From the lede of a piece by Treml, “Police Believe Several People Saw Murder Victim Enter Car,” published on July 10, 1968: “Police hopes of solving the Joan E. Schell murder case spurted sharply upward today with the revelation that as many as three persons may have seen the Eastern Michigan University coed get into a car on the night of June 30.”
While The Chronicle doesn’t currently cover crime, we do reflect occasionally on possible models for covering that topic – as a contingency for an unexpected million-dollar endowment. Several possible newer approaches are sketched out in a recent piece by Jonathan Stray for Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab: “Beyond the Crime Scene: We Need New and Better Models for Crime Reporting.”
As Stray notes, police departments no longer need to rely on third parties like newspapers, radio and television stations to disseminate information about crimes that have taken place. A police department can communicate directly with the public about those crimes – using its own website and RSS feed, for example. The University of Michigan department of public safety maintains a crime alerts public data feed and a daily incidents log like that. The Ann Arbor police department contracts through crimemapping.com to provide publicly accessible basic information about crime location, type and time, which is updated once a day. And the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office uses the Nixle service to let people sign up for crime alerts and other information, delivered via text message or email.
For this basic “spot news” type of information, public safety agencies are a single-point source of authoritative information, which they can share directly with the public. It’s authoritative, because a police department has unique access to basic descriptive information about crimes.
Now, I’m going to draw an analogy that might seem at first like a non-sequitur: A police department’s unique access to descriptive information about crime events is comparable, I think, to a party host’s unique access to details about an upcoming party. And that has consequences for a reasonable model of at least one small component of crime reporting.
It’s possible that party hosts might deliberately lie to us – by placing events on their public calendars advising that swimwear is the expected attire, then asking people to sit down to a formal dinner. It’s also possible that a party host might inadvertently indicate an 8 a.m. start time for an evening affair. But ultimately, the authority on the details of an upcoming event is the host of that event. Of course, that information could eventually be checked by attending the event, too.
The Chronicle’s approach to providing a calendar of events is to allow the actual authority on the event (the host) to write up the details – using the Yahoo! Upcoming platform. The public data stream for all of the Yahoo! Upcoming events gets funneled to The Chronicle’s calendar listing based on its manual inclusion in The Chronicle’s “watch list.” That’s the only part that is controlled by The Chronicle.
It would be possible for a rival publication to replicate The Chronicle’s event listing exactly, by selecting the same set of events from the Yahoo! Upcoming platform – and that would be fine. If every publication committed to using the Yahoo! Upcoming platform, then local event hosts would have an easier time disseminating information about their events. It would be easier, because they – as the authoritative sources of information – could enter the information one time only. Done. Forever.
But not every local online publication uses Yahoo! Upcoming. So event hosts who want their events listed in multiple publications must now typically enter the same information using a system peculiar to each publication, or send out a press release and hope that staff at the publication itself shoulders the task.
Microsoft’s Jon Udell is working on this problem. In a recent column for Wired, “Calendars in the Cloud,” Udell writes [emphasis added]: “If you are sponsoring a church supper on Saturday, I want you to record the details of that event once, in your church’s own cloud-based calendar service …”
Udell isn’t just working on that problem – he’s got a proposed solution. Here’s a placeholder he’s created for Ann Arbor events – using just the calendar information that various people and organizations around Ann Arbor are already making available on the Internet: Ann Arbor Event Syndication Hub. There are some rough spots – like inclusion of a bridge game held at the Ann Arbor Senior Center in the “government category” (by dint of having the city of Ann Arbor’s calendar as a source). But the “placeholder” is already pretty impressive.
Granted, Udell is looking to demonstrate the power of Microsoft’s cloud computing platform, and it might not be obvious that this particular implementation is the specific strategy that’s best for the community of Ann Arbor. But any such approach will depend on some basic consensus in the community that this kind of strategy is one we’d like to adopt.
It’s a strategy that would make clear who is playing what role. Event hosts are supplying the information – to a calendar syndication hub. And different publications – what Udell calls “attention hubs” – are simply amplifying the identical signal that comes out of the syndication hub.
Basic Descriptive Crime Reports
To get an idea of how this event calendar model for basic “spot news” crime reporting might work, let’s consider how it currently doesn’t work.
In June, the University of Michigan department of public safety reported the following item through its crime alerts data feed:
DATE OF INCIDENT: June 9, 2012 between 11:30pm and midnight
LOCATION: Ingalls Mall, near Modern Languages Building (800 block of East Washington)
SUMMARY: A female reported that as she was walking northbound through Ingalls Mall, she was approached by three unknown males who taunted her using an anti-homosexual slur. One of the males grabbed her multiple times, including her arm and breast, before she could push him away and flee northbound. The suspects did not pursue her and she did not seek medical attention.
SUSPECTS: 1: White male, 6′, 18-20 years, medium build, medium-length blonde hair and unshaven, wearing a light-colored t-shirt and blue jeans
If you have any information: Please contact U-M DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY (DPS) at (734) 763-1131 or dial 9-1-1
The item was reported by the Detroit Free Press this way:
A woman walking through Ingalls Mall on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor was groped and surrounded by three men who taunted her using an anti-gay slur, campus police said.
The incident occurred between 11:30 p.m. and midnight Saturday, police said. The woman said she was walking north in Ingalls Mall, near the Modern Languages building in the 800 block of East Washington Street, when three men approached her, police said in a crime alert issued today.
The woman said they taunted her, and one of them grabbed her multiple times, including her arm and breast, before she could push him away and run, the alert said. The men did not pursue her.
The woman did not require medial [sic] attention, police said.
Witnesses described the man who grabbed her as white, 18-20 years old, 6 feet tall, medium build, unshaven, with medium-length blonde hair and wearing a light-colored T-shirt and blue jeans.
Anyone with information is asked to call campus police at (734) 763-1131.
And the item was reported by AnnArbor.com this way:
Campus police are investigating an alleged groping incident that involved the use of an anti-gay slur against a woman walking on the University of Michigan campus late Saturday.
The woman told police that three unknown men approached her as she walked northbound through Ingalls Mall, near the 800 block of East Washington Street, between 11:30 p.m. and midnight.
The men taunted her with an anti-gay slur, and one of the men grabbed her multiple times, including her arm and breast, before she was able to push free and flee, U-M police said in a crime alert dated Sunday.
The suspects did not pursue the woman and she did not seek medical attention.
The main suspect is described as an 18 to 20 year-old, 6-foot white male of medium build, medium-length blonde hair and unshaven. He was wearing a light-colored T-shirt and blue jeans.
Anyone with information about the incident is asked to call (734) 763-1131.
Subsequently, the University of Michigan department of public safety updated the item: “Through follow-up investigation, it has been determined that the reported assault did not occur.”
It’s worth highlighting the technical details of how that update was implemented by UMDPS. First, the original item was updated to reflect the new information, with the word “cancelled” prominently in red text. In addition, a second item was added to the RSS feed that replicated the updated information in the original item. That duplication ensured that anyone using an RSS reader to check UM campus crime would not fail to miss the update – by dint of having already read the original item and habitually viewing only “unread items.”
In a telephone interview, I asked Diane Brown, public information officer for UMDPS, if the way the department handled that incident had been an ad hoc judgment call for that particular incident or if that’s standard protocol. Standard protocol, she told me. So after UMDPS updated the item, members of the public who got their information directly from the UMDPS were never presented with an inaccurate picture of the best information UMDPS had at the time.
That was not true for readers who had their information mediated by the Detroit Free Press and AnnArbor.com.
In the case of the Free Press, that updating of the original story appears to have taken place a few hours after publication of a separately published second story – which relayed the fact that the incident never occurred. In the case of AnnArbor.com, as of July 1 the original story had not been updated; however, a second story was published separately, soon after the update from UMDPS containing the new information.
The problem with the approach those organizations take to reporting the “spot news” of crime incidents is that they disconnect the information from its single, authoritative source. And as a result, any update to their original reports would need to be undertaken manually – that is, someone would need to think to do it.
The alternative would be to pipe the information straight from the UMDPS data feed directly onto a news organization’s website – and to make clear to readers that this is what they’re getting. As soon as UMDPS updates its data, the information displayed by media using that updated data feed would be simultaneously updated. That kind of approach would acknowledge that for “spot news” relaying basic crime information, the essentially effortless role of a private news organization can be simply to amplify the information signal of a public agency.
That’s certainly not to say that I think the police department should be the only source of information about crime.
But the advantage of this approach, as part of a broader crime reporting strategy, is that it frees up human labor – to do the kind of reporting we want to do independently of the police department as an informational source. It might allow time to take a more in-depth look at longer-term trends for specific types of crime incidents, analyze a specific case in more detail, visit crime scenes, or gather performance statistics for police response times and solve rates.
It could also allow more time for the facets of Bill Treml’s reporting that Jim Rees misses – as do, very likely, many other readers.
Dave Askins is editor and co-owner of The Ann Arbor Chronicle. The monthly milestone column, which appears on the second day of each month – the anniversary of The Chronicle’s Sept. 2, 2008 launch – is an opportunity for either the publisher or the editor of The Chronicle to touch base with readers on topics related to this publication.