When the Gabber started running crime reports years ago, we ran an almost-verbatim reprint of the police reports of crime. Over the years, we changed the format somewhat, even dropping the report completely for a while. Some readers accused us of trying to “cover up” crime. The truth is, we’ve always been looking for the best way to report on crime in our community where, most weeks, the bulk of criminal activity is shoplifting and car break-ins.
Recently, we began rewriting the crime reports from the Gulfport Police Department with a bit more humor. The reports we get from the police are usually the bare minimum of detail and, without knowing the full story, these snippets offered us only meme fodder.
While a handful of stories describe criminal silliness, however, for the most part, we were poking at the least fortunate of us. Take, for example, the woman recently arrested for shoplifting who said it was because she was trying to save money to get her children medicine. Or the person who shoplifted dish soap.
When life has brought you to that point, for whatever reason, if a newspaper makes fun of you, it’s called punching down.
We did that, and I am sorry.
I’ve been adamant that we don’t print the names of those accused of sex crimes in our paper – even if other outlets do – because everyone is innocent until proven guilty and a person cannot come back from that accusation. However, I wasn’t thinking as much about the harm we did to the unnamed accused and how our crime blotter could shape people’s ideas about crime in our communities.
The Gabber newsroom adheres to the code of ethics agreed upon by members of and set forth by the Society of Professional Journalists, and one of the things that code says is that it’s our job to give voice to the voiceless. It also says we should “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do it.”
If we continue to run the crime reports with no follow up, we give no voice to anyone other than the police. I like our police, and I respect our police, but they’re human. Just like journalists, every police officer has biases. Just like good journalists, good police officers try daily to set those biases aside. Sometimes we could both do a better job.
Crime reports and the way a newspaper handles them can make people feel unduly unsafe, foster racism (we remove a lot of references to color, and other potentially racist signatures), and they rarely tell the entire story. The police catch someone breaking the law, and that person has prior convictions, so they decide to arrest. OK, what were the convictions? Were they for possession of marijuana? Were they for shoplifting? Driving with a suspended license? How many crimes are born of poverty?
Starting this week, the Gabber will no longer run a crime blotter. That’s not to say we won’t cover crime; it’s to say that we’ll cover it differently. If you want the crime index, we’ll have a link on our website, so you can see what crimes happen in your area – but know that index doesn’t give the full picture. We’ll still report on crime, but we’re in discussions with the police about how we can do a better job of getting more details to give readers a bigger picture. We’re also looking at work done at The Marshall Project, so named for Thurgood Marshall, a giant in the civil rights movement, for guidance.
A few weeks back, I admitted that change was hard and also told you we want The Gabber to be a paper for everyone in South Pinellas. Since then, we’ve had internal discussions about how we can better serve all our communities and how to do more good than harm. This is one of those changes; our crime coverage can be better, and it will be.
You can share your thoughts with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.