March-April 2013

Lights, camera, action!

Donna Hawkins

Assistant District ­Attorney in Harris ­County

A guide for prosecutors in dealing with the media

For many years as a young prosecutor, I panicked when I heard those whispered words, “The press is waiting outside for you to talk about the case.” What was I going to say? Was I going to get in trouble? Was I wearing lipstick? I usually tried to wait them out and often successfully escaped from the courtroom without being besieged by reporters. In fact, after about nine years with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and after dealing with several high-profile cases, I managed to appear on television only three times.
    So when an opening came up in for someone to run the newly created Public Information Office and act as a spokesperson for the DA’s office, you’d think I would be last in line. But as it happened, after several grueling trials in a row, I was ready to try something different. My undergraduate degree was in marketing, so I thought I could handle the responsibilities associated with such an endeavor.
    In May 2008, Harris County became one of the first DA’s offices in the state to open a Public Information Office. Our primary goal was to improve relations with the local media and increase positive coverage of the office. We had taken quite a beating in press coverage after an investigation into our elected district attorney and his eventual resignation. We suffered from a lack of confidence and trust in our office, and we found that jury pools were affected by the negative press coverage. During voir dire on a murder case, when the panel was asked if anyone could not give the State a fair trial, I was amazed to see how many hands were raised.
    So how do you take an office that has been beaten down in the press and transform it into one that is respected and admired? We hoped that the Public Information Office would be an important part of the solution.

Turning the tide
The first real resistance we encountered came, somewhat surprisingly, from members of the media. They saw the Public Information Office as another layer of bureaucracy that would further stymie their efforts to get information and stories. Thus, the first task I embarked on was to develop positive relationships with the reporters, cameramen, and writers who worked in the courthouse. I made the rounds, introduced myself to everyone, and gave everybody all my contact information.
    The next step was an attitude adjustment. It is extremely difficult to create positive relationships if you think of the press as the enemy. I had to remind myself that they are professionals with a job to do, and they needed to be treated accordingly. I decided to ask them for a fresh start and wondered what I could do to make their jobs easier. I was surprised with how simple some of their requests were: return phone calls in a timely fashion, give them information about newly filed cases, and if I cannot answer a question, assist them with where to go for help.
    One lesson I learned early on was to treat the press representatives with respect and kindness. Firsthand, I witnessed police officers, attorneys, and investigators talking down to reporters, and guess what? The resulting story did not present that interviewee in the most favorable light. If an interview lasts 10 minutes, usually only about 10 to 20 seconds of the conversation airs on the news or makes it into the story. The reporter usually selects which portion of the interview will be aired—and whether it’s flattering to the office—so these relationships can be crucial. Having a positive encounter with the media certainly affects the resulting aired story.
    Additionally, be honest with reporters. If we made an error, it’s best to admit the mistake and try to correct the problem. A local investigative reporter once called to discuss a case in which the defendant accepted a plea deal of eight months in the local jail for assault. When I reviewed the file and saw the pictures of the complainant’s injuries, I cringed. The complainant’s head had been sliced open, and he had a large scar running across his entire scalp. While speaking with the (very frightened) young, misdemeanor prosecutor, we determined that the case should have been re-filed as an aggravated assault. When the reporter arrived for the interview, he thrust a microphone in my face and asked, “So, what do you have to say about that plea deal?!” I answered that the reporter was correct, we had made an error, and the case should have been filed as an aggravated assault. We actually had to redo the beginning of the interview because the cameraman began laughing. The reporter wanted a confrontation, a denial of wrongdoing, and a “gotcha” moment, but by admitting the error, we defused the situation. In fact, the reporter then let me expand on how we were working to correct the problem with additional training for our misdemeanor prosecutors about maintaining victim contact throughout the life of the case and by securing crime victim compensation and services for this particular complainant. (By the way, after the interview, the reporter spent about an hour teaching me the ropes of on-camera interviews and has become a media mentor of sorts.)
    Learning how to work with the media effectively has greatly enhanced the positive news coverage of the office. Instead of ducking from the press, we have learned to embrace reporters by making prosecutors available for interviews and statements. If we cannot speak about a subject because of ethics rules or prohibitions, we will tell the reporter why we can’t discuss the situation. Once the reporters understand that we wanted to speak with them but certain information is protected, they become more understanding about the whole process. Sometimes, for example, a reporter may be satisfied with a general statement about the range of punishment or the elements of murder.

Helping the local media
As with many others, the news industry has been met with staffing cutbacks and budget decreases. Thanks to the Internet and America’s obsession with being the first to know information, deadlines have tightened. Realizing this, we make every effort to return calls as quickly as possible—even if it is just to let the reporter know that we received the call and are working on an answer. If the prosecutor handling the case does not want to or is unable to return a call, the Public Information Office will take over that duty. We have found that proactively sending out cases of interest to the media has earned us kudos and gratitude from reporters. Every morning, we look through recently filed cases to pull those that may generate public interest. By disbursing this information, we not only save ourselves response time, but we also make reporters’ jobs easier by generating story ideas.
    Whether you work in an office with hundreds of assistant district attorneys or one with a staff of five, the media is interested in the work you do. A small-town paper or local radio show would love to hear of a burglar getting prison time for a break-in or a probated sentence for a young offender who made a (criminal) mistake. Each story demonstrates the hard work you do to keep the community safe. You also can alert the public to a rash of criminal activity so that citizens can be alert to their surroundings. As a new case is filed, think for a moment if sharing the news would benefit the community.
    The local media have also appreciated the additional support. They now have a centralized location where they can call to get information. If an assistant district attorney is not available to speak about a particular case, others can be called into service. We also regularly send out press releases so that smaller stations and community newspapers receive information about crimes, charges, and trials in their areas. By utilizing a news distribution service, our message is sent to over 180 local media outlets. However, an email contact list can accomplish virtually the same thing. Call local community newspapers, radio stations, television stations, and cable providers to get contact information and collate it into a distribution list. Many of the smaller papers and radio stations appreciate any news items that they can include in their publications. This is also a wonderful way to get recognition for a prosecutor who achieves a great result at trial or uses an innovative technique to help solve a crime.

Additional benefits
As reporters become more aware of our internal structure and operations, they have also taken the opportunity to present public interest stories about the office. One news segment highlighted our District Attorney Intake division and reported on the 24-hours-a-day operation. Another reporter wrote about our Cold Case/Fugitive Apprehension Unit, praising the prosecutors and garnering awards. Our Animal Cruelty section has been highlighted in the news for its proactive stance on preventing animal abuse.
    This proactive stance has led to the arrest of dangerous fugitives and has actually strengthened some of our criminal cases. One reporter spoke with a man charged with aggravated sexual assault, and the defendant confessed to the offense on camera. Because the confession aired on the broadcast, the footage was easily obtained for trial. Another reporter investigated a barratry case, speaking with both the prosecutor and the defendant. He caught the defendant on camera answering his phone with the words, “Law office.” This certainly proved advantageous to the resulting prosecution.

Camera confidence
I wish that I could give you a guaranteed way to feel comfortable and confident in front of the news cameras, but there is no such trick. The more you practice your skills in front of the camera, the better you become. As I first meet a cameraperson, I often joke with them about making me look younger and thinner (OK, I am not really joking!), but it serves to lighten the mood. I will dispel the validity of that old adage about picturing your audience naked—you would have to see some of our cameramen to realize that would not be a good idea.
    As far as the nuts and the bolts, what is the best way to conduct an interview? First of all, relax. Many people (understandably!) tense up when a camera is aimed at them. Take your time. Take several deep breaths before you start an interview. Second, direct your attention to the left or the right of the camera—do not look directly into the lens. This makes the interview look more natural, and it also provides a much more flattering camera angle for most faces. Third, feel free to pause before answering a question. Think about what you want to accomplish with your answer. If you have time before the interview, write out a few “talking points” or sound bites about the case. For example, in a child sexual assault case, you might want to note, “Our office vigorously prosecutes crimes committed against the most vulnerable victims in our society—the children.” And finally, don’t smile! I had to learn this one the hard way. Although an initial reaction when one sees a reporter smiling at them is to smile back—don’t. You do not want to be shown on camera with a smile on your face as a gruesome murder is discussed. As you leave a courtroom or a grand jury room, remember that a poker-face is best.
    It would take another few thousand words to discuss the ethical considerations in dealing with the media, but remember to always stick with the public record. Generally, something becomes public record when it is said in open court. A prosecutor has a duty to present information in a manner that will not influence a future court proceeding. The ethical rules prohibit prosecutors from discussing a defendant’s criminal history or any statements or confessions he or she may have made.
Invariably, a mistake will be made during filming. Whether a name is mispronounced, an offense misstated, or the prosecutor accidentally swaps the police officer’s name with that of the defendant (oops!), these things happen. So how do you correct it? Be nice to the reporter. Reporters will often allow you two or more “takes” to get the information presented in an intelligent manner. Remember that they are looking for an interesting, well-presented story too. If you look good, it will reflect favorably upon them.
    Some of the best advice shared with me is to remember that today’s headline is tomorrow’s birdcage liner. What appears to be a significant negative story is generally forgotten when a new scandal emerges. Just relax and give it some time. One major online news story discussed a 42-year-old Houston woman who flew to Canada to engage in sexual relations with a 16-year-old boy she’d met online. Because a boy of 16 years is considered an adult in Canada, the woman could not be charged with a crime there, but a quick-thinking prosecutor charged her with online solicitation of a minor in Houston. Unfortunately, the flamboyant reporter made a small error in the story by swapping my name with hers. At one point he mentioned that “Ms. Hawkins” flew to Canada, had sex with a 16-year-old boy, and was arrested when she arrived home to Houston. He may have also called “Ms. Hawkins” the Texas Cougar. Although I was embarrassed when the story came out (my attention was drawn to it by the parents of the young man involved), I learned that having a sense of humor was probably the best way to deal with such faux pas. (Just do not Google my name, OK?)
    So what else can be done to improve relationships with reporters and media representatives? On hot summer days, we offer the reporter and cameraperson cold bottles of water. You would be surprised just how far that simple gesture can go. As they are leaving our offices, we also show them to the “facilities,” as many are on the road much of the day and appreciate the refresher.
    Finally, I just want to thank all of you for the work you are doing to prevent crime and protect our citizens. Being a prosecutor is the most rewarding job in the world. You serve as the voice of victims. For that, you should hold your heads up high and be proud as you face the cameras. Break a leg!