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date: 03 March 2021

Police and the News Mediafree

  • Ted GestTed GestPresident, Criminal Justice Journalists


Police and the media have had a close relationship but it has become an increasingly uneasy one. For more than a century, the mainstream United States media—mainly newspapers, radio, television and magazines—have depended on the police for raw material for a steady diet of crime stories. For its part, law enforcement regards the media as something of an adversary. The relationship has changed because of the growth of investigative reporting and of the Internet. Both developments have increased the volume of material critical of the police. At the same time, law enforcement has used social media as a means to bypass the mainstream media to try getting its message directly to the public. However, the news media in all of its forms remains a powerful interpreter of how law enforcement does its job.

The Fascination of News Consumers with Crime

Americans have long been fascinated with crime. The news media have helped satisfy this fascination by providing a heavy diet of crime coverage, and this requires working closely with law enforcement to obtain basic information.

David J. Krajicek in Scooped!, a review of the “burgeoning tabloid influence on the mainstream American media” that grew sharply in the 1980s, traces the prevalence of crime news in newspapers and on television to British pamphleteers, who as early as the 1600s “peddled their melodramatic accounts of crime and misdeeds to blushing bluenoses.” He describes the evolution of the tabloid press in New York City in the19th and early 20th centuries in satisfying the public obsession with crime. Crime news was “cheap and easy and almost anyone could produce it” (Krajicek, 1998). Such reporting was prevalent in the so-called penny press, newspapers available for one cent starting in the 1830s. No doubt much of the public interest in crime derived from a human desire to hear about unusual news.

Crime rates in the United States are not known with any precision before the 20th century, but the crime began to increase notably in the 1960s. Violent crime in 1960 was reported at a relatively low 160 per 100,000 population each year, but by 1980, the figure had jumped to 600. It grew even more, until a modern-day peak in the early 1990s, dropping steadily since then. Even with the widely reported decline, by 2017 the violent crime number stood at 383 per 100,000, more than twice as high as 1960 (Disaster Center, n.d.).

Crime and criminal justice generally became more of a political issue. News reports increasingly involved not only individual acts of lawbreaking but also issues of crime policy, prominently featuring what police departments were doing to combat crime. The result was even more attention to crime in both print and broadcast media.

By the late 20th century, news about crime and the courts filled an estimated one-third of the space allotted for news in a typical US daily newspaper and nearly half of the minutes available for news in local television broadcasts. Obtaining the raw material for these reports always involved the cooperation of police departments, which have served as a constant source of information.

The Tradition of “Police Blotter” News Coverage

By both tradition and law, the “police blotter” has been available to the public, recording an endless series of offenses seven days a week.

In addition to detailed coverage of major news such as mass murders and sex offenses, many small town and community newspapers and even some major ones have published regular listings of major and minor crime incidents. While the broadcast media have lacked the resources to follow suit in terms of volume, both local television and all-news radio stations have long aired a steady stream of crime stories. “Local TV news emphasizes the early stages of crimes because ‘breaking news’ from the scene of a crime is fresh, dramatic, and visual” (Lipschultz & Hilt, 2002, 6)

It could be said that this phenomenon has been mutually beneficial to the media and to law enforcement. Historically, reporting on crime, particularly lawbreaking that involved violence, has brought newspapers high readership and broadcast media high ratings. The trend likely has extended to news websites, although research is needed to confirm this.

The media depends on police agencies to provide the “who, what, when, where” details that are central to basic news coverage. Of course, news reporters can and do expand on the material provided by police agencies by interviewing crime victims and witnesses. Frequently, however, little time is available to do this in the crush of daily news, and many victims are unavailable or unwilling to talk, so many crime stories consist solely of information provided by law enforcement.

Police departments are such a predominant source of crime news that it is almost a joke among journalists that they can repeat just about any fact mentioned in a law enforcement report, as long as it is followed by the phrase “police said.” The result of this long-standing practice is that most routine stories about crimes reflect only the observations of a police agency and so, as a result, much of what the public knows is solely or primarily information collected by law enforcement officials. Evidence that a suspect may have been wrongfully arrested, for example, may emerge only through court filings of a defense attorney or additional reporting by the news media.

From their point of view, police generally have regarded the news media as essential to their mission, informing the public not only about individual crimes but also of trends affecting the community generally. “The news media have traditionally been the primary method police have used to communicate important messages to the public,” declares Strategic Communication Practices: A Toolkit for Police Executives, published by the US Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) (Stephens, Hill, & Greenberg, 2011).

An Element of Police–Media Distrust

Despite this mutual dependence, there always has been some element of distrust between the two sides. Susan Braunstein, formerly a member of the communications faculty at Miami’s Barry University, summarized the relationship in a volume published by the International Association of Chiefs of Police: “Historically, police officers have often viewed journalists as adversaries or obstacles to their law enforcement efforts. Departments released only the information they were required to by law” (Braunstein & Cheek, 2006, v).

Michael Sale, a former public information officer for the Toronto Police Department, put it more bluntly in the same volume, saying that, “In many departments, the historical culture is one of antagonism toward the media.” He contended, however, that “change is both possible and necessary.”

The ups and downs of the police–media relationship cannot be measured precisely, but Braunstein contended that it improved somewhat from the 1980s with the growth of community policing. Under that practice, law enforcement leaders began requiring their officers to engage more with local residents—after years of concentrating their work mostly on responding to calls for service and surveilling communities from their seats in patrol cars. “As community policing changed the philosophy and practices of departments, police executives began to alter their view of the media from obstacle to conduit to the community” (Braunstein & Cheek, 2006).

With respect to individual crimes, police departments frequently request the media to ask their readers, listeners and viewers to provide more information about crime incidents to help them find suspects and evidence that would be instrumental in obtaining convictions. In the age of social media, those requests now are often made directly to the public through services like Twitter and YouTube.

Members of few other professions can count on their daily activities being recognized in the news media. In the latter half of the 20th century, just about every daily newspaper, local television station, and talk radio station has at least one reporter, and sometimes several, assigned to cover crime. By 2016, there were fewer than 1,300 daily newspapers in the United States and about 700 television stations originating local news. The daily newspaper total has declined in recent decades but a large number of news websites such as Yahoo! News, Google News and Huffington Post on a national level, and many more local-oriented sites have helped make up for the decline in print journalism.

There are no reliable data on the number of journalists covering crime news, but between 2008 and 2017, newsroom employment in the United States dropped by 23% (Grieco, 2018). Necessarily, this has meant somewhat fewer reporters following crime and criminal justice, and fewer investigative stories by local newspapers.

There were 1,670 radio stations in the “news/talk” category as of 2017 (Nielsen, 2018), a slight increase from 1600 recorded in 2009. It is not clear exactly how much of these stations’ broadcast content relates to crime.

Dawn of the Police Public Information Officer

In response to the constant request for information by news organizations, the last half of the 20th century saw the growth of public information units in major police departments. This development received the imprimatur of experts in 1973, when the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommended that, “A police agency should designate an officer or unit to maintain regular liaison with the media.” The commission cited the Kansas City, MO, Police Department for establishing the first “teletype hot line” in the mid-1970s to report crimes to the media, a precursor to the constant reports conveyed via the Internet in the 21st century.

As the Justice Department’s COPS Office “toolkit” puts it, “Police agencies are well acquainted with the demands of the ever-hungry ‘media beast.’ Stories about crime and the justice system are a staple of the media ‘diet.’ As such, police are a dependable source of stories and for many [police] departments, ‘feeding the beast’ requires full-time staff devoted to the job” (Stephens et al., 2011).

While public information offices are well entrenched in large departments, almost half of police agencies in the United States had ten or fewer officers as of 2013 (Reaves, 2015), making it impossible to assign staff members to maintain full-time connection with the news media.

Technology in the 21st century has allowed police departments to make one major change that news reporters say has hampered their access. Journalists have long been able to pick up tips on new and ongoing crimes by listening to police scanners that broadcast communications among officers. Some police departments have blocked public access to those communications, which has made journalists in the areas affected totally reliant on learning about incidents from telephone contacts or whatever an agency decides to circulate on social media. The result can be long delays in initial reports on incidents. (For further information on this, see “Police–Media Conflicts.”)

While most police–media interactions take place without incident, it also is true that the media–police relationship always has been fraught with conflicts. The police want to control what information about cases is made public, concerned that their chances of finding a perpetrator may decline if too many key details are disclosed. Further, typically, police officers also want to protect crime victims from what they may perceive as unduly intrusive coverage by journalists, so they may withhold information about victims’ names and the exact locations of crime incidents that might inadvertently disclose their identities. News reporters may thwart these concerns, albeit not deliberately, if they publish information that may tip off criminals to what evidence law enforcement has or lacks about a case.

Conflicts over what details can and should be reported have flared forever but they have not stopped the large volume of crime coverage around the nation. However, the media–police relationship has become frayed in recent decades for a variety of reasons.

Investigative Reporters Target the Police

A key cause of the degeneration of the media–police relationship is the growth of investigative reporting. The modern trend often is tied to the Washington Post’s relentless coverage of the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s that helped doom President Richard Nixon.

Now, investigative reporting has become a staple of US journalism, not only in newspapers but also magazines, broadcast outlets and purely Internet operations. A national organization, Investigative Reporters & Editors, is dedicated to improving journalists’ investigative skills, and its activities include providing advice on how best to monitor problems in police departments.

It is not, of course, surprising that much investigative reporting has dealt with law enforcement, given the prominent role of crime and police in public life. Among prominent subjects of critical stories about police that have appeared in recent years are these:

The Associated Press chronicled police officers who have been involved in sexual harassment of motorists and crime suspects (Sedensky, 2015).

Many media organizations have reported on cases of officers who have lost their jobs in one or more departments for misconduct and have been rehired by others. See, for example, Schaefer and Kaufman, 2018.

The Boston Globe (n.d.) reported on a wide range of misdeeds by members of the Massachusetts State Police, including false claims of overtime.

These stories are typical of many in which news organizations have reported on wrongdoing or poor management by law enforcement agencies that might not have come to light without dedicated journalistic effort.

One of the most persistent subjects of investigative reporting on police since 2014 has involved police shootings of civilians. Such incidents have occurred frequently over the years—there is no count that is considered very reliable—but the subject exploded into one of national concern after unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson in August in 2014. That incident provoked major civil disturbances and widespread criticism of the police by civil rights advocates.

A low point in police–media relations in the aftermath of the Brown shooting occurred when police arrested two national reporters who were covering the protests. Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post were charged with trespassing and interfering with a police officer at a McDonald’s restaurant. Post editor Martin Baron said there was “absolutely no justification” for his reporter’s arrest. (The charges were dropped in 2016 in exchange for a promise by the reporters not to sue St. Louis County.)

Because government agencies fail to track shootings by police very consistently, the furor prompted two major newspapers, the Washington Post and The Guardian, to start publicly available databases listing key details of police shootings. (The Post’s project was continuing in 2018 but The Guardian ended its effort after 2016.) The Post has followed up with a series of notable articles drawing on its police shooting database to show, for example, that African Americans were disproportionately the victims of officers’ bullets.

Public Trust in the Police Declines

Extensive reporting by various media on police shootings no doubt contributed to a drop in public respect for the police. In 2015, overall confidence in the police fell to 52% in a Gallup survey, tying a low mark that had been recorded in 1993. Gallup attributed much of the decline to a series of incidents, not only the Ferguson case of Michael Brown but also the deaths of black men at the hands of police in Staten Island, NY and North Charleston, SC

A Gallup survey reported in 2017 that overall confidence in the police had risen slightly in the previous two years, with 57% of Americans saying they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in law enforcement (Norman, 2017).

Police were not the only profession to suffer a loss in trust by the public. It also is notable that Americans’ confidence in the mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” dropped to its lowest level in the history of Gallup polling in 2016. A survey that year reported that only 32% of respondents said they had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media, down eight points from the previous year (Swift, 2016).

Of course, media reporting was not the only cause of the decline in public trust in the police. What does seem clear is that there were many more news reports on police shootings—not only the initial event but also civil disturbances and the response by public officials — during a time that there was no evidence that the overall problem of abuse of citizens by police officers was becoming any worse.

Because most Americans do not have direct interactions with the police in a given year, it seems fair to conclude that much of what the public knows about law enforcement comes from media, both news reports and entertainment media.

The Internet: Double-Edged Sword for Police and Media

The other major change in the basic police–media relationship involves the growth of the Internet, which has evolved into something of a double-edged sword when it comes to police–media relations.

The Internet has changed the face of journalism in the United States: in the pre-Internet age, for many decades in the 20th century, the national news media were dominated by a few large newspapers that offered national coverage, three television networks (later four, with the addition of Fox), and three national news magazines. Locally, one or two newspapers and a handful of television stations typically dictated the scope of a region’s coverage. Television coverage was considerably expanded with the launch of Cable News Network in 1980. By the turn of the 21st century, the Internet had spawned a seemingly unlimited number of news websites, many of them boasting of investigative reporting both on the national and local levels.

At the same time, the Internet has provided law enforcement the opportunity to put out its “official” version of news on their own websites, Twitter and other social media. Some agencies see this as a way of bypassing the news media, sometimes declaring that they will not offer comments or factual material beyond what they have posted.

As one example, Tanya Eiserer, a reporter for WFAA television in Dallas, says, “Our largest local police department—the Dallas Police Department—absolutely has attempted to use social media to bypass the media. In fact, I recall a former chief specifically stating that they were starting the department’s blog so that they could get their version of the “story” out. Over the last six years, the department has become less and less responsive.”

The COPS Office’s “toolkit” put it this way: On the Internet, “when done well, a police agency has much more control over the content, messaging, and context than when they leave the job of informing citizens only to third parties, whether the third parties are journalists, community activists, or talk radio jocks” (Stephens et al., 2011). In sum, at one time, police agencies were literally dependent on the news media to get out the word about crime incidents but with the evolution of social media, it is now easy for the police to issue direct reports on crimes to any subscribing member of the public.

Full, official police reports may be obtainable some time after a crime is initially investigated via requests under freedom of information laws, but when an investigation into a crime is in its early stages, or particularly active, a police agency may decline to answer questions from the media or the general public, declaring that supplementary information on the report will be available only on the same social media on which it was published.

It is important to note that law enforcement agencies on the federal, state and local level in the United States total about 18,000—no one knows the precise number—and media policies differ greatly among agencies. Generalizations expressed here about police policies on public information are broadly accurate, but local practices may change frequently. Readers should check with specific agencies for information about their current policies.

While police often bypass the mainstream media through the use of social media, it also is true that accusations of misconduct by law enforcement, whether founded or unfounded, may be posted by anyone on social media absent any scrutiny by the news media.

Smartphone Videos and the Police

Another major technological change that has rocked police–media circles is the prevalence of smartphones capable of making video.

For many decades, it was possible to take still photographs or some forms of video of criminal acts and police involvement in reacting to them. This happened so infrequently, however, that it was unlikely that a major incident such as an officer shooting a civilian, or even that the more common though less prominent police–citizen interactions, would be captured on video. By the second decade of the 21st century, however, the situation had had changed radically. Not only did many average citizens carry smartphones, but higher-quality video equipment was so relatively inexpensive that cameras could easily be installed in police vehicles and worn by officers. This led to a revolution in the recording of events.

Whereas before the revolution an incident like a police shooting or a disturbance that resulted in police being called to the scene could only be described by participants after the fact, by the early decades of the 21st century it was common for such events not only to be recorded instantly but for videos to be promptly posted online. This meant that videos of controversial incidents typically “went viral” on platforms such as YouTube and Twitter, with news accounts often reporting that a video had been viewed many millions of times.

In one sense, this bypassed the news media because it meant that many members of the general public had some knowledge of an event simply by being able to view at least one person’s recording of it. Many such episodes that previously would never have been mentioned on national and local nightly television news programs ended up being reported there, if only briefly, simply because video was available.

Of course, videos usually cannot capture the full details of an event, such as what led up to it and what happened afterwards. The news media still play a big role in providing such details.

Police–Media Conflicts

The increasing ease of photographing public events has led to many skirmishes in which officers arrest or threaten both news media representatives and the general public for recording police activities. In 2018, for example, a Colorado prosecutor declined to pursue charges against a police officer who handcuffed a Denver journalist who had taken photographs of several officers who were standing around a naked, handcuffed man seated on a sidewalk. During the same summer, Milwaukee police arrested a journalist who was taking photographs of squad cars in a police parking lot. The reporter was issued a $181 ticket for trespassing after being handcuffed, fingerprinted and questioned at a police station.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which represents journalists in conflicts with police, says that, “case law makes clear that police can limit media access when they believe such restrictions are needed for public safety or to prevent interference with an investigation.” The organization recommends that news organizations “have a ‘battle plan’ for dealing with situations before they develop.” The important need, says the committee, is to “develop a good working relationship with police officials.”

In 2017, the Reporters Committee noted that “the most dangerous place in the U.S. for a journalist was at a protest” (Fraser & Matthews, 2018). Citing the US Press Freedom Tracker, the committee said that nearly half of “press freedom incidents—such as arrests of and attacks on journalists, as well as searches and seizures of newsgathering equipment—occurred at protests” in that year.

Another issue of police–media disagreement in the second decade of the 21st century involved police attempts to block news media access to scanners that for many years had enabled journalists and the general public to listen to police audio communications. In a 2019 article based on events in Colorado, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) reported that more than two dozen law enforcement agencies in the state had encrypted all of their radio communications, meaning that journalists and others were unable to use a scanner or a smartphone app to learn about routine police calls (Peters, 2019).

Police departments in other states are beginning to impose similar restrictions. The CJR reported that “press advocates worry that such encryption efforts will leave journalists at the mercy of law enforcement agencies that might not always be motivated to alert the press to incidents (e.g., any questionable officer-involved shooting).”

No National Standards on Police–Media Relations

There are no recognized national standards for how the news media and police should deal with each other and with the public generally in reporting on crime. Dealings between the police and the media most often are a function of local practice, frequently depending on personal relationships between police officials and journalists.

On a national level, the Society of Professional Journalists has adopted a set of ethics guidelines (Society of Professional Journalists, 2014). Among them are provisions that say journalists should:

Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.

Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent.

Balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to know. Consider the implications of identifying criminal suspects before they face legal charges.

There are a number of other unofficial guidelines for journalists. For example, Andrew Seaman, who served in 2018 as the chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee, offered guidance on covering mass shootings (Seaman, 2018). One of his suggestions is that “journalists should not interfere with active shooter or hostage situations.” Because journalists in the United States are not licensed or generally regulated, such rules usually fall into the category of advice that is not mandatory. Most journalists do not belong to the Society of Professional Journalists, and even if they do, there is no enforcement mechanism for ensuring compliance. However, many news organizations maintain their own set of procedures and ethical guidelines that employees are expected to obey.

From the law enforcement side, there also are no official nationally recognized rules on dealing with the news media, although there is plenty of unofficial advice. In 2003, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) produced a “model policy” consisting of “guidelines regarding media relations and the release of information to the public through the news media.” The document was produced with funding from the US Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

The policy advises that law enforcement agencies “may” release basic information about a crime or incident, information about victims, suspects, weapons and vehicles used, stolen items, injuries and condition of victims, the name, age, address, and other basic information about arrestees and the charges against, information contained in arrest affidavits and other applicable crime or incident reports, and booking photographs.

As of 2018, the model policy was not publicly available on the IACP’s website and was accessible only by the organization’s members. The group was in the process of producing guidelines for the use of social media by law enforcement agencies. In addition, the IACP in 2006 published a volume titled, Best Practices in Law Enforcement Public Information (Braunstein & Cheek, 2006), consisting of 21 chapters by various authors discussing a wide variety of subjects, including “The Police Chief and Public Information,” “Harnessing the Power of Television News,” and “Public Information in Major Disasters.”

Another organization of police officials, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, has established a committee on public information practices that was in the process of writing its own guidance relating to social media in 2018.

Law enforcement officers exchange tips on how to handle social media effectively at an annual “SMILE Conference” sponsored by a Massachusetts-based company called LAwS Communications, which bills it as “the leading conference devoted to Social Media, Internet, and Law Enforcement initiatives.”

Just like the guidelines issued by journalism groups, the policies and best practices compiled by law enforcement organizations are advisory, and none of the approximately 18,000 policing agencies around the United States is obligated to follow them.

In the IACP volume on best public information practices, Roy Wasden and Doug Ridenour of the Modesto, CA, Police Department urge law enforcement agencies to “organize a well thought-out, written media policy prepared with input from the executive staff, the department PIO(s) and interested media.” Wasden and Ridenour explain that, “If the media contribute to the formulation of the rules, they will have ownership of them and largely police themselves” (Braunstein & Cheek, 2006). Many police agencies still lack such a comprehensive media policy.

The fragmented nature of both the news media and police organizations in the United States means that the relationship will always be a bit uncertain. Journalism organizations depend on police to provide them timely and accurate information on crimes but also will try to hold police accountable for illegal or abusive activities. For their part, police will try to enlist media to help them publicize cases in which law enforcement hopes that the public can provide information needed to find and convict crime suspects. The Internet has provided more avenues for police to appeal directly to the public. Along the way there are bound to be disputes, but ultimately both sides need cooperation from the other to do their jobs well.

The rapid changes in both journalism and technology should be the subjects of new research by experts in communications and law enforcement. Most citizens once obtained their news about crime and police mainly from a limited number of print and broadcast news media organizations. It is not known with any precision how much news they now get either from law enforcement directly through social media or from Internet sources that are not related to the mainstream media. Also unknown on a national basis is how many police departments are succeeding in telling their side of the story either on policy issues or on individual crime reports by bypassing the news media.

The key question is, are emerging law enforcement practices in this area serving the public interest? If a police agency insists on controlling its messages and not subjecting them to any news media scrutiny, and any of the content proves to be erroneous or misleading, will their efforts be counterproductive by contributing to diminished public trust in the police?

These and other important aspects of the evolving relationship between the nation’s news media and its law enforcers would benefit from up-to-date research in the electronic age.

Further Reading