If a gunshot is heard down the block, it’s not only police that rush to the scenes. News reporters may not have flashing lights and sirens, but they still hurry out in order arrive at the scene often before or at the same time as the law enforcement.
A reporter may call the public information officer (PIO) asking, “What’s going on?” and “Can you confirm this?” The PIO could respond by saying, “I don’t know,” while then promising a call back, or they may provide the information that really makes a story sing.
The Edinboro University Public Relations Student Society of America (EUPRSSA) organized the panel, “Media and Law Enforcement: A Complicated and Critical Relationship,” held on Thursday, Oct. 1 in Compton Hall in response to the events that have taken place in the past year involving law enforcement and the media.
“EUPRSSA wanted to educate students on the way media reports on stories involving law enforcement,” chapter president, Lauren Washington said, “as well as the relationship between these two professions.”
“For example, the country was very quick to point fingers as who was wrong in the Ferguson and New York situations, with Michael Brown and Eric Garner. However, no one wants to take responsibility for their own actions.”
The panel included six panelists from news organizations and law enforcement. Lou Baxter, Erie-based WJET news director, moderated the discussion.
“The people on the panel were picked based on their expertise in their respective fields,” Washington said. “Furthermore, they were chosen based on their location, because we wanted to have a national view, not just local.”
Reporters may grow frustrated with the police, waiting for information, as it their job to get information to the public as soon as possible.
The police may grow frustrated with the constant, nagging calls from reporters who are looking for the story, when there is minimal information that can be shared yet. However, the two must work together, according to the panelists.
“My experience is that law enforcement understands the role that we play and the jobs we have to do,” executive editor of The Erie Times News, Doug Oathout said. “Just as we understand them.”
Emily Matson, a reporter for WICU in Erie, mostly reports on stories about crime. Over the 12 years she has spent with the television station, Matson has built a relationship with the local police.
“It’s really about being able to be a people person,” she said. “When I first started, sometimes I’d go to the Erie Police Department and I’d sit with the PIO, and if I didn’t have a story, we’d just sit there and talk about not necessarily work but his family, my family, what we did last night.”
Panelists agreed that it’s in times of crisis the relationship between media and law enforcement becomes most strained. Building up relationships before a crisis can determine how effective communication is during the situation.
“In difficult situations, how fast you get information and how good that information is relies on your relationship with the source,” Oathout said. “That goes for working with the police or almost any beat you have.”
“By managing your relationships with individuals, with the people you write about, it helps you to do your job all that much better. If you don’t have a good relationship with someone and if they know that you’re missing a piece of the story, they won’t volunteer that to you.”
Dan Lane, the PIO for the Gaithersburg, Maryland Police Department works with media on a daily basis. Whether he is in Maryland or not, reporters are always emailing and calling him to find out information.
In a time of crisis, Lane receives two phone calls. The first will be from the sergeant on duty, telling him to listen to the radio and find out what is happening. The other is from the media, asking for information.
Generally, his response is, “stand by, I’ll get back to you in a minute.”
After meeting with a command staff, Lane decides what information can be shared. He and the others must consider what could hurt the investigation, what could be important for the community to know and other factors.
“We don’t try to hold back anything...[but] we can’t just give you what you want right away because I don’t want to mislead you with anything,” Lane said.
Tracy Geibel is the Campus Life Editor at The Spectator. She can be reached at email@example.com.