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Law, Politics & Public Trust in the Digital Age

Bringing a cop, a politician, and a journalist together to talk about public trust might sound like the beginning of a bad joke, but that is exactly what happened at the John Hazen White College of Arts & Sciences’ most recent Media & Politics Café.

Public trust has been a serious issue in recent years. In the United States, our politicians, our media, and our law enforcement have all been subject to scrutiny, so it was only fitting that a person from each field sat on the panel to discuss how they strive to earn public trust in their own communities.

The panelists included:

  • Major Michael E. Correia has served in the Providence Police Department for almost 30 years. He is currently the head of the Uniform Division, the largest division in the department.
  • Nirva LaFortune is a Providence City Council member, representing Ward 3. She is also the first Haitian American to serve on the council.
  • Parker Gavigan is a reporter for NBC 10 in Providence. He is also an Associated Press award-winning journalist.

JWU’s Ryan Crowley (far right), communications & media relations specialist, moderated the talk.

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Crowley kicked off the discussion by asking each panelist what public trust meant to them in relation to their fields of work.

“The police department cannot work effectively without public trust,” said Major Correia. “We don’t work just for each other, we work for the public.”

Councilwoman LaFortune and Gavigan echoed similar sentiments, each saying that their work was about serving the public with complete transparency.

The subject of transparency transitioned into a discussion about a police involved shooting that occurred in Providence on November 9, when a police chase on the highway ended with officers shooting and killing the suspect. Gavigan commended the police department for releasing body cam video of what happened so quickly, but Councilwoman LaFortune noted that although they released the video, there was no narrative attached to it – which left people wanting more information from both the police and the media.

Later on, the discussion opened up to audience questions. One student asked if there is tension between the media and law enforcement. Both Gavigan and Major Correia agreed that there is no tension, as long as each had respect for the other’s job.

Another question from the audience was about the recent controversy of Sinclair-owned television stations’ anchors, including local NBC 10, reading an identical script condemning the biased reporting of other networks. Gavigan stressed that the segment was not a news story but rather a commentary on the news business.

“We may be owned by these big companies, but we are still local people,” he said. “The owner of our station does not affect the day to day coverage of local news…no one is telling me how to report my stories.”

Then, the audience was asked to share some of their perceptions about media, law enforcement, and politicians.

Law Enforcement: “Shoot first, ask questions later”
Media: “They only seem to publish stories that will sell”
Politicians: “They can’t accurately represent people of color”

Each panelist seemed disappointed to hear these answers, and the final audience question gave them a chance to respond: How can we reestablish trust?

Major Correia talked about how police need to be out in their communities and remember what their job is – serving the public. Gavigan shared the same sentiment, also saying the media should always admit to their mistakes and work to get the story right – even if they are the last to get it published.

“Building trust is about getting people to talk and engage with one another,” said Councilwoman LaFortune. “We have to start advocating for each other, even if that means stepping out of our comfort zones.”

All three panelists concluded that communication and transparency are the best ways to maintain the public’s trust in law enforcement, media and politicians. And, while it may take some time to earn that trust, it is possible.