While I can’t speak for the Washington Post, as an editor responsible for murder coverage at the Tampa Tribune, I can say that there is one additional factor that comes into play when determining how a murder is played: information (Dept. of Media, “Murder, They Wrote,” 9/23).
We roll out on every murder we can and try to get as much information as possible for each. In the cases of drug-related homicides in particular, information is often scarce. Witnesses don’t want to talk, residents who might know something are fearful, and the families of victims are often hostile, if even available. This problem is even worse for the police. Homicide investigators and prosecutors nationwide are bemoaning the fact that they are increasingly having trouble winning convictions because witnesses are not coming forward.
To me, murder is the trickiest issue I deal with. People are dead, families are torn apart, and the victims—at least in the cities I have covered—are mostly minorities, whose stories, in general, the media have largely ignored. While I have drilled it into the reporters that each life has value, for all the factors I mentioned above, not all stories are created equal.
Frankly, it was easier as an editor and reporter at an alt weekly to cover murder, because we could pick and chose the interesting cases. There are a number of murder stories that I am very proud of during my time in the alt world, at both the New Haven Advocate and the Philadelphia City Paper, but the murder story I am most proud of, amazingly enough, was from a Gannett paper, the Courier-Post—in which we looked at the bloodiest year (to date) in the city of Camden, N.J., and examined the crimes and causes, and interviewed friends and family of each victim, leaving the readers with an impression of them as people, not statistics.
Your story touches on some very important issues and will, I hope, continue a very important discussion. In closing, let me put the proverbial ball in your court for a minute: If you had to cover every murder, plus all the other news that fits, how would you do it? As someone who has to do this day in and day out, I look forward to hearing any new ideas.
Courts and Cops team leader