Friday, October 10, 2014

The New Media Problem

Local police and sheriff's departments are turning to social media sites more frequently for the release of their information.  Releases that used to be sent to those of us in the "old media"--Radio, TV and print--are now posted on-line for everyone to see.  Supporters of the practice say it allows for "faster" notification of the public.  And some say that it "removes any filters" from coverage of incidents that law enforcement has to deal with (not that I can think of any "spin" the media tried to put on car crashes and armed robberies).

But not having the "filter" of the traditional media is creating some problems for these departments.  Those problems are created by the unfiltered comments of "internet trolls".  Some members of the Appleton City Council are upset by what they are seeing on their police department's Facebook page on a regular basis.  Criminal arrest reports are often followed by snarky, insulting and downright racist comments about those who have been taken into custody.  You also have cases of people making wild accusations that--because of the forum--get equal billing with the actual facts of a case.

Those Appleton aldermen question whether suspect's names and mugshots should be posted--since in many cases no criminal charges have been filed--and it's possible that person could be released without ever being charged.  Identification of a suspect is always a difficult issue.  The Associated Press has a policy of never identifying a person arrested until they are charged.  I have a policy that does include names in our stories if they are provided by authorities--since anyone can go to the Police Station and request a copy of the incident report with that person's name in it. 

The problem with the police social media postings is that everything that follows it because a tacit endorsement of the city or the county itself.  If someone wants to start an "Oshkosh Crime" Facebook page and allow racist comments about every story posted--that's one thing.  But when the forum has the City of Oshkosh or City of Appleton name on the banner, that is not acceptable.

The departments themselves usually have one person--the Public Information Officer--in charge of their social media presence.  And those people do the best they can to moderate the on-line exchanges.  But they can't be on the site 24-hours a day, 7 days a week.  And do we really want the police policing Facebook and Twitter anyway?  They have far more important things to deal with--like people enjoying the Fall Downtown Pub Crawl.

It may behoove the police and sheriff's departments to keep the light-hearted "Coffee with a Cop" stuff for their social media presence--and let the "Old School Media" continue to handle the heavy stuff.  That way, you don't have to see the emails and hear the phone calls I get about the "people who are taking over this area".

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