October 7, 2023

Good cops and good reporters


PERF members,

As PERF has documented, the demonstrations and rioting in the summer of 2020 were unlike anything the country had seen in any of our lifetimes. While most demonstrations stayed peaceful, many turned violent. And, in the middle of any confrontation between demonstrators and police, members of the media were documenting and reporting on what was occurring. In most cases, those police-media interactions went smoothly, but in several high-profile instances, police actions interfered with reporters’ ability to cover the story.

As a result of some of the challenges of 2020, the 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 this week in Washington. The two groups discussed challenging situations and identified some guidelines for how the two groups should engage. PERF will publish the findings in an upcoming report.

While listening to the two groups, I thought about how they often have a lot in common. They 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 July 2020, I wrote a column about “the good cop.” It can be hard to pin down a definition of what makes someone a “good cop,” but it’s one of the highest compliments you can pay someone in a police department. As I wrote at the time, “The good cop is willing to risk their life to save others. On 9/11, the good cop ran into burning buildings to guide people rushing down the stairs to safety. In an active shooter situation, the good cop recognizes that they need to rush in to save others, because that is part of their job.” The best way I found to summarize it was: “When you are in crisis and need help, there is nothing better than a good cop.”

I think I could write something similar about “the good reporter.” It’s similarly hard to pin down everything that can make someone a “good reporter,” but fellow reporters and the public know it when they see it. One example is reporter Al Baker and a team at the New York Times meticulously documenting the life and death of every person murdered in the NYPD’s 40th precinct in 2016 for their “Murder in the 4-0” series in the New York Times. (Baker went on to serve as Executive Director of Media Relations at the NYPD.)

At times the press reveals things about policing that are troubling but change the field. In 2016, a Washington Post team began tracking every person shot and killed by police, helping us understand the circumstances that lead to these shootings. For us at PERF, it helped us identify ways that police training was inadequate, and ultimately led us to develop our ICAT training program.

Some reporters put themselves at risk to tell stories. In 1998, ABC News reporter John Miller traveled to Afghanistan to interview Osama bin Laden. In 2002, while many in the Washington, D.C. area avoided going out in public during the D.C sniper attacks, Washington Post reporters like Tom Jackman were covering the story in the field.

If I had to summarize what makes a “good reporter,” I would say: When you need your story told, there’s nothing better than a good reporter. During the summer of 2020, the police were overwhelmed, outnumbered, and not prepared for the level of violence they encountered. And 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. But I think 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. And 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.

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.