Jacob Bielanski

Award-winning legal editor and journalist

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When “Killed” Becomes “Dumped”: the Process of Reporting Crime

NOPD homicide investigation lakeview crime reporting

Police tape marks the scene on the 300 block of Kenilworth Street in New Orleans where the bodies of two men, shot to death elsewhere the same day, had been found on Feb. 23. (Jacob Bielanski)

Last Sunday evening, I was jumping over puddles trying to get a look at the scene of a double homicide.

Two young lives, yet again, ended for some horrible, not-so-clear reason. Well, my job is to do my best to bring clarity. That is why I was truly grateful to receive the following comment on my story later that evening:

Poorly written story. The title implies that the murders were committed in the 300 block of Kenilworth. However, you read a little bit more, and the wording implies that the people were shot in N.O. East, and the bodies were dumped in the 300 block Kenilworth. Come writers…………BE CLEAR WITH YOUR STORIES.

Being a long-time writer, I have become a brutal, unforgiving reader. If your copy is not immaculate, if your lede is bad, if your anecdote is dry or if your topic is just, I dunno, boring, I stop reading and move on. There’s too much great writing in this world, to my reasoning, to waste time trying to decipher peoples’ poor rhetorical constructions (unless, of course, I’m getting paid to do so, or my relationship to the author warrants some leeway).

To that end, I’d like to offer some insight into how the final* story came to diverge slightly from original the headline (note: the headline and lede were updated since the commenter posted his/her comments).

The Time-Picayune is a model in “digital first”–instead of building its newsgathering around an arbitrary print deadline, it runs the news as it happens, and then the most pertinent of that news, at the end of the day, is printed. Nowhere is this model more volatile than in crime, so we monitor police scanners. But scanners aren’t facts. To write a story, we have to have confirmation from the police department.

In this story, we received an email from the NOPD at 4:58 p.m.–roughly 28 minutes after officers had first arrived on the scene–that cryptically confirmed for us two things: 1) that it was a “double 30s” (30S being the code for a homicide by shooting) and 2) the address in Lakeview.

With this information, we immediately ran a story so that you, the reader, know almost as quickly as we do (of course, we replace “30S” with “homicide” for clarity) when and where this horrendous crime occurred. There’s no time for flourish here. We then call our photographer, grab our rain boots and run out to the scene to find out more. We start poking for things the NOPD won’t, or can’t, tell us.

As the picture becomes clearer, the NOPD gives statements and prepares to send a written press release. In this instance, a press conference on the scene introduced the suspicion that the bodies were killed somewhere else, and this was just the dumping ground. Minutes afterwards, I was sitting in my car with a laptop, using a cellular hotspot to, again, let the reader know these facts quickly as I did.

In the meantime, I had to hunt down the truth about two people injured after falling off floats in the Krewe of Alla (one Krewe Captain invited me to “get quotes” from his lieutenants–they were all hanging out at the Three Legged Dog. The temptation, at that point, was overwhelming.) I didn’t eat dinner that night.

At 8:20 p.m., (nearly three-and-a-half hours after the first information came out) the NOPD put out a very clean, well-written press release regarding this crime, that included the approximate address of where the victims were suspected of being killed. That release also included all the information we already posted.

Throughout this process, we have updated the story to include the new information. When the changes are subtle–police are, in fact, still investigating a double homicide scene they discovered at 300 Kenilworth–our lede and headline changes (online) may not always perfectly reflect the changing reality.

It’s no excuse for unclear copy. But I hope this highlights the need for an active, critically-thinking readership in the era of digital news.

*this is a loaded word, as few stories are “final” in the digital world. We’re always learning something new, finding a new connection.

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