As protesters rioted in Seattle on May 1, Seattlepi.com reporter Casey McNerthney noticed that tweets from the police were hitting his phone almost at the same time officers in front of him were issuing orders to him and other reporters.
“The cops on the street would say, ‘You need to leave the area,’ and a few seconds later there would be a tweet from the police department saying the same thing,” McNerthney said.
There’s a growing trend among departments to use social media proactively, contacting journalists before they call the cops — though some reporters have worried about cops building their own newsrooms. Online efforts by the police were front and center in news coverage of recent events in Cleveland, Boston and Seattle, making this a good time to look at how such initiatives have affected newsgathering.
Cleveland Scene reporter Eric Sandy had been up all night before he headed down to the house where three women had been discovered after being missing for a decade.
“I knew it was going to be a crazy morning,” Sandy said in a phone interview. So did Cleveland’s Department of Public Safety (DPS), which used its Twitter account to ask journalists who wanted credentials for a press conference to send it a direct message. To be able to “RSVP on the fly,” Sandy said, “just sort of took that worry out of my mind.”
Erica Creech is the voice behind the DPS Twitter account, which she launched last year in the run-up to the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. Creech, the department’s communication planner, said by phone that she was inspired to turn to Twitter by a workshop she attended with representatives from other police departments, including ones in Seattle and Boston.
“That really got a bee in my bonnet,” she said. “And as soon as I had the opportunity and buy-in from my superiors, I got it going.”
On the morning of the press conference, Creech said, “we were trying to create a distribution list from all these media that were calling, and there just wasn’t time to create it. We said, ‘Well, let’s not waste any more time — let’s get something out and see if it works.’ ”
She got set up for the press conference, then began going through the DPS Twitter account to follow journalists and outlets who wanted to send her a direct message asking for credentials. (Twitter requires both parties follow each other so they can message privately.)
Creech took requests in more-traditional ways as well, but noted that “if I can knock out the local media…that’s one less phone call or one less email that I have to worry about.”
Sandy cited the department’s updates on its blog about a series of bomb threats last month as an example of what the DPS does to make “our job as far as the press significantly easier.” Creech’s online outreach efforts, however, go beyond traditional public-information functions.
During an outdoor concert by the Cleveland Orchestra last summer, she said, “I was on Twitter and I saw that there were several people complaining about the restrooms.” She looked at the feeds from department cameras in the area and noticed some portable toilets had short lines.
“I tweeted directly at these people,” Creech recalled, and “next thing you know, you see this group of people marching over to the other Porta Potties.”
Last month, the Boston Police Department’s Twitter account served as both news source and press ombudsman:
Despite reports to the contrary there has not been an arrest in the Marathon attack.
— Boston Police Dept. (@Boston_Police) April 17, 2013
#MediaAlert: WARNING: Do Not Compromise Officer Safety by Broadcasting Tactical Positions of Homes Being Searched.
— Boston Police Dept. (@Boston_Police) April 19, 2013
CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won. Suspect in custody.
— Boston Police Dept. (@Boston_Police) April 20, 2013
BPD spokesperson Cheryl Fiandaca told Huffington Post reporter Katherine Bindley that her stewardship of the force’s Twitter account “was mostly instinct on my part being a reporter for so many years than it was any kind of skill.”
Hence the tweets reminding press organizations that that the police were watching and reading — and sometimes critiquing coverage that included missteps from major news organizations and a vigilante initiative by Reddit users. The Boston police went beyond broadcasting to also listening, which Mashable’s Yael Bar-Tur called “a step that is more remarkable than it sounds for many large organizations, let alone law enforcement.”
Seattle’s Police Department “really flexed their twitter muscle” on May Day, McNerthney said. He recalled that while covering the protests, he was following a group of nonviolent protesters, and “almost as they turned you would get a tweet. I think the most impressive thing was how quickly the warnings the bike cops on the ground gave were retweeted by the department.”
Seattle Police Department Sgt. Sean Whitcomb runs the force’s six-person public-affairs shop. Reached by phone, he said Seattle began its social-media efforts in 2008, the same year it launched the SPD Blotter blog, which he called “our little foray into brand journalism.”
One big part of that brand: the witty Blotter posts by former cop reporter Jonah Spangenthal-Lee. He shares plenty of serious information, but he’s earned an audience beyond neighborhood obsessives with posts like “Man Arrested For Anti-Cake Crusade,” a tale drawn from a report of a partially successful assault on a supermarket baked-goods display.
“He and I and the other reporters would kind of battle to see who could have the story first,” McNerthney said of their time as fellow-reporters. Now, he said, on the “rare cases” he beats Spangenthal-Lee to a police story, “you can tell it frustrates him.”
“I liked to think that, before, they couldn’t compete with me anyway,” Spangenthal-Lee said.
Jokes aside, neither Spagenthal-Lee nor Whitcomb consider themselves a rival newsroom.
“I like to be able to get our own info out as quickly as possible,” Spangenthal-Lee said. “It’s not necessarily in relation to what anybody else is doing.”
You could even argue the Seattle Police Department is its own biggest competitor when it comes to information. In addition to the Blotter and the department’s Twitter account — which is lively reading even when police and protesters aren’t battling for control of downtown — the department’s “Tweets by Beat” initiative uses Twitter to compile dispatchers’ reports for each of Seattle’s 51 police beats.
And the city’s online Police Reports Map, launched in 2010, lets you click on an icon and download reports for almost any crime you fancy learning more about, from bike thefts to drug busts.
Not all reports are included; Whitcomb said making reports of sexual assaults accessible would likely “have a chilling effect on crime reporting.” McNerthney said the information gushing out of police servers has been an “interesting lightbulb” for his neighbors, with reactions ranging from surprise at how many details public records carry to requests that he look into certain incidents.
The shortcut to police reports is handy, McNerthney said, but the tradeoff is that most of the cases are “boring” and electronic versions are redacted too well: “Five years ago they had reports that were hand-redacted, and you could read through those redactions really easily.”
As a result, McNerthney said, reporters in Seattle no longer have “that human advantage where you can get a police spokesperson on the line and have that story out before other people, even if it’s just 10 minutes.”
Press releases “are few and far between” in the six-person public affairs shop, Whitcomb said: “It’s not how we do business any more. We put out the information, and with that information is an invitation for the news media — which has changed drastically over the past five years itself — to do further coverage.”
I asked Whitcomb if he’d had pushback from reporters about the online reporting.
“Only the ones too lazy to use it,” he said. “Good print reporters…will mine these reports for story ideas and the best reporters will take direct quotes from the officer writing reports. When they go to the source, that story’s got much more credibility.”
Whitcomb says he is “the last guy” most reporters want to talk to. McNerthney also said Whitcomb and Spangenthal-Lee’s efforts made the department seem more human. And, indeed, I hadn’t perused the SPD’s Twitter feed long before I found a conversation between Whitcomb and someone who wanted to become an officer but was worried about the drug test.
— Seattle Police Dept. (@SeattlePD) May 7, 2013
“To my wife’s dissatisfaction that one happened at home,” he said.
Whitcomb said that during events that attract national media attention, “our primary audience has to be local. It’s great doing that phoner for CNN, but you can’t do that until you’ve taken care of the local reporters.”
“That’s the community,” he added.