Police-Media Relations: Recognizing Parallels in the Professions

By Rob Tufano | Published July 21, 2023

Police-Media Relations, is an oxymoron, by very definition in far too many cities.

It is hardly breaking news that the relationship between the press and law enforcement has historically been a frosty one on good days, and flat-out adversarial, on others. 

Safe to say, the professions haven’t exactly been engaged in a slobbering love affair.

Far too frequently, they find themselves in the throes of seemingly irreconcilable differences. The relationship is complicated, grounded at times, in mistrust and more to the point, misunderstanding.  

That tension transcends the professions. It ripples into the communities they serve and invariably deteriorates the public’s trust in both institutions. It is the residue of a toxic relationship and it benefits no one.

Being a retired cop, a former television news crime reporter, and a communications director with a major city police department, provided me the opportunity to examine the relationship from a variety of angles.

One of my more frustrating observations involved the level of ego, misunderstanding, and emotion at the core of the relationship. A refrain commonly overheard from police executives I worked with was “Media deadline is not our emergency. We don’t work for the media”

A shortsighted view of the relationship at best. A glaring misunderstanding involving the role the press plays, the influence they wield, and the negative public perception their approach generates, at worst.

It is easy to identify the gap and recognize where the fields differ in terms of priorities, expectations, and approaches. It is no less difficult to witness the mistrust.

But closing the divide requires abandoning the emotion, eliminating the ego, and approaching the issue wide-eyed, with an open-minded willingness to understand what drives the gap and what hangs in the balance if it is not bridged.

It is far from hyperbole to advance the idea that a professional working relationship between the professions is of paramount importance in cultivating an informed society. Few would argue that a more informed society makes for a safer one.

Yes, the two professions do have distinct roles and priorities, each serving important functions, and yes, those priorities do not always reconcile.

Areas of Overlap

But there are a multitude of areas that the professions share in common. Recognizing those similarities is an important step in developing an understanding and fostering a professional working relationship. Here are a few to consider.

  1. Public Perception and Support– The success of law enforcement and the media is based on community trust and neither profession will foster legitimacy without it. Both fields rely on the public’s support to undertake their respective roles. When the media accurately covers public safety, it strengthens community perception of integrity and fairness. Similarly, police agencies that engage with the media transparently and respectfully demonstrate their commitment to accountability to the community, through the media.

  2. Salary and Compensation- Both professions face extraordinary challenges related to pay and compensation. Despite what many cops believe, field journalists who cover public safety, aren’t breaking the bank. The instability of their profession has led to downsizing, job cuts, and experienced journalists fleeing the profession. Similarly, law enforcement professionals are leaving at an alarming rate for opportunities that yield better compensation, stability, and quality of life.

  3. Recruitment and Retention- Diminishing public perception and a competitive job market leave media affiliates and law enforcement agencies challenged to recruit and retain the best and brightest. Both fields are in the midst of managing a crisis involving the challenges of recruitment and retention.

  4. Career Stress and Burnout- Both policing and journalism are highly demanding professions. Extended shifts, grueling schedules, and exposure to traumatic events, in addition to the responsibility to meet rigid deadlines, make these professions a meat grinder. Those challenges have an enormous impact on the quality of life for both cops and journalists.

  5. Tech Advancements and Shifting Landscape: Both professions have experienced considerable transformations in their respective fields following a technological evolution. The surge of citizen journalism, digital platforms, AI, and social media revolutionized journalism and required the field to adjust its business model. Predictive analytics, body-worn cameras, and license plate readers, in addition to a multitude of additional tech advancements, require law enforcement professionals to continually adapt to meet the changing environment.

Embrace the Tension

Professional tension between the press and police is not only healthy but necessary in a free society. It should be rooted in respect and requires an understanding of the underlying drivers that contribute to the tension. It will also require working on better communication to cultivate trust to shift toward a more constructive relationship.

It won’t happen overnight, but for the benefit of society, it must happen. Ensuring the public’s safety while keeping them well-informed are not mutually exclusive priorities and require the media and police to identify opportunities to deliver them collaboratively.

It may just start with the professions recognizing just how much they have in common.

About the Author

Rob Tufano

Rob Tufano

Rob Tufano is a former NYPD cop turned television news crime reporter. He leverages that background now as a law enforcement communications strategist who provides public relations support to police agencies across three continents.

Rob has successfully managed communications during some of the country’s most high-profile law enforcement crises.

He is the driving force behind Tufano Media, one of the nation's premier law enforcement PR agencies.

Contact Rob at rob@tufanomedia.com

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