Skip to main content

Obstruction of Journalism

In this summer marked by high-profile police shootings, which extended a turbulent two-year run of questionable deaths and mounting racial tension, many local TV reporters are suddenly feeling stonewalled.

When Brian Collister, an investigative reporter with KXAN, Media General’s NBC affiliate in Austin, Texas, started asking about Sandra Bland’s hanging death in a Texas jail, he knew he might trip over the thin blue line.

State police had been firmly refuting allegations that the Bland case—which started when a trooper stopped the 28-yearold black woman for a traffic violation three days earlier—was rooted in the widespread practice of racial profiling. Unconvinced, Collister wanted to see the facts for himself and launched a data-heavy probe into the Texas Department of Public Safety’s claim. The agency didn’t budge.

The Texas DPS stalled for four months before giving Collister the data he requested. He ultimately used it as the basis for a report that exposed state troopers for “juking the stats”— recording the disproportionate number of Hispanic drivers they stopped as white.

“We were met with an extreme lack of cooperation,” says Collister. “They clearly take internal assessments on how cooperative or not cooperative they are going to be based on how your story is going to make them look.”

Frustrating experiences like Collister’s are increasingly becoming the norm when it comes to dealings between local TV stations and law enforcement agencies. The strain on relations has worsened after the summer rash of shootings, which saw police covered as both aggressors and victims.

In this environment, old-school routines like calling desk sergeants for story tips (and covering PD pancake breakfasts in return) have in many markets morphed into complex pas-de-deux. Simple inquiries become epic quests for information in which police departments’ public information officers have the upper hand in determining what gets released and when.

“You can’t call anymore and ask how many people died,” says WMAQ Chicago’s Carol Marin, whose recent work includes an extensive investigation into a Chicago officer fatally shooting 17-year old Laquan McDonald in 2014. “They’ll say, ‘FOIA it.’”

For decades, a natural symbiosis has existed between police and media. While relations were not always fluid or smooth, both sides reaped benefits. Reporters air highly-rated stories about crimes in the community and police often get help, and often credit, in solving crimes by publicizing details. With more hours of news airing across local markets, the ritual of a police sketch of a suspect or a news conference appealing to unknown perpetrators to turn themselves in arguably play a bigger role than ever in newsrooms across the country.

But, as Collister told B&C, the small fissures in that foundation have become full-blown cracks. Police, in his experience, have an “inherent distrust of media since what they do ‘wrong’ is magnified in media coverage,” he said via email. “They’re likely to be less cooperative/transparent with an investigative reporter digging into a ‘negative’ story in contrast with a police beat reporter who primarily covers what the department sends out in press releases or what officers say at a crime scene.”

The rift is playing out in a number of ways. In Dallas, where Tegna-owned ABC affiliate WFAA’s relationship with the police chief is fraught, local media were barred from the department’s press conferences in the days after a gunman killed five officers in July. News director Carolyn Mungo says the station and chief David Brown have long been at odds over how transparent the department should be.

New York City has witnessed a steady stream of police news of late, from the choking death of misdemeanor suspect Eric Garner to a police funeral at which scores of officers turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio. Last month, New York Police Department commissioner Bill Bratton announced his resignation, ending two decades of decision-making by Bratton and predecessor Ray Kelly that often was engineered for local and national TV cameras. Bratton, who is married to trial lawyer and CBS analyst Rikki Klieman, along the way forged a crucial alliance with John Miller, a former ABC News and WNBC reporter turned NYPD official who plans to remain with the department.

In other cities, police are bypassing media altogether by dispersing information themselves through social media. Some departments post their own video.

Local broadcasters say their relationships with cops took the biggest hit over the last year or so due to a range of factors, starting with video surfacing of police shootings of African-Americans—and protests that ensued. The Black Lives Matter movement took off after the widely televised events in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. And well before the drama created by this summer’s shootings, technology has fueled intense scrutiny of police officers, with every citizen now an amateur videographer in situations marked by violence, tension and sometimes death.

Industry watchers say coverage of those incidents, as well as police handling of African-American protests, has put the hundreds of thousands of cops around the country on the defensive, shutting out journalists as a result.

Many officers view the circum-stanes as a “a game of ‘gotcha,’” says Seattle assistant police chief Perry Tarrant, also president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. Even with seemingly objective video evidence, he adds, “Everyone who is watching it is watching it with their own baggage, their own set of experiences, with jaundiced eyes,”

This much is clear: Media outlets, especially stations, which carry a greater local load as newspapers retreat, face more expectation to investigate the country’s police departments and explore race relations. That is particularly true when it comes to their dealings with African-American communities, whose leaders say incidents like the police shootings have occurred for years but were never documented. TV stations have resurrected I-teams to probe stories more deeply, which means taking a cop’s word for it is no longer enough.

“Often, police reports are gospel to reporters,” says Soledad O’Brien, the former CNN anchor who is active on issues surrounding race and gender equality. “We have now seen enough tape and phone video to know that clearly what is said is just not always true.”

New Tech Tools

Advances in technology also provide law enforcement maddening ways to keep information private that was once readily available. Police departments in cities including Washington, D.C., are encrypting their scanners, meaning media have to apply—and pay—to have one.

A North Carolina law restricts the release of video from police bodycams, part of a larger initiative that First Amendment advocates like the Radio Television Digital News Association are fighting. Police are starting to do more work off-line, so conversations are not traceable.

“This puts news crews on the ground at odds with police on a whole other level,” says Mike Cavender, RTDNA executive director.

The proliferation of user-generated content, such as the videos documenting police shootings, are also pitting police against the media, industry experts say. The blurred lines between who is and who isn’t media has driven the larger distrust of news organizations, which, while is nothing new, has not been as pervasive, they say. “The stories are more visceral, more immediate now,” Collister says.

Greg Meriwether, anchor and reporter for WAFB in Baton Rouge, La., says he was floored when the city’s police chief criticized the media for doing a “disservice” to the public in its coverage of the Alton Sterling police shooting and the ambush and killing of three police officers three weeks later.

“With police and local protesters, there is a misconception that media try to come up with stories that fit an agenda,” says Meriwether. “All I know is that in all my years here it hasn’t happened once. It may sound hokey, but we really do stories based on the facts, and the rest falls into place.”

Meriwether, who says he has an amicable relationship with local police, says those sorts of remarks have larger implications. For Meriwether, who is black, that included a small but very vocal group of mostly African-American protesters attacking him and other reporters on social media for his coverage of the incidents.

Like many broadcasters, Meriwether says his best response to such criticism is remaining true to the craft of journalism. “Police would like us to do stories that are more favorable to them, but I think we are sticking to just doing stories based on the facts,” he says. “If they are favorable to one side or another, that is just how it lays out.”

Broadcasters counter with tried-and-true approaches, particularly when it comes to police reporting, such as cultivating relationships with individuals beyond the gatekeepers.

Mungo, for instance, said that despite police chief Brown shutting out journalists from official post-shooting press conferences, WFAA’s two police beat reporters had interviews with each of the victims’ families after the shootings.

“They trusted them…to get into those living rooms and interview relatives about what their relatives had gone through that awful day in July,” Mungo says.

Marin, whose investigation of the McDonald shooting in Chicago exposed critical police infractions, has similar relationships among the rank-and-file. “A lot of the sources that we used to talk to still talk to us,” she says.

A More Delicate Balance

Reporting on tragedy is always delicate, though, and sometimes the simmering conflict between police and broadcasters can boil over as everyone processes loss. Meriwether recalls that at the funeral for one of the officers killed in Baton Rouge, police chief Carl Dabadie went off-script before reading his prepared remarks.

“He claimed the ‘media’ threw all law enforcement officers ‘under the bus’ and painted them as ‘bullies’ who go around and beat people up,” Meriwether says. “In that moment I was in a side room monitoring the funeral with church volunteers, and some of them stared at me and the cameraman I was working alongside. At that moment the chief had painted all media with one large broad brush, and it stung. In his attempt to call the media out for lumping all officers in the same bad basket, he had done just that to us—the people who work in the media. It was later told to me that he meant the national media, but at that point the broad picture of this ‘evil media’ had already been painted in front of a grieving family and a ton of grieving officers.”

Amid all of the heightened emotion, broadcasters are reassessing their coverage of the African-American communities that have been both targets of police violence and advocates for change.

WFAA, for instance, now runs stories highlighting murder victims, who are primarily young, black men, to bring attention to their lives, Mungo says. Positive stories from the African American community—a push to create a museum or, say, a new teaching method—air regularly as well.

“We could easily go to the crime of the day and domestic violence case, but instead we are telling a more relevant story in a community that matters to the city,” Mungo says.

Broadcasters, however, say the industry has a long way to go before it can fully cover law enforcement, and the communities protesting their actions—and that won’t be achieved until newsrooms make big changes.

“We don’t do a really good job digging into the roots of the issues,” says O’Brien. “Do we lack context in our reporting? No question.”

The relationship has become increasingly complex, with officers viewed as criminals one day and saviors the next. Broadcasters say there is an emotional component to their thorny relationships with police, with whom over time they have been both adversaries and partners in cases like civil emergencies.

Meriwether, for instance, says his interactions with police have run the gamut during the last “few months of hell” that started with the Sterling case. When officers become victims, especially numbers of them in a single incident, the precinct doors can open a bit wider, aided by a sense of communal loss of the people sworn to protect the community. Police officers spend a lot of time in harm’s way, whether helping rescue victims from devastating floods or patrolling a housing project.

The ultimate challenge now for local news is to strike a balance between holding police accountable for their actions while also being sympathetic to their plight as victims of a crime.

“It’s kind of hard to demand answers and beat up on them for information from a chief when the man is near tears,” Meriwether says.