Law Enforcement and the Media

By Jason K Jensen, Private Investigator

I. Introduction–the Problem and Perceptions of Crime.

How the media portrays law enforcement agencies drastically affects the way the public views and relates to the police. (Nichols, 1990). The media has a strong influence on the public. In 21st century America, many Americans perceive crime as a major threat. A 2009 Gallup Poll reported that 74% of those surveyed said crime was higher than the year earlier. 55% of respondents claimed that crime posed an "extremely" or "very serious" problem in the United States. (Barken-Bryjak, 2011).

As a result it is paramount for law enforcement to be active with the media either to address public fear or to immediately correct misconceptions head-on. As the leaders of law enforcement, it is their duty to protect the department and their officers from the misconceptions and misinformation that media can portray. More importantly, it is their duty to address the concerns of the community. To ignore misconceptions can be deadly for their officers or others can have political consequences. (Barken-Bryjak).

II. The Overdramatize of Crime.

Certainly crime is a very real problem that deserves to be addressed by law enforcement it is equally true that much of what crime is does not come from crime itself. Even though crime has remained fairly steady and has even declined some since 1993, the perceptions, as mentioned above, is that most Americans believe crime is higher than ever. (Barken-Bryjak). Unfortunately for law enforcement, media does dramatize crime. For instance, homicide is featured in countless books, television shows, movies, and news stories, and yet the reality is far different. Homicide does not fall within the top ten causes of death according to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010. (Barken-Bryjak). In fact, that list is headed by heart disease, cancer, traffic accidents, and suicides.

Media reportedly overdramatizes crime in two ways. In the way they present crime stories in the news is the first way. Media will use crime stories as teasers in an effort to capture the viewers’ attention. News stations will often report more crime stories than any other topic, even more than sports. The news outlets will give extra emphasis to a violent crime or a crime spurt, which may give an impression that crime is recurring more frequent. That style of news reporting can give the impression of a "crime wave." (Barken-Bryjak, 2010).

The second way media can overdramatize crime is by devoting disproportionate attention to violent crime. In journalism there is an old idiom "if it bleeds, it leads." Many studies have shown that violent crimes have been featured one-fourth of the time, and yet violent crimes like homicide represents less than 1 percent of all crime. Researchers have found that media has distorted actual crime trends. In example, violent crimes dropped 33% from 1990 to 1998. In contrast, new outlets increased coverage of violent crimes 473% in the same reporting period. (Barken-Bryjak).

III. Addressing the Media Interviews and Information Dissemination.

When conducting media interviews and disseminating information accuracy of that information is critical to the rapport of the department. Accurate information to the department and the criminal justice system is important. Equally, accurate information from the department to the public is critical. Correctness of released information the first time prevents the department from having to issue corrections. If it becomes discovered that incorrect information was disseminated, whether unclear, misleading, or just plain wrong, the correction should be made immediately. (Garner, 2010). The public and the department deserve to hear from their chief of police what he/she is thinking. Therefore, the police chief should utilize the media to convey that information swiftly, the message that the chief wishes to convey. Caution should be exercised to avoid early release if it means the information would hamper the investigation or expose potential danger for its officers.

IV. The Ways News Media Helps Create and Reinforce Crime Myths.

When the media is left unchecked, or if the leaders of law enforcement fail to involve themselves in the conveyance of accurate, timely, relevant information to the public, with or without the help of the media, the media and the public are left to speculate. Because the media presents crime disproportionately, the public receives a false impression that all crime is violent.

Additionally, there are unfair perceptions created against youth offenders. Researchers in California found that 70% of new stories covered youth offender violence, and yet youth offenders only made up 14% of the total violent crime arrests. Many of these youth offenders are African American teenagers. Moreover, despite the reported decline of youth offender homicides, polls showed that Americans believed youth offenders were responsible for the majority of violent crimes, despite the fact they were arrested for violent offenses less than in 14% percent of the crimes. (Barkan-Bryjak).

These problems with media reporting contribute to crime myths, the false beliefs about crime and the criminal justice system. As if direct media coverage wasn’t bad enough to create crime myths, but also politicians and news coverage of politicians’ agendas contribute to crime myths. Often politicians use fear of crime as a platform to get into office or for re-election. (Barkan-Bryjak). Political rhetoric adds to perpetuate the public’s opinion that crime is worse than it truly is.

In addition to these experiences, an additional source of crime myths comes from the police themselves. Poor training, poor responses in interviews by police can contribute to the crime myths. In example, when the news is covering breaking news and the chief of police responds with "no comment," the news nearly always covers that response. That is a poorly thought out response by the chief. He would have served himself, the department, and the community better had the response been "I can’t answer that just yet because the investigation is still in progress." Otherwise, the "no comment" remark sounds too familiar to mob bosses responses in Congressional hearings. (Garner, 2009). The failure to construct the answer correctly and then the over-emphasis of the "no comment" remarks, aids the public to conceive the existence of conspiracies, botched investigations, and the belief that crime goes unpunished.

V. Dispelling Crime Myths is Partly the Responsibility of Law Enforcement.

To combat these myths and their creation, the law enforcement executives must prepare themselves to be the spokesperson or have assigned well-trained spokespersons in place before the media calls upon the department for answers to questions. The Department should devise and maintain a media policy, and provide all within the Department training concerning media interviews and the dissemination of information, and the proper channels for dissemination. The purpose of the policy is not to control information to undermine the criminal justice system, rather than purpose is to prevent the undermining of the criminal justice system by attempting to eliminate "bad press" and the continuation of crime myths. The crime myths won’t take care of themselves. In part, the solution to the problem lies with law enforcement. (Garner, 2009).


Sources:

  1. Barken, S.E. & Bryjak, G.J. (2011). Fundamentals of Criminal Justice: A Sociological View (2nd ed.). Jones & Bartlett Learning.
  2. Garner, G.W. (2009). Surviving the Circus: How Effective Leaders Work Well with the Media. Police Chief Magazine.
  3. Garner, G.W. (2010). Police Chief 101: Practical Advice for the Law Enforcement Leader. Thomas Books.
  4. Nichols, L.D. (1990). Law Enforcement Patrol Operations: Police Systems and Practices. McCutchan Pub. Corp.
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Jason Jensen is an associate of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, Heartland Chapter, and he anticipates full membership with the National Association. The Heartland Chapter of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners is dedicated to the detection and deterrence of fraud. It is a non-profit professional organization comprised of fraud investigators, internal and external auditors, law enforcement, accountants and finance professionals that is dedicated to the education and training of anti-fraud measures. The Heartland Chapter has approximately 145 members from various companies, organizations, law enforcement agencies, and other public or private firms. As an experienced fraud investigator, being certified is honor demonstrating a commitment to the discipline and respect for the profession.

© 2017. Jason Jensen and Jensen Private Investigations, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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