‘Cease and desist’: Journalism’s strained relationship with police

Stock photo via Pixabay

REPORTERS AT THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES did something recently that most conscientious journalists do when working on something sensitive: they knocked on the doors of those people they intended to write about. In this case, the people behind those doors were police officers. And the Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents most of Chicago’s 12,000 rank-and-file officers, took exception.

Martin Preib, the second vice president and union spokesman, penned a “cease and desist” letter last month to reporters Tim Novak and Robert Herguth:

Their private residence should remain free from media access. Your use of this tactic is unprofessional and unethical, and is further illuminative of your publications’ general bias against the police.

I am informing my members not to speak to either of you, or any Sun-Times reporter, if they come onto their private residence. I am further advising them to call the police and sign complaints for trespassing if you refuse to leave.

The Sun-Times had just published a story about what happens when Chicago Police Department officers are caught abusing alcohol or drugs. The city’s scrappy tabloid, which recently came under new ownership, responded with the kind of blunt, spare prose it’s known for.

ICYMI: The story behind “one of the best reported pieces of the year”

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

“Chicago needs a great police force,” the paper’s editorial board wrote. “Chicago also needs great journalism. So, Mr. Preib, you do your job and we’ll do ours. You keep the city safe. We’ll keep the city informed.”

It seems to me like a classic strategy of kind of changing the conversation—so you portray journalistic rigor as harassment. We’re no longer talking about the substance of the story, we’re talking about reporters doing their job.

Chris Fusco, the Sun-Times’ interim editor who also received the FOP note, takes the issue at face value. To Fusco, neither the FOP letter nor the newspaper’s indicate greater tensions between police and journalists.

“I don’t begrudge them for defending their members at all, that’s their job,” Fusco told CJR during a recent interview at the Sun-Times’ downtown office. “Maybe to make some lemonade out of a lemon, I think the FOP has articulated its point and we’ve articulated ours. If we agree to disagree… at least we’ve planted our flags.”

Preib, the author of the FOP letter, seemed to share Fusco’s perspective.

“I think it’s all pretty self-explanatory,” he said during a brief phone conversation. However, when CJR sought to describe its interest in the letter, Preib said, “I’m really not interested in talking with you” before hanging up.


THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE MEDIA AND POLICE is naturally fraught with tension and a central ethical quandary: Reporters rely on police to serve as sources on crime and other public safety issues, even as they function as a check on police power.

But, especially in recent months, journalists have been increasingly dogged about reporting on police accountability and misconduct, issues at the center of controversies in several communities across the country. After Ferguson, many of the journalists who cover crime have also turned their coverage to debates over police tactics in minority communities, the use of deadly force, and protests by aggrieved residents of their city. Positioned between police and residents, reporters have been threatened with criminal charges at Standing Rock and, more recently, pepper-sprayed and arrested in St. Louis.

We’re not trying to be best friends. But there’s got to be a relationship there.

Most law enforcement understand that blaming the messenger is counterproductive, according to Stephen Handelman, the director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York,.

“If you go behind the headlines of the accusations, the back and forth, you find on a street level that cops and reporters get along with the same sort of wary suspicion they always have,” Handelman tells CJR. “There’s a latent respect on both sides and [the relationship] still operates.” Handelman adds that police unions, which exist primarily in big cities, tend to be more bombastic in their criticism.

Jamie Kalven, a longtime Chicago journalist whose reporting helped spur the release of a video that showed a police officer shooting teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014, says the city’s police union does “a huge disservice” by failing to communicate officers’ perspectives or allowing them to speak for themselves.

“The viewpoint is preposterous…to construe journalistic competence as harassment,” Kalven says of the FOP letter. “It seems to me like a classic strategy of kind of changing the conversation—so you portray journalistic rigor as harassment. We’re no longer talking about the substance of the story, we’re talking about reporters doing their job and [that] being named as a form of harassment.”

ICYMI: “She identified herself as a reporter. He then walked behind her and punched her”

Sam Charles, a Sun-Times crime beat reporter who has been at the newspaper for the past five years, says the FOP letter and police union rhetoric hasn’t affected his job. “I haven’t heard any blowback from any of the guys I talk to regularly,” he says.

After the McDonald video was released under court order because of a lawsuit and pressure from journalists, Charles says he and others in Chicago’s mainstream press “took a good hard look at what we were doing and how we were doing it. The only reason that [the video] came out was because of independent journalists, and bless them for it,” he says.  

Charles believes the Chicago Police Department has become more responsive to reporter requests, despite periods of sustained focus on police department flaws. For Charles, even those stories with which the department might take exception are met with a response. That wasn’t always so, says Charles. “Most of the time they do give me some response which gives some deeper context,” Charles says. “We’re not trying to be best friends. But there’s got to be a relationship there.”


ON SEPTEMBER 17, St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Mike Faulk was arrested, held by police for half a day, and charged with failure to disperse. Faulk had been covering the protest that followed the acquittal of Jason Stockley, a white police officer who fatally shot a black man named Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011.

In a phone interview, Faulk recounted the details of his arrest. Using a controversial tactic called “kettling,” police rounded up a group of people that included peaceful protesters, area residents, and Faulk. Journalists reported that police took a protest chant and used it themselves: “Whose streets? Our streets!” Faulk, who has filed an internal affairs report with the police department among other complaints, said that officers blocked off exits, and turned the protest into a violent melee. The Post-Dispatch covered Faulk’s arrest and condemned the police’s actions: “Mass arrests that punish law-abiding protesters and journalists is not good policing,” the paper wrote in an editorial.

Faulk, whose misdemeanor charge is pending, said he struggles with pain from being thrown to the ground, pepper sprayed, and having his hands tightly bound. He has been taken off reporting the story and planned cops shifts, he told CJR.

“If we had only gotten the police narrative of that night, it would have been, ‘ Well, police owned the night and rounded up all these rambunctious criminals,’” he said. While he was in police custody, Faulk continued to report, and helped deliver phone numbers of sources to reporters who turned around a detailed story about what happened.

That story, which voiced concerns about police tactics in its headline, received more than 1 million page views. Faulk says the story has “been able to diversify the narrative and put more of a human face on everyone involved.” Following reports of police actions, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and interim Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole have asked for a third-party investigation.

Elizabeth Donald, the president of the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists, said the city police department has made it difficult for journalists to cover protests in the wake of the 2014 and 2015 Ferguson protests in and around St. Louis. “Unfortunately, given the treatment Mike Faulk received, the lack of apology, and the history of police action against journalists in the Ferguson upheaval, I would be sorely pressed to call this a mere unfortunate circumstance,” she says via email. “It appears to be a pattern of hindering reporters in the performance of their duty.”


How do we proceed? We know you have an obligation to report. …How do we work this out?


AS THE RANKS OF LOCAL JOURNALISTS have declined, fewer reporters are assigned to the police beat full time. That is one of the biggest problems facing journalists today, says Handelman, the police media expert. “They come in and parachute and ask a few questions and then move on to another story.”

Frank Straub, a former police chief who now works at the Washington, DC-based Police Foundation, says the press is “in the business of making money and selling commercials, and you kind of get that.” Still, he adds, “the media has done a fairly good job of capturing the tension that exists around the country.”

Most police officials understand their relationship with reporters, says Straub, and he understands why there are times when law enforcement feels like they must defend their officers. But there have been some instances, Straub says, of unions being “over aggressive” in their attacks on the press when police misconduct is alleged—a counterproductive approach.

“Those aggressive, visceral reactions do more to hurt than to help,” he says.

When tensions arise, Straub recommends that police take a deep breath and ask a few questions of reporters. “Let’s have a sitdown,” says Straub by way of an example. “How do we proceed? We know you have an obligation to report. …How do we work this out?” So long as police accountability is an issue, the relationship between law enforcement and the press will be tense. That doesn’t mean either side should stop talking.

ICYMI: Trump might be in serious trouble for his NBC tweets

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jeremy Borden is an independent journalist based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Borden.