Posted on August 12, 2021

Gannett Launches a Network-Wide Push to Rework Its Crime Coverage

Angela Fu, Poynter, August 9, 2021

As the Atlantic regional editor for Gannett, Hollis Towns is responsible for setting the strategy and tone of the papers within his region. Two years ago, as he was looking at story budgets across his papers, he noticed something concerning.

“I saw more and more reactive crime stories that didn’t connect the dots,” said Towns, who is also Gannett’s vice president for local news. “I saw more people, Black and brown folks who look like me, splattered across all of our front pages and on our websites, and no context offered for what happened and no follow up offered after the story had initially run.”

Editors at the papers in the Atlantic region also knew they had a problem. In New York, Democrat and Chronicle executive editor Michael Kilian realized there was a disconnect between the paper’s coverage of Rochester and what he was personally seeing. An analysis of one month of coverage in 2019 revealed that 20% of the paper’s stories were crime-related. But criminal activity didn’t make up 20% of everyday life in Rochester.

Meanwhile, Arizona Republic director for product and audience innovation P. Kim Bui was reexamining her own paper’s breaking news coverage. The paper had taken a “publish everything” approach until then, covering even the most minor incidents like house fires and missing persons cases that were solved in hours.

Something needed to change. On the East Coast, Kilian reshaped the Democrat and Chronicle’s public safety coverage and helped put together a comprehensive plan to better cover crime in the Atlantic region. In the West, Bui realigned her team’s priorities and drew up a set of values to guide crime reporting.

Their work has led to a Gannett-wide effort to reimagine crime coverage. Journalists across the newspaper chain, the largest in the country, have been attending trainings this summer to learn how to be more enterprising in their crime coverage, rather than reactive. The goal is to move beyond coverage that lacks context and relies on police narratives to the detriment of marginalized communities.


Gannett’s new approach to crime coverage, editors say, will focus on offering context, identifying trends and following stories to their end.

In 2018, Gannett started removing mugshot galleries from its sites, a process it finished last year when it removed galleries from its former GateHouse sites. Moving forward, its papers will severely limit the use of mugshots in stories.

Other changes include sunsetting police blotters and encouraging reporters to focus on trends, rather than individual crimes. For example, the Republic, which is based in Phoenix, used to report on individual pedestrian fatalities without explaining to readers why they were noteworthy, Bui said. So the paper decided to track these incidents, leading to a piece that explores why Arizona has one of the highest rates of pedestrian deaths in the country.

The Republic has also started adding “context lines,” or paragraphs explaining why they’re covering the story, to their articles. {snip}


Part of offering additional context is ensuring that non-police sources are used in stories. For years, journalists used to take police statements at face value, treating law enforcement as the “de facto voice” even when there were suspicions that they had an agenda, Towns said.

But the police’s perspective can’t be “the end of the story,” The Burlington County (New Jersey) Times executive editor Audrey Harvin said. There are victims, the victims’ families and community members to consider, and a fair and balanced story would include how the crime affected them.

The Times recently covered a man who was arrested after being caught on tape shouting racial slurs. In keeping with their new approach to crime coverage, Harvin instructed the paper’s diversity and inclusion reporter to talk to the people at the scene to understand how they were feeling.


The changes come as other news organizations around the country reexamine their crime coverage. The Associated Press, for example, announced last month it would stop naming suspects in minor crime stories, and The Boston Globe launched a program earlier this year to allow people mentioned in older articles to submit take-down requests.


The Democrat and Chronicle first started reexamining its crime coverage in May 2019 as part of the Table Stakes program, which helps news organizations tackle “critically important challenges.” The paper wanted to become a more diverse and inclusive organization in its storytelling and to address the “canyon of distrust” between itself and members of marginalized communities, Kilian said. {snip}

In an effort to build relationships with local communities of color, the paper started a “mobile newsroom” program. Every week, reporters and editors set up workstations in a community site like a library or a recreation center and spent time listening to local residents.