Police Scanners and Speculation = Necessary Hyperlocal Journalism?

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A  lively discussion erupted yesterday in the comments section of Street Fight’s interview with B-Town Blog’s Scott Schaefer.  At issue: Schaefer’s suggestion that sites did their communities disservice by reporting on rumors and information that comes over the transom via unconfirmed rumors and police scanner reports.

“We try to avoid posting much in the way of what I call ‘speculative reporting'” said Schaefer. “A lot of unconfirmed reports [are] about ‘apparent accidents in this intersection’ or ‘overheard this on the scanner’ posts, and I think that’s very dangerous journalism. We try to stick to confirmed facts as often as we can, and we don’t update the site just to update it.”

Among those taking issue were The Batavian‘s Howard Owens, who wrote: “When you don’t do scanner reports, you’re missing a key to audience growth and retention, and I think abandoning your ethical obligation as a real-time news service to keep readers fully informed.”

What do you think? Is this kind of reporting vital to competitive hyperlocal sites? Below we’ve reproduced the responses so far:

Howard Owens: When you don’t do scanner reports, you’re missing a key to audience growth and retention, and I think abandoning your ethical obligation as a real-time news service to keep readers fully informed.  Readers have a right to know what’s going on and I can’t imagine any ethical journalists purposefully denying them that information.  The idea that  something over the scanner isn’t confirmed is ludicrous on its face.  It’s coming from an official source, and like all official sources, even ones supposedly fully vetted, it can, yes, be wrong (like less than 1 percent of the time wrong, and if you know what you’re doing in scanner reporting, there’s a lot of wrong information you’ll never report). But the great thing about web reporting is a correction is just a click away.

Scott Schaefer: Howard – I stand by my decision to not post ‘spec news’ I hear on scanners, and this is based on mistakes I’ve read on other blogs that seemingly post just about anything they hear before it’s confirmed. If you want to talk about ethics, I think that posting bad info is just plain wrong, even if removing it is just a “click away.” Plus, I have found that actively listening to a scanner distracts from getting the real work done! RSS feeds and Twitter are much more effective methods of getting breaking news, as is listening for sirens and calling the F.D./P.D. directly. It helps of course that our office is just about a block from the main fire station…

DCNewser: Every television station in the country has scanners on 24/7. Somehow they’re all still able to get work done. BTW, the info I pick up over the scanner is about as accurate as the local police PIO and slightly more accurate than the local fire PIO

Howard Owens: I dispute that a lot of incorrect information gets posted just by listening to the scanner.  Your ivory tower approach isn’t modern journalism nor taking best advantage of the web to provide real time news.  Also, we have a scanner on 24/7 and judging by the amount of work we get done and the success we’ve had, it’s taken noting away from any other duties.  It’s definitely adds to our business, not detracts from it.  But I really don’t care what you do. I just want to make the point for aspiring publishers not to listen to your advice, because it is misguided.

Scott Schaefer: Hmmm…talk about an ‘Ivory Tower’ Howard – thanks for the lecture! Remember, the point I was making in the interview was about posting speculative info, oftentimes gleaned from unconfirmed scanner reports, posted in a rush to be first or to just update a website. That’s the point here. There’s certainly a place for scanners in any newsroom (we have one), so please stop your own Ivory Tower Comments, Mr. Expert. But then again, perhaps you own stock in Bearcat or Uniden...?

Howard Owens: “speculative info” on the scanner?  You must not listen to one much.

Scott Schaefer: Read closer Howard – ‘speculative info, oftentimes gleaned from unconfirmed scanner reports.’  In case that doesn’t make sense to you, here’s a translation example:  HEADLINE: Possible Accident at 35th & Morgan  LEDE: According to a report we heard on the police scanner tonight, there may have been an accident at the intersection of 35th and Morgan…RESULT: Scanner call was wrong (happens), there was NO accident, yet the ‘Journalist’ posted the story without confirmation.  And said ‘Journalist’ had done it before, and has done it many times since.  THAT is what I’m referring to, and what I try to avoid.  End. Over. Out.

DCNewser: You don’t go with the initial dispatch, you wait until units get on the scene and radio back with what they got. Not sure why anybody would be reporting on accidents that don’t involve significant injuries, road closures or photos, but if you wanted to you can do so with 99% accuracy when the first arriving unit confirms the accident and the location. Get off your Journalism high horse, get into the trenches, and start paying attention to how first responders really do their jobs. Then you won’t have to wait a day to rewrite a police press release.

SeaHac: I appreciate what Schaefer has to say about the hyperlocal role and his aversion to “speculative reporting.”  Amen to that – when the West Seattle Blog posts that kind of stuff I feel it discredits the otherwise valuable reporting they do.  Serious blogs should not be in the business of rumor and hearsay (although they probably do it because it drives traffic and makes more cash money … more about business then journalism I suppose).

Altadenablog: I’m throwing in with Howard on this one.  We love our scanner, and it’s been very necessary for right-now information.  Yeah, you have to caveat it (“Scanner says — but not confirmed …”) until you actually do confirm it, and be ready to make corrections with necessary, but we’ve covered lots of real-time events where reticence is not called for.   We had California’s worst wildfire just on the periphery of our town in 2009, and some major police actions since then, and the scanner has been an invaluable resource.  In our town, if the police or sheriff’s rescue helicopter is orbiting, everyone in town can hear it and they come to me to ask what it’s about.  I also have a lot of scannerhead readers who help out immensely during these occasions.