The author of a recent letter to the editor took the newspaper to task for displaying crime news too prominently. This is a resort area, and such news could be bad for business, she argued.
That’s certainly possible, and her criticism is not an uncommon refrain. However, crime itself is worse for business, and accurate reports about it empower people to respond accordingly (though I concede there is no guarantee that they will.)
Further, newspapers are obligated — as agents of public safety and as watchdogs of government, which typically is responsible for policing crime — to report on such vital matters. Of course, that doesn’t release us from our obligation to report with a sense of proportion and decorum, and as such, the letter writer’s points are well taken.
This explains, in part, a general rule we’ve adhered to in crime reporting: We don’t typically write about misdemeanor crimes or identify those accused of them when we do, unless the suspect is a public figure or in a position of public trust.
Our recent launch of a new online feature, a public-safety Web page, was occasion to review that policy — and, for the most part, reaffirm it. However, a prominent feature of that page includes a daily listing of inmates at the Beaufort County Detention Center, some of whom are arrested on misdemeanor charges. We carry the listing, nonetheless, although with a few stipulations — those listings only remain “live” on our site for a week or so, and anyone who shows us official documentation that they have been exonerated or had charges against them dropped (misdemeanor or felony) can have their entry removed before that.
Why did we decide to begin including this information?
First, arrest information includes previous charges and some demographic information. There is some news value in that, even when the accused is innocent, as is always our presumption. It speaks, for instance, to recidivism, jail capacity and court efficiency and gives some window into the sort of crimes being aggressively policed. Our online format allows us to offer this raw data for examination, without commentary.
Second, you folks seem to want it.
For every letter-writer who asserts we overplay news about crime, there is another convinced we are doing our chamber-of-commerce best to conceal it. And although media in general often are accused of an “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” mentality, our online traffic statistics suggest something much different.
Before we decided to create this public-safety page, I tracked online traffic for nearly a year, rising early each morning to dutifully check our analytics and record in a spreadsheet the number of pages generated by crime, emergency and court stories. I also documented where that traffic ranked in relation to other items on our site.
This revealed that, in aggregate, stories with a public-safety component attract traffic disproportionate to their number and length. For instance, it was not uncommon to see days in which such stories constituted less than 10 percent of the local news items on our site, while generating 45 percent or more of our total page views.
And here’s the more telling discovery: Quite often, top-ranked stories were crime briefs, which were not placed at the top of a home-page story stack and which appeared in print on an inside page. In other words, if we didn’t lead with crime news, readers voraciously dug it out, anyway.
(You can see this phenomenon yourself by looking at the new “most popular” widget recently added to the right rail of our home pages.)
All of this said, I should emphasize that the public-safety page is not merely a daily blotter of crime. It was conceived as a portal to information about a wealth of emergency, law-enforcement and court information. Our goal is to keep you safe by keeping you informed. So it includes copious email and phone listings. It has a map that provides quick access to all of the county’s traffic cameras and a Twitter feed of information useful to motorists. It includes blog posts by fire chiefs, court officers and the like to keep you informed and to teach you about the inner-workings of public safety.
And it is not a finished product.
For example, geo-location tools that will give you crime and emergency information, down to the street level, is but one possibility. So are reader opt-ins for email or text-message alerts regarding traffic and detours, and databases that allow you to track crime and emergency-response incidents over time.
We hope you find what already is there useful and informative, and if you have an idea to make the page more robust, send it along. Our aim is to answer your demands, much as we did with the creation of the page itself.