No Comment? : How to Deal with the 4th Estate
Updated: Jul 12
Over the course of my law enforcement career, I’ve witnessed countless acts of bravery. I’ve watched cops dive through windows and rappel out of helicopters. On a routine basis, cops around the country charge toward gunfire, brave burning automobiles and do various other feats of courage. It is the height of irony, then, that many of these same heroes go into cold sweats at the thought of dealing with the media. To be fair, it’s an understandable concern. In the current climate, one misspoken word can lead to hateful emails, calls for your termination or crazy activists splashing your home address across the world wide web. If done properly, though, media relations isn’t as risky a venture as it seems.
THE 4th ESTATE: WHY MEDIA MATTERS
In the often rough and tumble day to day of law enforcement, it’s easy to forget that the profession has its roots in some very venerable concepts. It’s an honorable profession. New officers take an oath to defend The Constitution. We’re there to uphold the rights of citizens just as much as enforcing the law. With these things in mind, cops have an obligation to respect the role of media in a free republic. The press has often been referred to as “The Fourth Estate” of government. Although the origin of the term would take some time to dissect, the important takeaway is that they have a role to play in a free republic. While the press certainly has its issues, they play the very essential role of watchdog. It’s not hard to find examples of just what heinous things unscrupulous government officials can get away with when free from the loud voice of a boisterous media.
While it’s okay for police officers to acknowledge the media’s shortcomings, it’s essential that their necessity to freedom be acknowledged. As sworn defenders of that freedom, officers must resist the urge to view them as the enemy.
While fair-minded reporters may not be the enemies we often label them, it would be a mistake to assume that they won’t make an inexperienced cop look like a fool if they provide the appropriate fodder for such a characterization. It’s imperative that any officer who may interact with the media know a few basic things about doing so.
When you do an interview, the media outlet will take your five minutes of speaking and distill it down to a twenty second sound byte. The part they choose to include in their final product may not be the part you really wanted to convey. The best way to combat this possibility is sound messaging. Pick the two or three things that you most want to convey in your interview. No matter what direction the interview goes, bring it back to these two or three base points. This increases the likelihood that your desired messages will be included in the final product. It also decreases the chance that you’ll end up saying something you shouldn’t. Along those lines, it’s probably best to assume that there’s no such thing as “off the record”. Don’t say anything that you wouldn’t want to hear quoted on the nightly news.
Know Your Audience:
Different types of media will use your interview differently. Television media uses visual imagery to lay over their spoken report. They’ll also probably intersperse a very short clip of you saying something at a place that fits into their storyline. Radio news looks for longer sound bytes that they can interject into their pre-recorded story. Finally, written media will probably make the most ample use of quotes from your interview.
Neighbors Gotta Live Together:
If confronted, are you more likely to have a big fight with an out of towner you’ll never see again, or a longtime neighbor? Obviously, most of us would be much more hesitant to pick a fight with the person we’ll have to see again. The same principle applies to dealing with members of the media. The horror tales you may have heard about reporters sneaking past checkpoints, spying on people or outrageously violating officers’ privacy usually involve out of town reporters who are there for a big national story. They’re under intense pressure to do whatever is necessary to advance their career, and they might not care who they upset in the process.
The vast majority of reporters that most cops will deal with are local or area reporters. They understand that they’ll have to work with you again at some point, and are typically respectful as a result. In the same way, it’s important to remember that you will probably have to work with them at some point. Even if it’s inconvenient for your schedule, going out of your way to make sure they have the material they need for their deadline will go a long way toward building a mutually respectful relationship.
Be a Human:
The ability to control emotions is one of a police officer’s greatest strengths, but it can be a massive weakness when dealing with the media (or the public in general). There are segments of the population who try desperately to portray law enforcement officers as unfeeling robots who get a power trip out of seeing others suffer. Neither they (or the general public) sees the incredible emotional trauma that the average officers undergoes in the course of their career. They need to.
You don’t need to shed crocodile tears for the camera, but you do need to be willing to show your humanity. Was the officer involved in the traumatic incident torn up over it? Maybe the public needs to know that. Are all of the officers at the department upset over the discovery of corruption within the ranks? The public needs to know that.
Most of all, they need to know that law enforcement is a noble profession whose practitioners take their oaths seriously. There are very legitimate reasons that officers learn to hide their emotions, but it’s good for the public to see that they’re human too.
Finally, treat media interaction as the necessary, legitimate skill it really is. We train for driving, shooting, and a plethora of other things. The perusal of a short article about media relations may be sufficient for an average cop, but supervisors and media officers should spend time studying and practicing the skill. There are countless quality courses on the issue, and taking one serves to show just how much more you still have to learn about the subject.
Modern media is prolific and there’s a high probability that every law enforcement officer will have to deal with them at some point in their career. But that’s not the chief reason to take the interaction seriously. Now, more than ever, it’s important for departments to bridge the gap between them and their community. Working effectively with the media allows the profession to do just that, while honoring the much-needed concept of transparency.