Let’s be honest—if you’re a TV reporter, you probably end up assigned to more crime stories than you can count over the course of a year! A murder here, a robbery there, another missing person, oh and don’t forget the occasional 12-hour standoff.
Reporters cover a lot of crime and because of that, they get to know the police public information officers pretty well. PIOs are an important link between the crime scene and your TV viewers. After all, they usually know many more details about the incident than you do as a reporter. They talk with the detectives on-scene, they’re briefed by the brass, and it’s their job to be a link between the department and the public. Many of them do a fantastic job. In my last TV market, a couple of the PIOs were excellent communicators and savvy with social media—they’d tweet basic details on breaking news and direct TV crews to a staging area where they’d meet reporters. That’s good stuff.
It’s a tough job, actually. Many PIOs are on-call 24/7, so when a murder happens on a weekend or a skier goes missing on New Year’s Day, they’re taking calls from reporters or setting up a news conference. They’re under a lot of pressure from YOU the reporter to provide as much information as possible, while at the same time not releasing any details that might jeopardize an investigation. It can be quite the balancing act.
The bottom line is, in many cases, you need good PIOs to give you information for your story. They’re front-line, typically credible sources. But here’s something to consider… something more young journalists seem to have trouble understanding: it’s important to not count on PIOs as your only sources. Never forget who the PIO is working for—and it’s not you. They’re representing their law enforcement agency and, when push comes to shove, protecting their agency. If they think it’s best for a particular case or investigation, police may obviously withhold certain facts they don’t want the public to know. They may even provide false information or ask you to hold a piece of info if they believe it’ll help flush out a suspect.
I’ve known reporters, producers and assignment editors who had very close working relationships with PIOs. They talked with them every day as they did “beat checks.” Over time, some even became friends on a personal level. That can lead to good information or an occasional exclusive story. But you need to keep your guard up. You need to be careful you’re not crossing the line. And certain PIOs can be manipulative and even lead reporters down the wrong path if it means protecting an investigation. There can be other issues that aren’t as ominous, but can bite you anyway. For example, what if the PIO mistakenly gives you bad info? Now you’re going on the air with a fact error.
Treat PIOs as you would other sources—with caution. Truth is you need them to provide detail for your stories. And they need you to distribute certain info to the public. But whenever you can, don’t use a PIO as your only source. Work hard and track down others who may be able to add context and detail—what do the neighbors have to say? How about the suspect or victim’s employer? Check court and police records for yourself to see what someone’s criminal background is. Find out what witnesses have to say, if you can find them. And when you can, talk with a detective or deputy directly. It’s always best to get information form the most direct source, rather than the public mouthpiece of the department.
PIOs can and will continue to be a key contact for reporters. They can save your newscast when breaking news happens late and you need a nugget of info to get a lead story on the air. They can also help you on and off the record. But always remember they may have their own agenda. There are potentially other credible and legitimate sources on any given story, so don’t just call you favorite PIO and call it a day. Do the extra work and make your story that much better.
Steve Kraycik is the Director of Student Television and Online Operations at Penn State University. He has more than 27 years of experience in television news, much of that as a manager. He also is an agent with MediaStars. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and @TV_Agent_Steve.