New Jersey paper shows how not to use the police scanner

At 10:49pm last Wednesday, The Jersey Journal reported on NJ.com that at least one person “was believed to be grazed with a bullet” in a shooting in Jersey City, a midsized metropolis just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, earlier that evening. “Police were also investigating reports” that a second man was shot at a separate location a few blocks away, wrote Ron Zeitlinger, the Journal’s managing editor. The story continued: “The possible multiple shooting scenes led police to believe that these incidents were connected as part of a ‘running gun battle’ between groups from different areas of the city.”

It would seem to be a straightforward short crime story for an urban area—except for the sourcing. One fact in the piece, the presence of shell casings at an intersection, was attributed to a freelance photographer at the scene. But the only other source cited in the story—which included a report of injuries, a possible second shooting, and speculation of a “running gun battle”—was “police radio transmissions.” “Jersey City officials could not be reached for more information on the early evening shooting incidents,” the Journal explained.

The crackle of a police scanner has long been a fixture of local newsrooms, giving reporters a jump on fast-moving stories. But in an unusual move, the Journal, an Advance-owned publication that covers New Jersey’s Hudson County, has made unconfirmed scanner chatter a staple of its crime and public-safety coverage. Since last fall, the outlet has used the scanner as a primary source for items on a police officer victimized by a hit-and-run, law enforcement raids, a boy falling from the roof of a four-story building, and more shootingsamong other stories. Yesterday, when a 2-year-old child was found dead inside a Jersey City home, the Journal‘s official Facebook and Twitter posts about its initial coverage cited police radio. (The current version of the story attributes information about the death to the county prosecutor, though it cites radio transmissions for other details.)

In doing so, the paper is swimming against conventional journalistic norms. It’s not uncommon for news outlets to use scanner transmissions to add details and color to a story, especially when trying to reconstruct the timeline of an emergency response after the fact. But relying on the transmissions as a primary or sole source for breaking news is not a practice most newsrooms would embrace.

“I can’t imagine a scenario in which you would write a story based wholly on information you get from the scanner,” says Mitch Pugh, who was editor of the Sioux City Journal when that paper adopted a breaking news policy in 2010 that discouraged reliance on police transmissions. “I think that’s fairly universal.”

To be clear, the Journal isn’t publishing scanner traffic about crisis situations in real-time. So its practices don’t raise the precise concerns over operational tactics that have been aired in controversies from the Boston Marathon manhunt to live-shooter situations in Washington, DC, and Colorado Springs. Nor has it been involved in a case where a stray remark on the scanner leads to misinformation that goes viral.

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The more glaring risk is simpler: that the information gleaned from listening in on first responders will be incomplete, lacking context about sensitive information, or turn out to be just inaccurate.

In December, for instance, a man who was initially reported shot to death turned out to be stabbed to death. That example was highlighted by Jersey City spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill, a critic of the Journal’s practices, who said that the paper’s use of scanner information has become a source of exasperation for the city’s police department.

“We are increasingly concerned about public safety stories being reported solely on police radio transmissions, as we know police conversations happening in real time contain information that is sensitive, emergent, and likely to change as the investigation proceeds,” Morrill said in a statement.

Journal staffers would not discuss the company’s practices on the record, citing a strict company policy for dealing with media; Editor Margaret Schmidt was on vacation through Monday and did not respond Tuesday to requests for comment. One employee told CJR on background that the publication aims to bring information to readers who will be talking about police activity on social media whether or not there is official confirmation, and that scanner traffic amounts to an unvarnished police report, not shaped by the city’s PR machine.

The general practice of relying on scanner traffic–under certain guidelines–does have defenders in media circles. Howard Owens, publisher of hyperlocal sites The Batavian and Wyoming Free Press in western New York, fleshed out his criteria for scanner reporting at length in a 2013 blog post. Among them: Never report a fatality off the scanner; never give details of a victim’s medical condition; and never report information that could jeopardize officers.

First responders are typically accurate in their radio chatter, Owens argues, and basic dispatch information is “generally safe.”

“People like knowing why the fire trucks just went down Main Street or why all of the police cars are gathered at the end of their block,” Owens wrote. “The scanner is just another news reporting tool, and like any tool, it can be misused and abused, but for Web journalism in the era of real-time news, it’s an invaluable tool when used well.” 

If the Journal adopts its own clearly stated policy, one guideline it might consider: Leave out the juicy quotes from cops that make speculative factual claims. Last Wednesday’s story featured, in the headline and the lead, the idea that the shooting might have been part of a “running gun battle.” When the outlet ran a follow-up 15 hours after the original story identifying one of the victims as a local rapper, though, it included this line: “The Jersey Journal reported last night that there was a report of a [second shooting] at roughly the same time, but Morrill [the city spokesperson] said today there was only one shooting scene.” The first story remains unchanged.

An even safer approach would be to actively avoid such predicaments, as advocated in the Sioux City Journal’s breaking-news policy: “Scanner traffic will not be used as the only source for a breaking news update unless outstanding circumstances are present.”

That paper’s former editor, Pugh, is now at the Charleston Post and Courier, which shied away from scanner chatter in its coverage of a horrific church shooting last year. Pugh says he has still yet to come across any “outstanding circumstance.” “Maybe one exists,” he allows.

Or, maybe not.

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.