Q: Last week one of the media outlets ran a story about something I’m aware of. The story they told wasn’t totally correct and they made it seem like they got the story from the police. What’s going on?
A: Certainly the media has a job to do and, much like people you may work with, some have very different standards than others. Certainly no two media representatives will have the same view of an incident and therefore they may report the incident differently.
Media outlets have two basic jobs; one is to report news that is important to the public and the second is to make money to keep their business going. When we talk with the media we are never quite sure what is really going to be said in their stories.
Generally speaking, when a reporter is asking us about an event the story is often still under investigation and there isn’t much that can be said without jeopardizing the investigation. Most reporters understand this but it still doesn’t prevent them from trying to get the whole story. That is their job.
Most reporters will report our released information pretty accurately, especially when we have it documented in writing. Some reporters will miss the mark when they are trying to take notes during a verbal press release. Others just don’t seem to understand the law enforcement world and their perspective just doesn’t result in their reporting the story correctly. This is probably the most exasperating part of law enforcement working with the media.
Here’s an example of something that was reported that made us look unprofessional when the reporter got the meaning of the wording incorrect.
Law enforcement laboratories are busy with evidence to be examined and unless an item is needed to be examined quickly and for very specific reasons, the examination will be performed as time allows and usually in the order evidence is received. If a law enforcement agency wishes to have an item examined very quickly, the person submitting the evidence will mark it “priority.” Certainly not every piece of evidence is a “priority” even though it is important.
In years past an item that needed to be examined quickly was marked “rush.” However, defense attorneys and certain media reporters then described the examination as being a “rushed examination,” indicating the examination wasn’t performed precisely and with diligence. Thus, the term “rush” was changed to “priority” for an item needing to be examined quickly.
In our example, an item was sent to a laboratory for the examination of gunshot residue. There was no immediate rush on having the article tested but we did want it tested when the laboratory had time to do the examination. After significant time passed, the item was examined by the laboratory and gunshot residue was discovered on the item. The presence of gunshot residue itself was not a single indicator that a crime had or had not been committed.
A reporter for a media outlet then ran a story on the length of time it took for the item to be examined and reported that it wasn’t a “priority” of our department to have the item examined. The reporter wrote in length about the item but never reported that the term “priority” was just be a term used to indicate to the laboratory the urgency of an examination.
What many readers incorrectly concluded from the story was that our agency was not really concerned about having the item examined. That was simply not true.
What wasn’t relayed to the readers was that the examination was just one part of a complex case that later came together with other information and evidence and resulted in the suspect being indicted, and later convicted of murder. The timing of evidence examination was simply not the “priority” the reporter wanted to make it.
We would hope that accuracy in reporting for the media is as important as an officer’s accuracy in his offense report. Probably the biggest difference is, in our opinion, righteously convicting criminals is more important than reporting the story. This is not to say the media does not have an important role in society. It just means that when it comes to law enforcement, what is important is to get it right, not just hurry the investigation through.
So, you may hear some media make a report that isn’t exactly correct. Every person sees things differently and we will continue to provide correct information. How one interprets or reports that information is out of our hands.