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Parsing The Press: The Press And The Police

Sally Mauk and Gwen Florio, hosts of Parsing The Press

From racial injustice to the Capitol riots, the past year has highlighted just how often breaking news and law enforcement are intertwined. Sgt. Travis Welsh with the Missoula Police Department joins Gwen and Sally to talk about how law enforcement and the press navigate the inherent pressures that come with covering those types of events.

Listen now on Parsing the Press, a weekly look at how the news is reported, with Sally Mauk and Gwen Florio.

Sally Mauk The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker reports 130 American journalists were arrested or detained last year while doing their jobs. One of them, a reporter for The Des Moines Register, was recently acquitted on charges of interfering with police while she was covering a protest.

The tension between law enforcement and the press is a delicate balance sometimes between public safety and the public's right to know what is going on, especially when news is breaking. Sgt. Travis Welsh knows that tension firsthand. He's been with the Missoula Police Department for 30 years, the last several as the public information officer.

And Travis is our guest today. And my first question, Travis, is how you see the role of the press when news is breaking, and how that role can sometimes conflict with what the police want to happen?

Travis Welsh In my experience here, we like to work hand-in-hand with the press. You know, from my perspective, the press is an extension of my ability to get information out to the public, information that has a public safety aspect or just a matter of public interest.

Sometimes that does cause some issues, but they're rare anymore and I feel like the key to that is making good relationships so that, you know, we can work together knowing that we each have a job to do rather than be antagonistic toward each other.

And that seems to have worked well for me. I feel like it keeps us moving forward instead of getting mired in discussion and debate about what and what we can't talk about and what or what we can't release, etc.

Mauk Well, it's definitely a symbiotic relationship. When the police, of course, want to get a volatile situation, like say a violent protest, under control, but that can also mean they want to control how those efforts are reported. And that is where the tension sometimes starts.

Gwen Florio Right, and as you mentioned, we saw a lot of that around the country this summer. And, of course, Missoula had its own protests this past summer. And Travis, I'm wondering if that changed anything in terms of how Missoula police dealt with the press.

For starters, in addition to the usual local reporters, you had a lot of people who were documenting — those people you would, I guess, categorize as citizen journalists. Do you deal with them any differently than you do the journalists for the traditional media outlets?

Welsh No. Public information is public information and it doesn't just go to reporters. It goes to all of our citizens, or at least it's available to them if they have an interest in it.

You know, we did have some protests or demonstrations that came up in the last year. But, you know, people in our state have a tendency to treat each other with respect generally. And I don't think we've seen near the issues here as other jurisdictions have, or other population centers.

And the same way with our relationships with local reporters who were covering these events: We don't necessarily have an interest in directing reporters, or trying to tell reporters how to report on a thing or whether or not to report on some type of incident.

Rather, we choose to use that symbiotic relationship and realize that we both have a job to do, and we try not to interfere in anything that the local press chooses to do.

Mauk Well, as Gwen just pointed out, Travis, there are a lot of "citizen journalists" out there with their smartphones and putting stuff out on social media.

If they're not reporters, they do sometimes get the information wrong, and it seems to me that makes the argument even stronger that reporters — who supposedly have some training and also have editors — that they have the best access they can have to the news that's breaking, and that access is really crucial in terms of getting out accurate information.

Welsh That's correct. And in fact, professional reporters have that access, usually directly, because I am available to them. Not that I am not available generally — we have a lot of avenues where people can contact us directly — but reporters have that ability to spread information much more quickly and more efficiently. And we have the opportunity to tell them the facts that are available to the public.

Issues arise with citizen journalists at times because, like you said, they don't ... maybe not have the direct access. They may not get the details or the facts that are providing any context to any incident, and sometimes a lot of those gaps are filled in and not always filled in accurately.

The other problem we face with citizen journalists is if they are recording an incident, sometimes the information they post to their social media accounts could be evidentiary in value. And there is some case integrity concerns that we would have with evidence, or evidentiary information, being put out before we've had a chance to work the case or bring it to conclusion.

Florio In terms of social media, I think we share a common frustration, which is that, again, when news is breaking, you'll see a whole lot of information flying around which hasn't necessarily been verified.

I know as a reporter, readers would be calling me going, "Why aren't you reporting this? It's out there." You know, "The name of the suspect is out there." Well, we don't know that for sure yet, and I'm sure the same things affect you. How do you deal with that?

Welsh That's a very good question, because there's a lot of, I use the term "citizen investigators" like we use "citizen reporters:" people who hear only the information that is available to them and come to conclusions. And sometimes they come to those conclusions very quickly and wonder why the police department, the sheriff's office or prosecutors are not taking immediate direct action.

And as you both know, a lot of times there is a lot more going on behind the scenes that investigators and prosecutors are aware of that is not necessarily available to the general public.

That's why we always encourage people to wait until the facts come out before you draw conclusions, and I think you're seeing that plea around the country to some extent — where news is breaking and people are making decisions or coming to conclusions, making a lot of assumptions and speculating on what they're actually seeing, when in fact, there's more to the story, as it were.

Mauk Do you have particular pet peeves about reporters when they're covering this breaking news? And I know reporters have pet peeves about the police, but what are your pet peeves about journalists?

Welsh You know, a lot of the things that come to mind with that question are issues that have arisen in the past. That might include specific reporters who are always pushing for new details, despite understanding the concept of confidential criminal justice information — not being satisfied with the public information that, you know, can be released but always looking for more details.

And sometimes it seems like there's a concern more for the competition with competing news outlets than there is for the integrity of our cases, or maybe even individual privacy.

Mauk Travis and Gwen, we're out of time. Thank you both so much.

Florio Thank you.

Welsh Thank you. Appreciate being here.

Do you have a comment or suggestion for a future show? Contact Sally Mauk at sally.mauk@mtpr.org.

Parsing the Press is a weekly look at how the news is reported, featuring journalist and novelist Gwen Florio and Montana Public Radio's Sally Mauk. Listen on MTPR Fridays at 7:50 a.m., or find it wherever you get your podcasts.

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