🚔 Colorado newsrooms discuss 'new policies' for covering crime

This week's look at the news behind the news in Colorado

‘Stop and think for a minute before we hit publish’

Journalism groups in Colorado are hosting a Zoom discussion this month about responsible ways of covering crime in the digital age.

Included is an initiative called the “right to be forgotten,” which has taken hold in newsrooms around the country — and in Colorado.

From the announcement of the July 28 event:

The “right-to-be-forgotten” movement is driven largely by increasing requests from people wishing to erase negative media coverage that can permanently hinder their job- and housing prospects. It also comes as Americans increasingly embrace second chances as a civil right.

Critics argue that the public has a right to know who has been arrested and that removing their names or erasing stories from internet archives is a form of censorship that effectively rewrites history. … We’ll hear from Denver Post Editor Lee Ann Colacioppo and Aspen Times Editor David Krause, who both have adapted new policies in their newsrooms. We’ll also hear from news leaders who are skeptical about such efforts either for editorial or business reasons.

The conversation comes amid increasing advocacy for recalibrating criminal justice coverage, and also as some American newsrooms grapple with their legacies of harm to certain communities.

Lately, national mainstream journalism organizations have advocated for reform on the “cops and courts” beat and in coverage of local crime.

Last week, Politico’s Jack Schafer wrote “that crime reporting needs a rethink can’t be denied.” Too many journalists, he went on, rely on “tired templates when filing from the police beat, blindly parroting what they read in the police blotter and failing to follow the story to its resolution.”

In June, the Associated Press announced it will no longer publish mug shots or the names of suspects in stories about minor crimes “in which there is little chance AP will provide coverage beyond the initial arrest.”

The Poynter Institute last month reported “It’s time for journalism to break the cycle of crime reporting.” That followed a piece at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab headlined “Defund the crime beat.”

Hosting the July 28 Colorado crime coverage discussion is the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab), along with the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, the Colorado Press Association, Colorado Media Project, and the Denver Press Club.

Register for it here.


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Colorado case study: How local ‘police say’ reporting can lead to long-term harm

The right-to-be-forgotten campaign is part of a larger movement around typical crime coverage and the harm it can cause. Consider the way a recent local story played out last month in a Denver suburb.

The cringe-worthy incident offers a case study on how impulsive reporting based off police accounts can have long-term negative consequences for someone wrongly accused of a crime. It also offers an opportunity for news managers to consider best-practice ways to make amends if and when new information comes to light about a story subject.

Here’s the background: In early June, Westminster police said they’d arrested a man after an elderly couple complained of a robbery at a yard sale. Local media, running with it, aired the man’s photo and linked his name to the words “violent robbery” in headlines.

Here’s how a CBS4 news anchor initially reported the news in an early June broadcast:

“A man is under arrest in Westminster after a violent robbery at a yard sale. Police say 50-year-old Armando Valdez Gonzalez drove off with a bag of money from that yard sale over the weekend. A woman in her 70s ran after the thief and was dragged as he drove away. She lost consciousness and was taken to a hospital for treatment.”

The first sentence, “after a violent robbery at a yard sale” doesn’t attribute the information to anyone. The news anchor stated it as a fact: a violent robbery happened.

This is from a separate June 5 CBS4 report on the incident, citing only police as sources:

“Westminster police say a thief got away with a couple’s bag of money from their yard sale on Saturday. … Investigators say the couple in their mid-70s noticed the bag disappeared. Then the woman confronted the suspect who was already inside a truck. Police say she reached inside to grab the bag, but the suspect drove away, pulling the woman a short distance before she fell. … Police describe the suspect as a Hispanic or Middle Eastern man between 40 and 60 years old.

But was there a violent robbery? Police later said there wasn’t a robbery at all, much less a violent one. Authorities dropped the charges after they investigated further. 

There has been plenty of press criticism over the past year about the perils of overly relying on “police say” in crime coverage, which often is a staple of for-profit industrial local news production. (Take a look at the press release Minneapolis Police offered to media immediately after one of their officers kneeled on the neck of George Floyd and killed him. Does that offer a realistic and true version of events as we know them now?)

For many local news organizations, police statements and incident reports make an easy and formulaic way of filling their news holes — “feeding the beast,” they call it — and they’re comfortable running information from these documents because they come from “official” sources. Early career journalists often start out working a newsroom’s crime or breaking news beat relaying “news” from police blotters or department press releases. That’s where I got my own start in reporting and I regret not being more thoughtful about it then. Reporters cite the police in these instances but rarely if ever talk to someone authorities accuse of a crime. Doing so would frankly just take too much time and effort. Gotta feed that beast. Police, on the other hand, tend to be easy to reach when they expect reporters will write from their perspective.

Reporters also tend to rely on police reports and press releases as gospel, and they might defend the practice of passing along incorrect, incomplete, and potentially damaging initial reports by saying something along the lines of Well, we were accurate at the time. Police said it, and we just reported what they said. Viewers of some local TV news outlets might even be forgiven if they thought the local police department was a partner in their local station’s news coverage.

In the recent Westminster example, police later issued a mea culpa. This comes from a June 9 Westminster PD statement posted to Facebook:

During the subsequent investigation additional details and facts came to light that led detectives to believe that Mr. Valdez did not commit this crime. Part of that information included that the crime did not occur the way it was initially reported. Detectives immediately requested the case be reviewed by the district attorney’s office and requested that charges not be filed. The investigation into this incident is on-going and Mr. Valdez is not a suspect.

The District Attorney’s office also released a statement calling the whole thing a “regrettable mistake and misunderstanding.” Authorities added, “Not only did Mr. Valdez Gonzalez commit no crime, he took every opportunity to contact the appropriate authorities.”

When that happened, local news stations had to mop up the mess.

This is from KDVR:

Valdez Gonzalez then contacted police to tell them about the incident and showed his bag to police to review it, according to the DA’s office. The woman who claimed the theft confirmed that the bag wasn’t hers. Her husband later told police that they had found their bag from the yard sale.

And this is from CBS4’s attempt:

Westminster police say the man arrested in a violent yard sale robbery on Saturday did not commit the crime. A couple in their 70s held the yard sale at a home near 102nd Avenue near Sheridan Boulevard.

Investigators say the couple in their mid-70s noticed the bag disappeared. Then the woman confronted the suspect who was already inside a truck. Police say she reached inside to grab the bag, but the suspect drove away, pulling the woman a short distance before she fell.

But even that was off.

Denverite reporter Andy Kenney explained on social media:

Sheesh.

This, Kenney added, is “Why you should be skeptical when the police moralize in a press release about an arrest … Also, there *was no* violent yard sale robbery!”

Sure, but try telling that to the man whose Google history now surfaces his name and photo along with the phrase “Arrested In Violent Westminster Yard Sale Robbery.”

Local “crime” reporting like this is why some are calling to defund the police beat altogether since such coverage “so rarely meets the public’s needs” and is “almost never newsworthy, despite what Grizzled Gary in his coffee-stained shirt says from his perch at the copy desk.”

Life in our digital age means some of this stuff can live online a long time. And the nature of advertising-based journalism that prizes constant content only makes it worse.

Consider: The national news sites MSN and Yahoo! News, which repurpose local reporting, still have stories up online that read as if the man is accused of a crime, featuring his photo and the initial “violent” headline. Multiple other sites that gobble up and regurgitate local reporting for clicks also still carry the incomplete information along with photos of the innocent man. (UPDATE: After this post was published, the stories no longer appeared on either site.)

At The Denver Post, a URL for a post reading “westminster-police-yard-sale-case-dropped” leads to an “OOPS! THAT PAGE CAN’T BE FOUND.”

Elsewhere in Denver, KDVR added an update to its story but the headline stills reads “Police arrest man suspected in assault, robbery of at-risk woman in Westminster,” which technically is accurate — the police did arrest him for that, didn’t they? — but the headline certainly doesn’t offer a truthful account based on what we know now.

All in all, it seems to me this guy got a raw deal, from the septuagenarian couple through the cops to the local press.

So how might this development be constructive for newsrooms? For one, I think reporters and editors might ask themselves a simple question when it comes to police-source stories: Why are we doing this story? If it’s simply because the police put out a statement, that’s not enough. Is it because the “news” is salacious and will draw clicks and engagement on social media platforms that are prone to reward outrage and negativity? Worse.

In February, I spoke with David Krause, editor of The Aspen Times, whose Swift Communications newspaper chain is re-thinking its approach to crime coverage. This comes from a Swift document he showed me that editors there are consulting:

Questions to ask before writing any crime story: Is the crime a threat to public safety? Is the crime a threat to children? Does the reader need to take action as a result? Will it have significant community impact? Does the story lend itself to a crime-reduction or prevention effort?

Other guidelines include only noting race when law enforcement asks for help identifying a suspect and only naming arrested suspects “in cases of serious crimes.” And then there’s this — a big one: “if the accused’s name is published, commit to following a case through to its disposition” and publishing a story about the outcome.

“These are all things to make us stop and think for a minute before we hit publish,” Krause said.

Coloradoan newspaper partners with climate scientists

For the first test of a new Q-and-A feature at the Gannett-owned Coloradoan in Fort Collins, the newspaper is turning to the question of climate change.

From a column by the paper’s editor, Eric Larsen:

While some topics around climate change may seem esoteric for a general audience, there’s been nothing subtle about this hot, dry start to summer, or its impacts to the air we breathe. With multiple days of air quality alerts and warnings to people at risk of respiratory issues to stay indoors, various natural and human-caused sources of air pollution are limiting how Coloradans live.

Here at the Coloradoan, we’ve done our best to report the impacts of the region’s late spring and early summer heat wave, but we're not climate scientists. There’s still much we can learn. Fortunately, Fort Collins and Colorado State University are home to some of the finest climate scientists in the world, and we're partnering with two of them to answer your climate questions.

Readers can submit their queries through a new online commenting platform, and for an hour on July 7, Colorado State Climatologist Russ Schumacher and CSU Atmospheric Science Professor A. Scott Denning will “answer questions about climate change and its impacts to weather and life in Colorado and beyond.”

Larsen said he hoped the new service will “offer new ways for readers and subscribers to interact directly with experts from our newsroom and beyond.”

Colorado’s pro-bono lawyer takes on Lakewood police

I remember the first time someone behind a police desk in Colorado demanded my ID when I requested copies of public records. I tried to make a stink, but my objections went nowhere.

Spring 2019. Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. If I wanted the records, the woman at the desk said, I just needed to comply. I grudgingly did eventually, but not without asking for the supervisor (IIII knooow) and pacing around the parking lot whining into a cellphone to Jeff Roberts of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. What is my recourse here?

If records are public, you have a right to them without presenting ID, and without saying how you intend to use them. They’re supposed to be available to anyone who asks. Maybe you’re wondering: who cares? Why not just give the nice public information officer your ID if you want those public records?

Well, reporter Jeremy Jojola of 9News says he recently found out a copy of his driver license wound up in the hands of a third party without his consent after the Lakewood police department requested it when he asked for public records. He published a tweet-thread about the incident this week, regretting he ever handed over his ID. “I’ve been doxed several times,” he said. “It’s not fun.”

He wasn’t the only one. Colorado Newsline’s Moe Clark learned the same thing happened to her.

Lakewood PD spokesman John Romero says it’s department policy to verify the identity of records requestors, so that’s why they ask for ID. He says the department turned over the journalists’ IDs to the district attorneys office as part of a case record, which he said they’re required to do. The DA’s office, he said, didn’t redact the information before releasing it to someone else.

Responding to this, Rachael Johnson, a lawyer working pro-bono on behalf of Colorado journalists for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, drafted a letter to the Lakewood PD. She asked them to stop asking for ID of records requestors, and called doing so a “troubling practice” that “has no foundation in CORA or CCJRA and runs afoul of the First Amendment.”

Johnson said she sent the letter Thursday morning after collecting signatories. Romero didn’t have a comment about Johnson’s letter Thursday, but said the department would likely respond. Watch this space for updates.

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Judge says 1A allows Boebert’s personal Twitter account to block people

In a case with First Amendment considerations, a Trump-appointed federal judge in Colorado ruled Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert can block constituents on Twitter from her personal account.

Former state lawmaker Bri Buentello sued Boebert for the social media move.

Some context from the Colorado Sun:

A number of Colorado elected officials have lost challenges after blocking constituents on social media. A lawsuit filed against Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, resulted in a $25,000 settlement. Another legal action brought against state Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, resulted in another $25,000 settlement. 

A federal court also ruled that Trump could not bar critics from accessing his social media pages. In March, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene, a Georgia Republican, agreed not to block anyone from her public Twitter account or other social media as part of a settlement.

But this ruling went the other way. From The Denver Post:

“The unrebutted evidence shows that no government staff operate the @laurenboebert account,” the judge wrote. Therefore, the Twitter blocking was not a government action and “the court will not interfere in the operation of Representative Boebert’s Twitter account.”

David Lane, a Denver attorney who represents Buentello, called the ruling “a shame” and said it limits free speech.

Westword noted a particularly eyebrow-raising component of the ruling:

In denying the injunction, Domenico said that “Representative Boebert, or any member of Congress, has almost no power to act on behalf of the United States government. … Her authorized powers, and those of her colleagues, are important, but few,” Domenico maintained. “She can participate in the election of the Speaker of the House and other House Officers.... She can propose bills (including the exclusive power, along with her fellow Representatives, to initiate revenue bills) and vote on bills.... She can vote on articles of impeachment of the President and other civil officers.... And she can vote for the President if a majority of the electoral college fails to elect a candidate.... Those are profound powers, and ultimately Congress as a whole is in control of the ship of state. But its individual members, unlike executive branch officials, generally do not have authority to act on behalf of the state.”

Read the ruling in its entirety here.

More Colorado media odds & ends

📺 Westword reports: “According to eight past and present 9News employees, the station can be a hostile workplace, particularly for young women journalists.”

🚒 COLab and the Denver Press Club are hosting on July 22 a “candid conversation about newsroom burnout, what it looks like,” and what can be done about it.

🌡️ Columbia Journalism Review reported how the “climate crisis is indeed making extreme heat worse, but—as is so often the case with coverage of weather events—news organizations haven’t uniformly done a great job of prominently communicating this context.” (Colorado gets a mention.)

💡 An Aspen Ideas Festival panel this week titled “Local News and Why It Matters to Democracy” featured Colorado Public Radio president and CEO Stewart Vanderwilt.

📍 Learn how a team of us are seeking to map Colorado’s local news future.

🛡️ On July 8, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma will host “a practical training on covering high-conflict situations in Western rural communities.” Participants “will learn about media safety and building resilience when reporting on issues such as white separatism, militias, and domestic terrorism.”

💨 Sports and outdoors editor John Livingston is leaving The Durango Herald and doesn’t appreciate the job description for his replacement. His departure follows the recent exit of the paper’s environmental reporter Jonathan Romeo.

📡 Watch a time-lapse of construction on the new Southern Colorado Public Media Center in the Springs that will house Colorado Public Radio, KRCC, Rocky Mountain PBS’s Regional Innovation Center, and the Colorado College Journalism Institute.

🎂 Colorado Newsline is 1 year old.

🚔 The Colorado Supreme Court ruled people “no longer need to reference a ‘specific, identifiable incident’ in requesting completed law enforcement internal affairs investigations in Colorado,” according to the Coloradoan.

🆕 Welcome Bayan Wang, who has joined Denver7, and Anna Lynn Winfrey, who “officially started [a] career in journalism as a staff writer at the Montrose Daily Press.”

📸 Photographer Jerilee Bennett has been with The Gazette in Colorado Springs since 1986. The paper’s Terry Terrones checked in with her “to get to know Jerilee away from the camera.”

📜 Eric A. Anderson has compiled a list of nearly 1,000 Colorado journalists to follow on Twitter. (It needs some detail clean-up but it’s overall a very helpful resource.)

I’m Corey Hutchins, instructor at Colorado College’s Journalism Institute, the Colorado-based contributor for Columbia Journalism Review’s United States Project, and a journalist for multiple news outlets. The Colorado Media Project, where I write case studies, is underwriting this newsletter, and my “Inside the News” column appears at COLab, both of which I sometimes write about here. (If you would like to join CMP and Grasslands in underwriting this newsletter, hit me up.) Follow me on Twitter, reply or subscribe to this weekly newsletter here, or e-mail me at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.