Wick Communications

Covering the cops

In Crime on 29 Jun 2012 at 8:05 am

Charles Russo / Half Moon Bay Review

Kudos to journalist Jonathan Stray for initiating a very interesting discussion of modern crime-reporting. Or, should I say, ancient crime-reporting techniques still pervasive in a modern world.

Stray and many others note that regurgitating the police blotter is both an ineffectual way to report on crime in your community and a waste of time. Police departments are increasingly putting their blotter online, where anyone can see it – without the newspaper intermediary. At least as important, traditional “this just happened” reporting misses the larger point of safety in our communities. If we report the heck out of our community’s sole murder this year, are we creating an out-sized sense of the dangers of society? If we report on DUI arrests, are we bothering to follow up with how those cases are ultimately adjudicated? If we report on one robbery, are we missing the story of the societal pressures that induce crime?

The issue of crime-reporting is fascinating to me. Many newspapers are attempting to map crimes in various ways and Stray links to them in his terrific blog post.

Here’s my takeaway: In some ways, cops are more transparent than they were even, say, two years ago. Many are posting real-time information online. That does not mean they are telling the stories behind those numbers. And it certainly doesn’t mean they can be trusted to be their own watchdog. I think we should stop thinking of ourselves as a conduit between the cops and readers and start thinking of ways to package that information in ways that add depth and sophistication.

Some ideas:

Cover people not incidents: Police may be great at responding to crime. They are less great at responding to the result. What’s it like to be a victim of a crime? What is the impact on the family of the bad guys? (I recently learned the local Sheriff’s Office here is working to evict families of gang members from public housing.) …

Go to the scene: I disagree with some of the data-is-king folks. I think we add value when we provide first-hand accounts of crime scenes. I get that there are a million tweets about George Zimmerman. But I think people will read compelling, accurate accounts from the crime scene and the forces that brought together Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.

Expand sources: Too many of us rely almost solely on the police chief or public affairs officer for comment. Whenever possible, talk to the cop on the scene. Take a district attorney’s investigator to lunch. See if the court clerk can’t be charmed. Human sources add a human touch to crime stories.

Look for trends: That is kind of a no-brainer. Stray notes that violent crime is down nationwide. I just heard a report that that is true in my community. Well, does that jibe with the sense that people have on the street? I bet many people would be surprised by the statistics.

Follow up: What happens after the incident, after the arrest? Tell readers something beyond a data point on the map. Tell a story no one else is telling and you are bound to have listeners.


  1. This is something I’ve wanted to do, but I just don’t know where to start. We’ve got a DUI problem and looks like a rising drug problem here in oil boom country. We’ve talked with not only the chief and judge but also the DUI Task Force. Done stories on what can be done to curb the trend. I guess I should find someone who’s been affected by the situation…

    Very good topic, though. Thanks.

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