Newsrooms could strive for more complete ‘crime’ stories. Or not do them at all.

  • Corey Hutchins is a journalism instructor at Colorado College and a contributor to Columbia Journalism Review, The Washington Post, and other news outlets. This column is produced with support from the Colorado Media Project, and is distributed statewide via the Colorado News Collaborative.

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Fallout from a bungled arrest of a Hispanic man in Westminster earlier this summer offers an opportunity for news organizations to reconsider the ways they typically report incidents publicized by police. 

The background: In early June, Westminster police pushed out a statement to local reporters saying they’d arrested a man after an elderly couple complained of a robbery at a yard sale. In announcing their arrest, police touted it as a “perfect example of the community and police department coming together to solve a crime and make the community a safer place to live.” 

Local TV and digital media ran with the story, linking the man’s name and photo to the words “violent robbery” in headlines. 

But further investigation by police ended with some apologetic backtracking by law enforcement. No robbery occurred, much less a violent one. A “regrettable mistake and misunderstanding” the district attorney’s office said. Some news organizations updated their initial stories, but the damage was done. The name Armando Valdez Gonzalez still turned up headlines linked to a mugshot and the words “violent robbery” nearly a month later. Eventually, some news sites took their posts down. 

Now, new reporting this week by Liam Adams in the local Window newspaper in Westminster has revealed troubling details beyond the man’s name and likeness being splashed across the evening news as a violent criminal. While Valdez Gonzalez was in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, his attorney says his cellmate tried to kill himself. His wife told police the ordeal left him shaken. And now that he’s out, the incident has cost Valdez Gonzalez $11,000 in legal costs. The new reporting also showed that Valdez Gonzalez, who speaks limited English, also called to report that he was the victim of an altercation over money at the yard sale that day. He told police a woman who thought he stole her money bag scratched him on the arm; the couple later told police they had merely misplaced the bag. But, according to police records of a conversation he had with them, Valdez Gonzalez didn’t know the address for the yard sale, so authorities told him they couldn’t respond. When he got in touch later, after seeing his truck on the news as a wanted criminal, police asked him to come down to the station — where they arrested him and released a statement about it.

The initial coverage presents the perils of reporting based on police accounts and how they can offer a warped view of what might have really happened. Local TV, which relies heavily on police statements to fill broadcasts, is still where most Americans get their news. 

For many local news organizations, police statements make an easy and formulaic way of filling their news holes — “feeding the beast,” they call it. They might feel comfortable running information from these statements because they come from “official” sources. Early career journalists often start out working a newsroom’s crime or breaking news beat relaying “news” from police blotters or department press releases. That’s where I got my own start in reporting and I regret not being more thoughtful about it then. Reporters cite the police in these instances but rarely if ever talk to someone authorities accuse of a crime. Doing so would take a lot of time and effort. Police, on the other hand, tend to be easy to reach when they expect reporters will write from their perspective. And the beast needs feeding.

High-profile events of the last year have shown the pitfalls for local media relying too heavily on “police say” attribution in crime coverage. Consider the first statement to local media from Minneapolis police about George Floyd: “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” 

Incomplete quick-churn local “crime” reporting is why some are calling to reform the way local news organizations cover criminal justice issues in the digital age — with some even calling to abolish the crime beat altogether. 

The criminal justice system also does not favor those who might be unable to hire someone to speak on their behalf when the police publicize an arrest. A suspect might not see a lawyer until the following day when they first appear in court. And even then, a public defender might not have enough information to adequately comment on the allegations. 

But as CBS4 recently demonstrated, interviewing people identified by police as suspects isn’t impossible — if a journalist makes a dedicated effort. The station recently conducted an interview from jail with a suspect arrested after police found several weapons in a hotel near the All-Star Game. Why not do so in all instances? Certainly if an arrest rises to the level of news coverage a more complete account wouldn’t hurt. And that’s really the key: Is every arrest worthy of coverage? If it’s simply because the police put out a statement about it, that’s not enough. If it’s because the “news” is salacious and will draw clicks and engagement on social media platforms that are prone to reward outrage and negativity — worse.

In Colorado, some newsrooms have adopted elements of the “right-to-be-forgotten” movement that includes granting requests from story subjects to have their names removed from past articles that might hinder career, housing, or lifestyle prospects if they can show a charge was dropped, a case adjudicated in their favor, or another compelling reason. The movement is not without its skeptics, particularly among those who consider erasing part of the public record a form of censorship, effectively rewriting history. (The pros-and-cons will be discussed next Wednesday, July 28, in a Zoom brownbag lunch featuring Denver Post Editor Lee Ann Colacioppo and Aspen Times Editor David Krause.)

That’s a worthy discussion to have, but so is one about being more proactive. 

Earlier this year, I spoke with Krause who has emerged as a leader in this new movement in Colorado. The Aspen Times is part of Swift Communications, a chain of newspapers that is rethinking its approach to criminal justice coverage. He told me the right-to-be-forgotten effort has also made him consider whether to run a local “crime” item in the first place. 

Among other questions editors ask themselves before writing a story include whether there’s a threat to public safety or to children, if a reader needs to take action as a result, if it will have significant community impact, or whether the story lends itself to a crime-reduction or prevention effort.

Said Krause: “These are all things to make us stop and think for a minute before we hit publish.” 

This column is produced with support from the Colorado Media Project, and is distributed statewide via the Colorado News Collaborative. Interested in an insider’s look at the news behind the news in Colorado? Sign up here for Corey’s weekly email newsletter.