Why we cover cops and courts as they work
For the past several weeks, I have been training a brand-new criminal justice reporter to work a brand-new criminal justice/cops-and-courts beat at The News.
It’s given me the opportunity to wax philosophical about why we do what we do the ways we do it on such stories.
It’s been refreshing.
Like anything, it’s easy for the things journalists do to become rote, automatic: We cover the activities of law enforcement and the major trials of our communities because we do. We always have. It’s news!
But working with Julie Riddle has given me the chance to reexamine why we consider those things news.
The short answer is that we cover cops and courts for the same two reasons we cover everything else. One, we write for the readers of tomorrow, so they can make informed decisions about how to vote, where to live, where to shop, etc.
Two, we write for the readers of 50 or 100 or 1,000 years from now who will visit The News archives to get a sense of what Northeast Michigan was like in 2019.
How do criminal justice stories serve those purposes?
Based on some of the nasty emails and phone calls I’ve received over the years, many readers don’t think they do. Many have accused journalists of ambulance-chasing, hunting gory headlines just for the sake of selling newspapers.
But those criticisms are far off-base.
Writing about criminal cases as they happen helps the readers of today in several ways.
For one, it lets them know about the kinds of issues going on in their communities. Armed with that information, they can make their own decisions about whether they want to stay put or move away, leave their doors unlocked at night or start locking up, whether they want to let their kids play outside alone, whether they want to get involved in neighborhood watch programs or programs that help their neighbors dealing with substance abuse or volunteer with afterschool programs that keep kids off the street.
Equally important, it holds people accountable.
Yes, it holds the accused accountable. Some readers say writing about court cases as they happen — as opposed to waiting until a trial has concluded — convicts defendants in a court of public opinion before they’ve had a chance to argue their case in a court of law. But journalists doing their job correctly are sure to point out that people are charged with crimes, not guilty of them, as the case proceeds. And they equally report the positions of both the prosecution and the defense.
Conclusions of guilt before conclusions of cases say more about the reader than the journalist.
The main reason I say that last bit is that cops-and-courts stories hold accountable not only the accused, but the accusers.
The ability to take someone’s freedom away by locking them in jail is the weightiest power we entrust in our government. And the reasons the founders of this nation and of this state make court proceedings open to the public — anyone has the right to sit in the pews and watch most any case unfold, anyone can visit the clerk’s office and ask to read a court file, and anyone can file a Freedom of Information Act request to read police reports — is so the public can judge for themselves whether the justice being served in their names is truly just.
Justice conducted in secret can be done with malice or with personal bias. Judges not being watched can let their friends off the hook. Police officers not being watched can club their enemies.
We report on city halls and municipal budgets so readers can judge for themselves if tax increases and other public policies are truly justified and, if readers believe they are not, they can vote out the city council members who made those decisions.
Similarly, we report on court cases as they happen so readers can decide if justice is being properly served. If they believe it’s not, readers can vote out the judges or prosecutors or sheriffs or city council members who appointed the police chiefs who made those decisions.
Finally, criminal justice stories also serve the readers of tomorrow by painting a more complete and accurate picture of a community.
So our children and grandchildren can know history — real, true history — and not be doomed to repeat it.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.