The Newseum in Washington, D.C., is a museum that provides the public with dynamic, engaging and interactive exhibits that encourage the exploration of stories from the past and present through the eyes of the media, while celebrating the freedoms guaranteed to all Americans by the First Amendment.
On Nov. 13, the Newseum will open its “Inside Today’s FBI” exhibit, featuring firsthand accounts concerning the coverage of critical moments for journalists and law enforcement, among those whose stories will be shared will be several from Kelli Arena, Sam Houston State University’s Dan Rather-endowed professor and founding executive director of the Global Center for Journalism and Democracy.
Arena, a CNN correspondent for 25 years, covered the justice beat in Washington, D.C., for a decade. Her experiences offer the exhibit a unique perspective on the relationship between journalists and law enforcement, a particularly timely topic.
“We’ve seen a lot of friction around the nation concerning media and law enforcement, and that’s a conversation that is critical to have and maintain,” Arena said. “We need to pay attention to the past so we can learn from those mistakes and continue to grow from those challenges. Law enforcement and journalists need to keep that open dialogue because ultimately we both serve the public, and to do so effectively, we have to be communicating with each other.”
Documentary producer Frank Bond chose to include Arena in particular because of the manner in which she was able to cover sensitive topics with accuracy, as well as navigate the journalistic process amidst the uprising of digital media.
“A large part of this exhibit is focused on how social and digital media affects journalism,” Bond said. “As an experienced journalist, Arena provided the public with solid and accurate reporting. She also maintained a positive working relationship with sources in law enforcement. Everything about news gathering has changed with the web, and as a result, there has been an evolution for both journalists and law enforcement agencies about the way information is managed.”
Arena’s coverage of certain events that tested the relationship between media and law enforcement will be included in the exhibit, as well as an interview with Arena that provides Newseum visitors with her keen insights.
While social media outlets have impacted news-gathering practices, they had deep implications for law enforcement agencies. The FBI, in particular, has faced several challenges as they have adjusted to digital media while undergoing a dramatic shift in their mission, according to Arena.
“After 9/11, the FBI went from being a bureau that reacted to situations when they happened to preventing acts of terrorism as they were being planned,” Arena said. “As a result, their needs for journalistic coverage completely changed.”
That shift in focus was dramatic for the FBI and journalists, as well as for the public.
“The nation was still reeling from the attacks that they saw,” Arena said. “A lot of information was classified that journalists didn’t think should be and there were concerns as to whether constitutional rights were being upheld as certain investigations moved forward.”
Those conditions created an especially tense situation between journalists and law enforcement as the public grew ever more present on social media.
“Social media is becoming a bigger part of the journalistic scene,” Arena said. “This is a difficult relationship to navigate because so many people are contributing in that space with varying degrees of professionalism. For law enforcement, it can be very important to keep certain information under wraps, and for good reason. A leak can jeopardize an ongoing investigation and really compromise safety.”
However, that necessity for control over information can create problems in the social media sphere.
“It’s difficult to prevent people from jumping to conclusions about certain things,” Arena said. “That can lead to inaccurate information that circulates extremely quickly. When that happens, it’s enormously challenging to bring attention to the information that you, as a journalist, are presenting, even when that information is credible, true and has been thoroughly vetted.”
In order to combat that phenomenon, law enforcement agencies are beginning to contribute more to social media themselves.
“Instant access to any and all information is something the public has become conditioned to expect,” Arena said. “The public wants to hear from every entity available and they want their information immediately.”
As the public becomes more involved in the creation of material in the news cycle, the Newseum’s mission to provide a forum for the discussion of news and the freedoms of the First Amendment is more important than ever before.
“Journalists have to be willing to work with the public just as much as they do with law enforcement to release accurate information,” Arena said.
“Inaccuracy doesn’t serve anyone. It’s especially important for law enforcement and journalists to keep that open dialogue because ultimately we both serve the public. Everybody wins when there is trust, and to maintain that trust law enforcement, journalists and the public must continue an open dialogue.”
The exhibit will run through Jan. 21, 2018.