Maybe Reporters Shouldn’t Have Access to Police Reports

12/16/2013 12:18 PM |

Early this month, the NYPD quietly changed decades of protocol: reporters would no longer be able to pop by their local precinct and peruse the crime reports, the fodder for the familiar blotters that are the bread-and-butter of community media. Instead, journalists would have to contact the police force’s deputy commissioner for public information—but “DCPI is a small unit,” a source told DNAinfo, “so I don’t know how they’re going to handle it.”

[jump]

Media outfits complained loudly, saying it was one more crackdown on the press during Ray Kelly’s tenure (which has included harassing and arresting journalists, as well as banning them from police actions); the dean of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism (my alma mater) sent an email to Kelly to which DCPI quickly replied, tweaking the new regulations: journalists would “once again be able to access crime reports at local police precincts in New York City—as long as they make requests through a central information office first,” Poynter reported.

These crime blotters have a practical benefit for communities. “People should be able to know about the crimes, large and small, occurring in their neighborhoods,” Ralph Gardner writes in his column in the Wall Street Journal today. “If you know there’s a pattern of purse snatchers, for example, you might hold your pocketbook more tightly and pay closer attention to your surroundings.”

Gardner was on the blotter beat for decades, he writes, and it sounds like he and his editor invented the concept in the late 80s. By taking on the job, Gardner also details how he became friendly with the local police. And there’s really not much troubling about, say, this revelation: “I don’t think my wife was ever more impressed than when we appeared before a grand jury after I intercepted a burglar in our apartment, and half the cops waiting to testify before other grand juries greeted me by name.”

But then he goes too far:

In developing a relationship with the local precinct something unexpected happens to reporters. At least I didn’t expect it to happen to me: A bond develops between you and the cops. I’d go so far as to say that reporters come to think of themselves as partners in fighting crime.

I don’t mean to suggest that journalists should be on the side of crime, but that they shouldn’t really be on anyone’s side except the reader’s. By thinking you and the police are doing the same job, you lose critical distance necessary to reporting. Journalists aren’t cops. Besides reporting crime, they also, when necessary, need to police the police.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart