February 22, 2017

Hello? Is Anyone Listening?

Much of what we learn about police work is from movies and TV cop shows.  Most of what we learn about the work of reporters is from movies and TV shows.  This sows the seeds of misconception.  We end up “knowing” things we don’t really know and not knowing things we should.

Some years ago as I was teaching at the Canadian Police College in Ottawa.  I was making a point about how newsmakers needed to contact news writers more often.  I asked, “How often do you call or visit reporters?”

“All the time,” said a nice cop from Edmonton.   

“Really,” said I.  “How often is that.”

“A couple of times a day,” said the Edmontonian.

“How do you manage that, with police work and all?”  I asked.

“No,” said the indulgent cop in that voice that said he’d play along with my stupid questions for another round or two.  “I just swing the microphone around and say what I have to say—a couple of times a day.”

I pondered this expression “…swing the microphone around…”

The Edmonton Police Service had, or thought they had, a microphone which sent their voices directly into the newsrooms in the city—CHED, CBC, the Journal, and all others.  I called two people who had worked in Edmonton radio and TV stations and they’d never heard of this.       

Let’s say the microphone was hooked up to a speaker in a newsroom or two in Edmonton.  I can just hear … sorry I just can’t hear what might come out of this speaker.  I can’t hear because most newsrooms also feature TV sets on, radios playing, emergency radios chattering, keyboarding, talking, telephoning, and such.  Newsrooms are a little quieter now that teletype machines have been replaced by computer screens, but there’s still noise.

But what I can just ‘hear’ is the brief conversation after the police announcement is over:

Journalist #1:  “What’d he say?”

Journalist #2:  “Cop talk…you know “proceeding northerly…person of interest…weapons dangerous…”

Journalist #1:  “Do you think it’s newsworthy?  Should we write it up?”

Journalist #2:  “I doubt it.  He’d call or we’d hear sirens, or something on the emergency radio, I think.”

Journalist #1:  “Why do they do that, then?”

Journalist #2:  “How am I supposed to know.  I went to journalism school to learn to write news, not read cops’ minds.  Speaking of which…shut up and write some news.”  

Tampa notes that it will have “pre-canned Public Service Announcements (PSA) for transmission by the media on what the public should do …”  The term ‘in the can’ refers to old-style film which goes in the film can for future use.  “[P]re-canned” must be a step before that.

In Jacksonville/Duvall County, they plan to make use of public access TV talk shows and programs and various news media “Call-In” shows.   Who knows what a public access TV talk show is.  Perhaps all the others can’t be seen.  During an emergency, call-in shows will have lots of callers.  It would be good to have a plan to get through.  

St Catharines hopes to “[c]orrect misinformation by contacting media program producer.”  A producer is someone who helps research, line up guests, and direct a TV or radio program.  Many smaller markets don’t have producers and the host does all the work.  Newspapers don’t have producers, so perhaps St Catharines will tolerate misinformation in print.

Picky of me?  Perhaps.  But try using the wrong terminology with cops–“probable cause” in Canada, and so on.  Cops and emergency responders should call newsrooms to find out if they have the right approach and terminology.  Journalists should call cops to find out what their jargon means and how they work.  We’d all be safer

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