Wick Communications

Posts Tagged ‘crime’

Do you name the school?

In Ethics on 23 Feb 2017 at 4:40 pm


X High School students suspected of armed robbery.

That suggested headline gave me pause the other day. The story concerned the arrest of two 16-year-old boys who had been arrested for robbing a younger teenager of his watch and some other stuff. The suspects, who by California law were not named because of their age, were charged with armed robbery because the victim said he saw a knife and the handle of a firearm during the commission of the crime.

The writer handled all that stuff well, I thought. It was a legitimate news story. … I just couldn’t get past naming the suspects’ high school. Ultimately, I deleted reference to it, and I wanted to mention it here in case my reasoning is useful to you.

So why did I delete reference to the school? Why not give readers all the information you have? What’s wrong with specifying where these charmers take classes? Wouldn’t mentioning it help parents take precautions that could keep their families safe?

I don’t think so. There are three relevant points for me:

First, the incident did not take place on the high school campus. The affiliation was incidental to the crime. If they were plumbers, say, would we run a headline reading “Jake’s Plumbers employees arrested for armed robbery?” If they were prominent, you might be more specific. If they were the highly recruited star football players, perhaps, or if they were two assistant principals, say, I might feel differently. I don’t think juvenile students at a local high school meet that measure. … Read the rest of this entry »


‘High-keyed and ill-strung’

In Books on 23 Feb 2017 at 4:31 pm


I’ve been reading a lively story by a dead guy named Charles Willeford. That’s the book cover up there. As you can probably tell, Willeford and his publisher were not political correct.

Please bear with me while I attempt to make him relevant to you and your work today.

“Pick-Up” is about a suicidal drunk named Harry Jordan who attempts to strangle that lush up there and, as a result, finds himself being interviewed by a jailhouse psychiatrist. The good doctor asks Jordan about his sex life and Willeford’s character doesn’t care for that line of questioning. “I was as high-keyed and ill-strung as a Chinese musical instrument,” the protagonist thinks to himself.

That phrase literally stopped me. I mean I loved it. I dropped the book and scribbled it into a notebook. It struck me as incredibly evocative and I instantly knew exactly how that character felt. I was completely mesmerized by that image of the “ill-strung” Chinese instrument. I could actually hear that feeling.

The next day I thought it might be a little racist. Is it OK to compare your own dissonance to the sound of another culture’s music? The day after that, I concluded that the phrase was just right for that book at that time, but perhaps wouldn’t work in any other context. … Read the rest of this entry »

Tough decisions on deadline

In Ethics on 3 Feb 2017 at 12:19 pm
John Green / Half Moon Bay Review

John Green / Half Moon Bay Review

Recently, one of our editors called me and I could hear the concern in her voice. She was shaken after hearing from relatives of the victim of violence in her town. They didn’t like that the newspaper included unsavory aspects of the deceased’s past.

So the question today: What counts as newsworthy after someone has died?

The truth is there is no right answer. You could argue successfully that a crime victim’s past arrest is unrelated to what happened to the victim. You could argue that the arrest is public record, previously reported and adds context. The calculus likely changes depending on the deceased’s public profile.

I think finding the balance requires sophisticated reasoning, and I wanted to talk about it.

I told the editor that, in my opinion, including past felony convictions toward the bottom of the story is not only defensible, but preferable in this particular instance. The story involved a public act of violence and subsequent police chase that ended in another death. It was the talk of the town.

In addition, the previously reported arrests were also popping up in social media posts around the incident. The news was “out there.” … Read the rest of this entry »

The accused and the guilty

In Crime on 20 Oct 2016 at 3:06 pm
Clyde Champion Barrow

Clyde Champion Barrow

I’m not a big fan of police mugshots. I say that knowing full well that readers can’t get enough of them. There are entire websites filled with nothing but people caught at their absolute lowest moments — bloodshot eyes, hair in need of a comb, frowns that look permanent.

In fact, there are websites that scrape all those mugs, post them and then send the accused a friendly email, noting the accused can have that sad picture removed … for a price. It’s extortion and, amazingly, perfectly legal.

I want to make a plea on behalf of the accused. Please remember that just because the authorities send the local newspaper a mugshot does not mean the guy in the picture is guilty. If you are going to use it and run a man or woman’s name in 40-point type along with the accusation, I think you have an obligation to follow the case through adjudication.

And ask yourself this: What would you tell someone accused of a heinous crime in your newspaper after he is found not guilty? What will you say, after you have posted his name and photo online, where it will remain in some form for the rest of his life?

I take particular caution with photos of those accused of crimes that come with particular stigma. Take, for instance, child molestation. You can argue that parents have a right to know if there is a predator in their midst, and I guess that is so. But, as a parent, am I really going to commit that mug to memory so that when I see the guy three years from now I know to scurry my children in the other direction? (As an aside the Innocence Project of Texas reported a few years ago that it received 100 letters a week from people who said they were wrongly accused of sex crimes.) … Read the rest of this entry »

When the news follows you home

In Writing on 22 Sep 2016 at 4:42 pm


This I know: There will be a murder in the news this week. You’ll see news of it on TV. You may even report on it. You’ll see the detectives talking about it at a podium, a grieving mother interviewed in the street, B-roll from the scene, a neighbor of the alleged killer saying, “He was quiet and kept to himself.”

These terrible events can be mind-numbing because we just aren’t all that shocked any more. At least I’m not, sad to say. That is not true, however, if you are covering one of these crimes. In that case, the violence and injustice can get under your skin for a very long time.

The New York Times’ Jesse McKinley walks us through his experience covering one such murder in upstate New York. I found it fascinating just for the inside baseball of it all. How he learned of the crime from another reporter and the calculus they made in deciding to commit significant time to reporting one crime in an out-of-the-way place. (This one featured a child victim, racy allegations and a race angle: The victim was white; the accused is black.) The case goes to the jury this week.

Several news organizations have made laudable efforts to cover serious crime of late. The New York Times has written exhaustive reports on individual murders that might not have merited any coverage but for the Times’ effort to bring home the specter of such violence. Chicago news organizations have chronicled an epidemic there and I can remember The Oakland Tribune doing something similar. … Read the rest of this entry »

Clues to bigger stories

In Writing techniques on 30 Apr 2015 at 4:12 pm


The local constabulary sends me a daily list of arrests, traffic stops and other police activity. It’s maddeningly basic and I often have to call for more information. Sometimes it lists the names of those arrested. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Generally, I copy those names into a Google search. Why?

Exhibit A is Timothy Shawn Lybrand. As you can see in the image above, all I was offered was that this guy was a 52-year-old transient who was arrested on a warrant violation after a traffic stop. Pretty run of the mill, right?

Well, Google revealed that Lybrand was the captain of a shipwrecked fishing boat in August. An exhaustive Coast Guard search ended without a trace of the captain and many presumed he died off the coast of San Francisco. But the San Francisco district attorney didn’t buy that ending to the Lybrand story. Investigators noted that he was wanted for skipping court after drug charges and some were theorizing that Lybrand disappeared on purpose.

Review reporter Esther Hahn worked the story on Tuesday and we were alone with a fascinating tale of a guy who has been arrested by police across the Bay Area, sparked a furious ocean rescue effort and then turned up in our little burg. … Read the rest of this entry »

Protecting minors in your coverage

In Ethics on 11 Apr 2014 at 9:04 am


Under what circumstances would you identify underage sex crime perpetrators or victims? What if it were perfectly legal to do so? What if other media outlets had already done so? Would you grant anonymity to the mother of a victim? Where would you run such a story in your newspaper?

These aren’t hypothetical questions. They are real-world quandaries that Wick journalists face all the time. For instance, this week alone:

  • In Roanoke Rapids, a 16-year-old boy was charged in sex crimes against younger boys. By state law, those over the age of 16 are considered adults so authorities released the name of the accused. Managing Editor Matt Lindberg had to decide whether it was fair to print the name of a teenager accused of such heinous crimes.

These are not easy questions. We want to be consistent and make defensible decisions. But we also want to take extra consideration whenever juveniles are caught on either side of these questions. … Read the rest of this entry »

New crimes for old heroes

In Editing on 11 Jan 2013 at 9:33 am


Recently, in Half Moon Bay, we learned that a terrifically talented young man had gone astray in a particularly terrible way. What he did was news, but was it right to bring up his past heroics as well?

The story in brief is this: Josh Tatro was a high school water polo coach when he was arrested and charged with having sex with two underage girls. Both girls were apparently players for the team coached by the 26-year-old man. Tatro lives in our area and was a star swimmer and water polo player in his own right in his high school days.

Here’s the headline and lead of our story, as it first appeared online:

Local swimming star takes plea deal for sex crimes

Joshua Tatro, a former Half Moon Bay High School aquatics star, agreed to a plea deal on Friday morning to charges of sexual relations with two underage girls. By agreeing not to contest his charges, Tatro will face up to 44 months of prison and must register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

Well, what do you think?

On balance, I thought we overplayed his connection to the local high school (which is not where the crimes occurred or where he coached) and his past sports stardom. But I think it’s a tough call. … Read the rest of this entry »

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.) … Read the rest of this entry »

When do you name names?

In Ethics on 9 Feb 2012 at 4:30 pm

Photo: Mark Noack

Over the past week or so, we have had a developing story that began as a small beef on a National Park trail and became the biggest online story of the year in Half Moon Bay. There was a confrontation between a ranger and a guy whose original crime was walking his dog off-leash. One thing led to another, and the ranger zapped the offender with her Taser.

Believe it or not, a U.S. congresswoman has weighed in on the matter. Slow week in Washington, I guess. But I digress.

Our policy, generally, is not to name people who have been charged with misdemeanors. There are many reasons for that, perhaps the most logical being that we simply don’t follow up every time someone rolls through a stop sign or is accused of stealing a pack of gum. Consequently, it doesn’t seem fair to print the charges without also printing the resolution.

Sometimes, though, the story becomes bigger than the crime. In this instance, we didn’t name the offender until I had a chance to talk to him and get his side of the story. That chat became the basis for this blog post … and I haven’t talked to him since.

Then there was the question of whether to name the ranger involved. That was actually a thornier matter for me. We didn’t, at first. She hadn’t been charged with any infraction and her employer was standing behind her use of force. (There is more to the story: The dog-walker allegedly gave her a false name and eventually walked away from her after she told him to wait while she sorted it all out.) … Read the rest of this entry »