Vargas: 81 percent of police feel the media is unfair, but that number seems low to me

By Joe Vargas

The Pew Research Center’s most recent survey findings won’t come as a surprise to most. The center found that 81 percent of police officers think the news media treats police unfairly.

My first thought: That’s a bit low.

Wherever I go, police officers tell me they are less than pleased with media coverage of the profession.

Here’s a question I’ve heard more than once: Why would a media outlet use a dated photos of a suspect when he was 12 years old in his Little League uniform instead of recent social media posts showing him with his homies throwing out gang hand signs with a gun in his hand?

Of course, there is always the obligatory interview with grieving relatives stating how the young man was just beginning to turn his life around. Often, there’s only a passing reference to the prior criminal history and history of violence.

The character and integrity of the police officers often are called into question. Yet there is often little reference to the character and integrity of those making the allegations.

News conferences staged by attorneys alleging abuse by police officers as part of a civil lawsuit are well attended and reported.

Yet when civil juries find in favor of law enforcement there is most often a passing reference if any at all.

After a controversial shooting, a major network hosted a policing expert to discuss the state of policing. The so-called expert was a former police sergeant who left policing under less-than-favorable circumstances. The status conferred by mere presence in the media and a willingness to speak critically seemed to be his only credentials.

Why is it so difficult for the media to find real experts on policing to interview?

A recent Buzz Feed story highlighted 60 cases across the country where officers’ statements were found to be questionable. The title of the story: “Blue Lies Matter.”

Sixty cases since 2008 does not in any way demonstrate that the exception is the rule. How many videos are there showing police officers telling the truth?

How many officers are doing their jobs honestly and with integrity?

According to a 2016 Gallup survey, 58 percent of the public rated police officers as high or very high for honesty and integrity. The same survey found only 23 percent of the public rated the integrity of journalists as high or very high.

Police officers see competitive journalism as playing a critical role in spreading falsehoods that later become the truth in the eyes of the public. The “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” mantra shouted by demonstrators across the country never happened. Even the Washington Post reported it never happened. Yet it served as a catalyst and rallying cry across the country.

I worked as a public information officer for more than three years and I can say there are plenty of hard-working, ethical journalists out there just trying to do their jobs. There are real cases where officers have responded inappropriately, have been arrested and found guilty.

These officers do in fact tarnish the profession and reputation of police officers everywhere.

But they are not by any means the majority.

Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at jvargas@behindthebadgeoc.com.