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Are cops trained to lie to the media and cover up police crimes and dirt?

by Cara Donlon-Cotton Friday, Dec. 22, 2006 at 10:08 PM
cdonloncotton@yahoo.com

Read this article written by a cop for Police Public Relations and you answer the question? The answer is pretty obvious!

Recognizing Reporter Tactics - aka How to bully the media!

This article was in the November 2006 issue of Law and Order on page 19. It was written by Cara Donlon-Cotton. It is titled Recognizing Reporter Tactics.

Read this article and then tell me if you think the policed are corrupt. While it is titled “Recognizing Reporter Tactics” it probably should be titled “how to prevent the media from getting negative news about cops” or “how to threaten and intimidate the media” or perhaps “how to BS the media”.

Some great quotes from the article. Remember a cop wrote this!!!!

  • the reporter is ... the “bad guy” with the potential to publish or broadcast damaging information.
  • a conversation may start like this: “Man, John. From what I can tell, it looks like that thug deserved everything he got.” ... “So how many times did you hit him?” The rule here is: If you’re comfortable, you shouldn’t be. Put your guard back up and pay attention—this conversation might be going somewhere you don’t want to go. [So cops are supposed to cover up the crimes of cops???]
  • Most reporters aren’t used to being confronted, and they’ll back down, especially when confronted by someone with arrest powers. [so it’s ok to threaten reporters with arrest when you don’t want to give them information???]
  • For example, a reporter ... ask, “The suspect’s mother says you beat him while he was in handcuffs. How do you respond?” ... If the officer says it is true, he just hung himself out to dry. [So PIO (Public Information Officers) cops are supposed to cover up the crimes of cops??]

In the classic game of cops and robbers, there are good guys and bad guys. In the classic game of cops and reporters, we tend to view the media’s role of “good guy” and “bad guy” as fluctuating. One day the reporter is the “good guy” who can help disseminate information, and other days, he is the “bad guy” with the potential to publish or broadcast damaging information. In reality, though, as a law enforcement officer, you are the subject of the reporters’ game.

In the minds of reporters, you are the one with the information, and they are the ones trying to get it. In their minds, they are always the “good guys,” and more often than not, you are either the “bad guy” or the “very bad guy.” Essentially, they view you in one of two ways, as a confidential informant who needs to be worked or as a tight-lipped suspect who needs to be broken.

The best way to prepare for a reporter encounter is to familiarize yourself with some of the tactics used to get information. Much like policing, where real knowledge is gained more on the streets than in the academy, these tactics are the ones picked up on the job—ones not found in any handbook but ones that work. All officers, rank and file, should be on the lookout for the following red flags:

Frequently Bumping into a Reporter While Off-Duty

Such occurrences are not coincidences. Reporters know the hangouts, and they make it a point to frequent them. Valuable information can be gained from establishing relationships with everyone’s favorite bartender, waitress, or bouncer. Plus, that ever-impressive reporter eavesdropping skill comes in handy. Ever hear the story about the young, ambitious reporter who was about to be assigned to the courts beat?

As soon as he heard he was moving to that particular beat, he made it a point to find out where the DAs met for happy hour. He started showing up at the bar, drinking martinis with the prosecutors, having a fun time and making friends. A month later, when he finally moved to the courts beat, he had an instant network of “friends” who assumed he was OK because he was their drinking buddy.

The DAs fell for the trick. When the reporter started publishing stories with information that hurt their cases, they realized what had happened. The rule here is: Know your friends. Don’t be paranoid and run a background check on everyone, but be wary.

Comfortable Conversation

Reporters know the lingo, and they can sound an awful lot like…you. Much like a seasoned investigator speaking to a suspect in his own language, reporters use this tactic as a way to make you feel comfortable and thereby cause you to relax your guard. Even if they seem to know the situation and are talking supportively, they’re still trying to get a piece of information.

For example, a conversation may start like this: “Man, John. From what I can tell, it looks like that thug deserved everything he got.” But it ends like this: “So how many times did you hit him?” The rule here is: If you’re comfortable, you shouldn’t be. Put your guard back up and pay attention—this conversation might be going somewhere you don’t want to go.

Threats

“Do you really want to see your name in the paper as the corrupt cop? I’m giving you a chance to clear your name.” “I’d hate for your little girl to see it this way on the news. Tell me your side.” “Do you have a good lawyer? It’s nothing personal, of course, but my newspaper is notorious about going after officials who bury information.” “I’d hate to file a Freedom of Information Act request. Why don’t you just give me the information I need now and we can all avoid the hassle?”

Note how subtle the threat is in all of these examples and how, in each one, the reporter is giving the subject a way out. They’re essentially trying to use intimidation to get information, and it is a strategy their editors and producers would not officially condone. Therefore, if you react properly to a threat, the advantage is yours.

First, do not respond with the information. If a reporter is resorting to the threat stage, he most likely has nothing. He’s trying to bait you. Don’t take the bait. Then, call the reporter on it. Use a simple, “Are you threatening me?” Most reporters aren’t used to being confronted, and they’ll back down, especially when confronted by someone with arrest powers.

Be sure to document the threat. If you establish a pattern with a reporter using this tactic, you can take the issue up with his employer—newspapers and TV stations don’t want to damage ties and may remove the reporter from the public safety beat. But the main thing to remember is that 90% of the time, the threatening reporter is desperate for information. (The other 10%, he’s trying to be a thorn in your side.) Don’t ever let yourself be coerced into giving up what you weren’t planning on divulging.

Legal Intimidation

Reporters love to scream about lawsuits, “First Amendment rights” and the “public’s right to know.” Legal intimidation is usually an effective tactic. By employing this tactic, the reporters can bully their way into scenes, get information to which they’re not entitled, and cause pandemonium just by mentioning the Constitution and—gasp—any type of federal rights violation.

Newspaper reporters, especially, are usually the ones who use this. They’ve been instructed since journalism school that they are the bastions of the First Amendment and they are entitled to everything they want to see, read, hear, etc. Ironically, few reporters are well-versed in the specific laws about which they’re quick to scream. In fact, on the first day on the job, reporters are usually issued a card that cites codes they are to recite if they are denied access to what they want. They are told to gain access, and if they’re denied, to lodge a complaint and voice their objections on the record. They’re told, the “legalities will be figured out later,” and then they are rewarded for every uproar they have caused, legitimate or not.

TV reporters are also guilty of legal intimidation, but as they are bound by more stringent rules and regulations, like FCC guidelines, they tend to be more familiar with media law. The video journalists usually know where they can go and where they can’t—they’ll try to break the rules, but if you catch them, they usually behave. But unless you know the laws yourself, it’s easy to be intimidated. The best way to counter the tactic of legal intimidation is simple: Know the laws.

Sometimes reporters will offer you information in the hope of reciprocation, which may take many forms

Personal Reactions

Personal or emotional responses make good news stories. This tactic is usually used on non-ranking officers because a bad reaction by a uniformed officer can be exploited into a “bad morale” story. For example, a reporter might approach a line officer with, “I heard the new chief is going to disband your unit next week.” The line officer should be trained to expect such baiting by reporters and be instructed to not go ballistic because that’s precisely the reaction on which the reporter is banking. The best response is, “That information is available to you in the chief’s office.”

Corrections

Reporters will purposely offer misinformation with the hopes of getting an officer to correct it. This allows the reporter to either confirm a whispering they’ve picked up or, even better, to get new information. Take for example, the reporter working on the inevitable “budgets being slashed” story. He confronts the public information officer with, “I understand city council is really tightening the belt and the police department is going to take a big hit, maybe no raise this year for officers.”

It would be best for the PIO to refer the reporter to the city council and to not answer with something along the lines of, “Yes, there will be cuts, but we’ve been assured the officers will get their raises this year.” Even if the PIO’s answer is correct, it is not the place for the PIO to comment on an unconfirmed budget. Obviously, with such a question, the reporter is digging for information and willing to use a contact as a source.

Confrontation with Witnesses

Reporters will use the words of a witness to bait officers into giving information along with an emotional response. No matter how an officer responds, it will always results in a situation with the officer’s word against someone else’s, usually a distraught person who will automatically gain public sympathy. Be aware that this is almost always a lose-lose situation.

For example, a reporter may come at a uniformed officer with the TV cameras rolling and ask, “The suspect’s mother says you beat him while he was in handcuffs. How do you respond?” How does one respond? If the officer says it’s not true, then he’s calling the mother a liar. If the officer says it is true, he just hung himself out to dry. If said officer says he followed procedures, you better hopes he’s done so because any deviation from the SOP will mean he’s a liar and your department is corrupt. See just how bad this situation could be?

In a case like this, there’s only one way to get out of the interview fairly unscathed: Maintain composure and tell the reporter that the initial incident report, with the arrest details, will be made available to him as soon as possible. As a general rule, when confronted with a baiting question and a witness statement, maintain your composure and refer the reporter higher up the chain.

If you’re the end of the chain, composure is key…as is sticking very closely to the factual information that is available for release. In situations like this, the media are looking more for emotions than facts, don’t let them do that you. The majority of these tactics sound, well, slimy. You’re not going to find them in any journalism textbook, and you’re not going to find many reporters who will admit to using such methods. Rest assured, there are reporters out there using them—don’t let them use them on you.

Cara Donlon-Cotton is the former media relations instructor for the Georgia Public Safety Training Center and a reformed newspaper reporter. She can be reached at cdonloncotton@yahoo.com.

 

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