With the wide range of topics that journalists cover, training in military and police affairs generally ends up falling by the wayside. But, for those journalists that do interact with the military and police, knowledge of military and police activities can be the only way to ensure accurate reporting.
“We realize that most area media, especially, have what we call ‘limited military knowledge,’” said Ryan Brus, Public Affairs Officer for Fort Knox in Kentucky. “Basically, we explain things that we do as if we’re talking to our grandmothers.”
When speaking with journalists, military personnel attempt to refrain from using acronyms and advanced military concepts to keep from confusing journalists. But, according to Brus, reporters that are more familiar with military terminology are better prepared to ask the right questions and, thus, receive more in-depth information.
The same can be said for reporters covering police affairs. Reporters that are more familiar with the workings of the police are better equipped to ask applicable questions and gain the respect of the subjects that they are covering.
“Inexperienced reporters sometimes feel the need to ask questions that are not appropriate,” said Commander Jason Parrott of the Evanston Police Department. “The biggest thing for reporters to understand, we’re not going to give an answer that’s going to potentially jeopardize a case.”
Not only is knowledge of the military and police important in accurately reporting, it can also help in extracting information by gaining respect from the personnel.
“The lion’s share of media are just ones that are not too familiar with Fort Knox or the military,” Brus said. “It can make some of us in the military chuckle with what they come up with.”
Having an understanding of the workings of military and police business can give reporters credibility with their subjects and encourage them to be more forthcoming with information.
Embedded in Operation Iraqi Freedom
When Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced in 2003, journalists found themselves closer to the action than they had anticipated. Unlike previous military actions, the Pentagon allowed an unprecedented amount of journalists to report from frontline combat units as embeds with troops.
To make this transition more manageable, the Pentagon created a program for embeds that began with a weeklong boot camp. Over 600 future embeds were taught military policy, command structure, weapons capabilities and survival skills.
“Some of it, for a lot of the reporters that covered the military, was kind of redundant,” said Washington Post reporter Monte Reel, one of the trainees that went through the boot camp in December of 2002. “But a lot of the reporters that went to those embed assignments didn’t have much experience on covering the military.”
Reel’s boot camp focused a lot on logistical training to keep journalists safe and out of the way during missions. Journalists were taught how to ride in Bradley Fighting Vehicles, ride in helicopters, and parachute out of airplanes. Most of the exercises featured basic training to keep them safe in general combat and specific emergencies like the release of chemical weapons.
But the camp also spent time ensuring that the both the journalists and military could properly communicate with one another. Officers would lay out guns and weaponry, and give demonstrations of their function. This gave the embeds basic knowledge of the weaponry they would witness while in combat.
“It also gives you a little more credibility with the people that you’re writing about,” Reel said. “It can open up avenues of conversation if you can speak with them about it. In general, people really like talking about that stuff.”
This knowledge was important in gaining credibility with the personnel Reel dealt with on a day-to-day basis. But it was also important in his ability to accurately report what he witnessed, and gain credibility with his readers.
“’Make sure you get the weapons right when you write these stories,’” Reel remembered the foreign editor of the Washington Post warning him. “He said there was nothing they got called about more often than obvious mistakes in reporters describing weapons. If you make a mistake… it kind of casts doubt on everything you write.”
Journalists on the police beat
The Evanston Police Department does not offer specific training for journalists who cover police or crime beats, but Cmdr. Parrott has met to informally talk with reporters who frequently write about police matters.
“Usually it’s kind of a work in progress, so they can have a feel of where I coming from and I can have a feel of where they’re coming from,” Cmdr. Parrott said.
As a spokesman for the department, he said it is smart to speak with reporters before they start filming to discuss the story and address any questions that may arise.
Cmdr. Parrott stressed the importance of journalists clarifying information with the police. They should be more careful about details, especially when they are reporting on the scene.
“Just because they’re getting information from the public, there may be slight inaccuracy with it,” Cmdr. Parrott said. “We always find discrepancies [because] they’re only getting one side.”
Details such as descriptions, actions, and properly identifying the offender can be misrepresented if journalists only write based off of what they see.
“Law enforcement [is] interviewing everybody and we may have access to some things they [journalists] don’t have access to,” Cmdr. Parrott said.
Journalists should not assume what a certain term means if they are unfamiliar with it. Cmdr. Parrott explained that it is easy for journalists to get information from the Internet, especially regarding weapons. While the Internet can be a good foundation for knowledge, it should not be relied on.
“I think it’s always best to get law enforcement’s perspective on those weapons just because law enforcement is much more knowledgeable in the function and operation of weapons or trained in those weapons instead of just going off information on the Internet or somebody who doesn’t have proper credentials to talk about those weapons,” he said.
However, Cmdr. Parrott said the most common inaccuracies he sees in articles are misquotes and spun statements, rather than details. For both, gaining experience on the job is the most important factor in being able to be accurate, more so than specific training.
“The more experience they [journalists] have in dealing with different police departments or different law enforcement agencies, they have a little better grasp on what to ask and what not to ask and to help them guide their story that they’re trying to present to the public,” Cmdr. Parrott said.
Unlike journalists who cover war, journalists who cover crime do not face much danger while reporting. In situations where police and journalists are on the scene of a dangerous event, the police make sure the media is separated and not in the way.
“They’re not going to be anywhere near the area where there’s potential harm to them and/or the public,” Cmdr. Parrott said.
Because they are separated from police action, journalists covering crime to not need weapons training for their protection, as could be the case with journalists who cover war, but some familiarization with weapons and police operations is helpful to inform their stories.
“Get it right”
Kerry Luft, an editor at the Chicago Tribune, also stressed the importance of getting details right. He said he frequently sees basic errors in stories that should be preventable. Luft, who has competed in target shooting, sees a lot of misinformation regarding weapons.
“Most [errors] are in the category of typos, but it calls the credibility into question,” he said.
Luft said because many readers have a least some rudimentary knowledge about firearms, small inaccuracies could make them less willing to trust the rest of the article.
“If we were this inaccurate about everything we wrote about, the recipes in our food section wouldn’t work and no one would trust us,” Luft said.
A detail that might be insignificant to someone who is not familiar with weapons could have a big impact on the story for someone who is familiar with weapons. Reporters sometimes confuse an automatic weapon to mean a fully automatic weapon, which fires as long as the trigger is held down, while the term automatic weapon also describes a semi-automatic weapon, which fires once when the trigger is pulled.
Another misconception is the comparison between an AK-47 to a squirrel rifle. “Most people’s knowledge of firearms comes from what they read and see–TV shows, news reports,” Luft said.
This media portrays AK-47s as the more dangerous and frightening weapon. In reality, a squirrel rifle, while it may sound less intimidating, is similar in power and can be modeled to look like an AK-47.
Luft referenced the coverage of the sniper attacks that took place in October 2002 in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. He said the speculation about the sniper and his background in firearms caused a lot of hysteria. The speculation was not accurate, and the situation could have been better handled if the media was more informed.
Accuracy in reporting about weapons is even more vital because firearms and gun laws are such controversial issues.
“You don’t want to add to that by being inaccurate,” Luft said.
Journalists today make more errors about weapons than in the past. Luft said less journalists are exposed to firearms growing up, and there are less veterans in the newsroom. His own experience with shooting makes it easier for him to see others’ mistakes regarding weapons. He said most journalists do not take advantage of opportunities to familiarize themselves with weapons, such as a firearms class.
While it may not be practical for all journalists to go through extensive training on weapons, some better research and clarifying with experts or police would be helpful.
“The more you know about any given topic, the better off you are as a journalist,” Luft said.
Journalists’ knowledge of what they cover is key in being able to best inform their readers.
“It’s incumbent on the media to be more educated than the public,” Luft said.
For journalists who are not fully educated on the technical details in their stories, they still must strive for accuracy. Luft said the most important piece of knowledge to have can be summed up in three words: “Get it right.”