It is a gripping image — a fireman shudders with grief as his mother and family sob in his arms, during a memorial service for a fallen police officer, his brother and her son.
The photo, by Steven Georges, has the framing and emotional punch that gets the attention of judges during journalism awards season.
And that’s exactly what it did, winning Best News Photo in this year’s OC Press Club awards.
But the local publication that published the photo and accepted the award wasn’t a news publication like The Orange County Register, OC Weekly or The Daily Pilot.
It was Behind the Badge OC, a website that is staffed by many former news reporters but produced by a public relations firm, paid for in part by taxpayers, and writes from a pro-public safety perspective.
Its content consists primarily of published news releases and sleek feature stories about officers across seven local police agencies.
Since going live nearly ten months ago, Behind the Badge has garnered 19,000 followers on Facebook and now averages 80,000 unique visitors a month, according to Bill Rams, a principal at Irvine-based Cornerstone Communications, who serves at the site’s editor-in-chief.
It takes the concept of promoting the good work done by police officers and firefighters to another level. And in doing so, it has raised a few eyebrows in the world of media and public policy ethics.
The only mention of taxpayer dollars spent on the site is a disclosure statement on the About page, which states: “Some funding for this site is provided by the participating agencies.”
“Some” equates to 60 percent of the site’s total budget, Rams said. Included among the funders are police departments from Anaheim, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Westminster, La Habra, Tustin and Cypress, as well as the Anaheim Fire Department.
David Medzerian, a former Register staffer and Miami Herald reporter himself, penned a column for the Register in March criticizing Behind the Badge OC for not being more up-front with readers about its funding sources.
“The content is funded in part by agencies that the stories are about. And most readers don’t know that,” he wrote. “That critical information isn’t hidden, really, just difficult to find.”
Battling ‘Cops Behaving Badly’ Image
In an interview, Rams, a former public safety reporter for the Register, quickly acknowledged the site’s funding sources and said he and others in the organization make no attempt to present Behind the Badge OC as an objective news source.
Rams said police departments typically come up with the ideas for stories and rely on his writers to produce a professional product. The purpose, he said, is to help police agencies tell their stories in what he described as an increasingly hostile media environment.
“If you look at how law enforcement is being covered today, it’s mostly cops behaving badly, ‘allegations of inappropriate use of force,'” said Rams. “It’s mostly negative — but that’s not all that’s going on out there.”
The way police agencies typically deal with reporters and dispensing public information– assigning the responsibility to a low-level sergeant with no background in writing or news — has been ineffective, Rams said.
“When I was a reporter, the cops were never good at telling their story,” Rams said. “My experience with police officers is most of them [are] decent people — their job, I felt, was misunderstood. And I thought maybe I can be a force for helping them [explain] how complex their job is.”
In what can be best described as a twist of fate, the site’s emergence has coincided with a period of police scrutiny unmatched since Los Angeles police officers were caught on tape beating Rodney King in 1991.
The site launched in July 2014. One month later, Darren Wilson, a police officer in Ferguson MO, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black man. Brown’s death and a decision by a grand jury not to charge Wilson sparked days of rioting.
After Ferguson, incidents in New York City and Baltimore sparked protests that have seized the media and triggered a national discussion about race, excessive use of force and community policing.
The genesis of Behind the Badge OC can be traced back to police incidents that sparked protests and unrest in Anaheim and Fullerton.
One of the site’s first clients was the Fullerton Police Department, where Chief Dan Hughes was brought in after significant fallout from the fatal beating of a mentally ill homeless man named Kelly Thomas in 2011, an incident which sparked outrage and public scrutiny of law enforcement and the treatment of the homeless countywide.
“If you look at their old website, there were no pictures, there was no way to contact anybody. [Police department] websites look like they were built in the 1990s,” said Rams. “In this day and age, your website [is] how the public gets an idea of what you’re about.”
That poor communication became increasingly clear as the Fullerton department began to field calls from news outlets across the country, and websites, blogs and social media posts about Kelly Thomas proliferated online.
“I don’t know if it was just the Kelly Thomas incident, [but] over a number of months, there was misinformation being presented, not only in the press but out on blogs,” said Hughes. “We were not trained on how to communicate on blogs or social media.”
Hughes describes the website as a strategy for increasing public understanding of law enforcement, something akin to a community policing strategy.
“Who are the people patrolling our neighborhood? What are they like off duty? Do they understand what it privilege it is to serve our community?” Hughes said.
Other funders of Behind the Badge OC include both the police and fire departments in Anaheim, where hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in July 2012 to protest the fatal shootings of two young Latino men on consecutive days.
Jose Moreno, a member of a police community advisory board formed in response to months of public backlash, said he doesn’t have a problem with the department spending money on public relations, but questioned its effectiveness.
“The average Anaheim resident isn’t going to go to that website,” said Moreno, who is also president of Los Amigos of Orange County and ran for the Anaheim City Council in November.
Moreno also disputes the notion that local media haven’t been fair to law enforcement.
“The local media haven’t covered [the police] in a critical way. And the department in Anaheim…attack anybody who isn’t 100 percent in support of the department,” Moreno said.
To really make a difference, the site should “cover stories that lead to broader policy conversations,” he said.
It’s not uncommon for reporters to leave journalism for jobs on the so-called “dark side.” With the decline of traditional newspapers has come a growth in public relations specialists, who now outnumber reporters 5 to 1, according to the Pew Research Center.
Joel Zlotnik and Eric Carpenter, former Register reporters, both work in public relations for the Orange County Transportation Authority. Jennifer Muir, the incoming general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, is a former investigative reporter. County spokeswoman Jean Pasco wrote for the Los Angeles Times.
Several writers for Behind the Badge are career journalists, including former Register reporters Greg Hardesty and Jaimee Lynn Fletcher.
Critics like Medzerian, who now runs the University of Southern California’s Communications website, has no issues with former reporters earning a living in PR, but is concerned when they produce content that blurs the line between journalism and promotion.
In a media environment where many people are getting their news through clicks on Facebook and other social media sites, readers are less likely to visit a website’s homepage and most people won’t go looking for information about how a website is funded, Medzerian argues.
Rams, meanwhile, says that from the name of the website to the disclosure on its “About” page, Behind the Badge isn’t being coy about it’s funding.
“Our readers are smart — they’re going to figure it out. Do we need to call ourselves ‘funded-by-the-cops-dot-com?'” Rams said. “We say it’s produced by Cornerstone, you spend some time with our site, and you get the idea of what we’re about.”
Yet the site won first place awards for “Best News Photo” and “Best Feature Broadcast” from the press club, arguably the county’s most notable journalism organization.
Press club president Denis Foley, a former Register editor who is now an adjunct journalism professor at Chapman University, said the club is trying to be inclusive of all the new types of media. Public relations sites, news media and blogs can compete as long as the publications are transparent and judges are aware, Foley said.
“The way I look at it is, there’s so much stuff online, it’s really about news literacy and how readers can distinguish and evaluate different sites and where [news] is coming from,” Foley said. “I look at the About Us page for Behind the Badge, for [Voice of OC] and OC Weekly, and I think everyone is pretty clear.”
Medzerian believes Behind the Badge should disclose its funding more explicitly because there is a business relationship between writers and the subject of their stories.
“What Behind the Badge does well is give [police departments] another way to get their story out, and I like that,” Medzerian said. “What bothers me, and this is speculative, is that agencies might start to use the site as their way to get their information to readers, rather than traditional media.”
A ‘Complicated’ World
Marc Cooper, a journalism professor and Director of Annenberg Digital News at the University of Southern California, contrasts Behind the Badge with a news site embedded within the website of former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaraslovksy.
Yaraslovsky hired former reporters to staff the site and write about county news and politics.
“While there was no pretense that this was an independent publication, it did cover real news in a somewhat professional way and with a somewhat unpredictable point of view,” Cooper said. “It did not announce or intend to be a counter to the mainstream or local reporters’ covering the county – it considered itself an additional resource.”
Ultimately, Cooper thinks the disclosure question won’t matter.
While the goal of deepening the relationship between the public and law enforcement is noble, he doubts the site will have any impact at all.
“There’s a difference between public relations and community relations — PR sells a product and community relations builds relationships,” said Cooper. “And what you’ve got here is a cereal commercial, a piece of uncritical advertising that is going to convince absolutely nobody who isn’t already convinced.”
The site is a constant experiment, Rams said, and he defends his site as professional content produced by veteran reporters, worthy of publication in the Register or LA Times.
“Everything is complicated in the world right now. Law enforcement is going through a state of disruption, media is going through it,” Rams said. “Police leaders everywhere are trying to do a better job of engaging their communities.”
Contact Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.