Law enforcement, reality TV, and ethics

Ethics in government PR is already complicated. Throw into the mix concerns about justice in law enforcement and reality television and you have a real conundrum.

Ethics does not offer easy answers. It’s not intended to tackle legal issues or simple yes or no questions. Ethics is designed for studying complex dilemmas and arriving at the best, most moral conclusion possible.

Given that definition, even the most seasoned PR pro can have difficulty determining ethical responsibility with modern social issues. Sometimes arriving at the correct answer takes a great deal of time and analysis.

Take, for example, the modern penchant for reality television. Just as game shows were popular in the 1960s, reality shows have captured the imagination of viewers. At virtually any time of day or night, it’s possible to watch the Kardashians getting their hair done, affluent housewives bickering, or police officers chasing suspects. It’s the latter that creates the bigger challenge for public relations ethics and those who work in the government or public service sector.

I was recently contacted for comment on a local police reality television broadcast in which a two-year-old child was jostled about as a suspect tried to evade police. Live PD, broadcast on A&E, showed a sheriff’s deputy arresting a suspect evading capture and using his daughter as a human shield, while the deputy yelled to put the child down. Eventually both were thrown to the ground; the child was unharmed and the suspect was arrested. The police transported both for medical attention "as a precaution." Dramatic live television! Praise for the sheriff’s deputy, Chris Mastrianni, flew across social media channels and positive comments were posted on news reports. A Twitter frenzy grew as Mastrianni was labeled heroic. Response from viewers was overwhelmingly positive in favor of the law enforcement officer.

The reporter, Andrew Knapp, asked me, "Is it good public relations for law enforcement to participate in this type of reality television show?" Yes and no. In this instance, it was excellent public relations because Mastrianni showed concern, restraint, fairness, and compassion for the child. That is the type of public relations that is impossible to buy: spontaneous, authentic, and genuine. Because of the sharp critiques of law enforcement by groups such as Black Lives Matter, and dozens of notable protests, law enforcement desperately needs good public relations.

Participating in live broadcasts offers the opportunity for law enforcement to highlight the professional and positive aspects of how its work is conducted. In this instance, law enforcement scored a major public relations victory. But, isn’t there always a downside? One doesn’t need a course in crisis management to know that eventually something is going to go wrong for law enforcement. When it does go wrong, a very visible crisis will be created; and fuel will be added to the fire of social unrest surrounding policing.

Law enforcement reality shows are becoming more common across the country, probably spurred on by the highly successful progenitor of the genre, Cops, with its gritty edge and catchy theme song. Like an inevitable train collision, one can’t look away, but what are the ethical implications?

A problem posed by the trend of reality police television is not the topic itself, it is the human involvement, unpredictable consequences, and implications that create concern. The Richland County Sheriff’s Department, commenting on the incident above, said that the chase would have been terminated had they known a two-year-old was in the fleeing vehicle. The fleeing car had flipped and the last shot showed the deputy comforting a clearly frightened little girl.

You can’t create better PR than that. But what if the assailant had jumped from the car and shot Mastrianni in front of the child?

Perhaps the time delay would’ve allowed editors to cut the story, but the point is that consequences are impossible to predict.

How does it portray those who are filmed? Many of the suspects will eventually not be charged or found not guilty of their alleged crimes, yet they appear on the popular TV show all the same. What are the consequences on their lives, careers, and future earning potential? Are they being exploited by the police in an attempt to frame justice for all as fair?

An even more sticky ethical question is: How does it portray those who are the subject of law enforcement? Where Live PD was filmed that night, Lexington, South Carolina, policing is heavily focused on impoverished and underserved communities. Does the show reinforce negative stereotypes or is the greater good found in showing the positive aspects of policing?

Although there are no easy answers, ethics says that others cannot be exploited even to serve the greater good. Are dignity and respect for all potential assailants maintained? That is a tougher question to answer because it will fall to the individual law enforcement officer and the situation.

Such shows may provide a quick return on investment in public relations terms, when things go right, as in the case with Mastrianni. But what will happen in terms of the public relations nightmare when the worst happens? A simple risk-versus-reward calculation is not powerful enough to answer this question. Public sector PR pros should consider their moral duty to citizens, community, potential assailants, law enforcement, their tax-paying constituencies, elected officials, and stakeholders.

If the worst-case scenario does happen, someone will undoubtedly ask, "Would more ethical behavior have prevented the calamity?" Charges of exploitation, unfairness, and a lack of ethics will no doubt stem from controversial episodes of the show. Law enforcement agencies and the government sector that funds them should ask if their responsibilities are best fulfilled by such reality shows. Are they maintaining the dignity and respect of their communities?

Returning to the definition of ethics, I emphasize that the role of the PR pro is not to simply create a yes or no answer about participating in the shows or sponsoring or advertising on them. Rather, that role is knowing when to raise ethical issues and having the analytical strength that warrants a reexamination of moral principles and responsibilities such as duty, dignity, and respect for all involved, and good intention.

Such shows are not going to disappear; the trend is growing. The first step for PR pros is knowing that an ethical issue exists and labeling it as such. Then, we can counsel our organizations on how to effectively maintain our ethical responsibilities in such a complex environment.


Shannon Bowen, Ph.D., professor, researches and teaches PR ethics at the University of South Carolina. She is a member of the board of trustees of the Arthur W. Page Society and the board of directors at the International Public Relations Research Conference. Her column focuses on PR education, ethics, and the C-suite. She can be reached at sbowen@sc.edu.

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