During a critical incident, be it a natural disaster, terrorist attack, school shooting, etc., you will encounter seven different types of news reporters. You can easily recognize the different types by their actions and sometimes, their clothing and behavior. And you should be able to recognize them because the power of negative coverage lies with them. In terms of their likelihood to generate a negative story, these types of reporters are ranked below in order from least dangerous to most dangerous.
New or Clueless Reporters
The reporters who are either new to the media outlet, to the region or just generally don’t have a clue are sent to the place they can’t screw up too much—the command center. These reporters aren’t trusted enough by their bosses to get a story, therefore, they’re sent to cover the goings on at the command center. The bosses figure if news breaks, the command center will get it, and the reporter based there can’t miss it.
These are the reporters who dutifully gather for each one of your briefings and ask questions only of the designated spokespeople. These are the ones who the PIO’s and the brass tend to love because they follow the chain of command and cause no problems. They’re harmless.
They’ll always be harmless. Yet these are the ones we cater to the most often. Why cater to the harmless? Command center loiterers usually aren’t even sharp enough to figure out when the command center screwed up. Enjoy their presence and spoon-feed them often.
While we like our clueless reporters, they’re not the only ones out there. We need to accept the fact that danger still lurks about. The next type of less-than-dangerous reporter out there is the lazy one.
Lazy reporters really want you to do the work for them. You know this type. They’re the ones who wait for you to pull the interesting police reports for them so they don’t have to sort through the stack. These are the ones who’ll miss the fact the mayor just committed homicide unless you tell them.
The lazy reporter at the critical incident will do one thing only, listen to the public information officer. That is great for us. However, the real problem is that we generally only expect this type of reporter and we gear all of our efforts toward this type. We deploy numerous PIO’s at a critical incident and expect this to be the only person authorized to speak.
They may be the only ones authorized to make a statement, but somehow that evening’s news and the next day’s newspaper article have a lot more than the authorized statements, don’t they? This happens when we forget the other reporters are out there. Have one PIO responsible for briefings to be attended by the lazy reporters and have other officers responsible for keeping an eye on the other reporters and trying to reign them in. The next types of reporter, well, they’re really not reporters anymore because they’ve become editors or bosses.
The bosses call the shots and tell reporters where to go and what to cover. They’re locked in an office all day and have two sources, phone tipsters and the almighty fax machine, which means the bosses rely on your press releases. They’re pretty much the only ones who care about the releases. Press releases are used for two things: as fact checking devices and as “just in case you missed it” devices.
The bosses either use the release after the fact—after the story is turned in to make sure the reporter got the basic facts right—or they use the release to call the reporters and make sure they’re aware of something you’ve just released. Keep sending the releases, but don’t rely on them during a critical incident, you won’t be successfully reaching your target. Established reporters, on the other hand, are targeting you.
These reporters have been around for a long time, long enough for the news to reliably come to them. Every news agency has at least one of these reporters, and they can be so-so dangerous. The established reporters have established sources, people who contact them with correct, timely and often exclusive stories. These reporters wait for the phone call and then go out and nail the story right away. You usually don’t see them until they’re coming to you for confirmation about something you didn’t think anyone knew about. You need to be aware that these reporters have more sources than you could ever provide, even with your entire command staff and a slew of PIO’s. These reporters also wouldn’t go to a PIO for a statement. They’d much rather go to a favorite source and eventually come to you for an “official comment.” But by the time they do come to you, the damage has probably been done.
Figure out who these reporters are and try to stay one step ahead by figuring out who their sources are from their previous stories. Established reporters are likely to work as mentors toward the next group, the real reporters.
Real reporters are similar to the established reporters. They are aware that your PIO’s and command staff only give out what you want them to know! Real reporters can spot propaganda and will go to those sources only to verify what they already know. While real reporters always maintain good relationships with the PIO’s, they never rely on them for information other than spellings of names and dates of birth. A real reporter is usually fair but can be dangerous if you’re trying to keep something hushed—they’ll go away quietly if turned away, but it’s a deadly silence. They don’t give up.
Real reporters need information they think they got on their own; it validates them. The best way is to have someone reliable drop them some information every so often—something innocuous to the agency or case but sensitive enough to be kept out of an original incident report. The real reporter feels like he unearthed something with his valuable source and you have a non-prowling reporter for a week or two. Real reporters are on their way to becoming one of the two most dangerous types of reporters: the gung-ho reporter and the dreaded investigative reporter.
Gung-ho reporters need to see things and do things for themselves. They need to be out in the field and being right in the thick of things. Gung-ho reporters have a spare change of clothes, bunker gear, boots, a Kevlar vest, a gas mask and a helmet in their trunks. If it’s going to happen, they’re going to be there. If there is a riot, they have two choices of the sides to be on—police or rioter. Usually they’ll choose the police side, but curiosity usually lures them over to the other side.
Gung-ho reporters see everything…good, bad and other. They see it, they live it, they breathe it and then they report it. Whatever they encounter, they report. These people actually look forward to pepper spray.
The problem with gung-ho reporters is that they can’t be everywhere at once and sometimes they can’t see the forest for the trees. For example, they can cover an event and report exactly what they encountered—lawlessness, chaos and police inaction. People at the same event but at a different location will take exception to those media reports because chaos was kept to a minimum from their perspective. Remember, it’s what the camera captures that counts.
Cater to these reporters by offering them opportunities to play along. Give them chances to do ride-alongs, to spend a shift with the narcotics unit, to attend K9 training, anything semi-adventurous. Chances are they’ll be so enthralled with their own adrenaline rush, they’ll churn out a positive story about your agency. The overall result: during a critical incident, they’ll recall their previous “training” and be more apt to tell your side of the story.
Investigative reporters are the ones always on the prowl for a good story. They read conspiracy or cover-up into just about anything because they truly believe there’s always a government cover-up going on. They do not accept the facts as you present them but instead search for the “real” truth. These are the types who are more likely to believe protesters than what they perceive to be police rhetoric. The sources for the investigative reporters are usually ones who are at the other end of the spectrum than law enforcement.
A favorite investigative angle upon which these reporters will focus during a critical incident is how participating police abused their powers. You will find investigative reporters on the lines with the protesters or in the homes of relatives of killed hostages. When the investigative reporter comes for the official side of the story, they will go straight to the brass for a comment. And that approach will, eight times out of 10, be ambush style…when you’re walking out of the office to the car and planning on going home, not on answering tough questions to the TV cameras.
There’s really no way to take preventative action with an investigative reporter, other than to always be squeaky clean and unfailingly perfect. The best thing to do is to plan for an attack by an investigative reporter and have a nice, calm, informative reaction that may help take some of the sting out of the report.
All seven of these types of reporters are lurking in your area or in your closest major city, and they’ve all pegged you into their own sort of hierarchy of usefulness. Now you can do the same.
Cara Donlon-Cotton is the former media relations instructor for the Georgia Public Safety Training Center and a reformed newspaper reporter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.