When and how we report on crime

Blogger’s note: this post comes to us from Kitsap Sun Editor David Nelson. 

A few readers in Manette have pointed out a recent court case that acquitted a Bremerton teenager of an assault charge. They are curious why we haven’t given the incident more attention, particularly because a Seattle television station did at least two reports this week.

There are two questions to address here:

1. Why haven’t we published a story on the alleged assault?

2. How do we follow crime overall to share public safety information with readers?

One of our reporters did hear about the May 7 assault in the days after it happened. He called police several times for more information, and they declined to give details. The reason may have been because the assault was under investigation or because it involved a minor, which are legitimate criteria police have to temporarily withhold information about a crime. We do depend on our police relationships as one guideposts on when to report or not report a crime (though law enforcement’s opinion is not the only thing that we base decisions on). In this case, had the police felt there was an immediate danger to the neighborhood I hope they would tell us so we could share that with readers. They didn’t, so the rush to run a story with incomplete information was not as pressing.

When we saw the Q13 report this week, we decided to report the outcome of the court case. But the suspect was acquitted. At that point, the story would have been about unfounded allegations a month after the incident occurred. Legally, there was no crime to report on.

That’ll sound like an excuse those in Manette who are alarmed there may be a kid running around randomly attacking people. (Full disclosure: I live in Manette, too, and often go running where the incident occurred.) The initial arrest would have been newsworthy — had we had the complete story — and a reporter did seek information for several days. So we didn’t blow it off or cover something up. We just didn’t know enough about what happened, and the subsequent circumstances and other daily obligations kept us from following it more closely.

I thought that offering this glimpse at the how our reporters find out about possible crime will illuminate the case a bit more.

We learn about suspected crimes in five ways:

1. Checking police reports. We do not check reports daily from each of the county’s six agencies (not including Washington State Patrol). It’s time-consuming, and at times difficult because of legal restrictions (certain cases under investigation, for example) or delays in filing reports (say, information that must be redacted before going for public view).

2. Checking the daily Kitsap County Jail “in custody” list. This is something we do every day, and is probably the most efficient way to find out what’s going on. The list tells us who was booked into jail, for what suspected crime, and at what bail amount. A reporter learns to seek out potentially newsworthy arrests — whether a large bail amount or a serious crime listed — and we then request charging documents or police reports to find out more on that specific incident.

3. Communication with police or sheriff’s deputies. LIke I said above, law enforcement will let us know, whether a phone call or a news release, when something of public safety is going on.

4. Tips from the community. Folks call in, post to our Facebook page, email us, etc. when they see something happening. We can’t follow up on every single tip, but we’ll chase those that sound newsworthy.

5. Listen to the scanner. It’s going as I write, just like always in the newsroom. Editors and reporters are trained to listen for police traffic on incidents that we call police for more information about.

At this point it’s worth noting that the reported Lebo Avenue assault only fit one of those criteria — we got a tip from a reader. Bremerton police didn’t immediately provide the report or oral details and the suspect was booked into jail as a juvenile, which means his name was on a list that isn’t made public. We like those tips from the community, but they can also be the difficult to chase down solid information about.

What follows those five methods in a reporter’s decision making is a more detailed explanation — there are value judgments about what crimes to write up, protocols on felony cases or sex offenses, when to name or not name a suspect who is charged with a felony, and which cases we will follow through the court system. There’s no single answer that applies to everything.

What may be confusing for a reader is the variety of practices different media have in crime reporting. In this case, a Seattle television news station chose to focus on one incident in Bremerton even though Q13 very rarely reports on any other crime in our neighborhoods — so there’s little precedent for their coverage. The station chose to name and photograph the victim, which we rarely do, though it’s clear Jordan Monasmith was a willing participant in the coverage. And TV news overall tends to swoop in for a single crime incident then leave quickly — while our reporters have the job of following a crime through the court system for weeks or months.

We write Code 911 items to keep people informed of the criminal activities in our area and to illustrate what law enforcement, fire departments and our court system does each day. Our crime reporting can never be exhaustive. There are times when we’ll make a clear decisions against reporting on something, as well as instances when circumstances (unavailability of information, for example) determine our response. We want to err on the side of public safety, without being alarmist — and with 250,000 people living in neighborhoods around Kitsap County, we’ll never be able to write up everything that is possibly of interest.

But we continue to keep public safety in mind as part of our role. Let me know if you have questions, or comment below.

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