Within the first three years of my career in policing I became aware of the sometimes rocky relationship between the police and the media. I can recall media coverage of police related stories in both Canada and the US, and the critical focus on issues that were perceived to be important by the reporters covering the events.
The effect of the media's coverage of policing on my perceptions and their role in our society, was interesting. I often felt defensive, and then embarrassed by that reaction. At the core of my defensiveness was this odd feeling that as cops, we could take the criticism but the media didn't really understand, and couldn't really understand, the context of the stories they covered.
My perceptions were not a whole lot different than those officers I worked with on a day-to-day basis. There was a begrudging acknowledgement with some that the media had a role in our society, yes, even an important role, but "they don't have a clue what really goes on out there on the street."
The role of the media in covering the police is complicated. There is an array of stories that appear in the media that touch on the police. I see these stories falling into three categories - crime reporting, public relations, and accountability. And from time to time a particular event may include aspects of a couple of the categories, and maybe even all three.
- The crime reporting category is about what is happening in our communities, what has been reported to the police, and what the police are doing, and saying, about these crimes.
- Of course public relations stories are a way for the police to proactively get messages out to the community about public safety, preventing crime, or enlisting the public's help in solving particular crimes.
- Then, in the accountability stories, the media exercises their important role in asking hard questions about police policies and practices. Whether that be the Toronto Police Service's policy on carding, or the data that shows that the Halifax Regional Police are three times more likely to perform street checks on black people than on white people.
Now, while I have no data on the distribution of these stories throughout the media, my experience is that crime reporting and public relations stories make up the clear majority of the coverage.
Generally the first two categories do not generate much reaction within the police community, but the third certainly does. When the police, as an institution, is questioned or investigated by the media, the reaction within the police community, by individual officers, can be quite dramatic. My experience is that there is a sense of hurt that generates anger, disgust, and an expression of distrust for the media when police practices are questioned. It is this reaction that I want to explore, along with why the media question our institutions; are they just expressing their opinions? What are their motives?
Since my knowledge and experience of the media comes largely from the media, I thought I should talk to someone I trusted who worked in the media and now teaches people about the media, and how to be journalists. Michael Camp is a former employee of CBC Radio where he worked as a journalist and producer for decades. He currently is the acting Chair of the Department of Journalism and Communications and Public Policy, at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick. I have known Michael for many years through his work as a journalist, and have seen him socially a handful of times over the years. He is a person with a keen mind for social and political issues, and so who better to talk to about the role of the media in covering policing issues.
Our conversation took place in October of 2016, but I am writing this post in February of 2017. The intervening two months have seen significant upheaval in North America both politically and socially, with the media being a key player in the discussion. As you can imagine, I want to get together with Michael again to discuss the role of the media in the post U.S. election world.
Of course, we talked about the mainstream media, and Michael expressed his concern for the traditional media in a world with unrestricted access to a lot of unreliable information. How does the public know who to listen to and who to trust? And we talked about the specific issue of the coverage of the justice system, and the police role within that system.
One of the key points that Michael made about the role of the media was about communicating complex information to the public. Not just about the justice system, but any aspect of society; politics, foreign affairs, and the economy have a direct impact on our daily lives, and most of us need someone to help us digest and interpret the raw information into useable pieces - sort of the difference between information and intelligence. This is where the media fits in - they are the fact-checkers and truth-tellers.
We all seem to understand, and appreciate it, when the media grills a politician over statements that perhaps belie a rather casual relationship with the truth. We feel that we are the better for having heard the facts, and seen the politician being called-out. It would appear there is a greater good served when this happens - much like principles of sentencing in the justice system, there is a specific deterrence with the politician who was called out because it was embarrassing and politically costly, and there is a general deterrence when other politicians see what happened.
So holding the powerful accountable is important. If politicians can say anything that serves their interest regardless of whether or not it is true, our political system becomes less about principles and more about favouritism.
It is much the same with the police. If the armed agents of the state- and that's the role that you occupy as a police officer- can say and do as they please, then the functioning of our communities will be based on fear and favouritism, and not principles of justice.
Next time we'll talk more about the motivations of the media, and resilience to criticism for the police.