The relationship between police and news organizations is a very tenuous one indeed. In Africa, many people have attributed a significant part of it to the role that the post-independence police have historically had as an instrument of those wielding state-power. Just as the police force has its part to play in the tapestry of national life, the media also has its mission. That mission, in part, is to be a watchdog and to fearlessly report on transgressions against the law and injustices.
News organizations are not, and cannot afford to be perceived as simply a propaganda tool that government agencies use to manipulate public opinion. News organizations must protect the image that they are the great watchdogs – the fourth estate. The process of news gathering allows reporters to penetrate into areas that other members of the public are forbidden to explore.
Although media personnel must protect the image of this storied tradition, these efforts must coincide with work-related productivity. Reporters must be careful to not “burn” police in such a manner as to lose access to this critical source of information. They must contribute numerous crime stories daily and their police contacts are critical.
Thus, the external environments of these two organizations are directly intertwined. Police organizations must be prepared to deal effectively with media scrutiny, and one of the most popular and effective forms adopted by police organizations to manage this relationship is the involvement of public information strategies. In turn, the reliance on such strategies helps the news organization because it ensures a smooth flow of information to reporters.
One of the proactive strategies adopted by the Sierra Leone police in recent years to try to manage external pressure is the appointment of public information officers. This and many other reforms, including the establishment of Police/Community Partnership Boards,(community policing) across the country have not only enabled the force to more effectively interact with the public but also enhanced effective service delivery and restore public confidence.
Lamentably, some of these viable reforms and legacies that made it a “force for good” are effacing gradually. Effective communication means responding proactively to scandals, and providing information and data to satisfy media inquiries among others.
In short, spokespersons are charged with managing the public performances of the police organization. Police organizations are in a constant struggle to maintain and increase their legitimacy within society. They are by far the most visible of all criminal justice institutions, and thus, the burdens of rising crime rates, unsolved crimes, and responding to issues that evolve into moral panics tend to fall disproportionately within their mandate.
Although they are charged with preventing and eliminating crime, police organizations struggle with moving beyond responding to citizens’ calls for service. Police are expected to work in the public’s interest, but they are also accountable to many publics and political agents with conflicting interests and goals. Officers are expected to be patient, wise, morally good, and effective crime-fighters. They must uphold the moral codes of a diverse community, enforcing laws they may not agree with and some that they violate.
Police organizations must strategically control their external environment in order to maintain organizational legitimacy. Exploiting their relationship with the news media is one way to accomplish this goal effectively.
Despite the documented importance of crime, justice, and social control as a news topic, there is a limited understanding of the variables driving how police and media evaluate this relationship. The police and media value their interdependent relationship, but for different reasons.
The news media are a force that police organizations and managers must contend with in order to manufacture a legitimate reputation. Police organizations have to be aware of the media because they are the one external actor that penetrates government bureaucracy regularly. Such penetration into organizational life is a key mechanism of public accountability. The media is primarily interested in the truth and where it is supplied with the details that allow it to present a balanced and accurate view of what happened it will do this. That is not to say that all media houses observe the fundamental tenets of balance and accuracy in reporting. I acknowledge that some of them are doing the opposite without any qualms.
Research has shown that even though Police organizations interact daily with the public in many different ways, most members of the public prefer to deal with them from a comfortable distance. The public is more likely to know its police organizations, and what they are doing to respond to crime and enhance public safety in society, by viewing mass media images.
Scholars have discussed how police organizations have increasingly acknowledged that the news media provides key opportunities to do their legitimate work and news generally is part of the “policing apparatus of society.” The public relies heavily on various media outlets and it is strategically effective for an organization to direct information traffic through an individual or small group of officials.
This allows the organization to keep control over inquiries, decide how to promote the organization and respond effectively to crisis events. Public information is thus a crucial first line of defense and offense for police organizations. The organization is better prepared to respond to media queries because a trained professional can decide priorities about releasing information and he/she can also be given the task of manufacturing publicity for programs and innovations. Perhaps more importantly, the public information officer can work to build interdependent relationships with reporters that are valuable when publicizing specific accounts to limit the damage of specific crisis events. This mutually beneficial arrangement promotes the legitimacy of the police and the media. The relationship is constantly evolving as police are faced with celebrated cases, corruption scandals and leadership turnover. Reporters are expected to present stories in certain ways, emphasizing aspects of a story most consistent with the formats and restrictions of news construction, and thus pressure sources to conform accordingly. Thus, the police and media struggle over the accounts of events. Public information officers are expected to navigate this unpredictable terrain, maximizing the positive and minimizing the negative images depicted about police organizations in the news.
The police must realize that wherever the media detects what it thinks is a grave miscarriage of justice by policemen it will say so. The reaction of police should not be a battening down of the hatches and attacks on the media. Its enlightened response should be to take its case to the media and the public with as much information as possible.
The recent workshop that brought together members of the Sierra Leone media and the police under one roof, with the primary aim of remolding their relationship was reconciliatory, enlightening and enormously productive, for which I commend the organizers. The presence of accomplished scholars and professionals from the two institutions as well as other stake holders from the legal profession, civil society groups and the UN at the event, clearly demonstrates the importance of what could be described as a land mark event in the history of the two institutions.
It therefore behoves all members of both the police and media to deeply reflect on the unfortunate events that necessitated the holding of the workshop and lessons learnt so as to promote mutual trust and respect between them.
A protocol should be drawn up to guide relations between the two sides. It is expected to set out what the police force requires from the media and vice versa.
The success of the relationship also hinges on many other aspects. The relationship will only work properly if the entire scope of the police work is professionalized. The police can hardly tell the truth to the media if it lacks investigative capacity and the forensic science tools to help it elucidate crimes and win cases.
If these deficiencies persist, the syndrome of beaten confessions and brutality will persist. The improvement of the conditions of service of the police is a must as it can hardly tell the truth to the media if its ranks are paid starvation wages and therefore yield to corrupt practices to make a living.
By A. Max Konneh, Heilongjiang, China.