Crime coverage now requires constantly 'feeding the beast'
Covering breaking news is more demanding than ever, driven by unrelenting micro-deadlines and financial pressures that have whittled staffs and forced a spot news makeover, crime reporters and editors say.
“The news cycle is now 24/7 due to the Internet,” said Amanda Lamb, a 20-year crime-reporting veteran at WRAL-TV in Raleigh, N.C. “We no longer work for the next show. We work for the next five minutes on the Web.”
John Strang, an editor with WFLA-TV in Tampa, called it “feeding the beast.”
“In the past 10 years, I think the appetite for breaking crime news has acquired more urgency -- nothing changes a static news site like a ‘new’ crime story,” said Andrew Smith, a court reporter with Newsday. “At the same time, though, I think the tolerance for thinly sourced, incompletely reported stories has increased in order to accommodate that appetite for stories.”
Journalists give a sobering assessment of the new realities of covering spot news, in an era when the bings of social media status updates have replaced the old newsroom din of cop radio chatter and clacking wire machines.
At many shops, journalists post blogs and social media updates without an editor’s read-over. As a result, typos, factual errors and single-source stories are proliferating.
“That stuff just kills your credibility,” said Graham Rayman, a Village Voice investigative reporter since 2007 who spent 11 years covering crime and other beats for Newsday.
And on breaking stories of national interest -- like the Dec. 14 school massacre in Newton, Conn. -- errors get repeated in the media echo chamber.
“The challenge now is balancing the competitive pressure and the need to get information out,” said Caroline Lowe of KSBY-TV in Santa Barbara County, Calif., who spent 35 years covering crime for WCCO in Minneapolis. “I look at the reporting that came out of Newtown, Conn., and I wonder how could so much information be so wrong.”
“There was always pressure to be there and be first,” said Mark Becker, who has spent 28 years as a crime and courts reporter for WSOC-TV in Charlotte, N.C. “And now, if it’s possible, that pressure has increased."
"We don’t hold information anymore. The station bought us iPhones about a year ago. As soon as you get on the scene of a story, you snap a couple of pictures and you get it on the website. You’re streaming video on the Web if you’re not going to be live on TV. This constant flow of information starts the moment you get somewhere. You may sometimes hold back if you don’t see another crew somewhere, but most of the time that ends up blowing up in your face, so most of the time we instantly put it on air or online.”
“The danger,” Becker added, “is that sometimes you go on with something that’s not quite cooked yet -- it’s information (from authorities) that may not be exactly correct ... It’s hard to hold your breath and say you’re going to wait.”
That’s especially true today since every citizen with a camera phone at a breaking-news event is potential competition.
Many print journalists are under the same pressures to file words and video quickly, for their own websites or that of broadcast partners.
“As an assigning editor, my duties are substantially different from those that somebody with a similar job would have faced even five years ago,” said Andy Rosen, crime and courts editor for The Baltimore Sun.
“Broadly, I’m responsible for the development of print stories and the translation of those stories for the Web. How can we make sure that as many people as possible will have an opportunity to see a story? How can we get it online as fast as possible? And what’s a fresh perspective we can bring in the morning for people who have been tracking a story throughout the day?”
Searching for context in crime coverage
Some complain that the rush to be the first “Go Team” on the scene to provide bare details now trumps the motivation for fuller stories later. As a result, news consumers in some cities are fed anecdotal dots about breaking crime news, with fewer connective lines.
In a countervailing trend, many news outlets are rolling on fewer crime stories.
“Local news covers less crime [on the air], for sure, than they did 10 years ago,” said Strang of Tampa. “As the pie got divided with more competition from social media and other news outlets, local news stations have tried to find ways to be more unique, to do stories that are different than what other stations have.”
“I think there will always be interest in crime, but the pressure is going to be to give it context,” said Lowe of Santa Barbara.
Becker said, “We ask, why is it relevant, what does it mean, how is that important to people in the community there or on the other side of town?”
“We're trying to get away from spot coverage of every crime,” said Hal Davis, public safety team leader of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
“We tweet the lesser stuff, focus on more impressive crime stories, trends and enterprise and using digital resources ... We recognize that we can't cover the waterfront as well as we used to. The newsroom still produces a full report each day, but perhaps with a smaller story count. Many staffers are frustrated. Some see this as the new normal.”
“You’re going to see a functional separation between spot news and narrative writing,” said Baltimore’s Rosen. “So there’s a place for a just-the-facts approach on spot news, even when there’s also a place for compelling storytelling. I’m not sure that we’ve arrived as an industry at the proper format for a breaking news story for the Web that allows people to see what’s new, while easily helping them find the more comprehensive coverage that we can provide.”
“Like the business as a whole, I think the future of criminal justice reporting is in flux,” said Newsday’s Smith. “I think news sites have yet to figure out the optimal balance between providing a continual diet of breaking news and stories that explain the news or dig a little deeper. I don't think it's clear how that's going to work -- and that's true for everyone, not just criminal justice reporters.”
Becker predicted that micro-deadlines to feed the Web beast are here to stay.
“Any time technology goes up against tradition, technology wins,” he said. “I’m sure Gutenberg got a lot of crap for his invention. He probably heard, ‘It won’t be the same if Brother Horatio isn’t doing the copying by hand anymore.’”
David Krajicek (firstname.lastname@example.org, @djkrajicek) has been covering crime as a journalist and author for 35 years. Debora Wenger (email@example.com, @dhwenger) teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi and is co-author of “Advancing the Story: Broadcast Journalism in a Multimedia World.”