Feeling increasingly besieged by media coverage that they say is unfair, several police departments in the United States are trying a new tactic: Publishing the news themselves.
Recent high-profile controversies over police tactics in Ferguson, Mo., and beyond have put many departments on the defensive. But complaints from police that media focus almost exclusively on the negative are longstanding, and a few departments are turning to the Internet to correct local reporting they say is often incomplete or wrong.
The inspiration for the rebranding effort is “The Source,” a news portal operated by the Milwaukee Police Department that delivers breaking police news and even won a 2013 Webby, an annual award for Internet design. But media analysts worry that such efforts can, in some cases, go too far in resembling an actual news agency, blurring lines and potentially leading to confusion.
“It does put a burden on citizens to be news literate and sort out what is helpful information and what is public agency spin,” says Mike Johansson, a professor of communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.
To the mayor of Monroe, La., however, the new website for his city’s police department is about giving the public a truer sense of who police officers are.
“There’s the perception that all police officers do is give tickets and in some cases eat donuts or drink coffee, or are involved in profiling or harassment,” says Mayor Jamie Mayo. The website “certainly minimizes some of those allegations.”
Monroe launched MPDSource.com in January. The website publishes news stories, provides alerts, and features profiles of local officers. Police Chief Quentin Holmes says the website was not intended to replace reporting by news media, but will be used to deliver expanded coverage of news events he feels is underreported.
“Whether it’s a good story or a controversial story, traditional media can only tell so much. The website provides us a very good platform to go into detail about the critical cases, as well as when we need to recognize our employees,” he says.
Officials say the website will soon allow victims of burglaries and other crimes to track the progress of their cases in every phase, from the investigation to the courtroom.
Launched in late 2012, the Milwaukee website started the trend. It has a section called “Heroes” that provides information on officers, as well as a scrolling graphic that touts the department’s accomplishments. Police departments in Chicago and Peterborough, Ontario, have taken cues.
“We needed to have a format to set the record straight if we perceived a media outlet was getting it wrong,” says Lt. Mark Stanmeyer, a spokesman for the Milwaukee Police Department. “Just because a reporter follows the written code of ethics doesn’t mean that the story is going to be accurate. Or at least it doesn’t necessarily mean points we were trying to get across in interviews were picked up in a story, and sometimes we need to convey the messages that weren’t covered.”
Lieutenant Stanmeyer says that The Source does not just publish “fluff” and will not exclude statements involving controversies related to the police.
Putting more information online is a positive thing, as is the desire to feature profiles of officers that show the good work they do in the community, says Herbert Lowe, a journalism professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
But police can’t think that their own websites absolve them of the need to cooperate with traditional and online media, he adds.
“They should also make themselves available to the media and to the public in ways that demonstrates that they are accountable in allowing questions to be asked,” he says. “We are in an age when people do not need to depend on mainstream media for telling stories. But the police, the media, the public – we are all in this together in order to get at the truth as quickly as possible.”
Governments can also run into trouble when they are seen as trying to blur the lines between traditional journalism and PR. In January, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence announced JustIN, a virtual news portal that would be headed by a former reporter from the Indianapolis Star. It was intended to deliver state news, profiles, and “exclusives” in a breaking news format. Local media blasted the venture, and House Democrats said they would propose bills to strip it of taxpayer funding. Governor Pence canceled the proposal the same week he announced it.
These new websites don’t “diminish the need for the press to put things into context and hold government accountable,” says Professor Johansson. “The press will just have to do a better job of explaining that role to the public.”