It started with a press release: The Poynter Institute was offering training for newsrooms that dared to take a hard look at their crime and public safety coverage to offer audiences more fair, complete and relevant stories and reports.
KPBS’ newsroom had long been discussing what crime and public safety stories qualify as a public service that is true to the public media mission versus those that do not. We hoped Poynter’s program would further this internal dialogue to help inform editorial decisions.
Elma González Lima Brandão, digital editor, and Claire Trageser, deputy investigations editor, attended the Poynter seminars. They learned that in some cases, media coverage of public safety has skewed too much toward the narratives of police and other public safety agencies. Some of these stories do qualify as news, and it is relatively quick and inexpensive to accept a government agency press release at face value.
This practice — running with stories without thoughtful consideration — can lead to diminished accuracy and lack of depth that may leave audiences with a biased perception of which issues are truly important to communities.
It’s one year later, and we at the KPBS newsroom have published our Public Safety Policy. The guidelines serve multiple purposes:
- To give our audiences a clear signal about the type of public safety coverage they can expect from KPBS, which includes wildfires, crime, public health and several other issues.
- By deciding what we will cover and what we will avoid — or think deeply about covering or not — we can focus our attention on higher-impact, more meaningful projects and stories.
As our policy spells out, we prioritize covering these types of public safety stories:
- Wildfires and other high-impact disasters
- Crime trends/serial or high-profile murders with added data and/or historical context
- Police shootings with outside expert perspectives and community voices
- Crime trends with historical and/or data-driven context
- Crime that brings to light systemic issues
- Issues of high impact to the community — “news you can use” and stories that clarify the facts on an issue
And we should avoid covering these stories, or discuss prior to covering them:
- Individual house fires
- Homicides or crime without context
- Police shootings or in-custody deaths with only the police narrative on what happened
- Single crime statistics shared by police without verifying and contextualizing
- Crime that paints a narrow picture of a community
- Issues of no real impact to the community, but that cause public fear or alarm without providing context
We shaped the policy after months of training with the Poynter Institute, feedback from within the newsroom, and input from community groups and major public safety agencies.
I recently attended a multiday training in La Jolla, Calif., “Crime Coverage Summit 2023: Beyond ‘If It Bleeds, It Leads,’” which provided deep-dive data, perspectives and networking with other newsroom leaders and expert speakers on this very issue. I shared a draft of our policy at the summit; it was greeted with enthusiasm. A few news organizations have already created their own guidelines. Some focus on strict rules for not using mug shots on websites and TV programs because the people in them have usually been charged but not convicted of crimes.
Trageser shared the view of many at the La Jolla crime summit. “As a newsroom, [public safety coverage] is something we struggle with,” she said. “What stories should we cover? Because we don’t cover all of them … it becomes a question of, how do we decide what to cover?”
The struggle is real. As a web producer years ago, Gonzalez said there was little guidance about what was relevant to the audience. Crime stories, she said, “did well online — people tend to click on those stories. So there was little incentive to stop posting those stories.”
Generating web traffic is a key tactic to maintain viability for some news organizations, so the pressure is not only real, it is existential.
But the Poynter workshop showed the unintended consequences of doing that.
“To me, going to our website and seeing that a person was arraigned for any random crime with a mug shot is not what we’re really about,” Gonzalez said. “I wanted to speak to experts and hear from them about how to make these decisions.”
After the workshops, Gonzalez and Trageser worked up a first draft for the newsroom to pick apart.
“When we first presented the guidelines, it had a lot of specificity,” Trageser said. “We eventually modified it to make it broader.”
Making decisions on how to cover crime and public safety has consequences. From the newsroom, “the question was, do people count on KPBS to tell people why there are a bunch of police cars on their streets?” Trageser said. “If we aren’t providing that information, do they not trust us and go elsewhere?”
Ultimately, our policy allows some flexibility. Feedback from community groups was also essential to getting to the final draft.
CALFIRE, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, was generally pleased with the guidelines. An agency spokesperson told Gonzalez, however, that they wanted to make sure our guidelines allowed coverage of how to prevent public safety crises like wildfires.
“This was a good reminder of what we should prioritize in the future,” Gonzalez said. The FAQ-type stories are a must for public media news organizations.
We reached out to multiple law enforcement agencies, and most declined to comment. One department, which requested anonymity, responded negatively. The department “feared that our reporting would be biased because we would seek outside perspectives besides the police reports and narratives,” Trageser said. That department said that if we enacted the policy, they would be less likely to grant us interviews in the future. But we decided to publish the policy anyway.
Writing the policy is a big step; making the community aware of our policy is another. The KPBS Public Safety Policy is posted on kpbs.org. We shared the policy on our social media accounts, ran a digital banner on our website, and included information with a link in all of our email newsletters. We also sent a press release to local media outlets and national journalism organizations.
Public media news organizations have the freedom and responsibility to serve the public, and making our coverage goals transparent has a greater purpose. Moreover, recent research shows that increased transparency results in more trust from news audiences. Our public safety policy helps hold us accountable — to ourselves, and first and foremost to our audiences.
I believe it’s imperative for news leaders to make these and other policies in order to earn and maintain the public’s trust.
Terence W. Shepherd is news director at KPBS, the public media outlet servicing San Diego and Imperial counties. He was involved in fashioning similar guidelines at his previous station, WLRN in Miami, and as ethics chair and chairman of the Radio Television Digital News Association.