The Impact of a Changing Media Landscape on Police Practice and Legitimacy

Douglas Allan
Charles Sturt University

Andrew Kelly
Charles Sturt University

Antony Stephenson
Charles Sturt University


This article examines the influence of the media, old and new, on public perceptions of police legitimacy. The results of two studies, one focussed on the mainstream media and the other on social media, provide a basis for examining the increasingly challenging media environment faced by police organisations. The first study examined media reporting of fraud crime in New South Wales (NSW) and its broader impact on public policy and police decision making; the second examined the NSW Police Force’s use of Facebook to engage with citizens for community policing purposes. Both studies placed significant emphasis on the idea that police must be accepted by the public as legitimate if they are to function effectively, ethically and legally. This article compares the findings of the two studies, contextualising the relative discussions about police engagement with old and new media in a conceptual examination of whether old or new media is of most use to modern police organisations when seeking to enhance legitimacy. It considers whether the way police promote institutional legitimacy has been affected by changes to the media environment, and if policing organisations should be giving more or less attention to old or new media when attempting to maintain and promote legitimacy.


This article examines the influence of the mainstream media and online social media on public perceptions of police legitimacy by reflecting on the findings of two recent studies which examined the public relations practices of the New South Wales (NSW) Police Force, Australia’s largest policing jurisdiction. The first study considered the mainstream media’s reporting of major crime categories and its influence on the police response to these crimes relative to a particular crime’s impact on society. The study hypothesised that fraud offences, despite having the highest cost to society, attract less media coverage than other crime types, such as assaults and drugs. The idea that newspapers have an agenda setting effect on police decision making was also canvassed, and a hypothesis was explored that a lack of media reporting on fraud crime would likely result in less attention being paid to such crimes by law enforcement, and this in turn could impact on public perceptions of police. The second study considered how the NSW Police Force has embraced modern communication technologies by engaging with local communities through Facebook. The study hypothesised that police legitimacy could be enhanced simply by police engaging the citizens who inhabit online communities in two-way conversations.

The two studies highlight the increasing complexity of police media engagement practices. Police understand the importance of establishing a presence on social media but also recognise the importance of maintaining ties with the mainstream media as public perceptions of police are strongly influenced by people’s social networks and what they view in the media. This article suggests that police organisations have no choice but to continue to embrace a dual approach to media engagement which incorporates mainstream and social media if they are to retain their status as a legitimate institution in society.

The arrival of social media has created a hybridised news environment that eschews many traditional journalistic values such as honest reporting, is often partisan and is increasingly mediated by citizen commentators. Gone are the days when public relations experts within policing organisations could rely on their relationships with journalists and editors to try and control the depiction of a news story. Police cannot carry out their functions without the support and consent of the community they serve, and in this sense the media has always played a significant role in ensuring that police are viewed by the public as having a legitimate role in society. Social media provides another means for police to engage with the public but does not appear to be a substitute for old media practices. Indeed, the mainstream media often sources its news from social media and social media sites are populated with news reports from the mainstream media, and as such it is not easy at times to differentiate between the two mediums.

The complexity of the modern media environment is a challenge for police organisations whose legitimacy has historically been contingent on positive media coverage. The two studies highlight the potential for police to use social media in a more instrumental manner than the relationship-based approach that they have historically taken with the mainstream medium. However, the studies show that police attempts to be more proactive about engaging with the public on crime and policing issues are thus far falling short of their own goals. Meanwhile the mainstream media continues to play an influential role in shaping the police response to certain crimes such as fraud. This article considers the extent to which the way police promote institutional legitimacy has been affected by changes to the media environment, and if policing organisations should be giving more or less attention to old or new media when attempting to maintain and promote legitimacy. It begins with an examination of the concept of legitimacy, provides an overview of the two studies, and then discusses the importance of mainstream and social media to police legitimacy.

Police legitimacy

In 1651 Thomas Hobbes described a form of social contract whereby an individual surrenders a portion of their natural rights to the state in return for the protection of their remaining rights (Hobbes, 1996; Kissinger, 2003). Collectively relinquishing a portion of the individuals ‘natural rights’ enables the state to define both prescribed and proscribed civil standards in an effort to secure an orderly society, which in turn protects the remaining rights of all. Dent (2005, p. 216), when discussing the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argued that ‘law is an expression of the will of the community [and all] citizens have a right to concur, either personally, or by their representatives, in its formation’. The institutional legitimacy that derives from this concept of a social contract is critical in enabling police agencies to function effectively (Dent, 2005; Wraight, 2008). Police legitimacy, much like a state’s legitimacy, is therefore inherently bound to how it is perceived by the community and where seen as legitimate the community accepts its obligation to obey the directives of the police because they are viewed as fair and effective (Jackson & Bradford, 2010; Sunshine & Tyler, 2003).

The surrendering of these rights by the individual, and the creation and enforcement of a set of standards by which all members of society are governed, results in a requirement to maintain the collective rights, and in turn punish those who breach the rights of others. Police, as an agent of the state, are perceived to be a legitimate authority when they demonstrate the capacity to carry out their core business of preventing and controlling crime, and demonstrate procedural justice in the way they treat people and in the quality of their decision making (Mazerolle et al., 2014). Where police are perceived to lack legitimacy, citizens may be less willing to comply with police requests and directives, cooperate with investigations, and comply with the law, and may be more likely to file more complaints (Rosenbaum, Lawrence, Hartnett, McDevitt, & Posick, 2015b). The absence of legitimacy would leave the state, and the police as their central law enforcement arm, with no choice but to resort to more repressive, force-led styles of policing that undermine their claim to be acting on behalf or in cooperation with those they police (Bradford, Jackson, & Hough, 2014; Dent, 2005; Wraight, 2008). As suggested by Dent (2005), when the trust placed by individuals in the state and police agencies is compromised by actions that, while apparently legal, appear immoral, unethical or inappropriate based on the circumstances, then communities may be less likely to offer voluntary cooperation to police (Oliver, 2016).

The recent and ongoing attention on the policing of African-American communities in the United States has raised a number of key issues as they relate to the police legitimacy within certain American communities. Instances including the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, shot and killed by a Neighbourhood Watch volunteer, the police shooting of Michael Brown Jnr, who was left lying on a Fergusson Missouri street, an incident that resulted in unprecedented riots, and the shooting of five police officers at an anti-violence protest in Dallas Texas, have underscored the tenuous line police agencies walk when community confidence in their ability to effectively and legitimately function is lost (Hodges, 2015; Kesling, 2014; Sullivan, 2016). Police organisations have maintained a prominent presence in the media during this crisis, but with what appears to be diminishing influence on the public narrative, a somewhat unusual development for the police. Obasogie and Newman (2016) examined newspaper coverage of the Martin shooting, and subsequent police shooting deaths involving black men, and found that most of the articles were dominated by the police perspective of events, while the perspectives of groups such as Black Lives Matter, were mostly marginalised. The authors suggested that police and the media are a part of the same respectability politics, which ‘holds that anyone can access the “good life”, and those who do not are at fault for failing to increase their class position or perception’ (Obasogie & Newman, 2016, p.551).

However, more recent events have led to a stronger media focus on the Black Lives Matter movement and appear to be posing a challenge to the traditional police-media relationship, which has the potential to lead to a public crisis of faith in police legitimacy. In response to the unrest in the United States following on from these and other deaths, and in a sign that the traditional media is diverging from the police, media coverage has been extensive in questioning police legitimacy and continual calls for procedural justice in the cases reported on (Carney, 2016; McClain, 2016).

The challenge for police in this context is to demonstrate to the public that they have the capacity to carry out their core business of preventing and controlling crime, and achieving this has historically been achieved in partnership with the mainstream media. Citizens form their own opinions about police legitimacy based on their experiences, but the majority of citizens have little contact with police and are more concerned about the social order in their neighbourhood and that the broader activity of policing appears to be working successfully (Bradford, 2014). The police were once reliant on the mainstream media for their public relations efforts but social media has opened up new opportunities for police to directly access large online audiences. The two studies discussed in this article promulgate the idea that police can positively influence public perceptions of legitimacy by being engaging on social media, but also highlight the importance of maintaining a healthy relationship with the mainstream media.

The focus of the two studies

Both studies focussed on the NSW Police Force, which is the oldest and largest police organisation in Australia, with more than 17,000 employees. Much of the organisation’s media engagement is managed by a media unit staffed by police and former journalists. The NSW Police Force Media Unit supports and facilitates operational police work and coordinates the organisation’s engagement with the traditional media and administers the organisation’s corporate Facebook site, along with other social media such as Twitter and YouTube (Lee & McGovern, 2013). In 2011, the New South Wales Police Force launched a network of Local Area Command (LAC) Facebook sites under the banner of ‘Project Eyewatch’ through which local police commands seek to engage with local communities that exist in the online space. The Eyewatch program has in recent years expanded to other policing jurisdictions, including the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria, and to a large extent it has supplanted the ailing Neighbourhood Watch program as the primary community-based policing strategy in these jurisdictions (Kelly & Finlayson, 2015; NSW Police Force, 2015). The activities of the Police Media Unit and specialist police officers involved in the administration of local area command Facebook sites are a part of organisational efforts to build public confidence and trust in police through a strategy of community-based policing, and in doing so enhance the legitimacy of the New South Wales Police Force, both at the local and institutional levels (NSW Police Force, 2015).

Australia has a varied media landscape that includes a variety of local, regional and national newspapers, various television and radio networks, pay television, and a growing social media presence. Fairfax and News Ltd accounted for 86 percent of newspaper sales in Australia in 2011 (House of Representatives, 2010). Indeed, Australia has one of most concentrated newspaper ownerships in the world. Newspaper circulation is declining but so too are crime rates, yet the public is increasingly fearful of crime (Ambrey, Fleming, & Manning, 2014). Public perceptions are significantly influenced by the media’s depiction of crime and, while the extent of this influence has been vigorously debated by scholars, there is an established connection between the way crime is reported and the type of news that media operators believe the public wants (Gekoski, Gray, & Adler, 2012). The consequence is that the more the media reports on the types of crime that evoke the most fear in people, the more the public believes that the crime problem is growing. This is particularly problematic for lawmakers as public perceptions of crime and of criminal justice often influence decisions on law making, operational policing and judicial sentencing (Davis & Dossetor, 2010).

The way in which the media reports on crime has been the subject of extensive research across a range of topic areas. A key theme is that the media acts as a gatekeeper, choosing which crimes to report and which ones to discard according to their own beliefs and perceptions of newsworthiness (Gekoski et al., 2012; McQuaill, 2010). As a consequence, the public becomes more aware of certain, often more violent, crimes and more interested in the political and policing response to such crimes (Cavender & Mulcahy, 2006; Davis & Dossetor, 2010; Hughes, Lancaster, & Spicer, 2011; McQuaill, 2010; Walgrave, Soroka, & Nuytemans, 2008). Traditional media has a long held interest in reporting crime and policing activities (Reiner, 2008), but the transference of information from the police to the public via the media has always been problematic because of media framing. Framing is used by journalists, editors and others in the media to define an issue and set the terms of public debate (Entman, 1993; Gamson & Modigliani, 1989; Tankard, 2001). Frames that appear in the mass media have the potential to exert powerful influences on public policy definitions, choices and outcomes (Hertog & McLeod, 2001; Reber & Berger, 2005) so it is not surprising that police organisations would turn to social media to minimise the impact of media framing on their corporate messages.

Media outlets are increasingly seen as playing a greater role in the control of crime. Indeed it has been suggested that ‘news media are as much an agency of policing as the law-enforcement agencies whose activities and classifications are reported on’ (Carrabine et al., 2009, p. 414; Ericson, Baranek, & Chan, 1991, p. 74). An example of news media acting in this way can be seen in the case of the development of the AMBER Alert systems in the United States. Following the abduction of a nine-year-old girl, the Dallas Police Department, in conjunction with local broadcasters in Texas, devised this system that ensured police notify local media after a reported abduction. The local media in turn inform the community of relevant details of the abduction including the identity of the child and offenders where known (Carrabine et al., 2009). A similar campaign was undertaken in Europe by the parents of Madeline McCann following her abduction in 2002.

Similar instances can be identified in NSW where media portrayal of crime plays a role in informing crime control responses by state and federal governments and law enforcement agencies. In 2009, William Ngati, an armed robber fleeing police, crashed into another vehicle killing 19-month-old passenger Skye Sassine. Following an intense period of media coverage the NSW Government enacted a new law to deter offenders fleeing police (NSW Government, 2016). Similarly, prolific media coverage of a spate of one-punch deaths in NSW led to a new offence with a penalty of 25 years imprisonment if a person is intoxicated when they assault another person and cause their death (Crimes and Other Legislation Amendment (Assault and Intoxication) Act 2014 (NSW). While these examples draw significant media coverage and tougher governmental and law enforcement agency responses, few financial crimes could claim to have such an immediate impact upon legislative responses, and those few that did have taken many years to eventually lead to changes (Allan, Kelly & Stephenson, 2016). Martin (2010, p. 390) said there are some troubling features of the NSW approach to anti-social behaviour, which mirror aspects of the United Kingdom approach, and warned against the basing of criminal justice policy and legislation on public perceptions and fears of crime, which are often distorted by news media coverage. Roberts and Indermaur (2009) warn policymakers to be careful about framing law enforcement decisions based on the reactions of the public to high profile media stories as the extent and seriousness of certain crimes can often be misrepresented in the media and lead to substantial misperceptions about crime. Historically, police have focussed on their relationship with journalists and editors in order to mitigate such misconceptions, however the advent of social media has opened up new communications channels.

Lieberman et al. (2013) suggested that effective communication between the police and the public is a fundamental aspect of community policing, fostering positive relations and allowing citizens to be active participants in reducing crime and disorder. Web 2.0 technology advances have given police organisations, and everybody else, the ability to create websites where interaction is possible between the website administrators and its users (Hanna, Rohm & Crittenden, 2011). This technology led to the first social media sites in 1997 (Boyd & Ellison, 2008), and the first police-administered social media sites. Social media provides local police with a visible and active presence in growing online communities; it affirms that the values, interests and commitments of police are congruent with those of the community; it provides a forum for the sharing of information about policing and crime; it allows police to demonstrate that they are performing their duties effectively and efficiently; and, it gives the public a voice in police decision making and a means to provide feedback (Crump, 2011; Rosenbaum, Graziano, Stephens, & Schuck, 2011). Ruddell and Jones (2013) examined the police use of social media in the Canadian city of Vancouver, and found that people had higher levels of satisfaction and confidence in their local police after being contacted on social media. However, many studies of police social media have found that police organisations are not yet capitalising on the dialogic potential of the medium, and are instead using the web to transmit information to the public with little regard for public feedback (Brainard & McNutt, 2010; Crump, 2011; Kelly & Finlayson, 2015; Rosenbaum et al., 2011; Welch & Fulla, 2005).

Police organisations use a variety of social media but the most commonly used applications are Facebook and Twitter (Ruddell & Jones, 2013). Social media is used by police to gather intelligence on crime suspects; for aiding policing operations and events; for recruitment purposes; as a tool for internal and external communication; to bypass the mainstream media; and for crisis and emergency management, where it has been demonstrated to be an effective way to communicate with large populations quickly, efficiently and accurately (Meijer & Thaens, 2013; Traffika, 2011). There are considerable logistical advantages to using new media technology. Social networking services are easily accessed by police officers and the general public, and many of the social networks through which police seek to engage the public, already exist (Crump, 2011). The ease of use and connectivity of social networking services should alleviate the physical difficulties and time pressures of travel, crowds and fixed hours for participation in traditional public meetings, while also reducing costs and facilitating communication between members of the community (Brainard & Edlins, 2014; Perlman, 2012).

Research has shown that the aspirational objectives of police social media strategies are generally not being met in practice (Brainard & Edlins, 2014; Kelly & Finlayson, 2015; Procter, Crump, Karstedt, Voss, & Cantijoch, 2013). Eyewatch, for example, aims to give the community greater access to police, facilitate real time engagement between police and citizens, seek public consensus on solutions to crime and policing problems, provide accurate up to date information to the public, facilitate forums to find solutions to crime and policing problems, provide a forum so citizens can provide feedback to police, and develop a high value community network (NSW Police Force, 2015). However, the study found that operational police officers tasked with administering the local Facebook sites did not engage the public in a manner that came close to realising these aims.

Scholars have found that the mainstream media often sources its news from social media, and the sourcing of unverified reports on social media can often inflate public perceptions of crime (Tapia, 2014). Conversely, social media sites are populated with news reports from the mainstream media, and as such it is not easy at times to differentiate between the content emanating from the two mediums (Chadwick, 2011; Tapia, LaLone & Kim, 2014). The increasingly hybridised nature of modern media is changing the way news is reported and affecting the power relations among the media, politicians and other actors in the contemporary news environment such as the police (Chadwick, 2011). The mainstream media has in the past been tremendously influential in shaping public policy and opinion on crime and policing issues, but the media’s reputation as arbiters of truth is being challenged by this hybridised environment which is becoming increasingly mediated by the social media engagement of a heterogeneous public (Tapia, 2014; Chadwick, 2011). This is evident in the findings of both of the studies examined in this article.

Study 1: The cost of fraud to society and its impact on police

The first study examined the print media reporting of fraud and five other major crime types as represented in the 2013 Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) cost of crime statistics (AIC, 2013). The significance of this research was that it challenged conventional academic thinking that fraud is an underreported crime type, and secondly it pointed to the disparity between the increasing occurrence of this crime type, which continues to increase faster than any other crime type in NSW (NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, 2016), and the relative unimportance of it as a crime as reflected in sentences applied in NSW courts. The AIC statistics identified fraud, arson, drugs, burglary, assault and theft as the six most costly crime types in Australia at the time, and together these contributed up to 85 per cent of the total cost of crime in Australia. The study focussed solely on NSW’s major metropolitan newspaper titles, both of which are based in Sydney, and sought to test the hypothesis that fraud as a crime is underreported in traditional print media.

The study concentrated on the reporting by two highly influential major print media publications, and it collected all print media articles from these two publications which made reference to the six crime areas. The research adopted the sampling strategy proposed by Schnatterly (2003) and sourced newspaper articles from the Dow Jones Factiva database. The Dow Jones Factiva database aggregates business and media content from an extensive wide range of Australian and international media providers and includes newspaper content for all Australian based metropolitan titles. The sampling strategy adopted was constructed around three components; the top six crime categories as provided by the AIC (2013); the newspaper titles The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Daily Telegraph; and the time frame January 1 to December 31, 2013 (Allan, Kelly & Stephenson, 2016).

The primary results from the initial search of the Factiva database appeared to be consistent with the project’s hypothesis that newspapers were more likely to cover crimes other than fraud. However, further analysis revealed that most of the articles that appeared to identify news coverage of the topics of assault and drugs had no relevant or direct link with the commission, detection, investigation or prosecution of a crime, and as such many were not relevant to policing. Examples of this included articles that dealt with drugs in the context of prescription drug trials, and performance enhancing drug scandals in sport that did not result in criminal prosecutions and thus were redundant in terms of the research. The term ‘assault’ also drew a number of false hits including statements such as ‘an assault on our privacy’ (Allan, Kelly & Stephenson, 2016).

Due to the excessive size of the initial data set, an effort was made to reduce the overall size of the data sample. This was achieved via the use of a systematic sampling method whereby every fifth article from each of the identified crime types was selected for further analysis. Once this was completed the remaining false hits were identified and removed from the final sample (Allan, Kelly & Stephenson, 2016). This resulted in a final data set consisting of 934 articles, all of which were considered to be relevant due to their direct links to criminal activity. Of the remaining articles, one third of the remaining articles related to fraud crime, followed by assault and drugs which each equated to about one quarter of relevant articles each. These results suggested that within the limitation of the study the hypotheses was rejected.

In addition to the rejection of the stated hypothesis, the data also revealed a number of interesting insights into the reporting patterns of crime by the major metropolitan newspaper titles in NSW. The Fairfax Media owned The Sydney Morning Herald was more likely to report on fraud than the News Limited owned The Daily Telegraph. Fraud in The Sydney Morning Herald accounted for approximately 46 percent of all crime articles published in that newspaper title, and fraud occurred on the front cover more times than it did on the front cover of The Daily Telegraph. Fraud-related articles were on average longer in The Sydney Morning Herald than for any other crime types in that publication and fraud articles were also, on average, longer than fraud articles published in The Daily Telegraph. The Daily Telegraph however reported more crime related articles in total than The Sydney Morning Herald, but of those reports fraud accounted for only 24 per cent of the total articles as compared to 46 per cent within The Sydney Morning Herald. While fewer words were devoted to fraud when compared to The Sydney Morning Herald, fraud articles within The Daily Telegraph were longer on average than any other crime type in that publication.

Media reporting of fraud as represented in this study, were largely dominated by reports that focussed on allegations of corrupt practices within political bodies. The largest percentage of these cases, accounting for 39 percent, were articles covering the extensive series of investigations conducted by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). These investigations and the reports covering them related to a number of current sitting and former members of the NSW Parliament. A further six per cent of the articles related to federal politics and the abuse of the Health Services Union credit cards for the hiring of prostitutes. The remaining cases covered a wider range of financial crimes, sectors and individual offenders, and together demonstrated the breadth, and financial impact of these crimes. The significance of these high profile cases is that the NSW Police Commissioner works closely with the state government and police minister in particular, so high profile reports of fraud crime relating to people in public office generally attract significant media and public attention, and this in turn may lead to a stronger response and allocation of resources by police (Davis & Dossetor, 2010).

The significance of the results of this study for policy makers, police and practitioners lies primarily in the fact that the mainstream media continues to play a significant role in the depiction and control of crime. Public consciousness of particular crime types is dependent on the prominence of media reports, and accordingly a person reading The Sydney Morning Herald might view fraud crime as being more serious a problem and warranting a greater police response than a reader of The Daily Telegraph.

Study 2: The use of Facebook by police to engage with local communities

The second study sought to identify the extent of two-way communication occurring on a sample of 10 NSW Police Force Eyewatch sites and to test if there was any correlation between such communication and public perceptions of police. Various scholars who have examined police-administered social media sites have been critical of the lack of two-way conversations occurring on social media between police and the public (Crump, 2011; Rosenbaum, Graziano, Stephens & Schuck, 2011). Rosenbaum et al., said the greatest untapped potential of social media resided in a police department’s ability to provide citizens web-based opportunities for input and feedback regarding public safety or police operations. Because of its links to community policing, Eyewatch appeared to offer an opportunity for researchers to examine a social media environment where police were engaging in two-way conversations. According to the NSW Police Force (2015), Eyewatch should:

  • give the community greater access to police;
  • facilitate real time engagement between police and citizens;
  • seek public consensus on solutions to crime and policing problems;
  • provide accurate up to date information to the public;
  • facilitate forums to find solutions to crime an policing problems;
  • provide a forum so citizens can provide feedback to police; and
  • develop a high value community network.

The first of three stages of data collection involved a content analysis of police and public dialogue on the sampled sites. The second stage of data collection involved a survey of public participants of Eyewatch, which aimed to determine public perceptions of police legitimacy, confidence and trust. The third stage involved qualitative interviews with police Eyewatch administrators to better understand how and why police communicate on social media. The study hypothesised that public perceptions of police can be enhanced simply by police being more engaging on Eyewatch. The first stage of this ongoing study, which is discussed in this paper, sought to establish the extent of engagement and interactivity occurring on Eyewatch sites. It followed an earlier, more limited, study where a content analysis of the same sample of Eyewatch sites found that police were generally using Eyewatch to transmit information, but not to engage in two-way communication (Kelly & Finlayson, 2015).

The first stage involved a content analysis of four weeks of dialogue on the sampled Eyewatch sites. The 10 sites were selected from 76 NSW Police Force Eyewatch sites on the dual basis that they contained the largest public memberships of all sites, and they represented an even split of five metropolitan and five regional based sites. In order to protect the privacy of study participants, the regional sites (those outside the Sydney metropolitan area) are labelled Regional 1 to 5 and the metropolitan sites are labelled Metropolitan 1 to 5. Every entry (thread) posted to Facebook by the police during the sample period was copied and recorded into an excel spreadsheet. Members of the public were not able to post their own threads due to the privacy settings in place on the sites. The number of public posts, police posts, likes and shares registered against each thread within the first 48 hours of the thread being posted by police were recorded in the spreadsheet. After 48 hours the entry made by police generally moves down the Facebook site’s timeline and is only visible when the user scrolls down the page past more recent entries. As such, it was rare for any comments to be added to a thread after 48 hours, but for consistency in the collection of data, no comments made after 48 hours were collected. The comments were read and any issues, requests and questions posted by the public implying a need for a police response were recorded in the spreadsheet, minus any identifying information. The frequency of police responses to these issues, requests and questions was also recorded in the spreadsheet.

Each of the sampled sites was ranked against eight activity and engagement criteria: (1) number of threads posted by police; (2) number of public comments; (3) number of police comments; (4) number of likes; (5) number of shares; (6) number of issues, requests and questions posed by the public; (7) number of police responses; and (8) the overall police responsiveness as a percentage. The Eyewatch sites were ranked one to 10 for each item, with one reflecting the highest and 10 the lowest, with the scores tallied to produce an overall total for each site (see Table 1).


Eyewatch site

Cumulative total



Regional 1




Regional 2




Metropolitan 1




Metropolitan 2




Regional 3




Metropolitan 3




Regional 4




Regional 5




Metropolitan 4




Metropolitan 5



Table 1 – Activity and Engagement on Eyewatch sites

There was no clear or consistent variable that determined the ranking of Eyewatch sites. For example, Regional 4 was one of six sites that published a single thread a day on average during the data collection period, yet was still able to achieve the second highest ranking on the basis of a high level of public activity, police comments and police responsiveness. Regional 2 was moderately engaging with the public but posted far more threads than Regional 4. Its number one ranking was founded on strong public interest in the site and the threads posted, attracting the highest number of likes and third highest number of shares. Metropolitan 2 ranked third, despite having no evidence of police engaging dialogically, by posting the most threads and attracting strong public interest in the threads published. The worst performing sites posted about one thread each day and demonstrated no evidence of two-way conversations occurring between police and the public.

The analysis found that there were five types of threads posted by police on Eyewatch during the four-week collection period, including crime or incident updates, social postings, police involvement in the community, crime statistics, and safety or security notifications. The most popular type of posting was a crime or incident update, with 169 such posts. There were 131 safety and security notification posts, 95 police involvement in community posts, 39 social posts, and 32 crime statistics posts. Overall, 337 of the 466 threads contained images. On average, threads with an image attracted more public engagement than those without an image, with an average of 7.89 public comments for threads with an image compared to 6.7 public comments for those without an image, 63.9 likes for those with images compared to 27.7 likes for those without an image, and 23.4 shares for those with images compared to 5.8 shares for those without an image.

The researchers were especially interested in the number of issues, requests and questions posted by the public which implied a need for the police to respond and engage in a two-way conversation, and in the frequency of police responses. Police failed to respond to any issue, request or question posed by the public on six of the 10 Eyewatch sites, with Regional 2 responding to seven of 10 public issues, requests or questions, Regional 1 responding to four of 10, Metropolitan 2 responding to three of four, and Metropolitan 3 responding to two of seven. In all there were 63 public issues, requests or questions, of which police responded to 16, or about 25 per cent. To put these numbers into perspective, there were 3524 public comments made across all sites during the data collection period. The preliminary results of this ongoing study suggest that police are not particularly responsive to public concerns, on social media at least, and that there is no apparent expectation among the public that they can provide feedback to police on Eyewatch despite the community-based objectives of the program.


The two studies address opposite sides of the contemporary media paradigm. On one side, traditional media enterprises such as newspapers are dealing with declining circulations and the need to expand into the online environment. On the other side, the proliferation of social media has led to a 24/7 media cycle and a mediated news environment with a seemingly infinite number of players. Modern police organisations have had to reconsider the way they engage with traditional media and whether there is more value in engaging citizens directly on social media. This article’s premise is that the mainstream media continues to be a powerful influence on public policy and police decision making, as evidenced by the reporting on fraud crime. It is also suggested that police must be active on social media as that is increasingly where large sections of the community get their news, something that the mainstream media has recognised and sought to accommodate with online modes of news delivery. The changing media landscape has significantly affected the way in which police promote institutional legitimacy.

Both studies highlight the challenging environment within which modern police operate. The results of the first study show that the mainstream media and large-circulation newspapers in particular remain influential in determining the daily news agenda and influencing policy makers. This was demonstrated with the introduction of one-punch laws in New South Wales and other Australian jurisdictions in response to a series of highly publicised assaults that led to the hospitalisation and deaths of some victims (NSW Government, 2016). In this example there is a clear link between the attention given to the one-punch issue by the media and the decision by the government of the day to pass legislation creating a new and specific offence with much tougher penalties than other assault offences. The introduction of new laws affects the conduct of police organisations responsible for operationalising those laws, more so when there is significant media (and therefore public) scrutiny. Similarly, the high number of newspaper articles in 2013 about fraud and corruption involving NSW politicians has resulted in a prolonged and ongoing public debate about the government and law enforcement response to such crimes (for example, Kennedy, 2016).

The role of the media in these circumstances can lead to a reactionary response by policy makers and police practitioners, as the authorities attempt to address issues of public concern. Such issues do not always reflect crime statistics (Mawby, 2015), and police priorities. It may be that one-punch deaths, for example, are relatively rare, but the magnification of the issue in the media often demands a police and government response. The reporting of fraud crime provides an example of how newspaper reporting can sometimes provide a distorted version of reality. The first study showed that there was more than expected reporting of fraud in NSW’s major newspapers, however, the level of reporting still did not reflect the crime’s cost to society, a finding that is supported by previous research (Levi, 2006; Stephenson-Burton, 1995; Sullivan & Chermak, 2012; White & Perrone, 2015). Media reporting is likely to focus on more sensational crimes, and it is these crimes that permeate the public consciousness and lead to reactions from lawmakers such as those evidenced by the introduction of Skye’s Law. It follows that police need to be seen to be addressing these sensationalised crimes, as opposed to the more costly and underreported crimes such as fraud, if they are to maintain their legitimacy, but studies such as those discussed in this article can help police to understand media representations of crime.

Indeed, the findings of the first study were unexpected and incongruent with previous studies as there were more fraud-related articles than there were articles about other crime types. While the study found that fraud was underreported when compared to the AIC’s cost of crime figures, NSW’s major newspapers still afforded fraud more coverage than any other single crime type between 2010 and 2014. The findings are significant for police and lawmakers as they present strong evidence that fraud crime is a prominent issue for the media and the public. Accordingly, fraud crime is something that the police need to address if they are to maintain their legitimacy. The first study provides evidence that the mainstream media remains relevant, while the second study shows that modern technology has brought about a whole new sphere of the public communication involving social media in which police need to be equally engaged if they are to be included in important public debates where the legitimacy of traditional societal institutions such as the police are subject to questioning discourse.

Social media strategies such as Eyewatch aim to influence public perceptions of police, to engage citizens in an ongoing conversation that affirms perceptions that police are trustworthy and legitimate (NSW Police Force, 2015). The second study showed that police can communicate directly with the public through social media without the interference of the mainstream media, but the reality is that police are not yet realising the dialogic potential of social media (Brainard & McNutt, 2010; Crump, 2011; Kelly & Finlayson, 2015; Rosenbaum et al., 2011; Welch & Fulla, 2005). The study affirms earlier research findings that the social media practices of police are falling short of their strategic objectives, and police cannot rely fully on social media to engage with and influence the public. The absence of two-way conversations on police social media shows that the new medium is well short of replicating traditional face-to-face communication practices, and weakens police efforts to use social media to positively influence public perceptions of legitimacy. It also means that the mainstream media still has an important role to play in positively shaping public perceptions of police. The presence of police on social networking sites such as Facebook, through strategies such as Eyewatch, is important first step for police organisations, but as this study and many earlier studies have shown, police could be communicating more effectively on social media. That said, the mere presence of police on social media might be sufficient to maintain police legitimacy, as studies have shown that public confidence in police can be enhanced simply by the police engaging as an active, visible and accessible part of community life (Bradford, Jackson, & Stanko, 2009a; Jackson & Sunshine, 2007; Rix et al., 2009; Skogan, 2006; Tyler, 2006). In any case, the hybridised and mediated nature of social media engagement and news delivery is such that police organisations face an increasingly challenging media environment within which to engage in public relations efforts to maintain their legitimacy.


Because of the prevailing influence of mainstream media outlets and the lack of certainty about the benefits of new media, now is not the time for police to eschew traditional media engagement practices. Indeed, there is no suggestion that the influence of the mainstream media on public perceptions of police legitimacy is in decline, or that it will be replaced at any time by social media. The first of two studies examined in this article highlighted the ongoing influence of the mainstream media in framing the public narrative of crime reporting, and by extension the influence that this type of reporting has on policing and public perceptions of crime. Presently, social media is being used by police to complement their media and public relations efforts, rather than to replace older practices. The second study provided further evidence to that which already exists in the literature that police are not capitalising on the dialogical potential of social media. Researchers have suggested that engaging online in two-way conversations with the public would likely enhance public perceptions of police legitimacy but an examination of Eyewatch has found that two-way conversations between police and the public are rare, despite the objectives of the program reflecting a desire by the NSW Police Force to engage in such practice.

When taken together, the results of the two studies help to understand the complex environment of police-media engagement, and its influence on police legitimacy. The media environment has been complicated by the arrival of social media. This new medium offers the potential for police to adopt a more instrumental approach to media management, and to public relations practices that promote police legitimacy, but the mainstream media remains influential and as such the extent that it reports on certain crimes also remains relevant to police.


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About the authors

Douglas Allan is a PhD scholar with the Australian National University where he is examining how fraudsters overcome complex financial system controls. He is the course director of the Anti-Money Laundering & Counter Terrorism, and Fraud and Financial Crime programs at Charles Sturt University.


Andrew Kelly is undertaking a PhD in Criminology at the University of New South Wales focused on improving the way that police organisations communicate with the public through social media for community policing purposes. He works as a lecturer for Charles Sturt University at the NSW Police Force Academy.


Antony Stephenson is a PhD scholar with the School of Communication and Creative Industries at Charles Sturt University. He also works as a library manager in the criminal justice sector.


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