“If it bleeds, it leads” is an old saw in the news business. Stories of crime and violence sell, and in newsrooms driven by competition for viewers and readers, the temptation to spotlight mayhem and ugliness is strong.
We don’t watch the news on television very often because we don’t own a television. Even when I still had one, I long ago stopped looking at the local news shows because of their exaggerated attention to crime stories that seemed gratuitous and sensationalized.
And yet criminal acts happen all the time, both locally and on the national stage. We happened to see a bit of a news segment on CNN last weekend, in which Carl Bernstein, the former Washington Post reporter, referred to the president’s “homicidal negligence.”
Even in our peaceful small towns, we spend a significant amount of money on policing. Ever since we launched the Independent, we have thought hard about how to cover news about crime. If you’ve been following us over the past year, you know that we haven’t had a regular police “blotter.” That’s not because we don’t think what our police departments do is important. But simply publishing arrest reports, as some newspapers do, seems wrong to us. The fact that someone has been arrested is usually newsworthy, but without real reporting about the circumstances, the backstory, and the outcome — was there a trial? were the charges dismissed? — raw arrest reports do little to help readers understand what happened and how our system of justice works, or doesn’t work.
The Independent is making an effort now to take a deeper look at policing and crime on the Outer Cape. Part of that effort has been to dig out facts on who gets stopped on the road and who gets arrested, in relation to racial equity issues that have become an urgent national concern.
We are also sending our reporters more regularly to court in Orleans and Barnstable, and out into the community, to find the facts about incidents of crime. As a result, this week’s edition includes a disturbing story about domestic violence.
Readers have good reason to ask whether such reporting serves the public interest. We struggle with this tough question, too. In this case, because of the violence of the acts involved, the long history of seeming indifference in the district attorney’s office, and public misperceptions about domestic violence, we decided to tell the story.
Henry Beetle Hough, the long-time editor of the Vineyard Gazette, shaped my views on small-town crime reporting. His paper devoted detailed attention to it, not because he wanted to titillate or shame people, but because he believed that honest reporting and careful fact-checking was always better than leaving these tales to the rumor mill.