Journalism plays a big role in forming narratives around crime and how the public understands safety and justice — with lots of choices and consequences that readers don’t always see. For the latest edition of Streetlight Detroit, we’re bringing you behind the scenes of the police beat, with one veteran reporter’s perspective on how crime coverage has shifted over the decades.
We spoke with Jim Schaefer, an executive editor at the Detroit Free Press who oversees the paper’s investigative, business, education and autos teams. Schaefer, 59, started at the Freep as an intern, impressing editors so much so that he was offered a job as a copy editor after graduating from Ohio State University in 1987 — and he has stuck with the publication since.
On the encouragement of a city editor, Schaefer tried a rotation on the night police beat, scouring the streets of Detroit under the cover of night, armed with a police scanner and ready with a photographer, witnessing one crime scene after another. And as a naive young man from Columbus, Ohio, Schaefer couldn’t believe his eyes.
Tell me about crime coverage back in the late ’80s and early ’90s in Detroit. What impact do you think this coverage had on readers?
The amount of crime reporting we did back then was almost overwhelming because it wasn’t just us — it was us, The Detroit News, the four TV stations, Metro Times and we all did a lot of crime coverage. The thinking back then was that we’re doing our job. We’re informing people what they need to be aware of to keep themselves safe, we thought we were doing a public service. It’s complicated because you think you’re doing a public service and in many ways you are, but in another consideration, are you advancing a stereotype about your city in the neighborhoods? Are you contributing to the “Detroit is hell” narrative?
We have to be very considerate when we think about our crime coverage today, because we’ve been forced to rethink things because we don’t have people full time covering the police department or courts reporters. We have become accustomed to what we can do with our resources. It required a shift in thinking because those of us who did it the old way had to sit back and ask: Why aren’t we going to cover that? And that’s because, number one, we can’t follow the case through to the end. And number two, are we really helping the community by covering every single thing that happens?
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How were you affected as a reporter by witnessing crime and tragedies? Does that continue to shape your decisions as an editor?
The thing that really became clear to me was that the media has great power. And we can either choose to use it in a way that benefits society or in a way that is more reckless and might be insensitive to the impact of what we do, might sensationalize, take advantage of someone, or stereotype. And so I’m way more sensitive to those kinds of things than I was before I got to this business. Because I had to deal with people face to face. I was fortunate enough to see it firsthand with my own eyes, and that really shaped the way I covered things. I just didn’t want to feel like I was using somebody. When you’re telling somebody else’s story, you’re using them. But if you do it in a fair and accurate and complete manner, I’m okay with it. There are some people today that think we should do more crime coverage than we do, and there’s certainly an argument to be made that people need to know what’s going on in their neighborhoods. The way we’ve tried to address that is asking our people who cover crime to look for trends. So we’re not doing one-offs on carjackings and drive-bys, we’re trying to show stories that have a little more context than we used to.
What do you see happening in the future when it comes to reporting on public safety and interacting with those experiencing traumatic events?
The media is a lot more sensitive to the impact of its reporting overall because of the internet and the accessibility of our records, and I think most places have reevaluated how they do things. Going forward, we’re going to have the kind of discussions we do every day, which is being considerate of the impact, not just deciding to do things one way because that’s the way we’ve always done it.
Covering crime responsibly is an important part of journalism. I think all stories — not just crime stories — should be judged by: Are you taking advantage of one person? Are you helping out more people? And that’s what I like about our crime coverage today. We have a responsibility to tell people what’s going on in a responsible manner.