Research: Improving news coverage of crashes by targeting police press releases

August 18, 2022

A new article by Associate Professor Kelcie Ralph, Tara Goddard, Calvin Thigpen, and Raymond Davis expands on their previous work focusing on crash coverage by the media. They found that journalists rely heavily on police press releases. However, the wording in these releases was often problematic. The authors developed a pilot training program to gather feedback on the types of changes officers would be most likely to implement. The result is a two-page Press Release Guide which includes a handy template for writing press releases.

Abstract

In this work, we explored an upstream approach to improving news coverage of crashes: improving the press releases written by police. We developed a training program to share best practices and piloted it with 45 officers in New Jersey. We employed an exploratory mixed-methods approach, including a post-training questionnaire and extensive discussions with police officers, journalists, and legal scholars, to understand officers’ likelihood to implement our advice and the barriers they anticipated in doing so. Officers raised concerns about the difficulty of implementing some of the suggestions (e.g., report crash statistics or describe safe systems), pointing to time constraints for the relevant staff. Others disagreed with some of the guidance, principally because they wanted to stick to “just the facts” and avoid legal trouble. Based on this rich data, we carefully refined our guidance in the form of a two-page handout and press release template.

Highlights

  • News coverage of crashes has many problems that subtly shape readers’ views.
  • Journalists draw heavily from police press releases. Guidance for police could help.
  • We piloted guidance to improve press releases with 45 officers in New Jersey.
  • Officers were willing to implement most ideas, but had staffing and legal concerns.
  • Our revised guidance emphasizes the unique roles of police vis-à-vis journalists.

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