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From the Chair: "Press or Push?"
Author: Paul D. Bagley
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
You are right in the middle of a multiagency mass casualty event when the phone rings. Is it a commander in the field with important information? Is it one of the mutual aid agencies you are coordinating? No. It is a reporter from a local newspaper with a thousand and one questions; just what you needed! This installment of From the Chair takes a look at the relationship between the dispatcher and the media. It discusses how an effective Public Information Officer is a buffer between the two, and how the PIO can change a meddlesome media into a valuable asset.
At the recent NHEDA annual conference, Tom Catino, Past-President of APCO’s Atlantic Chapter, suggested I address in my column some of the issues dispatchers face with regard to dealing with the press and media. I’m not certain if what follows comprises what you had in mind Tom, but here goes.
Back in the good old days, before the development of modern electronic medium, the public was compelled to get news of local events through newspapers or by word-of-mouth. While the word-of-mouth method still prevails when it comes to misrepresenting reality, the advent of the twenty-four-hour news cycle runs a close second. Even a cursory glimpse at the media coverage of the events surrounding this year’s Boston Marathon provides conclusive evidence supporting this hypothesis.
Take CNN – a global news channel that has eliminated their news-gathering staff in lieu of paying anchor people like Wolf Blitzer. Good old Wolf was CNN’s boots-on-the-ground in Boston in the days following the bombings. CNN was quick to report that the authorities had a suspect in custody days before any arrest was actually contemplated. Despite assertions that the information was from “authoritative sources,” it turned out to be bogus – so much for truth in reporting.
Unfortunately, examples such as this one are all too common, and they lead us to conclude that a percentage of those who gather and report the news (electronic or otherwise) are totally inept at doing so. It also suggests that the media’s failure to accurately report facts in a crisis might actually negatively alter the outcome of that crisis. Fortunately, neither ineptitude nor adversely affecting an outcome is the rule, but rather the exception.
Some time ago I developed a method of dealing with reporters that was apparently somewhat offensive to the press and the public, but fairly effective when dealing with a stubborn newsperson refusing to let me do my job. I would tell them that I had no press release to give them, which was true. In fact, I was not even allowed to confirm that something was going on. They would then rephrase their inquiry. I would repeat that I had no information or press release to offer them. When asked what I could tell them, I would reply, “I have no press release.” When they asked the question yet another time I would ask them if they were hearing impaired or learning disabled. Yep, that was received just as you might think; they complained mightily to The Chief, which begot me a nasty letter in my jacket.
Since those days, one of the mechanisms created in the wake of a string of major disasters across the country is the Incident Command System (ICS); in particular the provision for a PIO. The Public Information Officer often eliminates the need for dispatchers to have to deal with interruptive calls from the press and media. Experienced reporters have grown to understand that heckling a dispatcher who isn’t allowed to divulge information without authorization is fruitless. Only the rookie, cub reporter, or incompetent one will pursue a path that will net them nothing. Once a PIO has been established, they are the only source of official information available. And so it was in the recent newsworthy events in Newtown, CT, and in Boston, MA.
During the Newtown shooting incident, Connecticut State Police Sergeant J. Paul Vance became the voice of law enforcement. Reporters from around the globe stopped trying to slant-drill their way into dispatch to get a scoop. Instead, they mounted their microphones on a quickly-erected stand and awaited the formal briefings. In Boston, Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis kept the press and media informed throughout the five-day ordeal after the Marathon bombings. I suppose it didn’t hurt that both of these guys are the size of Manhattan skyscrapers, and each possesses a commanding presence and authoritative demeanor that helped keep reporters at bay. True journalists have come to understand that the old way of newsgathering has seen its day, and thankfully the PIO is here to stay.
I know most of us on the inside (dispatchers, cops, firefighters, etc.) consider the press an unnecessary evil, and believe firmly that all reporters should be spayed, neutered or summarily executed. But truth be known, the media and the press actually have an important job to do – they keep honest public servants honest. A free press (or media) is one of the cornerstones of a true democracy, and shedding light on government at all levels is a vital and noble task. Why so many of them heckle dispatchers in the midst of their noble endeavor is hard to understand since dispatchers are considered by most to be the absolute bottom of the government food-chain, if they’re considered at all. We’re simply someone who answers the phone when it rings, and the number they dialed was probably the most obvious listing they could find.
Done properly, news reporting can inform, inspire, and even motivate the public to act in a desired fashion. Need proof? Look at how greater Boston was spurred into action on April 19, 2013. Over 180 people were injured and four killed, including an MIT police officer. People in and around Boston stayed home when they were asked. Officials implored citizens to report suspicious activity immediately while taking no other action. The manhunt focused on a community of 32,000 next to Boston, and the press moved in with their satellite trucks and hunkered down.
A phalanx of law enforcement agents from dozens of New England agencies, armed with sub-atomic weapons, armored vehicles, and Blackhawk helicopters, inundated the town of Watertown. Residents remained at home, businesses remained closed, and schools were already on spring break. The only vehicles moving belonged to police, fire and ambulance services, and of course, the media. The sheer volume of police officers and their equipment caused the suspect to go to ground. The media set up along the established perimeter and provided continuous live coverage to New England radio and TV outlets. The last time the Bay State watched this kind of event unfolding live on television was when the twin towers in New York were attacked over a decade earlier.
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick made a plea to area residents to “shelter in place.” That request, rather than being a demand, was the only thing that separated what followed from martial law. But the people took it seriously. Curiosity-seekers went elsewhere unless they had press credentials. The result: suspicious activity was reported by a home-owner on Franklin Street, and the suspect was apprehended hiding in a boat in a back yard. The press had unwittingly played a vital role in helping produce a positive outcome.
But prior to the physical arrest of the suspect, law enforcement had released a video clip of the two bombers taken by a security camera belonging to a clothing store. That clip was run over and over again with voice-over in the background from news readers. Those video images were seen by the bombers themselves, which is likely why they elected an attempt to get out of town. The media unwittingly played a major role in the subsequent movements of the two brothers, one of whom murdered a police officer, and was himself killed in a shootout with police. The other abandoned a stolen vehicle in Watertown, and went into hiding prior to his capture. Although McLuhan’s prophecy of the media being the message was partially correct, the media was – to a degree – an actual partner in capturing the bad guys.
What are some of the lessons people should take away from Newtown and Boston? Well, the first is that all reporters should be required in journalism school to complete the Incident Command System online classes ICS-100, 200, 300, 400 and 402 before they’re even allowed access to any incident involving a command post. If journalists can grasp the basic concepts of the ICS, theoretically they should realize that anything that is worth reporting won’t be found through interaction with a dispatcher. From the government side, recognizing that reporters have a job to do, and that they are not necessarily the enemy, can go a long way toward appeasing them. Official statements prepared in advance, and delivered regularly by a spokesperson, are the best way to keep reporters at arms-length. Providing frequent press conferences with updates during ongoing situations keeps the reporter pool in one place, and they all get the same story at the same time. Fielding individual questions from the gaggle can be cumbersome and time-consuming, not to mention tricky.
Reporters are a nuisance during a big event primarily when agencies don’t bother adhering to the elements of the ICS, in particular, the PIO. Without a designated spokesperson, and a fixed site away from the action from which to get authoritative information, reporters turn to the one fixed place they know of — dispatch. By recognizing that the media is going to dig for a story wherever a story might be hiding, it’s best to push reporters gently to a specific location where a designated person will address their needs. And like greedy little children, reporters will keep asking for more even after the PIO has given them all that they actually need to file their stories. Alas, that is basic human nature, and nothing contained in the ICS is going to change it.
So, what’s the bottom line? First, during all major incidents, The Chief needs to immediately invoke ICS and establish a PIO. The PIO needs to establish a briefing site where reporters can be accommodated. That site should be a location as far removed from the actual incident as is practical. In storm-related incidents this can be difficult, but still necessary. The PIO needs to work from a prepared text in order to be completely accurate and truthful. Q&A sessions are up to The Chief and the PIO, and should only be contemplated if the PIO is adept at the practice. If something isn’t known it should be stated as such with the additional proviso that the PIO will look into the matter and get back with an answer at the next briefing. To maintain credibility, the PIO must actually look into the matter, and then actually get back to the reporter(s) with an answer.
Whether we like it or not, reporters are like bad weather – they are with us all too often. As telecommunicators we don’t need to cater to them, but intelligent agencies do need to include them in the overall operational equation (just as they do bad weather). By pushing reporters gently in a desirable direction, their attention can be focused on reporting the actual story without becoming part of it. Skillful handling of the press and media will avoid them influencing a negative outcome. In fact, with proper application, spin can actually be applied to the story, much the way politicians do. If you want the public to “shelter in place” don’t be afraid to say so. If you’re looking for a particular suspect, share the photo or the Identi-Kit rendering and let the public help you find the culprit. By considering the media almost as an extension of the command agency, it is possible to maneuver and control reporters, thereby minimizing or eliminating their negative impact upon those in The Chair. By embracing the ICS program, commanders can actually push the press in the preferred direction so that dispatchers don’t have to deal with them, which isn’t their job anyway. Dispatchers are then left unimpeded to dispatch the emergency, which is their job. Law enforcers are free to enforce the law, fire fighters are free to fight fires, and emergency medical personnel are free to treat whomever they need to treat. The press and media, whether or not learning disabled or hearing impaired, get their story, and democracy is preserved. Now, whether the press or the media accurately report what it’s been given, well, that’s a subject for another column … or maybe a book.
Paul D. Bagley is a published author of both fiction and non-fiction books, a retired police officer and emergency dispatcher. He is the past president of New Hampshire Emergency Dispatchers Association, and he is editor and publisher of the association’s monthly newsletter, “The NHEDA Broadcaster.” Paul’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his public safety employer.
"From the Chair" was conceived and developed for 9-1-1 Magazine by Michael Wallach, founder and president emeritus of 911Lifeline. 911Lifeline is a national 501(c)(3) membership association providing services for 9-1-1 telecommunicators, assistance to the media, and public education programs. For more information visit http://911lifeline.org.