Police and fire officials and first responders have a crucial role in communicating with the media during emergency situations and major incidents. Understanding the terminology that media outlets use can help you effectively convey important information to journalists, who can quickly spread information and details to the public during these incidents. Let’s explore some common media terms that police and fire officials should be familiar with.

On the Record – When speaking to a reporter on the record, any information you provide can be attributed to you. This means that anything said on the record can be quoted directly using your first and last name and title and used in their reporting. Anytime you’re speaking to a reporter you should assume that it’s on the record. If you do not wish to speak on the record, you and the reporter have to both agree BEFORE you start talking. It’s your responsibility to make it clear that information is either on or off the record. (Example: Lt. John Johnson said the suspect has been arrested.)

Off the Record – Information given off the record cannot be attributed to the source and cannot be used without obtaining the information from a different source. This is used when officials want to provide context or background information that is generally not publicly available at that time. It is important to note that while most journalists will protect the identities of their confidential sources, they are not required by law to honor off the record conversations or their sources. So officials should be cautious when speaking off the record. It’s also important to consider if you could be easily identified as the reporter’s source (i.e. only you and one other person has this sensitive information). (Example: Sgt. Nick Nickerson told the reporter off the record that the fire was considered suspicious. The reporter spoke to someone from the Fire Marshal’s office on the record and confirmed that the fire was suspicious and attributed the information to the Fire Marshal’s office.)

On Background – Similar to off the record, speaking on background can provide reporters with information or context about a situation. However, unlike off the record, journalists can use this information as long as they don’t identify the source by name. (Example: Capt. Peter Peterson told a reporter on background that the deceased victim in the case was a single mother with three young kids. The reporter put the information in their story but attributed it to a “law enforcement official with knowledge of the situation.”)

Embargo – An embargo is an agreement between a source and a journalist to provide information ahead of time, but to withhold reporting that information until a specific date and/or time. This can be used when officials want to ensure that information is released in a controlled manner, or when they want to give journalists time to prepare their reporting. (Example: A police department is announcing a new body-worn camera program at a press conference tomorrow, but is still working on some of the final details. They send an embargoed media advisory with a lot of the background information and details, so reporters who are attending the press conference are prepared ahead of time. The media outlets agree not to report on the story until after the embargo has been lifted at the specified date and time. This is typically just before, during or after a press conference)

Exclusive – An exclusive is a news story that is given to one journalist or media outlet before it is released to the public. This can be used to build a relationship with a particular reporter or media outlet. It’s also a good tool to entice media outlets to cover a story you want covered because of their competitiveness with other outlets. (Example: A fire department wants to invite a reporter to do a story on their live burn training to help them highlight their recruitment efforts. They offer it exclusively to one TV news station who comes and does the story)

Sound – TV reporters will ask officials for sound or to give sound, meaning they would like an interview or to be able to ask a few questions on-camera. (Example: A police chief gives sound to a TV reporter on an arrest they made earlier in the day)

Presser – A press conference, also referred to as a media availability or media avail. (Example: A fire department holds a press conference about the baby they delivered in the back of their ambulance)

Package – A TV news story, typically a minute and 30 seconds long that includes interviews (sound) and video. (Example: The segment that airs on the evening news about an incident)

Live-shot – When a reporter will be live on-camera and on live TV or streaming platform, also referred to as being live/going live. (Example: When TV reporters are outside of your station speaking on-camera for a story that’s been reported on during the day)

As a former Assignment Editor at two Boston TV News stations, I have a wealth of knowledge from my TV newsroom years. The one thing to keep in mind is that the reporters are not there to make your life more difficult, but they are there to help your department get accurate information out in a timely manner and provide a transparent and communicative process. Learning basic media terminology can make your PIO experience easier and benefit your relationship with the news media.

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