Across the country, the relationship between police and reporters has broken down. While there are no hard numbers, there is a broad consensus that far fewer reporters cover the police beat, writes Joel Simon, the founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, in the Colombia Journalism Review. This is largely because there are far fewer news organizations, particularly in small and midsize cities. While local television stations continue to emphasize crime coverage, most of them do little accountability or investigative reporting. As editor in chief of the Marshall Project–Cleveland, Phil Trexler says that reporters’ contact with police is much more limited than it was in the '90s. “Police are so distrustful of the media that we don’t get the access,” Trexler said. “We don’t get to know the squad leader, the young lieutenant, the captain. I think there’s a wall.” The wall has not stopped Marshall Project–Cleveland from doing the kind of accountability reporting that is at the heart of its mission. “I impress upon young reporters, ‘Get out of the office,’” Trexler said. “We have to work harder at building relationships.”
The police beat was once the training ground for young reporters, said Ted Gest, president of the national organization Criminal Justice Journalists and publisher of a daily newsletter, Crime and Justice News. Young journalists entering the newsroom were often required to cover the cops. Gest suggested four reasons that the relationship between journalists and the police has grown so fraught. The first is simply that there is less dialogue. The second is that police departments rely more on one-way communication, in which spokespeople post the information they want to share on social media. The third is the widespread perception, fueled by national politicians, that the media is biased and untrustworthy. The fourth is resentment over the way they are covered, with less local reporting and more national accountability reporting focused on police misconduct. A healthy relationship between the police and the press requires both regular contact and close scrutiny. That’s why we need beat reporters, writes Simon. Their decline, ultimately, is bad for accountability, and bad for our democracy, he concludes.