The police commissioner’s recent inelegant observations about media coverage of crime are something journalists have grown used to, albeit more routinely from politicians in office and their devotees.
Opposition politicians, you see, are generally never unduly shaken by gratuitous media coverage of gory criminal details because, in their minds, such information proves that the Government is failing in the so-called war on crime and there is propaganda advantage to gain. Look at the social media pages of their surrogates.
Then these same people win an election and, suddenly, media "responsibility" in covering crime becomes an issue and such news should not be on the front page of the newspapers. The schizophrenia is not easily camouflaged.
It was just that this is not the kind of thing, expressed this way, you would normally expect to hear from a police commissioner. No doubt, the commissioner’s predecessors all felt the same. But they have typically left the bacchanal to the politicos who have, over time, accused the media of everything from hapless irresponsibility to being in bed with criminals. The fact though, is there has been a far more intimate embrace of the police service by journalists.
To be clear, both as a newsroom leader and as a journalism trainer, I have frequently offered my own views on journalistic "treatment" of crime stories. From the use of language, to the length and duration of stories, to the use of images, to placement—whether it be in radio or television newscasts or on newspaper pages. There is, far too frequently, insufficient thought on the issue of journalistic treatment in the hectic course of preparing newscasts and publishing newspapers.
To me, journalists also too eagerly embrace the way of law enforcement, to the point of slavish imitation of police-speak and unfiltered regurgitation of information from police sources.
Evidence of this greets us on a daily basis. Who, in both conversational and regular reported speech, speaks of someone being shot "about the body"? How many suspects have been "apprehended" after being seen "acting suspiciously"? As a child, with your neighbour’s grapefruits in hand, have you ever "made good your escape"?
It intrigued me to no end to encounter such use of the English language when I covered the magistrates’ courts. Witnesses had always heard someone "say something" (because, of course, to repeat what was said is to engage in hearsay evidence). There’s always, "nearby bushes" through which alleged felons had escaped police pursuit. A mere gun becomes a "firearm" etc, etc. Police court prosecutors are masters of the art! And, in no time, so becomes the rookie court/crime reporter.
Also, who from among us in the media fraternity, working the "dry" Sunday news desk, has not received those telephone calls? You know the ones. Those that make it possible to report the names and ranks of every single officer who had "conducted an exercise" somewhere.
I’m not going to tell you who always started with "Hi, Wes" when he called with information on some spectacular arrest or find back in the 80s.
In 1994, we took our blows from police commissioner Jules Bernard and national security minister Russell Huggins quiet, quiet, when the media were duped by (fake) news of the killing of state witness Clint Huggins and we essentially reported a lie later justified as being "in the public interest". Was this an abuse? We never really asked or complained.
In resorting to science and not conjecture on this matter, UWI’s Nirmal Maraj and Dr Dylan Kerrigan recently cited a 2017 study which concluded that the police have in fact been "primary definers" of crime news reportage. If we have been getting things wrong, it has thus probably been more of a joint enterprise.
So intimate has been the camaraderie that a rebranding from the mere mention of "the police" to "the TTPS" has now become the (to me, largely irritating) norm in our news reporting.
What we face today is simply one of the risks of assigning police blotter duties to our media. My late Jamaican mother-in-law used to say:"Play wid puppy, puppy lick yu mout." Addressing this is far more interesting to me than baseless claims of witting or unwitting collusion with criminals. The puppy can indeed grow to be a rabid terrier.