In May, the Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Police Department announced that it was exchanging its “longstanding practice of holding morning press briefings... for a newly created website it says will provide 'genuine, unfiltered information' and 'correct the news stories that got it wrong, and . . . highlight the ones that got it right.'”
Any police officer or commander who has seen him- or herself misquoted, actions criticized or overanalyzed, or some other media attention they could've done without, can probably relate to that. And as law enforcement agencies compete with other newsmakers for ever-shrinking media attention, the ability to tell their own stories in their own way can be very important indeed.
However, the police-media relationship in Milwaukee has been strained for a long time. In the same article, the city's newspaper Journal-Sentinel reported:
“The end of the press briefings is the latest loss in direct media access to police department supervisors, commanders and other officials.
“It comes two years after the institution of the department's OpenSky digital radio system, which denied access to over-the-air police radio scanners that reporters depended on for decades to alert them to breaking news.
“The start of the digital system came about the same time reporters were told they no longer could call the department's Criminal Investigation Bureau at night and other times when department officials were not available.”
Adding to this, comments by the Journal-Sentinel's editor echo the much deeper issues apparent in the agency's own description of its actions:
“'Milwaukee Police Department administrators continue to resist efforts by independent news sources to fairly and accurately report what's going on without their filter and spin,' Journal Sentinel Editor Martin Kaiser said.”
Going deeper: a media-police relationship gone wrong
On its face, the story seems like sour grapes. Telling reporters not to call detectives could just as easily be because fewer detectives have less time to talk, or because officers were providing media with unauthorized and inappropriate messages. Restricting radio access could have been due to media acting inappropriately at crime scenes.
MPD and the Journal-Sentinel, however, have been embroiled in an ongoing battle. Since 2010, as part of an ongoing investigation, the Journal-Sentinel has sought public records on thousands of misreported assaults. The misreporting goes both ways: aggravated assaults reported as simple assaults, and vice versa.
An internal department audit, commissioned after the newspaper's findings, purported to have found an error rate of 20 percent—ten times the acceptable rate set by the FBI for crime reporting. However, in a public letter posted to the MPD's new blog, Milwaukee Common Council members wrote:
“The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s recent investigations into the police department have misled the public about important facts relevant to the safety of our community. That misleading information – whether deliberate or just sloppy – needs to be corrected by someone. And because there is no other daily paper in town, we have no choice but to explain these mistakes directly to the public.”
Communication as barrier
We live in a time when more people demand more scrutiny of government agencies. Taxpayers are scared of having to pay more for services that may or may not deliver what they need, and elected officials feel that pressure as much as leaders responsible for budgets.
Thus media as an advocate for the people have every right to demand greater transparency, and the agencies they cover have every right to demand coverage with absolutely squared corners. When the public doesn't get the information it deserves—from either side—that undermines the concept of participatory democracy.
To its credit, MPD's blog balances its department news with a coherent and rational perspective on the crime reporting issue. One post, “Chief Discusses Facts Behind Crime Data Calculations,” goes especially in-depth with details about the computer systems and human beings involved in crime reporting.
It's always hard to present technical details in a way that makes sense to nontechnical people, and MPD is right to use its blog this way. But in the digital age, even despite their demand for greater scrutiny on government, people suffer from “information overload.” Stimulating content breaks through self-imposed filters.
But often confused for “stimulating” is “drama.” Any publisher, whether news organization, police department or individual, must beware not to fall into the numbers trap: page clicks or ratings are poor metrics for engagement, and high numbers don't indicate concern.
Communication as bridge-builder
Greater public scrutiny demands better relationships—the fundamental goal of any social media usage, no matter the channel. New modes of communicating with the public should supplement, not replace, traditional modes; they should take into account all the different ways, and in all the different circumstances, your public prefers to receive information.
As a general rule, media-police conflicts shouldn't drive general communications policy unless administrators understand the full, real and potential, impact to the community. Simply counteracting misperceptions is only one part of the issue. Other parts include (but are not limited to):
- Whether the people running your social accounts can adequately explain your side, in a way your community can understand.
- Whether a back-and-forth will help or hurt. Remember, people tend to tune out drama after a certain point—when it ceases to lead toward a constructive conclusion.
- How addressing one problem will affect other communications, especially emergencies. If you cut off the media (doing away with press briefings, radio access to calls and after-hours access to detectives, etc.), will you be able to reach everyone you need to, when they most need to be reached?
Rather than build and maintain barriers, use your communication policies to strengthen the lines that work, deconstruct lines that no longer do, and replace them with better ones. That's what makes your agency a trusted community leader for the long term.
- Milwaukee Police website to replace news briefings
- FBI Can correct only 2 years of police data
- Watching the Watchdog: Joint Statement from Common Council
- Chief Discusses Facts Behind Crime Data Calculations
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About The Author:
Christa M. Miller is a freelance writer based in Greenville, S.C. She specializes in law enforcement and digital forensics and can be reached at [email protected].