Here’s a warning to journalists, and their employers, who regurgitate whatever law enforcement tells them, especially if they work in Minnesota.
Every day we are inundated by news stories of criminal behavior, murder, drug dealing, stealing. Many of these stories are built, sometimes verbatim, around press releases, provided by police or prosecutors and statements from either on-the-record or anonymous law enforcement sources.
What if that information is wrong? What if a suspect has been quickly cleared, though only after his name is splashed across the media properties?
In Minnesota, a wrongly accused man has sued media organizations after police held a press conference and announced his arrest in the 2012 killing of a police officer.
The media published stories based on the press conference. But investigators were wrong. The cleared man sued, not the police, but media for defamation. A jury found the statements published were defamatory but not false, so no damages for the plaintiff. A judge reversed the jury decision, and now a new trial will be scheduled for two news organizations, others initially sued settled out of court.
Experts believe the judge got it wrong and the decision will eventually be appealed. Meanwhile, the organizations have to pay increasing legal fees, regardless of whether they lose or win.
Media organizations should think about why they allow themselves to be used as a propaganda tool for law enforcement. Skepticism should be a priority.
- Police say that man – identified as 34-year-old Ryan Larson – ambushed Officer Decker and shot him twice, killing him. (KARE)
- Rosella holds no ill will against the man accused of killing her son. (KARE)
- Ryan Larson, the man accused of killing Officer Decker, could be charged as early as Monday. (KARE)
- Investigators say 34-year-old Ryan Larson ambushed the officer, shooting him twice. Larson is in custody. (KARE)
- He was a good guy last night going to check on someone who needed help. That someone was 34-year-old Ryan Larson who investigators say opened fire on Officer Tom Decker for no reason anyone can fathom. (KARE)
- Investigators believe he fired two shots into Cold Spring police officer Tom Decker, causing his death. (KARE)
- Man faces Murder Charge (St. Cloud Times)
In the service business, which I consider myself to be in, the simple and usual approach is to say the customer is always right. But sometimes no is the right – and difficult – answer.
I worked with a client, where the top executives essentially wrote the press releases, sometimes three or four pages long, and were dismissive of the communications and marketing department. The responsibilities were sometimes handed out to other departments in a haphazard way. Obviously, this was unsustainable.
When I came on board, I said no – often. In fact, I was told I said “no, we shouldn’t do that” too much. My initial, defensive, reaction was that I could only advise them what my experience and the data showed me. Of course, my attitude was an issue as well. I did change my delivery once I became comfortable with the company’s tendencies.
First, I began to collaborate more, using both inside and outside sources, on documenting best practices for the company. When I was involved in decision making, I would give them two approaches: One is what they would have normally done, and the second is what I thought should be done. Though I didn’t phrase it that way. It didn’t resolve all the problems. But it cut down on the pushback.
People think, because they’re successful in other fields, that communications and marketing are easy. Even when they’re confronted with the evidence that they’re not, or experience disagrees with their assumptions, it still can be a challenge.
It can also be viewed as a daunting task to alter ingrained and counterproductive communications attitudes, especially if you’re an outside consultant. So don’t view it that way. Answer the basic questions and your role in helping to educate and plan a strategy.
What’s the challenge? What’s the solution? What’s your effort to begin the changes? I can’t control what others do with the information I provide, so I had to learn to let that part go. It hasn’t always worked out the way I wanted, but it certainly changed my perspective.
Deception, incoherent responses, lack of judgement and accountability will prolong the media’s interest in a negative story and likely have longterm effects. And it doesn’t have to be that way.
Recently, a local public official crashed his car, and was cited for DUI. He was injured, and days later, sent an email to political allies and supporters, writing that he didn’t remember the day of the accident. While he admitted to alcohol problems in the past, he denied to the media that he ever did drugs.
One lie, maybe two, packed in that response.
Weeks later, the police released the results of a toxicology report. It ruled out alcohol as a cause, but blamed a “stimulant.” The public official said he had yet to see the report and still didn’t know what happened that day. Worse, political allies strongly and publicly supported him in his odd assertions. Then a reporter asked if he ever did meth and/or cocaine. The public official admitted he had struggled with both.
The public has come a long way in understanding and appreciating alcohol and drug addiction. Most have had a family member, friend or colleague struggle with sobriety.
In general, being honest and upfront, apologizing and promising that you will fight for your recovery and work to regain the trust of the public is the best approach. Now, a lawyer may say don’t admit unless you have to. But public officials are held to a higher standard, and people don’t like to be lied to and manipulated.
For the public official, it’s getting too late fast. A hearing is set for later this month, and the public will likely find out the official was not telling the truth. His judgement and integrity will be questioned. The judgement of his political allies will be questioned.
After the accident, a confession and a pledge for recovery could have ended the story. Now, it will just probably end a career.