Taming the beast

How to keep news-hungry media fed


     When working with the press, the sky's the limit. Not only can law enforcement rely on journalists in large-scale investigations, but reporters can help disseminate Amber Alerts, Crime Watch notifications, crime prevention tips and more.

     "There are a number of proactive things police can do," Ruffin says. "When law enforcement does something good, they should tell the media, 'Hey we did this.' If you have a good rapport, the media will almost always respond with news coverage. The police and the media really can work together effectively."

Warring factions
     With all these benefits, why the hostile relationship between the two?

     Sometimes green reporters fail to understand the importance of effectively working with police. "I think inexperienced journalists screw it up for everyone else," Ruffin says. "But there has always been an adversarial relationship between the two."

     Who can blame law enforcement for its negative views? The press has cast law enforcement in an unsavory light many times. These examples create a climate of mistrust, Ruffin points out. He believes if reporters adequately explain the story they are after as well as the information they seek and why, it would help a lot.

     On the flip side, Ruffin emphasizes law enforcement must meet the media half-way and developing ways to work together. Officials might express a willingness to provide reporters with information, but at the same time list their expectations. "Tell the press, 'I want you to be honest with me because I'm going to be honest with you,' " he says.

     Ryan teaches law enforcers to be more maverick-like. The news analyst and commentator, who's been featured on ABC World News, Fox News, Court TV, Inside Edition and MSNBC News, says law enforcement agencies traditionally have been very good victims. "You kick law enforcement when they're down, and they just take it," he says. "They don't fight back because they have cases they're worried about and they're afraid of being sued. But why should you let people kick you when you're down? You can say things in a certain way that gives the news media what they need, doesn't harm the case and gets your side of the story out there."

Say anything
     When faced with a pack of news-hungry journalists, officials often follow their first instinct and turn away. That's the No. 1 mistake law enforcement makes, says Ryan.

     Two words define many law enforcement media releases, and they are: No Comment. Ryan says this phrase means one of three things to most people: "You're hiding something, you're lying or you must be guilty." "Saying 'No comment' is terrible because you have set the tone," he says.

     Police Chief Ken Manthey of the Portage (Wisconsin) Police Department recently spent weeks negotiating a media swell when a case involving a family-member abduction evolved into a kidnapping, murder and child abuse investigation that drew national media attention. He refers to "no comment" as the worst thing agencies can say. "With open records laws, the media is going to get the information somehow. Why not put it in a positive light rather than a negative one?" he asks.

     It's important to specify what information cannot be released, and follow such statements with facts that can be made public, notes Ryan. Officials can simply say: "Out of respect for the case and our victims, we are not going to be able to release all the information you seek because we have a responsibility to keep the integrity of the case together."

     Ryan assigns the name "The Indictment" to the second most common error authorities make. This is where something happens, say an officer-involved shooting, and the department fails to discuss the situation at all. Before long, the victim's family talks to the press, then an activist in police brutality or another cause speaks out. Meanwhile the department continues to say, "No comment" or "The matter is under investigation."

     "To me that's like an indictment," he explains. Like a grand jury, the public hears just one version of events, and that account might be very negative. "Ideas are formulated in the first hours and days of the situation," he says. "Later after the police have been pounded for weeks, they say 'We've got to get out there and say something.' But guess what? You lose; it's too late."

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