administration special agent in charge, speaks at a news conference, Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018, in downtown Chicago. (AP Photo/Annie Rice)

Compounding the challenge of finding factual balance to news of controversial police action is the reality that most police administrators feel compelled to make no direct statements regarding an event involving their officers. This is a highly defensible position from a legal, investigative and liability standpoint, but extremely frustrating to officers, and suspicious to the community.

Egregious abuses of journalistic license deserve a balanced response. Rather than investing effort in a defense of the police in an event not yet fully investigated, police advocates can feel free to address the core issue of biased reporting – journalistic ethics. The challenge is finding someone to give voice to those concerns and how that voice gets heard.

Chiefs and sheriffs can speak

Without making direct reference to an ongoing investigation, a police leader can assure the public about the transparency of any internal review of an event. Being able to truthfully say that an objective mechanism exists to examine all complaints and concerns adds credibility to the agency. There is no formula for pleasing everybody all the time, but the thoughtful citizenry will question why officers seem to be held accountable only when a video goes viral. Accountability, by the way, does not mean punishment or persecution for unpopular outcomes. Once a police leader can demonstrate that police conduct is reviewed by an objective process, a review of the fairness of press coverage will be more likely viewed as merely asking for similar accountability of the media for objectivity.

Working with police advocates

In addition to leaders within law enforcement, a call for objective reporting may come from citizens and elected leaders who are willing to speak out regarding the media’s errors. These individuals may not even be outspoken advocates of law enforcement as long as they desire the best outcome for their community. That kind of person is a rare commodity, but they may exist. Police leaders may be able to provide a template or suggested letter to the editor or talking points for an interview to a person willing to speak out on press accountability.

Union representatives are often in a position to step into the spotlight when officers are unfairly targeted. Other law enforcement support groups, such as the National Center for Police Advocacy, may be able to issue a statement as well.

Fair game

Fair game for leaders to address regarding media coverage includes use of vocabulary, citation of sources and accuracy. The Daily Mail headline quoted in the first paragraph: “Shocking video shows black man being 'beaten, punched and kicked by six North Carolina police officers'” has several high-octane vocabulary choices.

Pointing out to editors and the public that words and phrases have meaning beyond their mere dictionary definitions considering their context and connotation strikes at the heart of the journalists’ craft. If a healthy relationship exists with the local media, a meeting or memo suggesting common vocabulary could be helpful. Organizations issue such press guidelines routinely.

It is fair to ask what is shocking about the video being reported – is it the officers’ actions of the suspects, or the incongruity of time and place? It is fair to point out the limitations of a video. It is fair to question why the suspect’s race was reported, especially when the race of officers who are murdered or attacked, nor the race of their attackers, is deemed relevant to report.

A most prominent term in biased reporting is when lawful use of force is referred to as a “beating.” The word strongly implies a merciless, unnecessary and brutal attack. In the event reported by this headline, the officers are seen attempting baton strikes and empty hand controls and doing everything they could to avoid using deadly force. “Beaten, punched and kicked” are words that mislead in this context when the men and women in blue are playing by the rules and the offender is not.

Listing the number of cops involved – “six North Carolina officers” in this case – is implicitly misleading as well. The number of officers is a fact to be reported, but to imply that there was an unfair number of officers against a lone offender is to rewrite the manual on use of force. Whether these officers intentionally engaged in a swarm maneuver, the concept of having multiple officers to enable a more peaceful restraint of a violent offender was developed for the very purpose of reducing injuries to suspects. Having experts available to refer reporters to for commentary can help.

Asking for fairness

Taking a strategy of helping the media and public better understand a controversial event is different than lashing out or being angrily defensive. Using carefully crafted narratives from concerned spokespersons can help dampen incendiary headlines and cause journalists to be more aware of their own implicit biases.

Such work could result in a headline like “Officers work together to arrest violent offender,” with a subhead of “man attempts to punch and bite responding officers, resists TASER.”

A letter to the editor can make a difference.

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