Thursday, October 15, 2015

What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate

As questions are flying around as to why the people of Oshkosh were not informed of two prison escapees for four days, let me tell you that Public Information Officer Joe Nichols called me on Wednesday morning to take full responsibility for the lack of timely communication.  Joe says their policy is to alert the media and the public immediately upon notification from the Department of Corrections of an escape--but in Friday night's case, that policy was not followed.  It was a human error--and not a deliberate attempt to keep the people of Oshkosh and the Fox Valley in the dark about a potentially dangerous situation.  And I believe Joe when he says the Department will take steps to make sure that a similar mistake does not happen in the future.

Friday's snafu is unfortunately a byproduct of communications policies adopted by nearly all law enforcement and emergency departments nowadays that places a strict limit on who can provide information to the media and the public.  Us "old-timers" can remember when you could pull up to the scene of a crash, a fire or a crime and ask the nearest officer what happened and he would share with you what he knew.  Now, we are all directed to Public Information Officers who issue "official statements" only after consulting with ranking officers to determine what should and should not be released at this time.  Such procedures ensure that the flow and content of such information remains in the department's hands.

A growing number of departments are also choosing to circumvent traditional media altogether and to issue their alerts and statements only on their social media accounts--telling us reporters that we should just "monitor their feed".  It sounds simple in theory, but monitoring Twitter and Facebook 24/7/365 is just not feasible.  That also leads to departments having to monitor their own feeds all of the time thanks to trolls who fill the "comments" sections with racist diatribes, false accusations and crude jokes--which all need to be removed.

I will admit, we in the media are making it harder for that information to be disseminated as well.  Newsrooms are no longer staffed 24-hours a day, 365-days a year.  In serious emergencies at odd hours, dispatchers have to call me at home on my cell phone so I can run in to the studios to get breaking news and important information on the air. 

While these concerns may sound a bit self-serving, it's not about being the "first to air with breaking news" or getting "the first Tweet in the timeline"--it's about providing important and accurate information to as many of you the listeners, the viewers and the on-line users in times of danger as quickly as possible.

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