Gannett rethinks the public safety beat. Good. But keep an eye on the bottom line.

Photo (cc) 2017 by Raymond Wambsgans

By Dan Kennedy

Whenever I write about Gannett, our largest newspaper chain, it’s usually because they’re cuttings staff and closing papers. At the same time, though, the company has been a leader in rethinking how we cover law enforcement, which has emerged as a vitally important issue in the Black Lives Matter era. We know what the problems are:

  • Until recently, it was routine practice at many news outlets, especially smaller ones, simply to run stuff from the police log and from press releases issued by law enforcement without doing any actual reporting. The idea was that it’s a public record, so let’s get it out there.
  • A lack of follow-up: If charges were dropped or a suspect was acquitted, that often didn’t get reported.
  • Now that everything is digital, it’s very easy to Google someone applying for a job or whatever and find that they’d been arrested for something. Given that Black men, in particular, are disproportionately charged with crimes, it had the racist effect of denying opportunities to people of color.

So what is Gannett doing? As part of the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative, the chain has come up with a Public Safety Mission Statement that tries to get at some of these issues. Four Gannett journalists recently wrote up what they’ve been doing in an essay for the American Press Association’s Better News website. Here are some of the ideas they offered:

  • Gannett newspapers have stopped running mug shots, including mug-shot galleries, “recognizing instead that law enforcement pick and choose the crimes they announce and the mug shots they release, capturing people on their worst days in their worst moments, often in situations that may not reflect the full story.”
  • At the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in upstate New York, reporters stopped rewriting routine police press releases and are trying to include community voices in public safety stories.
  • At The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, the staff is producing deeper stories on crime and policing that have led to more readers and new subscriptions. Examples of such stories include reporting on how a community was affected by a police standoff and how secrecy on the part of law enforcement prevents news outlets from reporting on allegations of excessive force.

These are all positive steps, and they follow earlier Gannett initiatives, such as making it possible for people to request that negative stories about them be removed from Google search. A number of other news outlets, including The Boston Globe, followed with similar programs.

This being Gannett, though, we should regard these initiatives with at least some degree of skepticism. Given the ongoing shrinkage of staff, it’s become increasingly difficult for the chain’s newspapers and websites to keep up with goings-on in muncipal government, public schools and public safety. Moving away from day-to-day police coverage and weighing in with an occasional piece that takes a look at broader issues may be good journalism — but it might be a money-saver as well. I say that not just theoretically but as the reader of a Gannett weekly (soon to be merged with another weekly) whose only full-time reporter is being moved to a regional beat.

So kudos to Gannett. But let’s keep an eye on what this looks like moving forward.

Author: Dan Kennedy

I am a professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a contributor to GBH News in Boston. My blog, Media Nation, is online at dankennedy.net.

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