Why do the Daily Herald’s articles on police crime scenes contain so little information?
There’s an old adage in the media world: “Journalism is printing what someone else doesn’t want to print. Everything else is public relations. This pithy quote has been attributed to everyone from George Orwell to Malcolm Muggeridge to William Randolph Hearst. It’s actually not from any of them, and like most concise quotes, the real thing isn’t quite as eye-catching.
The closest thing we can find comes from a former editor of the Chicago Herald and Examiner circa 1918. He apparently had a sign on his desk that read, “All a client wants to publish is advertising.” All he wants to keep out of the newspaper is news.
This much more accurate version may strike some readers like the meat and potatoes of the newspaper industry, but it doesn’t.
Yes, many journalists have made a name for themselves by printing things that the powerful want swept under the rug, and I hope there will always be journalists who enjoy digging into these kinds of stories. However—and this is a big one—it’s not true that everything people want to keep out of the paper is news.
A classic case occurred on Thursday, February 10. Most of you will have already read the story. Prince Albert police showed up at a home after being called to a domestic dispute. They took one person to the police cells and left. Hours later, they returned to the same house after reporting something more serious: a homicide. The victim was a 13 month old boy.
Before the public knew anything about this boy’s death, knowledgeable readers knew something serious had happened. They knew this because the Prince Albert Police Department issued a press release warning residents that they were at the scene of a serious incident on the 200 block of West 23rd Street.
Our press room saw the press release, wrote it up and put it on our website. It was very short and contained the little information we had, which all came from the police. The newsroom then went back to the stories we were working on and waited.
This angered at least one of our readers, who commented on our Facebook page “A serious incident…but yet 0 (zero) information in the article besides the police present at the scene. High quality reports lol(.)”
Comments like this are actually quite common. Whenever there is a serious criminal incident, the public generally wants to know more and comes to us asking for information. When denied this information, some get upset, some get angry, and some, like our friend above, will find it all funny. But why doesn’t the Daily Herald include more information in our initial reports on these types of crimes? Why is there “0 information”? Because, as I’ve written before, not all people want to keep out of the paper is news.
Put yourself in the shoes of the mother whose 13-month-old child has just been murdered. Put yourself in the shoes of aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins and family friends. You don’t know it yet, but Thursday, February 10 is about to become the worst day of your life. Who would you like to hear this news from?
Do you want a policeman knocking on your door to deliver it to you? Do you want a friend or relative to call you? Or would you rather be blindsided and read it on a newspaper’s website, see a story on the evening news, or listen to it on the radio on the way home from work? Show me someone who says that, and I’ll show you someone who isn’t a serious person.
This is why our first articles contain so little information. Eventually, the police will notify the next of kin. They will notify everyone and the train will start rolling. Then they will tell us. We like to be the first medium to tell a story, but there are stories we should never be the first to tell.
I can already hear the criticisms. “That’s all,” they will say. “There are loads and loads and loads of facts you could tell us about this case without revealing the victim’s name.”
This, my friends, is where you are wrong. People can recognize houses from the news. They recognize crushed cars from fatal traffic accidents. Even the simple act of giving someone the name of a street or a highway can send them into bouts of stress and anxiety, and we haven’t even talked about the possibility of hindering a police investigation jumping the gun with our reports (which is a whole other chronicle on a whole different nightmare scenario).
I sympathize with the locals who want to know more. I’m honored when they come to us for the latest news, but folks…remember, the goal isn’t to be first. The goal is to be the best, and sometimes that means you’ll have to wait for information on a breakup story.
Jason Kerr is the editor of the Prince Albert Daily Herald.