The Standards of News and the Death of Officers

The Standards of News and the Death of Officers

Just before the start of the New Year, both the Tampa Bay Timesand the Tampa Tribune carried an Associated Press wire service story about the number of police officers killed by gunshots in the past year. Hardly a cheery topic to discuss while toasting the passing of the year.

The AP story, and the interest shown in it by major newspapers, reflects several elements of the newsworthiness standards employed by most traditional media outlets. In particular, the story is timely and has considerable consequence.

Timeliness is almost always a characteristic of a hard news story. It is part of what makes news “new,” part of what distinguishes news coverage from other factual media content.

This particular story is timely in multiple senses.

First, there is our penchant for annual reviews. The end of December is the time of year we tabulate all sorts of statistics. Annual reports are a natural, as are retrospectives. So it makes sense to ask what the year has been like when it comes to most anything.

A review of the data on the number of officers fatally shot this past year, however, is particularly timely because of a recent spate of such shootings, including what are called “ambush assaults,” where officers are gunned down, not in the heat of a conflict with a bad guy, but in cold blood. The seeming trend begs for data; are we seeing a surge in ambush assaults? More generally, are we seeing a surge in the number of police shot and killed each year?

In addition to timeliness, stories that have consequence for or impact on large numbers of people, or very severe consequences for a smaller number, are more likely to get coverage. Because all of us depend on the police for our domestic tranquility, any serious threat to their safety is a matter of some consequence to us. For police officers and their loved ones, such a threat has even greater consequence.

So the story gets a lot of play, as well it should.

Having served on city council when officers were shot dead in my city, I don’t take this conversation at all lightly. I admire the courage of our officers and recognize the dangers they face. In particular, I recognize that the death of one officer in the line of duty is a tragedy of immense consequence to his or her colleagues on the force and even more so for the families and loved ones to whom that officer will not go home again.

In short, the number of deaths, whether large or small, whether trending up or down, is irrelevant when it’s one of your own.