By Ed Buice, Public Affairs Officer, Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Washington, D.C.
hese are critical times for law enforcement public information officers (PIOs). They must keep aware of and respond to dramatic developments in the world of mass communication. Some shifts in the landscape are swift and massive, like an earthquake; other changes may happen more slowly and will be more evolutionary than revolutionary, but they will prove to have an equally profound impact.
Changes can be broken down into two main categories: the creation of news content and the distribution of that content. The definitions of “journalist” and “journalism” are no longer what they were, nor is the definition of “news consumer.” Fewer people are getting their news and information from the same sources with which most of us grew up. Nightly-news viewership has been steadily eroding for more than two decades, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.1
The definition of “community” is also changing. Advancements in mobile and digital technology are redefining “word of mouth,” and globalization is no longer an abstract theory. Citizens may not actually know their next-door neighbors personally and no longer swap gossip over the fence, but they regularly chat online with friends around the world—friends both real and “virtual.” Although they might never actually meet these friends face to face, their opinions about a wide variety of issues are trusted nonetheless. Community meetings have in many places been supplanted by chat rooms.
A research project called Media, Technology, and Society puts it this way when discussing the current state of the information age: “It’s mobile, immediate, visual, interactive, participatory and trusted. Make way for a generation of storytellers who totally get it.”2
PIOs must not only “get it,” they must keep up with and embrace the new reality, or, like buggy whip makers, they will be left wondering where everyone went.
The situation of PIOs can be compared with someone learning a foreign language, French for example. For some length of time, the student thinks in English, laboriously translating word after word in her mind to the French equivalent. At some point, though, she begins to think in French, and fluency comes quickly. Similarly, professional communicators must begin to think in new ways—as do those they are trying to reach—and must become fluent in the language of social media.
The field of law enforcement public information requires a unique blend of knowledge, skills, and abilities drawn from the fields of policing, journalism, and public relations and is a mixture of both art and science. To be effective, PIOs must have a message and the means of getting that message to the audiences who need to hear it.
The Changing Face of Communication
For ages, progress in information sharing has all been about going faster. Agencies have been telling the same stories through the same traditional media outlets to the same audiences, just trying to get the information conveyed more quickly. Take, for example, the transition most PIOs have made, from faxing news releases to e-mailing them. Now, the capability and simplicity of sending e-mail from the scene via laptop or personal digital assistant (PDA) rather than an office computer has taken that transition to the next level.
A report from the Global BusinessNetwork (GBN) titled “The Future of Independent Media” notes that from the advent of the printing press until 1962, the principal form of communication was the written word.3
Before the printing press, the written word was controlled by intellectual elites in monasteries. Documents were hand copied. The printing press changed all that, contributing to the Reformation and the Enlightenment and playing no small part in the birth of the United States.
In 1962, television surpassed newspapers as the medium from which most U.S. citizens got their information, and newspaper readership continues to fall to the present day. In 2003 just 54 percent of U.S. citizens read a newspaper every day, although 62 percent read a Sunday paper.4
As an aside, it is worth noting that the GBN research was delivered in 2004, before the advent of YouTube. It is insightful to see what issues were worrying the authors “back then.” Reading the now outdated ruminations on the technical challenges of delivering video over limited bandwidth illustrates how quickly things change. Certainly issues that are now considered mountainous will look more like molehills in retrospect at the end of the decade.
In the 2006 Person of the Year issue, Time quotes a U.S. Census Bureau report stating that U.S. citizens are spending more time surfing the Internet than reading newspapers.5 The Pew Research Center says that nearly 1 in 3 are regularly getting news online, compared to 1 in 50 just 10 years ago.6
People are grabbing bits and pieces of information from various sources and are sharing it with each other online via socialnetworking sites such as YouTube. And it is not just young people who are making the most of social networking; the Web site Inside Facebook says that Facebook use continues to skyrocket, from 14 million unique visitors in May 2006 to 26.6 million in May 2007.7
The odds of Abraham Zapruder capturing the assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy on film were astronomical. And when the Rodney King beating incident was captured on videotape in 1991, much of the story still concerned the novelty of a videocamer a available near the incident to tape it. Now cameras are everywhere, and people are capturing and distributing news frequently and instantaneously. The world is literally looking over the shoulders of police officers, critiquing their judgment and execution.
For example, on September 11, 2007, a video of a St. George, Missouri, police officer was posted on the Web, in which the officer says he can “come up with nine things” with which to charge a motorist following a traffic stop. The St. George Police Department has been inundated with hundreds of phone calls since.8
Video of a controversial arrest by University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA) police in the campus library is also flying around the Internet.9 There is no doubt that the public uses such footage to form its opinions. These cases highlight the symbiotic and tenuous relationship of perception to reality.
When a gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, a student with a videocamera in his cellular telephone captured the sound of shots being fired and uploaded it within moments to CNN’s “I-Report” feature; moments later, the video was broadcast around the world on CNN.
Not that long ago, police dispatch centers would be notified of car crashes by the handful of people who might live nearby or good citizens who had taken it upon themselves to search for a pay phone. Now, every wreck results in instantaneous waves of cell phone calls—so many that they cannot all be answered—and that information tsunami itself is becoming a news story. Rather than painting this technological phenomenon as a story of information management, some reporters have portrayed it as a police “failure.”
The Evolution of Journalism
As the law enforcement profession is evolving, so is journalism. Consider the evolution of war reporting as an example. During medieval times, town criers read aloud to assembled crowds handwritten accounts of events. In the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin and his fellow “pamphleteers” printed gazettes that were often as full of satire and opinion as fact.
Reading about battles and seeing them have different impacts. During the U.S. Civil War, photographs by Matthew Brady and his contemporaries brought home the realities of combat and death in a way words alone could never adequately describe.
Likewise, “moving pictures” cranked out on the far-away battlefields “over there” in France and Germany in World War I. Then, World War II found U.S. citizens gathering in movie theaters to cheer narrated and unabashedly patriotic newsreels and embracing the first-person coverage of correspondents like Ernie Pyle, who introduced viewers to soldiers as individuals.
During Vietnam television viewers not only saw—but also heard—the hell of combat in what has often been referred to as the “Living-Room War.” Yet footage of frontline action could still take days or weeks to be broadcast.
In the First Gulf War—Operation Desert Storm—much of the coverage was live, albeit usually from a fixed location. We routinely watched reporters scramble into gas masks while discussing Scud and Patriot missiles, yet for the most part, the news still had to come to the cameras to be covered live.
As the current war—Operation Iraqi Freedom—began, ingenious combinations of microwave and satellite news-gathering hardware, most notably by NBC’s David Bloom, allowed viewers to ride live into battle atop the tanks of the U.S. Army’s Third Infantry Division as they raced across the desert toward Baghdad. No longer were viewers “told about” the war: they were experientially “there,” even though physically they were on the other side of the planet.
And it is not just old-school journalists who are telling the stories. Now the troops themselves are documenting their experiences on tiny digital videocameras and cell phone cameras, and the high-resolution images can be instantly uploaded and distributed via YouTube. The military is scrambling to figure out how to control or at least manage the impact of these reports. Police agencies are finding themselves facing the same issues regarding younger police officers posting content online.
Keeping Pace with a Changing World
As much as the nature of journalism and public relations is changing, the bottom line will always be that PIOs are storytellers; they gather and package information. They engage and discuss with both supporters and critics. It is true that the Web has made the PIO environment much more interactive, functioning on diverse platforms where medium and message are intertwined. But the more things change, the more they need to stay the same. The core functions of public information are based on principles, not hardware. PIOs will always need to anticipate what is news and what will be news, and they must learn how to advise their leaders of the best strategy for dealing with the road ahead. They must continue to collect and prioritize facts and assemble them into a narrative that makes sense and provides context. They must be able to communicate their stories effectively in writing, and they must be articulate speakers.
PIOs must not lose sight of the importance of their role as gatekeepers for information coming into and going out from their organizations. That means they must stay current regarding new and developing opportunities to share their message, and they must keep their senior leadership informed. Some chiefs might still communicate in the information Stone Age, but many of their frontline officers—especially the younger ones—do not, nor do many of the citizens they serve.
Beyond delivering information to and through the news media, PIOs should study audience segmentation and target marketing in order to find new ways of “pushing” information out to those citizens who need it, instead of just posting stories on agency Web sites so that citizens have to come looking for it.
Among the questions PIOs should be asking are the following: Are there professional or personal social-networking sites that can help locate and reach a specific special interest group? If PIOs are trying to get a traffic safety message to 17-year-olds, should they send a letter to the editor of the newspaper, or should they use MySpace and YouTube? PIOs need to find where their audiences are and meet them there, rather than where they used to be.
What specific steps can law enforcement leaders, especially PIOs, take to maximize their effectiveness in the new media environment? They need to conduct their own research by simply paying attention to what people around them are reading and watching. They need to make it a habit to ask people of every demographic where they are getting their information, when, and in what amounts. PIOs need to ask people to recall a story involving their agency from the past month and determine why that event resonates with them. Is it a story they feel is important, one that affects them directly, one with which they identify, or one that is just too interesting to ignore? What do they feel the agency should have done differently, based on the information and opinions read or seen in the media? How close is their version of events to what really happened?
PIOs should make a habit of visiting the Assignment Editor Web site (www.assignmenteditor.com), where they can link to scores of valuable sites that will keep them up to speed, and they need to regularly check in on Drudge Report (www.drudgereport.com) for news sites and Technorati (technorati.com) as a jumping-off place for linking to the blogosphere. Not all blogs are worth reading, of course, no more than every book is worth reading, but blogs can serve as a good early-warning system for issues that might be about to affect a law enforcement agency.
By reading journalism and publicrelations trade publications and visiting Web sites, PIOs will see that the media realize the news business is going through seismic shifts, and journalists are discussing the future on sites such as Poynter Online (www.poynter.org). Sites such as the Project for Excellence in Journalism (www.journalism.org) provide research reports that discuss trends in news media usage. A simple Google search such as “The Future of News” will result in hits that PIOs will want to spend some time reading.
Google Alerts send an e-mail message whenever any designated topic appears anywhere on the Web. Users can set up accounts for any specific police agency and be notified when the name is used anywhere in the media. For example, alerts requested for “naval criminal” and “NCIS” result in frequent links to publications around the world that make reference to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
PRWeek magazine (www.prweek.com) is replete with information about emerging media trends and the huge possibilities and challenges professional communicators face in every field. Logging on to YouTube (www.youtube.com) and searching phrases like “police chase” or “Taser” can present searchers with a clear idea of what images people are using to form their opinions of law enforcement.
PIOs can join an e-mail network to glean wisdom from a pool of colleagues and receive daily compilations of police-related news as part of a distribution group with more than 1,000 law enforcement members.
The possibilities are endless—the resources listed are but a sample of what is available on the Web. A lack of imagination is the only limitation to developing new ways to communicate with, influence, and reassure those whom the law enforcement community serves and protects. But PIOs cannot wait to see what tomorrow brings—for them, the future is now. ■
1Introduction to The State of the News Media 2007: An Annual Report on American Journalism, by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, http://www.stateofthenewsmedia.com/2007/narrative_networktv_audience.asp (accessed October 31, 2007).
2“The Future of News,” Synapse, April 2005, http://www.mediacenter.org/mediacenter/synapse/synapse_psp_0405.pdf (accessed October 30, 2007), 1.
3Andrew Blau, “The Future of Independent Media,” Deeper News 10, no. 1 (September 2004), http://www.gbn.com/ArticleDisplayServlet.srv?aid=34045 (accessed October 30, 2007).
4“Daily and Sunday Newspaper Readership” chart in The State of the News Media 2007: An Annual Report on American Journalism, http://stateofthemedia.org/2007/chartland.asp?id=176&ct=line&dir=&sort=&col1_box=1&col2_box=1
5Blau, “The Future of Independent Media.” See page 27 of the linked document “Looming Shifts in the Landscape: Interview Summaries.”
6“Online Papers Modestly Boost Newspaper Readership: Maturing Internet News Audience Broader Than Deep,” Pew Research Center news release, July 30, 2006, http://people-press .org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=282 (accessed October 30, 2007).
7Justin Smith, “Facebook Use Continues to Skyrocket,” Inside Facebook, July 6, 2007, http://www.insidefacebook.com/2007/07/06/facebook-use-continues-to-skyrocket (accessed October 30, 2007).
8 Readers can watch the video at www.ksdk.com by searching for “St. George Police.” They can also read other officers’ comments about the incident in the forums on www.officer.com.
9Readers can watch the video at www.youtube.com by searching for “UCLA taser.”
Media on the Morning Commute: A Personal Account Most days I commute about two hours by train and subway to my office at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard, and each day offers a unique study of the changing nature of mass communication.
Some passengers enjoy low-tech conversations with their seatmates. The quietness of the car makes it impossible to avoid overhearing them. Topics run the gamut from the inane (Paris Hilton) to the important (the war), but crime, public safety, and law enforcement issues do get into the mix, most often when those talking are directly affected—as when Virginia recently enacted tougher fines for driving violations. Picking up bits and pieces of what events and issues resonate with these commuters and what coverage they find most valuable is like being part of a rolling news media use focus group.
While we commute, my fellow passengers and I consume information through all sorts of channels. Some are reading standard full editions of the Washington Post, while others peruse the smaller, free Express version targeted specifically to commuters. And there is no shortage of paper; people are also reading magazines, books, and hard copies of e-mail, printed at home or the office.
The train is full of various kinds of warriors, real and metaphorical. A few rows up from me, a camouflage-clad soldier heading for the Pentagon is working on a laptop. In the next row, a “virtual warrior” is playing a war game on a handheld video game player, and across the car a “road warrior” is spending the time thumb-typing on his Blackberry. I can hold my own with the QWERTY keyboard of a Blackberry, but when it comes to the alphanumeric entry of SMS messaging on a cell phone, the twentysomethings among us are obviously more proficient. We technological dinosaurs are still in the huntand-peck stage. When I am texting with my kids, who are young adults, their messages to me often include phrases spelled in text message shorthand, like “r u stil there?”
Headphones are everywhere in the train car, connected to a host of various hardware. Portable cassette players are rare sightings indeed, CD players slightly less so. The dominant technology is an iPod or some other digital music player, some of which also play video. Other passengers watch movies on laptops or portable DVD players.
Many commuters, including myself, mix, match, and multitask. On any given day I might read a couple of newspapers, a magazine, or a book; take a voice call, chat via instant message, send an SMS text message, or watch news or sports highlight videos on my cell phone; or answer e-mail on my Blackberry, listen to a podcast on my PDA, or engage in some simultaneous combination of the above. I must admit that I sometimes still marvel at the ability to spend the trip silently “chatting” via e-mail with a colleague at our office in Baghdad.