Tweeting the crime beat: crime reporting in the digital age

Tweeting the crime beat: crime reporting in the digital age

In last week’s post I shifted the focus of the digital literacy series to an unavoidable topic: the impact it’s having on traditional media. While there doesn’t seem to be a concrete answer to this oft-debated subject, there’s no ignoring that what’s happening online is forever changing how we see “media”.

So what does this mean for the people who work in traditional media?

How have their jobs evolved to meet this new reality?

To get the answers to these questions, I spoke to Jason van Rassel (@JasonvanRassel), justice/social issues reporter for the Calgary Herald and panelist for Alberta Primetime.

How has digital media changed your job?

Digital media has greatly impacted my job, most notably in deadline expectations. Covering crime and justice, where there’s a lot of breaking news — a murder happens downtown, an important trial — the expectation for quite some time is that we file stories in progress. The days of sitting down to write in the afternoon to meet an 8 or 9 p.m. deadline are long gone.

Digital news vs traditional news

I can only speak for the Herald in this next regard, but there’s also an expectation that in addition to being quick, you are also delivering a well-formed story for the reader. While there’s an appreciation some details may be slower in coming, we’re expected to speak with sources and quote them. I make this distinction because some media outlets are still in the habit of simply rewriting a news release to accomplish being “first” with something. From a personal standpoint, I believe that’s fine with Twitter, but I believe our audience expects more when they visit our site and click on a link — they expect a story. I base my opinion somewhat on the comments we receive underneath stories: when an article is sketchy or short on detail, people tell us about it.

The temptation for many in the media is to be pessimistic and say having several daily deadlines is “more work.” I think it’s a “glass half full” proposition: my hands used to be tied when I’d get leaked information in the middle of the day, knowing the chances were good someone else would find out, or an official announcement would be imminent. Now, I can be just as capable as broadcasters in the “immediacy” department and break news, plus I still have the contextual advantage newspapers enjoy over others.

You worked as a crime reporter for the Calgary Herald for 11 years – how would you say digital media has changed crime reporting specifically?

I was getting frustrated by the volume and frequency of unconfirmed — and ultimately incorrect — info put out via Twitter by other media outlets. Their rush to be “first” would impact me, as twitchy editors in our shop wondered why we weren’t reporting the same thing. I’d end up having to stop what I was doing, call a source (or call them again, most likely) and reconfirm that we were right and the other guys were wrong. Just a few minutes, maybe, but when you add up all those little dribs and drabs it can be discouraging to think of the time spent debunking others’ erroneous news instead of doing your own thing. If there’s a downside of Twitter, I think it will only accelerate the demand to be first — often at the expense of accuracy.

In a previous post for this series we discussed the unique challenges digital media is placing on the legal system from a corporate standpoint. How has the justice system responded to the prevalence of social media and how has this impacted crime reporting?

I think our legal system, so far, is keeping up with digital media in some ways. Reporters are allowed to have smartphones in the courtroom and Tweet from inside the proceedings. The justice system has given us the ability: I think the bigger question is what we do with it. I think media outlets have to make an effort to gauge what the audience wants: how many people really want or need live, blow-by-blow tweets of particularly grisly testimony at a criminal trial? I’d argue the appetite for that stuff is vastly overestimated and news organizations are going to spend some time sorting out what people want.

One aspect where the legal system continues to lag is access to court records. Alberta’s court system is still firmly rooted in the 20th century, with most court documents only available by visiting the courthouse and lining up at the clerk’s counter. This is a disservice not just to journalists, but the public at large as well.

The rise of digital media, and the prevalence of blogging sites, has meant the general public has an unprecedented freedom to “self-publish”. What are your thoughts on “citizen journalism”?

I believe there will always be a need for professional journalists. Just because the rise of digital has given people the tools to publish and be heard, doesn’t mean they have the qualifications. Journalism is often underestimated as a profession — and sometimes not recognized as a profession at all — because many people (wrongly) reduce it to writing and publishing:  “I can write, I have a computer, I can do what they do!”

But writing is only one part of journalism: you need to know a subject well enough to ask the right questions, you need to have the people skills to convince someone to talk to you and to be forthcoming when they do, you need to know where to find information and your right to access it, you need to know the media’s criminal and civil obligations so you don’t violate them by publishing information you shouldn’t.

Knowing all these things require specialized training and experience. “Citizen journalism” has a role in our society and the democratization of voices and information is a positive development — but citizen journalism isn’t a substitute for professional journalism. You never hear about “citizen dentistry” or “citizen engineering” because society by and large accepts that those are professions that require expertise. So does journalism.

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