Sunday, December 2, 2007

Are reporters safe covering crime?

Law enforcement reporter Beth Burger joined our newsroom exactly two months ago today. She “escaped” Wisconsin just before the snow set in –- and today’s 1A weather story should cement that decision. Beth was an education reporter at her last newspaper, so this is a significant change of beats for her.

When I asked Beth to jot down her observations yesterday for this blog, I was planning to tell you about the trepidations of an editor sending their reporters to a crime scene. I was planning on pointing to a story that Beth had planned for today’s editions on a community patrol, where residents are teaming with sheriff’s deputies to help a neighborhood living in fear.

Instead, Beth was sent Saturday night to Holmes Beach, where a body was found near a homeless encampment. So I’m sitting here on a Sunday morning, counting how many deadly scenes Beth has covered in just a few weeks. At least two murders, two drownings, two decomposing bodies –- all here in Manatee County. Not Miami. Not New York. Here. Our home.

Beth is a young, fearless and determined reporter. But is she safe?

That concern should grip every editor as they send their reporters into potential danger. We don’t feel uncertainty about covering breaking news, but we always need to remind reporters and photographers to be careful. We try to pair reporter and photographer, so they're not alone. We try to know exactly where they're going to be. It’s a little easier today in the world of cell phones and instant communication. Just 10 years ago, I’d send a reporter to a hostage situation or a homicide, and we might not hear back for hours -– until they found a pay phone, or an officer allowed them use of a phone or radio.

Beth’s experience last week at her second murder scene in just days is worth sharing, if only because it underlines the importance for us to be covering these stories –- not for bleeding headlines, but to keep exposure on challenges and crises that need addressing in our community.

Beth was covering the vigil for Machelle Brinson, a woman killed last month in front of her daughters in her home. Here’s what she found:

The street was lined with cars. I parked one block away. There were hundreds of people, some wearing T-shirts. There was a loud speaker system. Religious and community members spoke of the need for revival. One man spoke about reaching out to young black men so violence stops. After talking with family members I found my car and left. I could still hear singing on the speaker system as I made it to my car…

Minutes later, the night metro editor called her with reports of another shooting. It was on the same street, just outside Palmetto.

I arrived on the scene greeted by several squad cars with blue flashing lights. Those same memorial T-shirts I had seen less than an hour ago greeted me again. The woman, Velma Mooney, who lived in the home where the shooting took place was in shock. She was trying to figure out what was going on.

Was our reporter safe? As terrible as it sounds, Beth felt so.

Police were there. I already knew the people in that neighborhood from covering the vigil. Even if I didn't talk to them they had at least seen me there. I felt comfortable enough. There's something about doing your job that doesn't let you think about those things too much.

I often send my reporter stories home. One of my journalism teachers at Georgia wrote back: "There is something about walking in, doing your job, being a reporter, that forms a semi-solid shield about you. Won't stop a bullet, but it often slows a knife or blunts the blow from a baseball bat."

The most terrifying moment for me is going into these neighborhoods and talking to someone for the first time. At times, I've been cussed at and yelled at trying to get stories. They think I'm not a part of their world. They think I'm there to take a piece of them away. I'm there for their story. There has to be a moment in which we all realize we're people. Then it doesn't matter if I'm covering a shooting at a crime scene.

Wise words? I think so. And she’s just getting started. I hope she never loses the awe of what she can accomplish as a journalist. And I hope she never loses that opportunity.



umbrella said...

Good luck to Beth, and thanks to the editors of the BH for reporting on the crime that grips our area.

One of the many reasons crime continues to fester, is that both repeat criminals and the failing judicial system are allowed to operate anonymously - outside of public scrutiny. The press affords special "privacy rights" to convicted felons and to the people in the legal system that we pay to protect us.

The press needs to put names and faces on crime. Criminals with multiple felony convictions roam our streets - virtually anonymously - and continue to commit new crimes. We should know who these people are, what they have done in the past, what they're doing now, and where they live.

Liberal judges can only be soft on repeat criminals if they believe they can operate anonymously and in the absence of public scrutiny. When judges give light sentences to repeat offenders - who then turn around and commit new crimes (when they should have been off the street), I would like to see the BH print the names and pictures of the responsible judges. When patterns of failure emerge - associated with certain judges, the press can investigate further.

Thanks again for your reporting - and good crime coverage.

Annette said...

I remember being paired with veteran BH photographer Al Anderson at the scene of a night shooting while police canvassed the neighborhood looking for the suspect. We heard shots -- geez it seemed like it was so close -- and I jumped behind a fire truck to take cover, saying a little prayer and wondering if I chose the right profession. I stayed with it and will never regret it. Keep your wits about you, trust your gut, and be smart enough to call your editor for advice or "backup" if you think a situation warrants it. It doesn't make you weak -- it makes your smart. Good luck!

Annette said...

Ooops - That should be "it makes you smart" (see what happens when you don't self-edit?). :)

Good luck!