Reporting on (and around) the police

By DIMITRIOS KALANTZIS      JUNE 2, 2015

CHICAGO – Crime reporting, like any other beat, has fundamentals.

You work your sources, every week, not just for breaking news stories, but for trend stories that tell a truth that often escapes the blotter.

“It’s time, investment of time,” said Robert Salonga, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. “And you have to prove over time that you’ll abide by your word.”

Salonga was one of 20 working journalists from across the country that spent 20 hours over two days in Chicago meeting with a slew of panelists during a McCormick Specialized Reporting Institute put on by Community Media Workshop to discuss race, police and community reporting.

The panelists were insightful. But the journalists, who represented all types of media and came from a variety of organizations, offered up some of the best practices to cover the crime beat.

Phil Jankowski, a reporter with the Austin American-Statesman, has ridden on patrol with police officers four times — a staple for the crime reporter. But those opportunities, tagging along with a police officer for hours, aren’t just about building rapport. It gives reporters a chance to see what police see.

Take for example the SXSW festival this past year.

Jankowski followed an officer through the ever-expanding festival, where at one point, a drunken reveler who had been 86’d from a bar refused police orders. What began as an attempt to diffuse a situation eventually became physical and the police had to take the man down.

“If I had only seen that part, I would say it looked violent,” Jankowski said.

Angela Caputo, a veteran Chicago reporter who now works for the Chicago Tribune, told the group that police reporting often takes a creative approach to analyzing public documents.

“How can I do this story without the police giving me the information?” That led her to scraping PDFs of data that is released by a variety of agencies on the local, state and federal levels.

Cheryl Thompson, a reporter with the Washington Post who has written stories about gun violence across the country, said she relies on shoe-leather reporting.

Working sources can mean getting documents that are often shielded from state open records laws. But when it comes to violence, she said, “Families can be really helpful when you’re doing investigations into deaths.”

Gina Barton, a reporter with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and another panelist during the workshop, uses Wisconsin’s open records law, to review documents on police procedure, policies and training. Unions, she added, can offer another layer of insight.

But ultimately, reporters shouldn’t stop at the official press release, the bill of indictment, the original police report or the police spokesman.

As Carla Murphy, a reporter for Colorlines.com in New York, noted: “What’s missing so much is a diversity of police opinion. You’re not really hearing from the rank and file.”

Kalantzis is managing editor of The Daily Journal in Kankakee. He attended the McCormick Foundation SRI and was given a stipend to cover the event.