Beyond the Headlines Wausau

Building Trust: Law Enforcement, the Media, and You

Sirens wail. TV trucks set up on the end of the block as police cordon off a section of the neighborhood. Something horrible has happened. It’s your neighborhood.

In cities across the nation, some Americans are questioning the transparency and credibility of law enforcement.  Some are concerned about how mainstream news media and social media commentary portray police work.  How does the nature of media coverage affect the ability of law enforcement or the courts to do their jobs?  Are citizens getting the information they need and can trust about what is happening in their communities?

In Wausau, local members of the media, law enforcement, and community are responding to the national conversation.  As part of Beyond the Headlines, they have been meeting since 2017, developing events at which journalists and law enforcement talk about how each does its work, why each shares what it shares with the public, and what effect media coverage can have on the community.

Beyond the Headlines events bring Wausau journalists, law enforcement, and residents face-to-face in an effort to build trust and help citizens sort through these questions and more.  WHC asked several members of the local steering committee for Beyond the Headlines in Wausau why they became involved.

Yauo Yang, a Hmong liaison at D.C. Everest High School and local pastor, says he wanted to be part of BTH due, in part, to a fatal shooting in March 2017 that involved a Hmong resident going through a bitter divorce.

“That was just a really intense time in the community,” says Yang, noting that the shooting had nothing to do with the shooter being Hmong. Yet, “sometimes when a minority’s face gets plastered on the news, then we get this feeling like the community is judging this one person’s actions yet stereotyping that for the entire minority group.” He asks, “at what point does a person’s ethnicity bring relevance to a story?”

Some members of the Hmong community experienced racial incidents following the shooting, which received a lot of attention in the news and on social media.

Yang hopes his participation in Beyond the Headlines will bring some cultural sensitivity to the discussion. “Maybe instead of just the bad stories that you hear all the time, maybe the news media would be a channel to educate some parts of the community, because the only time they hear about the Hmong or any minority group is when bad things are happening.”

Mark Treinen, Central Wisconsin news director for USA Today Network – Wisconsin is concerned democracy is being hampered by public confusion about the way both news media and police do their jobs, and even “why the media exists to report on this stuff and reports the way it does.” He hopes to see “both the media and police learning more about each other and sharing more about their practices with the public.”

Similarly, Wausau Police Department Chief Ben Bliven hopes the community will come to understand that both law enforcement and news media bring their individual biases to the relationship. For example, law enforcement may be distrustful of media based on past reporting.

In the national conversation, says Bliven, law enforcement has at times vehemently opposed how news media cover police, and in some cases, news media are unclear about the limits on what law enforcement personnel know or can share.

“Are they trying to get an honest objective story?” he asks. “Or are they coming at it with a slant or some preconceived notions of how they want to report?” He adds that tone conveyed by a headline, or an emphasis given a story made to attract reader attention, may lead law enforcement to feel misrepresented.

Treinen acknowledges that for news media, “The most common challenge is the degree of reluctance on the part of some law enforcement to provide any information. Their uncertainty sometimes about what they want to reveal can hamper efforts to get information out to the public.” He explains, “I’ve often experienced that they can release a lot more than they’ve imagined in the first place. It’s just that they haven’t been asked the right questions yet, or they hadn’t anticipated the questions, or hadn’t thought about how they would answer the questions.”

Both Treinen and Bliven underscore a good working relationship between news media and police in Wausau. Despite this, there is still room for greater understanding that they hope Beyond the Headlines will bring.

There has been antagonism on both sides, with supporters of law enforcement or news media attacking the methods each employ, says Bliven. In addition, he sees the public drawing information from a variety of sources, not all of them hewing to the facts.

“We have to do a better job of sharing our perspective,” says Bliven. “Not just what happened but why we did things the way we did. And that’s kind of a struggle working with mainstream media too, because they have limited space. They only have so many words they can write. So much time they have to share the story.”

All members of the steering committee envision a future where media and law enforcement work effectively together to ensure transparent government and an informed community.

We thank The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for their generous support of this initiative and the Pulitzer Prizes for their partnership.