The Malta Independent 28 June 2022, Tuesday

Balancing public interest with confidentiality in police investigations

Mark Said Sunday, 22 May 2022, 08:03 Last update: about 2 months ago

Simply stated, there is no specific requirement for the police to give press conferences. But in the aftermath of a major or serious crime, expectations do run high. If a police press conference or update is not given, the media will go out and start looking for their own answers, and sometimes they are the wrong answers. In such a scenario, the media and the public in general easily behave like animals, needing to be fed, and needing to get the information from somewhere. With this consideration, it is logical to argue that it is better that they get it from the best and most reliable source possible: the police. The media can be a very useful tool for law enforcement. Aside from informing the public of criminal activity for their safety, it can serve as an effective way of bringing the public and the media on the side of the police.

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Crime and criminal justice in Malta have generally become more of a political issue. News reports increasingly involve not only individual acts of lawbreaking but also issues of crime policy, prominently featuring what police departments were doing to combat crime. The result is even more attention to crime in both print and broadcast media. The media depends on police agencies to provide the “who, what, when, where” details that are central to basic news coverage. Of course, news reporters can and do expand on the material provided by police agencies by interviewing crime victims and witnesses. Frequently, however, little time is available to do this in the crush of daily news, and many victims are unavailable or unwilling to talk, so many crime stories consist solely of information provided by law enforcement.

The Police Corps and the media have a symbiotic relationship, with both entities depending on each other. While the two have common goals, they sometimes have diverging priorities. As with any relationship, communication between the Corps and media partners can be rocky at times, but there are also times when it can be smooth and positive. The Corps has experienced the seesaw of public opinion, yet subscribes to the idea that building partnerships with reporters are the key to maintaining good media relations. The fact that its public information officers have begun working to maintain positive relationships with local media outlets helped turn things around. To make sure that stories are fair and accurate, the Corps is now working on building relationships and being transparent with information. When there is an ongoing investigation, for example, it is now recognised that the press is not being impatient when they ask for information. Police PROs know that reporters have to bring back updates to keep their bosses happy. The key is to be genuine about what information is available and what cannot be released at that time. It is about building relationships.

The role of the Corps’ public information office should also be to push the positive stories, as well as other newsworthy items, such as when major cases are solved, to the media. Any success of the Police Corps with the media is professionalism. The key is understanding that the media have a duty to report the news to the community. In addition, reporters are a conduit to the community, which allows the Corps to push news out to community members when urgent situations arise. The police should strive to be partners with the media. They should be upfront about when they can and cannot give reporters information. They should live up to what they say they can do and do their best to provide timely information.

The Corps must develop a rapport with media representatives. It should make it a point of meeting with them and establishing relationships built on trust. There is a fairly frequent turnover in reporters, so police should continuously introduce themselves to new arrivals. Part of being a good partner to the media includes responding to media requests promptly and efficiently, answering reporters within a few minutes. The media are the Corps’ conduit. The Corps does not have the audience that the local TV news does. When police have to get information about a missing juvenile out to the community, for example, they need the media. They must be a good partner to the media so that when they make a request, they respond.

Sometimes situations escalate quickly and news comes from sources that are not official. For example, if a message to the community about a major incident or high profile crime does not come out until after some video of the incident is aired, the police end up not getting in front of the situation. Their message will not have been released first. They might have had legal reasons why they could not speak at the time. Of course, reporters will have to cover the incident because it will be newsworthy. The majority of the media partners of the police treat them firmly but well. They hold them accountable, which the community expects. However, occasionally, a media outlet might have an agenda. If they release an inaccurate story, the PRO of the Corps will ask them to correct it. But sometimes they do not want to.

The fragmented nature of both the news media and the Malta Police Corps means that the relationship will always be a bit uncertain. Journalism organisations depend on the police to provide them timely and accurate information on crimes but also will try to hold police accountable for illegal or abusive activities. For their part, police will try to enlist media to help them publicise cases in which law enforcement hopes that the public can provide information needed to find and convict crime suspects. The Internet has provided more avenues for police to appeal directly to the public. Along the way, there are bound to be disputes, but ultimately both sides need cooperation from the other to do their jobs well.

 

Dr Mark Said is an advocate

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