Police chief and writer Cliff Couch knows his audience.
In a paragraph from an article advising LEOs how to deal with reporters, Couch begins with context he assumes his readers already accept, and carefully moves from there to the new ideas he wants them to consider.
The horror tales you may have heard about reporters sneaking past checkpoints, spying on people, or outrageously violating officers’ privacy usually involve out-of-town reporters who are there for a big national story. They’re under intense pressure to do whatever is necessary to advance their career, and they might not care who they upset in the process.
The majority of reporters that most cops will deal with are local or area reporters. They understand that they’ll have to work with you again at some point and are typically respectful as a result. In the same way, it’s important to remember that you will probably have to work with them at some point. Even if it’s inconvenient for your schedule, going out of your way to make sure they have the material they need for their deadline will go a long way toward building a mutually respectful relationship. —Get ready to go on the record: Follow these five steps for improving police interaction with the media
While I applaud and share the author’s desire for a good working relationship between journalists and police officers (see how I build rapport through a statement I expect my readers will easily accept, and then I introduce a new idea I want to develop), the author invokes and perpetuates the power of, but provides no evidence for, “the horror tales you may have heard.”
By referencing the excuses that authoritarians often use to justify attacks on individual journalists, the author is bonding with his primary audience over their shared hostility towards the concept of a free press.
The context suggests the primary audience will respond sympathetically to police who face “hateful emails (and) calls for your termination” and unsympathetically to reporters who prioritize covering the news over protecting the egos of fools and who “might not care who they upset” as they do their job. (That’s a nice free press first amendment you’ve got there. It’d be a shame if something were to… happen to it.)
Would you rather a reporter who’s having a bad day file an unflattering story in the local paper, or would you rather a police officer who’s having a bad day fire an unflattering bullet into your face?
See what I did there?
I’m mirroring this author’s rhetoric, in oder to call attention to it.
For instance I’ve made ad hominem attacks and I’ve deployed false equivalency and false dichotomy. How convincingly am I making my case?
What does Couch’s strategy look like, if you keep the rhetoric, but swap the viewpoints?
The horror tales you may have heard about cops kettling and brutalizing protesters, lying in their official reports, or outrageously violating the civil rights of suspects, protesters and journalists usually involve out-of-town cops who are there for the adrenaline rush. They’re under intense pressure to do whatever is necessary to fulfill their power fetishes, and they might not care whose constitutional rights they violate in the process.
The majority of cops that most reporters will deal with are local or area cops. They understand that they’ll have to work with you again at some point and are typically respectful as a result. In the same way, it’s important to remember that you will probably have to work with them at some point. Even if it’s inconvenient for your professional ethics, looking the other way will go a long way toward building a mutually respectful relationship.
My version provides no evidence for the claim that these stories “usually involve out-of-town cops,” nor does it explain how I presume to know their motives. That’s because, just like the original that this is modeled on, what I wrote above is not a reasoned defense of an intellectual position, it’s an ad-hominem attack.
Couch begins one line of reasoning thus:
While fair-minded reporters may not be the enemy we often label them, it would be a mistake to assume that they won’t make an inexperienced cop look like a fool if they provide appropriate fodder for such a characterization.
Naturally the primary audience for this article would sympathize more with the ego of the inexperienced cop than the obligation of the journalist to report the news “without fear or favor“. But let’s zero in on that dependent clause.
While fair-minded reporters may not be the enemy we often label them…
What does that mean?
Let’s explore the rhetoric of copspeak at work. Am I distorting the meaning, or does the meaning become clearer with each revision below?
- While fair-minded reporters may not be the enemy we often label them,
it would be a mistake to assume that they won’tthey might make an inexperienced cop look like a fool if they provide appropriate fodder for such a characterization.
- While fair-minded reporters may not be the enemy we often label them, they might make an inexperienced cop look like a fool
if they provide appropriate fodder for such a characterizationif the cop acts foolishly.
- While fair-minded reporters may not be the enemy we often label them, they might
make an inexperienced cop look like a fool if the cop does something foolishreport our foolish actions.
Okay, let’s consider the qualifiers in the phrase “reporters may not be the enemy we often label them.”
If a cop asks someone, “Are you carrying a weapon?” and that person responds, “I may not have the gun that people say I carry,” a sensible cop will recognize the evasion and rightly consider this person a threat.
So when this author writes, “While fair-minded reporters may not be the enemy we often label them,” what message is that sending about the threat posed by “fair-minded reporters”?
The author introduces this idea with the subordinating conjunction “while,” which in this context signals a contradiction. In practice, the author acknowledges a claim that might not be true, but the sentence continues with a hypothetical intended to justify belief in that same proposition.
- Fair-minded reporters may deserve the label enemy[, if they report our mistakes].
The original phrasing focuses on what reporters “deserve,” which is chilling because it resembles how domestic abusers and other bullies try to blame their victims. Let’s rework the sentence to de-center the question about what reporters deserve, and instead emphasize the agency of the cops who label reporters this way.
Again I’m trying to make just one small change at a time, with the intention of revealing rather than distorting the core message.
- We label as our enemy fair-minded reporters who report our foolish actions.
- We vilify fair-minded reporters who report our foolish actions.
- We vilify reporters for fair-mindedly reporting what we do.
- We vilify reporters for doing their jobs.
If this were a student’s rough draft, I would help the author by noting the stated goal — helping rookie cops work productively with reporters — suffers because the argument embeds so many ad hominem attacks, as if the author is winking to assure fellow cops that you don’t really think journalists deserve respect, but if they tell the truth about your mistakes that can hurt your career. One solution is to make sure inexperienced cops earn the power they wield. If they spend more time making foolish mistakes in training simulators, they will make fewer mistakes in front of reporters. That argument avoids vilifying the reporters who report on career-damaging mistakes by rookie cops, and keeps the focus where it should be.
Stripped of the ad-hominem attacks, a fair-minded approach to the topic might be to argue that if you are an inexperienced, foolish cop who wants to advance your career, alienating local journalists is not a good idea. If we flip the rhetoric, we get an equally sensible mirror argument: if you are an inexperienced foolish journalist who wants to advance your career, alienating local cops is not a good idea.
I’d suggest dropping references to “horror tales you may have heard,” the presumption that one side has the moral authority to declare what the other side “deserves,” and the idea that we should be sympathetic to the inexperienced rookies on our side who care about their jobs while we attack the careerism of out-of-town professionals on the other side.
An approach that lays the groundwork for understanding the potentially conflicting goals of individual journalists and individual cops, and manages to treat the fair-minded professionals on each side with respect would go a long way towards improving relationships between police and the media.