Public Editor

No two crimes are really alike, and they affect the public in different ways

Sure, news of Thomas Hauk’s pleading guilty embezzlement that he used to purchase expensive cars is interesting. But one reader asks why Hauk’s face wasn’t on display instead of his lucre.
Sure, news of Thomas Hauk’s pleading guilty embezzlement that he used to purchase expensive cars is interesting. But one reader asks why Hauk’s face wasn’t on display instead of his lucre.

Readers expect The Kansas City Star to report on crime aggressively, but they also often point out instances where they question whether that coverage gives the proper context.

The reality of modern life in a city is that crime is around us everywhere, from petty theft to grand larceny. There is no shortage of interesting, often frightening tales to tell.

The Star reports on all homicides, and also often covers non-fatal shootings, assaults, and other violence. But in a metropolitan area that counts approximately 2.4 million people, police respond to far more incidents than The Star could ever write about. And that doesn’t include the many more that are never reported to law enforcement.

And things aren’t really getting worse in the U.S., despite some people’s perceptions. In fact, overall violent crime rates have been declining steadily for years and are approaching historic lows, according to the FBI.

Two recent orchestrated violent attacks, though they happened in other states, have been alarming to readers in Kansas City.

I spoke with multiple people who urged The Star to devote reporting resources to both the Nov. 27 attack on a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood office and the Dec. 2 mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.

“You need to tell it like it is,” one caller said of the Colorado Springs attack. “This is domestic terrorism, and it could be anywhere.”

“I want to know what (law enforcement) is doing or isn’t doing right to keep us safe from San Bernardino here in our town,” said another.

Terrorism is obviously one of the issues of our time, and I’d never suggest it isn’t a serious, important topic. Yet it’s also — thankfully, for now at least — still exceedingly rare and unlikely to affect the average American.

But what about non-violent crime? Many readers through the years have suggested that The Star gives disproportionately little space to these sorts of offenses.

An example: A story on the front page Dec. 23 about a local accountant who embezzled more than $4 million, part of which he used to collect expensive cars and motorcyles.

“Yet another ‘white collar’ criminal enjoys anonymity,” wrote one perceptive emailer. “There are pictures of the cars and no picture of the criminal.

“This person is an accountant who will probably find job managing money, unless the next employer happens to read The KC Star today and remembers Thomas Hauk’s name. (He) will probably ‘successfully’ steal again.

“Give the next employer a fighting chance by including a picture of the white collar criminal in the articles.”

I understand and applaud her point. Forms of thievery that don’t involve burglary or robbery are far from victimless crimes. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t hear from someone who wants The Star to alert other Kansas Citians of the latest scam making the rounds. Countless lives have been ruined by these schemes.

The case of Hauk points out an inequity in how the criminal justice system interacts with the media as well. Hauk pleaded guilty to federal charges, and the FBI conducted the investigation. They do not release booking mug shots, so his photo wasn’t available to publish.

Parallels and comparisons are fraught with problems, as no two cases are ever truly alike. But thoughtful critiques such as this are useful.

Readers’ unique perceptions about these matters of public safety that apply to us all can only improve reporting.

Derek Donovan will return Dec. 30.