Thursday, October 15, 2009

REPORTER BLOG: Working with the Police

Katie Boyer

As a journalist, I go into work everyday with an open mind. I may be covering the latest school levy, or maybe a new coffee shop opening Uptown. We are constantly faced with the continuous change of what is newsworthy.

In Athens, viewers are concerned with local issues like the environment, the university and the well-being of their children. In a small Appalachian town, local news makes up the biggest part of our everyday newscasts. However, there are those times that something happens in the area that gets immediate attention, and that is death. This week, I went out on my first news story that involved the death of a person. Having time to reflect on my experience, I have learned a tremendous amount about how death impacts the media world, and how it is handled by authorities.

Partnering with Police
I have a job like everyone else. I get up every morning, get ready for work, put my time in and come home. Now don’t get me wrong, my job is different than most, but nonetheless, it is my job.

Police officers also have a job that demands a tremendous amount of time and dedication. As a new journalist, I was slightly concerned about how my experience with the police would go. Public information is just that, public, but it is often difficult to get, especially when it comes to a death that's still under investigation. So I put on my journalism cap and made the phone call. To my overwhelming surprise, I was invited to come to the police station right away. I grabbed my camera and tripod, and off I went to the Athens County Sheriff’s Office.

Lieutenant Bryan Cooper talks about the facts on the investigation.

The Importance of Getting the Facts
Lieutenant Bryan Cooper was the man who met me at the door, just the man I was looking to see. As I was setting up my camera, I thanked Lt. Cooper for meeting with me on such short notice, and let him know that I appreciated his time. He told me that it was not a problem and that he respected me as a journalist for making sure to get the facts straight right away. I nodded my head and smiled. But then, he commented on how important it is in such a small community to verify the facts, because hearsay is the start to rumors which can then cause an uproar.

The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. I had just heard about the death only an hour before we met in the Athens Messenger. But after reading it in the paper, I had heard several different stories from people walking by on my way to the sheriff’s office. All I knew was that a man was found dead in front of a home. I did not go in with any preconceived notion of what may have happened, all I wanted was to know the truth.

Official Word
Lieutenant Cooper gave me all the information on the case, down to the last page of the police report. As I was packing up, I was confident that my story had the right information that would provide for a strong story to let the public know exactly what the police know. I knew the man’s age, address, where he was the night before, who he was with, and who the police were still seeking for questioning.

My job at the police station was done, but as I was packing up, Lt. Cooper was speaking to an investigator in the office about another newsworthy incident. He saw the curiosity in my eye and immediately offered to fill me in on what was happening on the other case. I not only left with the information I needed for my story, but also, additional information just by being observant, and by having a source who was willing to go above and beyond what was asked of him.

Lieutenant Cooper talks about the possible witness statements and what they are still looking for.

Great Sources
I know I am constantly going to be faced with people who are easy to speak with, and those who are difficult. I also know that the job comes with many challenges, but I am also aware of the feeling of success I get when I see my story on air. Lieutenant Cooper was a great source. He gave me everything I needed, plus additional information. He made it a point to say that the media is a huge help to them because we are able to get the official word and put it out to people in the community. I realized how important it is to continue to develop good professional relationships with members of the community, whether they are a police officer or a city council member, or even a frequent visitor of a local coffee shop. When people know that our work is based solely on fact, and that we as journalists strive to provide them with the latest information, they too begin to respect our work, and our jobs. Having the opportunity to cover stories of all kinds of stories has given me a broader understanding and respect for the Athens community, and I hope that only grows during my career.

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