Lights, Cameras, Accident Scene

What To Do When The Media Arrives

You’re a volunteer with the local Police Department. You’re sitting at home on a rather warm Sunday in May.  Suddenly your telephone rings.

Photo of a crime scene in Maricopa, Az.

“Shoot, the press is here.” Photo by Howard WaGGner, News of Maricopa.

“Hello?”

“Hey, this is , we have an incident in that we’re being called to provide traffic control for. Are you available?”

Just like that, you’re sitting in a vehicle, crosswise in the street (see the white cruiser in the background of the picture?), while detectives and patrol officers deal with a crime scene right behind you. Your job is to keep the unauthorized people out, and let the authorized people in.

So, after a couple of hours of above-average temperatures (this is Arizona, after all), you notice a couple of guys walking up the sidewalk toward you. They’re carrying cameras and have ID cards hanging around their necks. More detectives? Crime Scene Investigators?

As they get closer you realize…IT’S THE MEDIA!

Oh shoot, what do you do now. You try and remember back to that little part of Volunteer Orientation when you were told that all media queries were to be directed to the Public Information Officer, and you are NOT to speak to the guys with cameras and microphones.

Ok, um, what are you allowed to say to them? Hi? Go Away (never a good idea, BTW)? Can I help you (Better idea)?

Command Staff will immediately tell you that you should direct them to the designated Media Staging Area, or wherever the PIO is going to be meeting with the press. Get on your radio and call the Incident Commander, let him/her know that you have media at your location, and where should you send them. And then you can relay the message back to the guys with the cameras and off they go.  Remember, the press will always find someone to talk to.  It’s up to you to point them at the person who can best tell the story, and get all the facts correct.

Whew, that was a close one.

Now, 45 minutes later, you notice one of the “Cameras” is back, walking along the Crime Scene tape, snapping pictures of the scene.  What do you do!?

As long as the Press Critter is outside of the restricted area, you do NOTHING! Oh sure, you can say “hi” again, or even comment on the weather, but that’s about it.  You don’t answer questions, you don’t make “educated guesses” about what happened, etc. You keep any conversation you have to a neutrally happy level. You can’t “shoo” him away, either.  The Press have a legal right to be at the scene, albeit outside the perimeter. They can take all of the pictures they want. As long as you’re polite, non-confrontational, and neutral with them, they will eventually fold up their tripods, put their notebooks away, and leave.

Pre-planning & Training Before The Media Circus

As a volunteer for a Public Safety agency, you should expect to run across the media on occasion. And you should expect some press photographers to push the envelope of acceptable limits, in an effort to get that “one good photo.”

You will occasionally feel like these fellows, from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, minus the weaponry of course:

Picture from Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

You Can’t Be Here, Sir.

Volunteer Agencies should spend a bit of time on training their volunteers on how to deal with the media. It should be more than “send them to the PIO.”

Prior to becoming a volunteer with a local police department, I was a Press Critter for a local media outlet.  I never really considered myself very good at writing articles, so I used to take photos.  I would talk to the officers/volunteers working the crime scene tape line, but never to really pry into what happened.  Usually you could tell what it was (house fire, accident, etc), and those times you couldn’t you had to wait for the PIO briefing.  I’ve seen media people stroll right up to the perimeter, cross over it and keep on going…once.  They were escorted right back to the line, and left to sit.

As a volunteer working the perimeter detail, there are a couple of things you need to keep in mind when dealing with media.

Dealing with the Media – Do’s and Don’ts

I helped develop this list back in the late 1990s, while volunteering with a Disaster Relief organization. Some of this might apply to your agency/department, and some may not, but here is something to keep in the back of your mind when you deal with the media, either as an authorized representative, or as someone working an incident.

DO:

  • DO help the reporter or camera crew find the designated spokesperson for your agency.
  • DO wear appropriate identification on clothing so it is clear who you represent.
  • DO answer ONLY for your agency, and what your agency is doing at the scene.
  • DO give the reporter your name and what your responsibility is in a clear fashion.
  • DO be polite, honest, concise, direct. Talk in short natural sentences that can be easily edited.

DON’T:

  • DON’T address what may have caused the incident, unless that is part of your responsibilities.
  • DON’T give information of a personal nature about victims, details of injuries, or assign responsibility to any individual or group for what happened.
  • DON’T say “No Comment.” If you do not know the answer, say that. Tell the reporter you will get back to them with the information they need or refer them to someone who has the information.
  • DON’T hold your hand up to block the lens of a camera.
  • DON’T impart any “off the record” information to the reporter. There is no such thing. (Some of the best information comes out in casual conversations after the completion of the interview.)
  • DON’T comment on problems with other workers. If you believe there is a problem, address these problems to a supervisor at an appropriate time, not the media.
  • DON’T make comments that dishearten your fellow volunteers. Remember that you represent your agency.
  • DON’T laugh, joke, or use inappropriate gestures while a still camera is taking pictures or a video camera is rolling. Most incidents we respond to are serious business — Be dignified.

AND REMEMBER:

Reporters have deadlines, pressure to get “good visuals,” and may not have any background in dealing with fires or other disaster situations. Be sensitive to what they need and be as helpful as possible. Your positive attitude will be reflected in reports about your agency.

The faster you get them them information they want/need, the sooner they’ll leave.

And most important…a reporter is responsible for being accurate…not fair…accurate.

But what about “The Guy with The Smartphone?”

Smart Phones being used as cameras at an event

Photo courtesy of GuardianLV.com

Introducing the Citizen Journalist. This is what I started out doing. Anyone with a smart phone and the ability to string words together online can be considered a citizen journalist. With the advent of blogging and social media, the “rules of journalism” changed. Now, anyone who approaches your perimeter can write up the experience and post it all over the Internet. When in doubt, refer back to the “Do’s and Don’ts” mentioned above.

The citizen journalist is not hampered by deadlines, so they might stand around for an hour or so, just watching. And they might talk to you.

I became such a fixture at local incidents, that they finally recruited me to be a volunteer, just so they wouldn’t have to worry about dealing with me in the field.

While you should always be “aware” when you deal with the media, or citizens in general, you never know when you might convince someone to come over to your side of the fence. The guy who writes/photographs for a living might be a great addition to your volunteer ranks. Every agency needs people who can portray their mission in positive terms.

And remember, the guys with the cameras…they’re people too. And they deserve the respect you would give anyone else.

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