Why is Media Coverage of Police Actions So Bad?

Posted on November 1, 2011

If you’ve followed any “mainstream” media coverage of the Occupy movement, especially related to incidents involving police, it should be overwhelmingly obvious to you that just about every story follows the same basic formula: First, some event involving police takes place. Second, and seemingly within moments, reporters rush to the nearest police employee handling “Communications” (or some other euphemistic variation of “PR”) and request officially-sanctioned comment on what occurred. Upon receiving this official comment, reporters often reprint it in the leads of their articles. All subsequent content is thereby framed in the context of a police narrative.

This poor reporting is manifestly a byproduct of the totally discredited “objectivity” brand of journalism, inculcated as it is in so many students who studied “journalism” or “communications” in college. Because they lack the ability or desire to really understand what’s going on with the Occupy movement, many mainline journalists prefer to stick with straightfoward, easily-digestible cops v. protesters storylines. Employing simple dichotomies makes reporting easy – you don’t even have to attend the event. Just make sure the police department’s resident PR specialist is on speed dial, and everything will be OK.

For example, Oakland’s local ABC affiliate asserted in a web article last Tuesday that “no injuries had been reported” by police. If ABC’s journalists had been doing actual journalism, presumably they would have witnessed the incident in which Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen sustained life-threatening injuries after he was struck in the head with a police projectile. But the situation at Occupy Oakland was very scary that night, so reporters must have determined it would be better for them to stay holed up in a newsroom somewhere — perhaps following along on Twitter instead.

Narrowing this to the NYPD, given its official spokespeoples’ blatant evasiveness and dishonesty as of late, on what ground do journalists have an ethical duty to report the department’s “side” of every story involving police? I’m not aware of any public statements by police commissioner Ray Kelly — or, frankly, Mayor Mike Bloomberg — on any aspect of police misconduct over the past few weeks. I’m not aware of either man even acknowledging that allegations of misconduct exist, nevermind that they could be worrisome. One would think that as human beings, Kelly and Bloomberg become distressed when others are needlessly injured, but you’d never know it by their words or actions.

Something else worth noting: Are you a journalist? Yes? Do you wish to obtain official comment from the NYPD about something? Yes? Well, if your preference would be to speak with a real person, tough luck. Official responses are communicated solely through email. The NYPD does maintain a phone number for media inquiries, though the individual on the other line always instructs people to email “DCPI@nypd.org.” Official correspondence with journalists is thus limited to email exchanges, giving the department’s official PR man plenty of time to formulate pitch-perfect answers that seldom reveal anything even remotely interesting. I guess current NYPD spokesman Paul Browne is putting his master’s degree from the very prestigious and serious Columbia Graduate School of Journalism to good use.

(In a hilarious twist, former NYPD spokeswoman Lieutenant Jennara Cobb, who now works for the NYPD’s “Internal Affairs” division, was charged last week with three misdemeanors for leaking information to her police union cronies about the Bronx District Attorney’s investigation into widespread ticket-fixing.)

All this raised a question in my mind: why is mainstream coverage of police actions so bad? The most intuitive answer is that covering any “beat” entails certain concessions for reasons of practicality; journalists must cozy up to sources, paying deference to sleazy people who may nonetheless possess valuable information. That’s an understandable and difficult tension for reporters to navigate. But the “beat” issue doesn’t explain why every story having to do with a police incident must always, without exception, contain an official version of events from the police’s perspective — one that is cobbled together by a seasoned PR operative.

No one expects NYPD spokespeople to be sterling practitioners of transparency. But when Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said nothing about Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna’s indiscriminate use of pepper-spray on women who were already in police custody – instead opting to criticize protesters for their allegedly “tumultuous conduct” — it became painfully obvious that he and his subordinates in “Communications” are not acting in good faith when they speak to media. In fact, they consciously and continuously distort the truth to advance their own interests. This isn’t surprising, of course – police departments are a shady business, and there are always misdeeds aplenty to cover up. But that journalists feel such a solemn obligation to quote police PR people every time they run a story, even if those spokespeople have a long record of outright obfuscation, is simply absurd. I’m not arguing that seeking the NYPD’s comment is inherently wrong. But affirming the notion that any news report is incomplete without their input amounts to journalistic malpractice.

What’s the recourse? I’d say there is a need for more journalists willing to cover the police “unembedded.” War reporting is a good analog to consider (though I’m not drawing any equivalence between the severity of abuse in New York compared with, say, Afghanistan). It’s very telling that journalists who work unembedded on principle — like Jeremy Scahill, Nir Rosen, and some others – tend to get the best stories. Whereas mainline “war reporters,” who become buddies with the Army unit they’re assigned to accompany, only get a small fraction of the story. They become (understandably) ingratiated to the US military personnel who constantly surround them.

Similarly, there’s a long tradition of domestic journalists warming up to their local police chief, maintaining friendly relations with the “top brass,” and so on – often to the detriment of their reporting. True, buddying around with cops may be useful in certain instances. But with respect to the NYPD, which has repeatedly demonstrated its sclerotic inability to interact normally with press — not to mention that it now refers to itself as a “para-military organization” — the notion that journalists have an obligation to parrot the police department’s official line on abuse, misconduct — or anything else, really — is offensive.

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