Monday, November 24, 2008

Just the Facts. Just the Facts

Covering Cops

“Homicide investigations are nowhere near as glamorous as depicted on a sterile television or movie screen,” said Austin Police detective David Fugitt in today’s Austin American-Statesman. I covered crime for a lot of years, and I couldn’t agree more. I covered so much crime that I avoid the CSI shows nowadays. I’ve seen enough of the real thing.

While looking for something else this morning, I found instead a newsletter entitled “The Citizen Bulletin”, published by the Austin Citizen Police Academy Alumni Association in the winter of 1989. What interests me is that the issues then and now are much the same. For example, there is a story “To Pursue or Not to Pursue”. I was covering crime for KVUE TV at the time, and they asked me to write a piece about the “Police Beat”. After nearly 20 years, it still holds up, although I’m editing it some for space:

“It takes a certain type of reporter to cover the police beat. For
some reason, most reporters choose to cover city hall, the legislature, even
general assignments, rather than pursuing the police beat. But for the
reporters who choose police and law enforcement, there is no better beat.

“There is always something going on,” said Lisa Koseoglu, who has
covered police for two years at KTBC. “There are so many
divisions—homicide, theft, narcotics. You can always find a story.”

And the stories are always about people. I have covered the
police beat for most of my 18 years in Austin. [Remember, this was written
in 1989.] If you cover some governmental body, you’re talking about stuffy
plans and programs, budgets and bureaucracy. But if you stumble on a story at the police department or any other law enforcement agency, it’s a report about people. It may be about bad people or bad things that have happened to good people, but because of the constant human element, the audience is interested in what you report.

But sometimes those stories can get to you. I recall several
events that got under my skin and trouble me—like the unsolved murder of Lauren McCarty in 1984—yet I had to report them.

According to John Harris, reporter for the American-Statesman,
“The ones where children were victims, or where involved in some tragic way, have bugged me at times, because I’ve got two small kids of my own. Harris has covered the police beat since mid-1987. He added, “A few times I’ve wondered how I might react if the victims had been my kids, especially when they’re things that could have happened to anybody.”
Koseoglu remembers them too. She said that “cases where a child is involved or (the victim is) someone to whom you can relate” bother her. But, does it affect the way she writes the story? “No, I don’t think so,” she said.

It affects me to an extent in that sometimes I am so outraged or
maddened by events that I think it shows up as a certain amount of passion in the way that I prepare the story. Frankly, I hope that I never lose those
feelings. I don’t want death and pain to become commonplace.

But personal feelings cannot color the truth. There are times when I cover a story where I have formed a strong personal opinion. I find that I work even harder on that story to present a fair and balanced report so no one could ever suspect my own convictions. I’m not writing a column, I’m writing news.

Some of the toughest stories to write have to do with police officers
who get into trouble. These kinds of stories don’t make you a popular
person around the police department; the important thing is to be fair.

“Police may think we’re down here for the fun of it,” Koseoglu said. “But it’s our job. We have to write the story.”

By the same token, Koseoglu believes that many people misunderstand the police and their priorities. “There is a common perception that the police are out to ‘get’ people,” she said. “They see officers on Mopac holding up a radar and think, ‘Don’t they have anything better to do?’ But it’s their jobs, too.”

Many times it is city politics that change police priorities, and these
changes can affect morale in the police department and their support in the
community. I’ve seen it many times over the years. Someone in city
hall gets concerned about speeding on Mopac, running red lights, or
prostitution. There will be a crackdown to solve the problem of the
day. After a few months of publicity generated by police and city hall
reporters, public opinion may change. All the while the media is being
wooed and used by sources on all sides. That’s when I become

Since this column was written there have been changes upon changes in the public information procedures at the Austin Police Department. When I first started covering cops in the early 1970s, I would go to the press office and sort through the crime calls and blue forms (arrest sheets) from overnight. Cops would come and go, carrying on conversation with the reporters. Nowadays, in the 21st Century, the flow of information is on one hand, open, and on the other hand, very controlled by the public information office. The “blue forms” are gone, and although I asked many times, the office wouldn’t let reporters see the “serious incident log” from overnight. It is difficult for police reporters not to go with the flow and wait for the next news release, page, or photo op planned by the public information office. The good crime reporters still look beyond the obvious for their stories. The PIOs sometimes don’t like it, probably because the chief may not like it. But, the PIOs are caught in the middle too. Sometimes the public information office is not a fun work place.
Back to the article:

There is one thing for sure: There will always be a demand for police
news. It was the staple of the earliest newspapers and an integral facet
of “breaking” broadcast news. It is the constant change that makes it an
enjoyable beat [except for the occasional death threats].

There is always a story, and that story is always about people.

© Jim McNabb

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