How to Work with the Media

Before you have to work with the press, you should become thoroughly familiar with two things: the law as it applies to journalists, and your agency’s policies and procedures for interacting with members of the news media.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

650 A.D.: The Muslim rulers called caliphs introduce the first organized news service. Cops are screwed.

When contemplating associations between cops and journalists, it’s easy to invoke analogies involving cobras and mongooses, Hatfields and McCoys, and even cops and robbers. It seems that police and reporters are locked in a never-ending struggle.

But in some ways cops and reporters have very similar DNA. Cops and journalists both work in occupations in which the tragedies of others can represent career opportunities. And we both have investigative instincts that drive us to figure out the who, what, where, why, when, and how of a particular situation.

Not only are cops and journalists antagonistic; we are constantly in contact with each other, which can lead to resentment. Cops often feel that they haven’t been given a fair shake in the media. Meanwhile, journalists tire of the evasive responses they often receive from cops whom they believe could be more forthcoming.

Whether or not we want them at our crime scenes, the fourth estate will most assuredly be there. Which means that you need to know how to work with the press.

Know the Rules

The worst time to decide how to deal with the news media is while taping off a crime scene and corralling witnesses to the incident.

Before you have to work with the press, you should become thoroughly familiar with two things: the law as it applies to journalists, and your agency’s policies and procedures for interacting with members of the news media.

Journalistic legalities and practices may vary from state to state, but some general maxims hold true.

First, journalists enjoy great protections under the First Amendment. They can enter the scenes of certain events such as disasters so long as they understand that you and your fellow officers will not assume responsibility for their welfare.

Crime scenes, however, are largely off limits to the press. But just as cops always look for an in, so do journalists, and it’s up to us to define what a crime scene is.

Las Vegas Metro Police Department public information officer Eric Roberson notes that the perceived encroachment of the news media on crime scenes is often due to officers having failed to sufficiently contain a crime scene.

“You can’t just displace members of the news media from an area they’ve been granted some initial access to,” says Roberson. “That’s why you have to keep crime scene tape on hand and factor in the possibility of a news reporter’s response in deciding how much of an area is to be cordoned off. Just as with any containment, the purpose is as much to keep peripheral concerns out as it is to keep important evidence and suspects in.”

The absence of defined parameters can lead to police-news media conflict. The arrest of a reporter from The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer in March 2004 is representative. Robert Boyer, a crime reporter for the newspaper, was charged with resisting a police officer after he refused six times to leave a crime scene where a man had died from a blow to the head. While the court sided with the prosecution’s assertion that an officer who blocked access was acting as “a piece of talking crime-scene tape,” the defense team argued that police should have followed their own policy and used crime scene tape to block access.

Blurring Identities

In a bid to facilitate police-media relations and to ensure that officers know who they’re dealing with, many police agencies have issued press passes identifying individuals as journalists. Unfortunately, the lines of who is and who isn’t a journalist are blurring. So legitimizing sanctions, such as press passes, offer not one iota of safety for the cop who finds himself dealing with nocturnal camera stringers or pajama-clad bloggers. They, too, are afforded First Amendment rights in what they can document from their vantage points outside of the scene tape and who in their midst they can interview.

This confusion can lead to reporters hounding witnesses, victims, and victims’ families. Which means cops sometimes have to run interference. The Fairfax County (Va.) Police Department now distributes “Victim/Witness Media Information Cards” that inform victims or witnesses about their rights when they are approached by journalists covering a story.

Another complication that arises from so many people identifying themselves as journalists whether they are identified with traditional media or not is that an agency often suffers leaks. At the very least, the agency’s officers may present conflicting information that can raise the antennae of shrewd reporters and turn a molehill into Mt. Everest.

Some agencies such as the NYPD are fighting this problem by listing on their public Websites what information can be released to the media by their officers. Others include such information on their in-house intranet links.

My agency has a well-defined policy about information that can be released to the news media. Certain obvious exclusions stand out: the names of minors, as well as those of any sex crimes victims who request anonymity pursuant to law.

To Speak or Not to Speak

Lt. David Tarrin of the Ogden (Utah) Police Department says that in his agency press media inquiries, whether print or newscast, tend to be handled by the station watch commanders. This allows the Ogden PD to protect the integrity of its investigations and maintain consistency of information. Officers are forbidden by policy to conduct any ad lib interviews at crime scenes. “I’ll work with the news media, but not at the cost of the investigation,” Tarrin says.

Other agencies let their line cops speak to the press. Honolulu Police Department PIO Capt. Frank Fujii handles press inquiries regarding serious department matters such as officer-involved shootings. But when it comes to routine crime investigations, he leaves it to the cops in the street.

Fujii believes that the officer handling the investigation is probably the one with the answers. However, even for that officer, he has a word of caution.

“People tend to believe the very first thing they hear,” notes Capt. Fujii. “This is particularly important in officer-involved shootings wherein the suspect’s family hears something and gets a certain perspective on what transpired that isn’t accurate. If they later find out that it’s wrong—whether the initial version put the department in a good light or not—it makes it that much harder for them to deal with it, and the department, as well.”

Seeing It Both Ways

When it comes to the person responsible for releasing information to the media, some police organizations develop in-house media liaisons; others contract out for PIOs. Often, this latter cadre is composed of former journalists themselves.

Each approach has its distinct advantages. The former patrol officer probably has a better idea of what type of information can be released to the news media without jeopardizing an investigation. Conversely, the journalist who becomes a PIO knows the reporters and knows how to give them enough information to do their jobs without damaging an investigation.

Having worked nine years as a journalist before becoming a public information officer for the Riverside (Calif.) Police Department, Steven Frasher has seen both sides of the fence. Frasher notes that perhaps the biggest problem with press-police contacts is the over-the-top desire of investigators to hold on to even the most basic of information that will neither harm an investigation nor expose the department to any liability.

But Frasher also knows that some reporters are ethically challenged and can do a great deal of damage. “Not all journalists conduct themselves with the integrity that I did,” acknowledges Frasher. “Because of this, I would caution any cop against saying anything that would jeopardize an investigation. At the same time, when you are at an accident scene that 10,000 people have just driven by, is it really necessary to refrain from commenting that a green truck was involved in the accident? If you have a body that is lying in the street covered up, can you not admit that somebody is dead at the scene, even if you can’t say whether it was incident to an accident or a crime?”

Frasher understands the reticence that many cops have when it comes to the prospect of speaking with the news media. To them, he offers food for thought.

“Realize, too, that there are those of us [journalists] who do respect what you do. At the same time, we hope that you would be more respectful of us. There is one commander that I kept in contact with on a particular multiple homicide investigation all the way up to an hour before we went to press. At that time, he was still assuring me that there were no leads in the case. Our headlines reflected that; then I was leaving work and I heard on the radio that the case had been solved with suspects in custody. That made me look bad.”

Don’t Declare War

The best advice that field officers will hear from PIOs is that they should display the utmost professional presence when in eye- and ear-shot of news reporters.

And should some enterprising journalist release information that can jeopardize a case or the welfare of the community, let your bosses deal with their bosses. It may be that he obtained his information resource independent of one of your investigators and through a corroborating source in the community.

Frasher strongly cautions against getting into pissing contests with the news media.

“If a reporter is too belligerent or persistent,” Frasher advises, “do not engage in an argument with him. Simply say, ‘Thank you,’ then step away.”

If they are encroaching, or otherwise disruptive, journalists’ actions might constitute a violation of law, ranging from trespass (if they are on private property without permission from the owner), to resisting or delaying an officer in the performance of his duties (if they refuse to leave your crime scene), to possible FCC violations (if they broadcast or record for later broadcast your telephone conversation with someone at the scene without his or her advance permission).

Use your judgment when enforcing such laws. Arresting a reporter can bring down a very stinky storm on your agency. The best thing to do when reporters are trespassing or hindering your work is to warn them that they are breaking the law. Then if they don’t heed that warning, take appropriate action. Just make sure that your action is warranted.

It’s easy for us to put on blinders when we see the news media lurking at the fringes of a crime scene.

But make no mistake. While they may be relegated to the other side of the crime scene tape, dealing with journalists is often part of crime scene preservation.

And they can be an important tool in your crime-fighting arsenal. They can play a significant role in public safety by keeping citizens apprised of ongoing threats (e.g., outstanding suspects, containment operations, possible pending evacuations). Use the media to your advantage in requesting assistance in identifying suspects or locating missing parties. And try to keep a continuing dialogue with the men and women covering your beat.

Be Respectful

At a crime scene, someone’s loved one has been killed, injured, or victimized. Maintain decorum at all times.

Avoid any off-the-cuff remarks, especially if you don’t have an established relationship with the reporter. And especially don’t get swayed into making humorous jokes at a homicide scene. Also, be respectful of your fellow officers at other agencies. Think about how the information you’re releasing may affect others. If things you say will result in the media calling other agencies or individuals, give them the heads up ahead of time. If not, you can be guaranteed to hear from them.

And don’t be a glory hog. Whether crime scene protection, suspect corralling, or putting out the fire after a meth lab goes up in flames, it takes a good many individuals to make a successful team effort. So when talking to media, be sure to give credit to other agencies, groups, or individuals working on the crisis. This is courteous and the right thing to do. It also enhances relationships and reflects well on you and your agency.

Dean Scoville is a patrol supervisor with the Los Angeles Police Department and a contributing editor for Police.

Have a Media Strategy in Place

It’s best to have a strategy for working with/dealing with the press before they swarm your crime scene. The following is a list of some of the steps you need to take:
• Decide whether news conferences and/or news releases are appropriate means of conveying information to the news media and the public.
• Determine who will make decisions about the procedures and logistics of the news conference: when, where, and how the media will be contacted, which media will be contacted, who will speak, etc.
• Decide if the magnitude of the situation warrants establishing a media briefing center. If so, where should it be? Are additional phone lines needed?
• Maintain secure phone numbers and addresses of key people, including top administrators, crisis teams, and media relations staff. You may need to consult with them.
• Consider establishing a dedicated call-in phone line for the media. This will tell you who’s calling and maintain security. Believe it or not, some people like to pose as reporters. Also, schedules for news conferences, rumor control statements, and newly acquired information can be placed on a tape that is periodically updated. This is particularly useful when regular phone lines are tied up with in-house calls.
• Decide whether it is appropriate to allow location shooting by television and newspaper photographers.
• Designate who will accompany the media.

About the Author
Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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