The Role of the Media After a Critical Incident

“Here now the news.” The phrase made famous by Roger Grimsby and later parodied by Chevy Chase leads me to the topic of this post. The role of the media is as entrenched in our country as freedom itself. I personally believe the order of the Constitutional Amendments found in the Bill of Rights is rational not random. The freedom of the press is guaranteed on the same level as freedom of religion and the freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievance. Therefore, no one should be surprised that journalists take their profession and their roles in society seriously.

So, what is the role of the media after a critical incident? First, you should expect inquiries into the facts. That is the core function of the media; inquire. Second, it is reasonable to expect resistance to any perceived or actual restrictions on information. That is the second function of the media; be steadfast in the pursuit of the facts. Third, expect skepticism. That is another function of the media; stay objective and avoid bias. In short, the media will cover the incident, the investigations, the outcome of the investigations and the reaction of the public. Their involvement will typically begin with a response to the scene.

In my experience, most members of the media are professionals. They take their jobs seriously and pride themselves on the legacy of a profession practiced by many patriots throughout history. This is not to say that I have never disagreed or had spirited discussions with members of the media. Dissent and disagreement are the cornerstones of human interaction, professional relationships and democracy. LEOs certainly rely on the media to assist with calls for victims and witnesses as well as proactive efforts to prevent crime. In turn, the media relies upon LEOs to help them investigate and report.

In 2011, the most important thing to remember is the role of the “informal media,” which is my name for the unofficial “reporting” on the Internet. The concern for LEOs and agencies is the speed with which the informal media will respond with postings about a critical incident. Unlike the media professionals described above, often this “reporting” is no more than the promulgation of conjecture and bias in furtherance of an agenda. I could link to some of this content, but to do so would increase the likelihood that it will appear more often in search engines. The fairly new practice of allowing people to anonymously comment on news stories contained on legitimate internet news sites has, in my humble opinion, led to a blurring of the lines between the media professionals and people advancing an agenda. I challenge you to search a few recent officer involved shootings and you will see examples of this phenomenon.

So how can LEOs and agencies prepare for the response of the media, formal and informal, to a critical incident? First, recognize that you must prepare for and respond to media inquiries. Second, your response must include the internet such as posting press releases on Facebook, your department’s webpage and Twitter. You cannot afford to let those with ulterior motives to get ahead of you in cyberspace.

For the LEOs involved in critical incidents, I encourage my clients to avoid the news coverage and the informal media. You already know what happened, you were there. The inaccuracies, whether honest or intentional, will only serve to upset you as you work through the incident. Focus instead on your family and your role in the investigations of that incident.

In the end analysis, I would never replace the free press in the United States. It is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. The more we are able to recognize the separate and distinct roles of the media and law enforcement, the more we can safeguard the integrity of our legal system. My biggest fear is that the informal media, aided albeit unwillingly by anonymous comment postings to legitimate news stories, will one day compromise the ability of our legal system to analyze the use of force by LEOs. After all, grand juries and trial juries are composed of citizens who read both the well-investigated news stories and off the cuff drivel often in the same sitting.

As I finish this post, my thoughts are with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office and the family and friends of Sergeant Kenneth Vann. Sergeant Vann was murdered in the early morning hours of May 28, 2011 as he sat at a red light in his patrol car. The streets are more violent for LEOs today. While the law surrounding the use of deadly force has not changed, the perception of any reasonable LEO has changed. LEOs have less time to react today than they did in the past and the likelihood that a person would actually try to kill a LEO has increased exponentially in the past few years. The situation will not get any better as counties and states close budget shortfalls with early release programs. California, Kentucky, Virginia, Connecticut Alabama, Arizona and others have discussed or implemented such measures in the past two years. I hope that the media professionals will include these facts in their reports.

Each critical incident and each use of force, especially deadly force, must be examined separately. While law enforcement agencies have the responsibility to disseminate information to the media and the public, the media professionals have the responsibility to fairly report all of the facts. When both professions meet their obligations, the public wins.

Stay safe.

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