Do American Cops Take a Beating in the Press?
American cops feel that they are taking a beating, but as a profession, they are the most respected in the world, they are more respected than most professions, and their public confidence levels are at an all-time high.
Regardless as to your feelings about media relations and the justice system, reporters will let you influence them if you are seen as knowledgeable and trustworthy. It’s in our best interest to fully engage.
What politicians can do and what we can do regarding the media are two different things. We need to understand the difference.
There are endless conversations regarding President Trump’s assertion that the media is an enemy of the people. The heart and soul of the president’s comments is an assertion of inaccurate and biased media coverage.
Many in law enforcement (or government in general) agree with the president. Justice workers have such strong opinions that few will read beyond my headline that the media is not our enemy.
I understand that many law enforcement officers feel that there is a literal or cultural war underway lead by a biased media who unfairly demonize them to the point of inaction. It’s known as the Ferguson Effect where cops are fearful of aggressive or proactive enforcement. This has lead to significant violent crime problems in cities throughout the country.
There is a recent article stating that cops were more afraid of negative media scrutiny than getting shot or injured; they don’t want to subject themselves and their families to endless criticism regardless of the correctness of their actions.
I have been endlessly told that the media is not our friend. Way before Trump became president, many justice workers expressed their belief that the media is inherently biased and unfair. Per critics, reporters don’t know the justice system, they have no idea as to what cops do and how they do it, they take the side of those complaining without verification or context, and their reporting is routinely wrong.
I have close to 30 years of media relations experience at the national and state levels for law enforcement and criminal justice agencies. My experience and lessons learned are summarized in my book, “Success With the Media,” available at Amazon and additional booksellers.
Regardless as to how uncomfortable it may make you, the media is not our enemy. We can be our own worst enemies by not understanding and embracing the give and take necessary when the media comes calling.
More Similar Than You Think
Reporters and cops are very similar; they both are doing difficult jobs, they both want as little friction as possible. Both are understaffed, cynical, suspicious, on call 24-7 and probably are adversely affected by the incidents they cover. Good reporters are proficient investigators using many of the techniques we use (i.e., they know the answers to many questions before they ask them).
Both understand that regardless as to how hard they try, they are going to tick off a lot of people. It comes with the territory.
Yes, the media screws up. Yes, there are bad reporters and editors. Yes, they are mostly (per data) left-leaning people who will use you as cannon fodder if they believe that you have screwed up and have harmed people. Yes, some make up quotes or misquote you or get the facts wrong. Yep, many have a bias, and some wear that prejudice like a cloak of righteousness.
But much of what I’ve said regarding their misconduct also applies to us. Neither side is unblemished. News reporting, like criminal investigations, isn’t an exact science.
Put a seasoned cop and a veteran reporter in the same room with an adult beverage and they will probably bond quickly. They often are the same people who believe that the rest of the world (especially politicians and advocates) are full of hooey, and most people will never understand who we are and what we do.
Americans Asked to Defend Media
Why am I writing this article? The director of the Institute for Nonprofit News, a network of 170 nonprofit online media outlets, said reporters covering criminal justice and other local beats face an upsurge of harassment and intimidation. But “we’re not going to shut up,” Sue Cross said in an open letter posted Thursday in response to an appeal by the Boston Globe to news organizations around the country to publish editorials on the issue, The Crime Report.
As a defender of the media and those in the criminal justice system, and after thousands of national and local news interviews, I feel qualified to respond.
Why Defend the Media?
Because they deserve to be defended. Defending them is in your best interest. When I suggest that the media is crucial to the well being of our democracy, I’m being literal.
But what you may not don’t know is the countless time’s reporters treated us fairly or agreed with our point of view.
I spent thousands of hours with reporters, editors and media management in a give and take process that was often brutal, funny, sad and insightful. They often knew more about the issue at hand than I did.
What you may not realize is all the times they completely dropped a story based on my word that their sources were wrong or they misunderstood the situation. Or they greatly watered the negativity down. Or they turned a nasty story into a fair one.
“Ever deal with cynical, stubborn, hard-nosed, suspicious criminal investigators? Good reporters are the same. If they trust you, they will listen and be influenced. If they don’t, you’re in for a hard day.”
I had national news crews walk away from a story without filling a report because their sources were full of crap. How did they discover that? I allowed them to come into our facilities and see things for themselves. I answered every question. I was polite. They spent tens of thousands of dollars to send in three-person crews without filing a report.
Ever deal with cynical, stubborn, hard-nosed, suspicious criminal investigators? Good reporters are the same. If they trust you, they will listen and be influenced. If they don’t, you’re in for a hard day.
I have gone into meetings with veteran reporters where it turned into a shouting match but ended with them discarding the story. They trusted me. If I said that their facts were wrong and offered proof, they believed me.
Trust is everything in this business and to gain trust, you have to be an advocate for the media when warranted. You have to go to bat for them when they have legitimate requests regardless as to how much your superiors disagree. It’s a give and take process. Do you want fairness? Then you have to give it.
They have to like you as a spokesperson. They have to respect your organization. Yes, it’s that simple.
I once closed the state of Maryland due to a massive snowstorm costing the state billions of dollars. Reporters didn’t ask if I was sure, they didn’t ask me to justify it, and the headlines the next day said, “State Says Stay Home.” When trusted, you have an immense amount of power.
We are going to get a lot of stories we don’t like because we are who we are. The easiest story in the world is those in power adversely affecting those without.
We make mistakes. We screw up. But we cannot overreact. We need to know how to take a hit. Like rain, negative stories are part of the landscape.
But events can easily turn from stories to issues, and it can destroy careers. That’s when your spokesperson and a philosophy of openness makes a difference.
Thus we need to understand that media can either walk away or put it right down the middle or go for the jugular. It’s happened thousands of times throughout my career. When the media chooses to see and report on both sides of a story, we win.
That’s why the media deserves to be defended. If you spend enough time with them, and if you are courteous and knowledgeable, and if you are available when needed, they will be fair most times.
Fairness is all I ever expected. And as much as it may disappoint you, I like most reporters. I sometimes liked them more than the people I worked with.
Yes, some of their stories suck. Most don’t. To me, that’s a win I’ll take any day of the week.
Back to the President
Understand that the current round of media bashing is political theater, introduced by left-leaning activists during the 1960’s and 1970’s and now embraced by the right.
So many of my media friends were openly appalled by the election of Donald Trump that they completely discarded their journalistic ethics and went completely nuts on social media.
I’m not quite sure that even if the president was an advocate for the media that their reporting would be any different. Many critics within the media have asked for fairness when reporting of the president. They have taken many reporters to task for their inaccuracies.
So the president apparently believes he has nothing to lose by baiting the media. It doesn’t help that public opinion of reporters is below that of car salespeople.
Trump joins an endless line of presidents from Washington to Jefferson to Lincoln to Reagan (as cited in my book) who believed that the media was biased. All complained that they were subject to profoundly unfair stories.
But understand that politicians and advocates can get away with much that we simply cannot do. Yep, they routinely play with the truth regardless of political affiliation. We would be hanged and quartered for doing the same thing. Our standards are much higher than theirs.
But the media is not the enemy of the people. Without a free and vigorous press, this country would be no better than those we criticize.
Yes, the media can be wrong. But at the same time, they can (and most often do) provide fair and equitable coverage.
Going to war with them is silly in the extreme. For us, attacking them is suicide. Quite frankly, the president’s criticisms have probably backfired; a beaten dog will bite in its defense.
But in a world of conflicting facts and opinions, the only formula for justice-related success is an open dialog. Reporters are looking for a little respect, and you would be surprised as to what civility and professionalism can do for news coverage.
You may like them, you may hate them, but like the family member you distrust, you have to interact with them.
If you are fair and civil, you will often get the equitable treatment you seek. If you are afraid, they will sense it. If you lie and distort, you will suffer the consequences.
American cops feel that they are taking a beating, but as a profession, they are the most respected in the world, they are more respected than most professions, and their public confidence levels are at an all-time high. If this is losing, I’ll take it.
The president may embrace political theater to his heart’s content but if you do it, you will be universally condemned. Know the difference.
The media is not your enemy. The media is not your friend. They, like us, are shcmucks simply trying to do a job with as little friction as possible. A little mutual respect goes a long way.
Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Retired federal senior spokesperson. Thirty-five years of award-winning public relations for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Former Adjunct Associate Professor of criminology and public affairs-University of Maryland, University College. Former advisor to presidential and gubernatorial campaigns. Former advisor to the “McGruff-Take a Bite Out of Crime” national media campaign. Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University. You can contact me at [email protected]