Media Coverage of Crime and Criminal Justice Issues

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(Audio Begins)

Leonard Sipes: Hi and welcome to the radio version of D.C. Public Safety. I’m Leonard Sipes. Today’s guest is Ted Guest and he is the president of Criminal Justice Journalists. He used to be an editor for U.S. News and World Report and was a newspaper editor before that. Welcome Ted.

Ted Guest: Thank you. Good to be here.

Leonard Sipes: We are here today to discuss the whole concept of journalists covering criminal justice issues, crime related issues, crime reporters. And as being in the business for the last 30 years in terms of doing media relations for a variety of criminal justice agencies, I have had the joy and the thrill of being, I suppose, up against or dealing with the best reporters from the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the New York Times and elsewhere and its always fascinated me that of the whole interaction, the whole relationship, the give and take between journalists and those of us who represent the criminal justice system and Ted sometimes it’s adversarial and sometimes its very friendly

Ted Guest: Yeah. It obviously depends on what the story is. So yes, it depends on how cooperative both the source is and the journalist is how professional everyone is. But yes, in this field obviously we’re gonna have some conflict because, let’s face it, we deal collectively in what a lot of people might call bad news. So a lot to times by definition we’re gonna being talking about things that are bad, crimes that were committed and what either is or isn’t being done about it.

Leonard Sipes: And often times the lack of an adequate response on the part of the criminal justice system. So it becomes dicey, there’s no doubt about it. But, I’ll say this, my first 10 years were representing federal agencies, you know large, Department of Justice clearing house and the National Crime Prevention Council. I thought I knew something about public relations. I went to work for the Maryland Department of Public Safety which was corrections and the state police and the Fire Marshals office and Maryland Emergency Management and boy, what a education. I had no idea what real public relations was like until I represented an agency and was on the receiving end not of people who, nice people who wanted information on crime prevention or crime statistics. Now they’re really hammering me as to why did your agency do what it did and why did it screw up and yada yada yada. It was difficult.

Ted Guest: Yes. I don’t know if you want to get into some of the substance here but one I guess myth is that all journalists are alike and all media are alike and clearly that is not correct especially in this day and age we live in now with people on the web, people doing pod casts as we’re doing right now, people doing all sorts of media. So that’s one big basic point which establishes the beginning that like people in your profession, people in the journalism profession are gonna come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and I don’t mean that sarcastically, but people who are trained people who are not very well trained, people who might have some preconception about what a story is or what a story isn’t. But I think we should avoid although we are gonna be speaking in generalities, people in your profession should avoid generalities in dealing with the media such as you know all media people are terrible or all of them are great or all of them think that public agencies are bad because most of those things are not true. I think people, we find, deal, with things on a story by story basis. Let’s get into some of the specific things you want to explore here.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. Well part of that is however a sense with representing the criminal justice agencies, representing government for the last 20, 30 years, there is a good degree of mistrust by people on the government side because they think the journalist is solely there to embarrass him. They don’t understand the fact that it’s a complex criminal justice agency, that there are budget issues, that there political issues or all sorts of things that are going on that I guess, considerations that the journalist never considers. It’s simply from their perspective, it’s a gotcha. It is simply an exercise to embarrass not educate the public. Now on the media side I think sometimes that they have the perception that we in the bureaucracy simply are not responsive to their needs. We too secretive, we don’t talk enough, we’re not open enough and somewhere in the middle of all that’s probably the truth.

Ted Guest: Right. Of course we in the media don’t cover things for the most part in terms of agencies. I don’t come to work in the morning, if I’m a reporter thinking for the most part, that my job today is to assess how an agency is doing. There are exceptions for that. There are obviously a lot of investigations throughout journalism history in how particular agencies work. But I think we should think about, the journalists are thinking about things more in terms of stories. What is a story? And a story can be a very generic story like what is happening with crime and criminal justice in our community or more likely it’s going to be a story about a particular crime that’s been committed. Either a crime, we may know a lot about that crime, we may know not very much, we might know that someone is being inspected or arrested in that crime and go from there. And I think that’s where most journalists are coming from and I think a lot of agency people may think wrongly, I’m coming to work in the morning; I’m going to do a story about how the police department is terrible. Well, I mean that could be the case somewhere, I’m not saying that isn’t the case but more likely I’m coming just to find out what’s going on and then to assess things. And it may be that part of that assessment will be how well the agency is doing but I think the first thing we start with is sort of the basic. We all know the cliché about the basic four or five Ws, you know, who, what, where, when, why. That’s what we’re trying to find out and we hope that agencies, government agencies, or private agencies can be helpful in trying to determine that. Now clearly we may want to get into this. There are going to be some cases in which there’s a question in which an agency handled a particular case but that’s not the focus of most journalistic reporting in the crime area, I don’t think.

Leonard Sipes: Well before going on to the content of the program. I do want to mention the fact that you are associated with what, two universities?

Ted Guest: Criminal Justice Journalists is an independent organization. We have a board of 50 working journalists. Journalist who have gone into academia or into law but yes we are affiliated with two places. The University of Pennsylvania Criminology Department and more recently John J. College of Criminal Justice, New York City and we have created there something called the Center for Media Crime and Justice. Which Criminal Justice Journalist is a part. The basic purpose in both of these institutions is to improve the media coverage of criminal justice. So, I want to set that out very clearly that we’re trying to improve things and of course that includes a critique of the media and a critique in many cases of public officials. Generically, we’re into journalist training but there’s also by definition includes training if you could call it that of public officials and people who deal with journalists. So one of our major things now is to put out a daily news digest of major stories in criminal justice nationally in the United States and sometimes in foreign countries everyday because of the format we have a limit of 12 stories but we try to get a variety of stories there from federal, state, local. Not obviously trying to cover every crime. There’s no way we could do that but major issues,

Leonard Sipes: It’s the best summary and I tell the people everyday, it is the best summary of crime and criminal justice issues on a daily basis bar none. How do people get it? People listening to this program, how do they get access to it?

Ted Guest: Well you have to go to a website. I don’t know if you actually want me to recite the web address.

Leonard Sipes: Sure of course.

Ted Guest: I’ll read it. One way to do it would just be to do a Google a search of our name, Criminal Justice Journalists or the name of the news service, Crime and Justice News. Because we are supported primarily by John J College, it’s free. You can get this once a day via email or it can be,

Leonard Sipes: And it’s an incredible resource.

Ted Guest: Or you could just look it up on the web. I mean I could give the exact name.

Leonard Sipes: No, no. I think if they Google Criminal Justice Journalists they’re going to be able to get access very quickly to your newsletter and anybody, especially, any citizen, anybody interested in a crime and criminal justice issues, this is the publication that keeps me up to date of what’s going on throughout the country regarding crime and criminal justice issues so you all should be congratulated for that.

Ted Guest: Thank you.

Leonard Sipes: Ted, what are the major issues as far as journalists who cover the criminal justice system? Is it access? Is it being stonewalled? Is it the paranoia and distrust of the media? What is it that you think is the principle issue as far as criminal justice journalists are concerned?

Ted Guest: Well by issue, I mean, there are various ways you could interpret that. The major thing I think is just trying to cover the news in terms as I said of both general trends in crime and justice but also getting information about individual cases. And in most areas I think this works out pretty well, most areas. Now there are some exceptions, I mean and again a lot of this is anecdotal. I think you’re listeners on this know that in this country in the United States we have somewhere around, no one even knows, 17,000 or 18,000 law enforcement agencies, 50 state correction systems, of course the federal system so everything I say varies. In one area everything could be working out well and I hope it is in most areas. In other areas it’s not working out well. For instance, reporters who say anecdotally, I can’t get any information out of the police department or they will just tell me the bare amount of information. You got to remember with these 17 or 18,000 agencies and the limited number of reporters, a lot of information gathering is being done by phone, by internet, second hand so it’s not usually a case of reporters sitting down like we are now face to face doing interviews. And of course we’re talking about a 24/7 operation. Maybe someday way back when you could operate more or less on a Monday through Friday 9-5 schedule of course that was never really literally true but whatever was the case then now we’re in a 24/7 era so things could be coming up at any hour of the night and day so access to information is one of the major issues. It’s hard to generalize it. Again this can vary from place to place and from person to person. Obviously there are state laws, there are regulations but a lot of reporters dealing with sources, and by sources I mean not only government agencies but just private agencies, service providers, lawyers, etc. It comes down to personal relations.

Leonard Sipes: Yes, I’ve always said that.

Ted Guest: As the level of knowledge on both sides and as I said there are reporters who are knowledgeable and some that aren’t and public officials who are knowledgeable and some that aren’t and when you have a happy medium there of professional people dealing with each other with high level of knowledge generally it works out fine. The problems come in when one side or the other doesn’t have that level of knowledge and there’s a lot of dissatisfaction. I know among public officials, I get reporters who don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t know the difference between probation and parole, between jails and prisons, between,

Leonard Sipes: I’ll throw an observation out and that is when I first started this you had beat reporters, you had reporters who really were knowledgeable about the criminal justice system. You had hard nosed investigative reporters who made your life very difficult because often times they knew more about the subject matter than you did. Now, they were ordinarily fair. These real tough hard nosed investigative reporters, ordinarily I found them to be very fair. They ordinarily tried to cut it right down the middle. I think that’s changed. I think it’s changed dramatically because of the cut backs in newsrooms all through out the country. I think now you’re going to get a reporter who really doesn’t know a lot about the topic. And that is I think increasing. Your opinion?

Ted Guest: Well it’s hard to quantify this so, and again as I said earlier we have so many different medias especially some of the new medias and that certainly has proved true. On the other hand we still have quite a few very good newspapers and broadcast operations who have experienced reporters so it’s pretty hard to generalize but let’s assume whatever the actual number is; there are a bunch of journalist out there and any time who don’t know really the basics of what they’re talking about, about whatever subject. Whether it be agriculture or energy or criminal justice. So, our group, again to give a plug for us, we have some resources to help on this. I’m getting a little ahead of the game here but we have a course at a place called the Pointer Institute in Florida. Of course the basic course for police reporters and one for court reporters. We also have a guide online. You could see all of this,on our website a guide telling journalists the basics. But even then, even if journalists knew all of that, which they doing, they’re always going to be new reporters. People are coming out of journalism schools literally every year and thousands of them who don’t know this stuff so I would urge people in your profession to be patient which is sometimes difficult when people are on deadlines but be patient and if necessary err on the side of explaining the basics. If you start off again in a hypothetical case, if someone’s asking you about probation or parole you might say, do you know the difference. If they say yes I know the difference, well it may become clear that they do or it may become clear that they don’t.

Leonard Sipes: Or it becomes clear in their reporting that they don’t and they were just too embarrassed to ask.

Ted Guest: Yeah, so. Or you might have and I know, I think you do in this particular agency, but actual fact sheets either online or on piece of paper that you can hand people. A lot of people, again, just to use that very basic thing, don’t know the difference between a prison and a jail, it can seem pretty obvious but a lot of people say he was sent to jail for 20 years. You think, no wait a minute, jail is usually for people with sentences of one or two years.

Leonard Sipes: Or I’ve seen print reporters say it was a robbery when it was a burglary.

Ted Guest: Yes. So, be patient and don’t assume that people know that and most reporters again, there are exceptions to everything, most reporters want to learn the facts, want to get it accurately. Who wants to do an inaccurate story? So most reporters will appreciate I think efforts by public officials to get them the correct information. Now some of them still won’t get it right. By the way, this may be a little off the subject but I would feel free if I were a source of a story to call up a reporter who has screwed something and correct them later in a, again, in a positive way or if that doesn’t work, going to their superiors. I know you don’t want to do that very often but if there something really egregious and the reporter is either not returning your call or is continuing to make the same error, I think the superior of that reporter should know about it. Again, I’m talking about cases, extreme cases here in which someone really did something terrible. Unfortunately there’s a level of error in journalism.

Leonard Sipes: The best available version of the news. History’s first draft.

Ted Guest: Yeah, everyday, now this is good news. I think every day in most US newspapers there is a long list of corrections. Sometimes it’s 10 or 12 items. You might say that you could look at that either way, that it’s terrible they make 10 or 12 mistakes. When you think about it, a big newspaper of 50, 60, 70 pages, if they make 10 or 12 mistakes and some of them are very minor, I noticed just today I think it was the New York Times, ran a correction from a story from the year 2000 from 7 years ago but they were, they said hey we just learned about this, we are correcting it. Now granted some news media are not very good about making corrections but I think that’s good advice.

Leonard Sipes: You started talking a little while ago about the personal relationship between the public affairs officer or somebody representing the government, the bureaucracy and the individual reporter. I mean, you’re bureaucracy, the bureaucracy of the media, the bureaucracy of the government, we all mistrust each other. It is a bit of an adversarial relationship but in probably 85 maybe even 90% of the times it is nothing more than a personal relationship where that person asked you questions and you responded and in many cases go off the record and provide a full explanation as to what’s going on. I remember quite a few times I would say to the reporter, now you know everything I know. So you know there’s no question about you not knowing the facts and knowing exactly what the facts are even though I can’t give them to you for the record. Hopefully in a couple of days from now I’ll give them to you for the record. In many cases it’s that level of personal interaction. Or that reporter will come along and say look I’m under incredible pressure on the part of my editor to get this done. I think my editor is completely off base but I’m going to ask it anyway. I’m going to ask this embarrassing question and you can respond in an off the record basis. So much of this is that personal relationship and a matter of trust between that government representative and that journalist, correct?

Ted Guest: Yes. We just have to respect the different jobs that we have. I mean you have a particular job. I have a particular job. Some things you do I might not agree with but I’m not going to tell you how to do your job. Some things I do you might not agree with. I presumably have a pretty good sense of what my audience wants and they might or might not…

Leonard Sipes: Well you also have a first amendment right to do whatever you want.

Ted Guest: It might or might not correspond with yours so that’s just another bit of advice I would give to again, to public officials. You may not appreciate the way that something was portrayed in the news media but you’ve got a job to do.

Leonard Sipes: I’ve wrote an article and I sent it to you in advance to this conversation and part of it again was, not to beat a dead horse, but the mistrust that we in many places in government have. And I’m talking about 30 years of being in government and there’s this inevitable mistrust. People saying Leonard you just don’t understand that X is just out to get me. They’re being very unfair in terms of their reporting. They’re not placing facts in context and if you talk to that reporter, that reporter in many cases is saying hey I’m reporting on what I know. If you know something beyond that you need to tell me. So there’s in many cases there is this, and I know from going to a lots of parties with reporters and having reporters as friends, they refer to me as the flack. They refer to me as uh oh here comes government. They have this perception of us as being stonewalling bureaucrats in many cases so there is that mistrust there and I don’t think that that mistrust is ever going to go away. I think it’s a naturally occurring phenomenon in terms of government and media.

Ted Guest: That maybe true but I wouldn’t characterize the relationships as primarily in terms of mistrust. I would say 80 or 90% of dealings between reporters and public officials in the case of a normal day or week are sort of normal professional dealings that don’t involve mistrust. I think the problems come in when there is a story and often it’s a very big story in which there is some either a hint or a possibility of malfeasance and I think that’s where the problems come in. Just to take an example that’s common in this profession. There are always going to be cases in which a former, and someone with a criminal record, could be a former inmate, a former parole or a probationer,

Leonard Sipes: Goes out and does something terrible.

Ted Guest: That’s going to do something bad. So that’s going to happen, we’re going to report on it and I know there’s this big debate which I don’t really sympathize with about good news bad news, why don’t you people ever talk about good news, and we do talk about good news but those kinds of stories are going to come up. So, and some reporter might have, and I don’t know if this is in a category of mistrust but might have the preconceived notion, well if some one who was on probation committed another crime that means that there was a mistake made in putting the person on probation. Well it’s conceivable there was a mistake and there have been many cases in history in which people, officials, judges, professionals have said in retrospect, yes that was a mistake you know we shouldn’t have put that person on probation or parole but there is an equally good argument in many cases that yes there’s just an element of risk in life in general and that yes there was a risk taken. We take risks every day. We released X number of people, most of them thankfully don’t do anything bad when they’re on probation or parole,

Leonard Sipes: But some do, that’s inevitable.

Ted Guest: Anything meaning committing a major crime. But some do and a perfectly good answer in a hypothetical case might be yes, we took a risk, we took many risks in 2007 and some of them didn’t turn out very well and this was one of them and of course that can sound very self-serving or it could be portrayed that way. But those I think are the kinds of stories again where sometimes we get into professional disagreements or the public officials might not think they were portrayed very well. But I don’t think in most cases it’s the case of the news media coming in with a preconceived notion that someone made a terrible mistake. Although that could be the case and again sometimes mistakes were made.

Leonard Sipes: Well I always maintain that I think reporters, generally speaking, have opinions of agencies and I think that often times that spokesperson is responsible, either good or bad for that opinion of that agency. One of the things that I advocate is that agencies get out and interact with media far before something like this happening so the media has an understanding of what is going on. Has the contextual understanding of that agency or operation. I remember representing the state of Maryland. We had our home detention program and the home detention program had uniformed correctional officers and parole and probation agents armed in marked police cars and they’re out there supervising people involved in home detention and every member of the media that covered the criminal justice system in the Baltimore metropolitan area and a Washington Post reporter had ridden along on a home detention program. So when we had somebody go out and do something stupid, it wasn’t terribly stupid, but it was news worthy. It was interesting that most of the media came to our defense explaining that this is one in 500 who had been part of the program and actually promoted the program as something good and something with in our best interest. I think that’s the context that a lot of people in the criminal justice system are looking for or the government in general and I think that’s what they think is missing in a lot of coverage that contextual understanding of the situation.

Ted Guest: Yes and you’re right. You’re describing, a good practice would be to basically know the media in your area and make sure to the best of your ability that they do have this background information. I remember on the other side of the spectrum. I remember running into one state corrections director a few years ago at a social event, at a conference who basically told me Mr. Guest I never talk to the media because all they want to do is negative stories. Well I think I told this gentleman and certainly what I feel is that’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy because if you start from the idea you’re never going to talk to the media. What that means is the only time they will call you probably is when there is a big problem and it’s sort of a vicious circle and so if this man is never going to talk, probably the only time I’m going to call him is when there’s let’s say a riot in the prison or an escape because I know I think if I call him just on a random day and say hey I would like to do a story on one of your rehabilitation programs. If that’s really his policy that he’s not going to talk to the media I might as well not make that call. So, yeah and again as you said it doesn’t mean even if the best effort you make to prepare the media you’re still going to get occasionally a negative story because someone is going to screw up sometime but again that’s part of the game.

Leonard Sipes: And again that’s inevitable. I mean government is not perfect. Lord knows governments not perfect and we’re going to make our fair share of mistakes. I think with people from our end, all we’re looking for is the context. Placing it in its proper context and I think that all of what you guys are looking for is access and fairness and some information about your program and not being unjustifiably jerked around.

Ted Guest: Right.

Leonard Sipes: I think that’s the heart and soul of public relations and I think that sums up 80, 90% of public relations right there in terms of what I’ve just said.

Ted Guest: One thing I just wanted to add to what I’ve said before. This thing about good news or bad news. It’s not true that the media never do so called good news stories. In fact I deliberately ran one in my digest the other day in which there was a story out of Tennessee about a, I think it was a graduation ceremony for some convicts who had been through a rehabilitation program and how one of them had won an award because he had got the job and stayed out of trouble and the media did do a story. Now was that on the front page, no it probably wasn’t, but it was a positive story and a lot of people say why don’t you do more of those stories well one answer is that sometimes they can be hard to do because as we know a lot of the possible figures in those stories actually don’t want publicity.

Leonard Sipes: No news is good news, I’ve heard that like 500 million times in 30 years.

Ted Guest: Yeah and but a lot of people as we all know who have been through these programs actually don’t want publicity because if they’ve gotten their life back together that’s wonderful but they probably don’t want a story about how as a former convict they’ve finally have gotten a job. You know they don’t want to jeopardize this so but still it is still true and I’ll just say it flat out here. We are going to do more stories that you might classify as bad news stories. But for the same reason that when the plane crashed,

Leonard Sipes: That’s the nature of news.

Ted Guest: We do the stories about the plane crash we don’t do the story about all the planes that didn’t crash and it’s basically the same principal.

Leonard Sipes: It’s the nature of the news and I think from the government’s point of view that as long as it’s placed in the context it’s fine. It’s pretty easy to generalize. It’s pretty easy to simply say this is wrong and link it to 5 or 6 or 7 other unrelated things. I think people in government are simply looking for fairness and journalist are simply looking for access and not being jerked around. I still think that that’s the bottom line behind 80% of public relations

Ted Guest: Right.

Leonard Sipes: Ted Guest the president of Criminal Justice Journalist, former editor of US News and the World Report. If you’re looking for again a dynamite news summation, every single working day of the week, the best news summation on crime and justice, Google Criminal Justice Journalists and you can get yourself on that list. You don’t have to be a journalist to get on the list. Ladies and gentlemen this is D.C. Public Safety. I want you to have yourselves a very pleasant day.

(Audio Ends)

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Comments

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