Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Public Relations: The love affair between Valley cops and the news media

 A Symbiotic Relationship: 3TV news crew poses for a selfie with Phoenix PD's Press Information Officer (PIO) Steve Martos

It's no surprise that local news content is full of pre-packaged "video news releases" which make up much of the content that supplements the local coverage.  While some of the news is received via satellite from international news organizations such as the Associated Press, often there are stories planted by public relations firms and advertisers disguising their product in a news story.  Local television stations have relied on video news releases to keep the costs of producing a newscast low and the profits for the station's owners up, even as audiences for local newscasts have been dwindling for years. The pervasiveness of the video news release has reached such absurd proportions that even late night talk host Conan O'Brien has a regular feature on his show lampooning the frequency of local newscasts that report the same story, word for word, in markets across the country.

However, it is not just PR firms and ad agencies making the most of local news media's need for content that is cheap and easy to obtain, police departments have also become experts at using the media to boost their image by adapting the methods used by advertisers to craft a "brand identity" for consumer products. In "Branding Your Agency: Creating the Police Department's Image", a 2004 article published in Police Chief Magazine, police chiefs Gary J. Margolis of the University of Vermont and Noel C. March of the University of Maine encouraged police chiefs to seize control of their department's public image by turning to the strategies of advertising and PR firns in creating a brand identity for policing.

Margolis and March cite a 2001 "Public Image of the Police" report from George Mason University which concluded that negative perceptions of the police stem from personal experience, rather than the success of police in reducing crime or an individual's favorable interaction with a law enforcement officer.  Key to the study was the finding that people's perception of the police are often formed by their exposure to police actions in the media, that the media is the primary source for most people about crime, and in the absence of a narrative controlled by the department it may appear that police are unable to stop crime. 

Valley police departments were taking notes, as Press Information Officers (PIO) make frequent appearances on the evening newscast to share information that departments want released to the public.  In addition to the various departments' de facto anchors making regular appearances on the local news, press releases from law enforcement agencies are often reprinted with minor changes made in the arrangement of sentences to avoid plagiarism.  That these press releases are appearing on local news websites and newscasts as news items, complete with all the authenticity associated with a journalist's byline, should be prompting outrage at the local news and police agencies. 

We here at Down and Drought follow the local news pretty closely, so we thought we might have some fun comparing the press releases from law enforcement agencies with news articles from our esteemed "free and independent" fourth estate. How bad is it?  Take a look at two recent stories in the Phoenix news, compare the police press releases to the slightly altered news content and ask if it stands on its own as an independent piece of journalism.

Below is a screen capture from the January 27, 2014 press release from the Mohave County Sheriff's Office announcing the search for a suspect involved in a bank robbery in Golden Valley, Arizona.  The press release includes photos of the alleged robber as well as information specific to the person's build, their behavior during the alleged robbery, and the the appropriate contact information for the department(s) investigating, in the case a viewer might have information the cops would find useful.

The photos below are both screen captures from articles published on the website for KTVK Channel 3 and KPHO Channel 5.  Both websites ran the press release with slight modifications from the original writing and were published under the names of employees at the station.   The KPHO article, credited to Steve Stout, a longtime editor of valley news publications from the East Valley Tribune to his current gig at KPHO, is nearly identical to the press release.

Both articles come pretty close to qualifying as plagiarism, as they are nearly identical to the Mohave County press release, and yet they are not the exception.  Again, the same pattern with a Tempe police press release on the arrest of an alleged bike thief:

Followed by screen shots taken from two articles from local news websites which include large sections of the press release which are rearranged just enough to keep it from being a plagiarized article.

The local press, and as seen above KTVK and KPHO, have no qualms about reprinting police news releases and remaining completely uncritical about the information contained within.  Just like the video news releases released to stations by PR agencies, law enforcement agencies know they have an open door with the local media, forever hungry for cheap, garish stories which come to them, saving any of the employed journalists from having to do any of the actual leg work and research required for a balanced piece of journalism.

In plain terms, there's lots of advantages for the police in crafting a brand identity which portrays the police as the solution and final word to the problems of the community. Aside from that, they need the good publicity! Just last year valley cops killed over 50 people in shootings alone, a key community relations officer was arrested for sex with minors, and Phoenix officer Richard Chrisman went to prison on assault and manslaughter charges.

It was during the week that Chrisman was sentenced when the Phoenix police's PR division may have tried to deflect attention from the Chrisman verdict by planting a story about officers helping a needy family at Christmas.  The story, which appeared on KNXV ABC15, cited Phoenix police officer James Holmes, as he described Phoenix cops as having a "tough and dangerous job", and frequently coming to the aid of the citizenry, at what now sounds like potentially great peril to their well being.  Whether out of laziness or complicity, the journalist Lauren Vargas deemed it unnecessary to also include the information that James Holmes is a PIO for the Phoenix police, and the story aired on December 20, 2013 the day that one of the most notorious cops in Phoenix's history was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Writer JJ Hensley at the Arizona Republic wrote a lengthy article on the police shooting spree of 2013 and tackled a number of contributing factors which critics and defenders of the police say have contributed to so many shootings in the Valley.  Hensley cites the rate of assaults on officers and the continuing militarization of the police as two of the main reasons for the change in policing.

Hensley ends the article with a section on the public's response to trigger-happy cops, noting a lack of public outrage to the well-publicized shootings.  But he fails to consider one of the biggest factors as to why there may be a lack of outrage when officers gun someone down: that his own profession treats the local police department as an in-house bureau which provides the footage that often bleeds and leads on the local news.

While the public's passivity to police killings cannot be entirely attributed to the media's coverage and working relationship with the police, it is worthwhile to return to Margolis and March's article in Police Chief Magazine and their emphasis on manipulating the public's perception of the police. Utilizing the media is useful for police in expressing their department's brand identity, and to seize the narrative from their critics to ensure that, whether they are rescuing a cat from a tree or shooting over 50 people in a year, they must be seen as the community's only solution to their problems.

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