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.