When readers contact me to discuss how The Kansas City Star covers the news, crime is always one of the two or three topics that come up most frequently. It’s the duty of journalists to report on matters of public policy and safety, and the criminal justice system sits at that intersection.
Most weeks, I field multiple questions about why The Star hadn’t covered an incident, or why that coverage lacked details reported in social media or by word of mouth.
About a week ago, an emailer told me he had observed a Kansas City Police Department Operation 100 that had closed a Northland highway and other roadways for three hours.
(An Operation 100 is a “response to a critical incident where there is a subject barricaded in a residence or place of business, either with himself/herself, and hostages or not,” according to a KCPD video on YouTube.)
I told him I would check with the newsroom, with the caveat that police actions that look dramatic often end up as situations that wouldn’t normally be considered newsworthy.
“Closing a highway and its vessels for three hours sounds more newsworthy than many other things I read,” he replied, and that is of course a good point. Something that disruptive in a public location is often worth coverage in and of itself.
Members of the crime and justice team looked into this specific incident, which they had not been aware of while it was happening. It ended with the suicide of a private individual, which The Star does not normally cover — a policy I agree with.
There are other times when journalists would like to cover a potential crime, but law enforcement doesn’t release much information. A good example came Nov. 22, when a Southwest Airlines flight was diverted to Kansas City International Airport because of “suspicious behavior on the part of several passengers.”
An FBI spokesperson described the behavior of the people detained as “unruly,” the news story noted. It also said they were allowed to continue on a later flight.
“As a very frequent traveler, I want to know exactly what happened,” wrote an emailer, asking for The Star to publish more details.
I’m sure many others did, too, but as the story said, the FBI would not release any more specifics. That isn’t unusual, particularly for federal investigations. If charges are brought later, though, more information would almost certainly be disclosed.
I touched on a related topic in my last column, where a man didn’t like that Google finds an old story on KansasCity.com about criminal charges against him that were later dropped. How should editors deal with those initially accurate, though now outdated, reports?
Several readers suggested that the original stories should receive editor’s notes at the top about the dropped charges, and that is a good idea.
But it often isn’t feasible. In the majority of these cases, law enforcement doesn’t make public announcements. It’s sometimes possible to find the information in public records, but it isn’t reasonable or even remotely possible for the newsroom to check every outstanding criminal case every day until every resolution is found.
And in many instances, criminal charges can disappear from the public records, yet still stand. There are simply too many inconsistencies in the system to set a rock-solid newsroom policy on how to follow up.
But despite all the roadblocks they encounter, journalists must always strive to make coverage of the criminal justice system as fair and complete as possible.