The demonstrations and rioting in summer 2020 were unlike anything the U.S. had seen recently. While most stayed peaceful, many turned violent. In the middle of any confrontation between demonstrators and police, members of the news media were documenting and reporting on what was occurring, writes Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum.
In most cases, police-media interactions went smoothly, but in several high-profile instances, police actions interfered with reporters’ ability to cover the story.
The Justice Department's COPS Office asked PERF, working with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), to convene a meeting with police executives and representatives of media organizations.
The two groups met last week to discuss challenging situations and identify some guidelines for how the two groups should engage. PERF will publish the findings.
Wexler says the two groups "need to get their facts right. They need to be where the action is to accomplish their jobs. They need to judge whether the people they interact with are credible. And they’re often running towards an incident while others are running away."
In 2020, Wexler wrote that, “When you are in crisis and need help, there is nothing better than a good cop.”
There are also examples of "good reporters." Wexler cites Al Baker and a team at the New York Times who meticulously documented the life and death of every person murdered in the NYPD’s 40th precinct in 2016 for their “Murder in the 4-0” series.
At times the press reveals things about policing that are troubling but change the field. In 2016, a Washington Post team began tracking everyone shot and killed by police, improving the understanding of circumstances that lead to these shootings.
Wexler said the reporting helped PERF identify ways that police training was inadequate, and ultimately led us to develop our ICAT training program.
When you need your story told, there’s nothing better than a good reporter, Wexler says. During the summer of 2020, the police were overwhelmed, outnumbered, and not prepared for the level of violence they encountered. They needed that story told, but at times, police pushed the media away, so the media had to tell the story from a distance, and only from the perspective of those in conflict with the police.
Over the past ten years, the relationship between police and the media has become frayed, and there is significant trepidation on both sides, Wexler says.
He believes "police will come to recognize the importance of strengthening the working relationship with the media as a way to share officers’ perspectives, as they have embraced body-worn cameras. We need to develop strategies to protect reporters, so they can do their job and tell the public what actually happened from everyone’s perspective – demonstrators and police."
Both the media and the police need to communicate more effectively before events occur, building relationships during less stressful times. When crises happen, both parties need to recognize that the police and the media each have a role to play, Wexler says.
He concludes: "Things won’t always go smoothly. Police will feel some stories don’t fully capture the danger they face, and reporters will feel they aren’t given enough access to an event the public needs to know about. But I think we can find more common ground to help both the good reporters and the good cops do their jobs."
In its own readout of last week's session, the Justice Department said, "The group discussed issues including safeguarding First Amendment rights, the identification of members of the news media during protest activity, the utility in a persistent point of contact for open communication between press and police during protest activity, the importance of developing relationships between the press and police in advance of demonstrations, the need for a “playbook” before a planned event, the challenges brought about by social media, and more. The result of the discussion will be a series of recommendations that will be widely disseminated by the Justice Department, law enforcement organizations, and the media."