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In July 2020, two months after Larry Calhoun started tweeting about violent crime, a stray bullet hit him while he was driving in Prince George’s County. It shattered his elbow, ripping tendon from bone. But the man known on Twitter as DC REALTIME NEWS is an everything-happens-for-a-reason guy. “You can’t question God on why things happen,” he says of the incident. “The community looks at me differently because I’m not just a reporter reporting on people’s tragedies. No, I’ve been through it—the shooting, the ambulance ride, the recovery. I’m OK to report on this news, but I still have a heart.”
Calhoun hardly ever switches off his tablet, the chatter from radio scanners serving as a soundtrack. His fingers fly as he tweets about local shootings, stabbings, fires, major traffic collisions, and water rescues. “My feed is providing public safety awareness,” he says. “If a shooting is going on, you want to know because your kids could be outside playing. I’m gonna get it out within five minutes of it happening.”
He’s carved out a role in local media because when reporters have to cover “such a broad spectrum of things like politics and pandas,” he says, they can’t get to every homicide. “That’s why I started doing what I do. Everybody matters. That’s why my feed has grown so much. I’m consistent with getting every single major incident out.”
While some social media spot news reporters such as Alan Henney have been around for more than a decade, several new ones, including DC REALTIME NEWS, MoCo PG News, CordellTraffic, and Killmoenews, have risen to prominence in recent years. Together they have more than 47,000 followers on Twitter. Some show their support with dollars—DC REALTIME NEWS and Killmoenews solicit Cash App contributions on their profiles. Derrick, who asked to be identified by his first name for safety reasons, is behind Killmoenews and is Calhoun’s childhood friend. He says fans send him $300 or more on normal days and up to $1,000 on the Fourth of July.
Local elected officials are taking notice. “It’s a transparency tool,” says Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George. She says she uses information from these accounts to track public safety patterns and direct resources. What she reads lets her know when to visit incident sites. “It’s allowed me to respond quickly to scenes of crimes and get information. Sometimes when I get there, MPD is calling me saying, ‘We want to update you, there’s been a shooting.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah. I’m right here. I saw it on Killmoe or Alan Henney.”
As news outlets move away from police blotter reporting and reconsider how they cover crime, accounts such as DC REALTIME NEWS are filling the spot news void. The urge to know why sirens are wailing outside will always be there and social media makes information free to access and easy to share. The self-proclaimed “scanner boys” who operate these hyperactive accounts say they perform a public service in a region they all hail from.
Conversations with journalists and local professors reveal that widely broadcasting details of every homicide can be both helpful and harmful. Maurice Chammah, a staff writer at the Marshall Project, says while these feeds can pressure mayors to “prioritize solving and delivering accountability for violent crime especially in communities that have been underserved,” they can also create context vacuums that people with agendas, like politicians, can exploit. The nature of spot news is that it’s so immediate that it can’t include information about motives or patterns or how suspects and victims are connected. Chammah and others also say the feeds can overemphasize crime and the perspective of police. In D.C., a city that’s grappling with police reform and 124 homicides so far this year, that can be especially concerning.
Calhoun was still recovering from his gunshot wound when he says a mass shooting on Dubois Place SE “put DC REALTIME NEWS on the map.” On Aug. 9, 2020, at least three shooters opened fire at a cookout, killing a 17-year-old and injuring 21 others. He’s convinced he broke the news when he started tweeting around 1 a.m., followed by 14 updates. “That’s when I thought that I was passionate about what I started doing,” he says.
The 38-year-old who works in retail management doesn’t have to rely on a radio to get information. Websites such as OpenMHz broadcast emergency dispatch stations and let listeners rewind the radio calls. Before he tweets, Calhoun typically waits for a battalion chief to arrive on the scene to confirm what he heard over the dispatch. He also listens for information to come across Fire and EMS channels. Neither he nor Henney nor Derrick wait for official press releases or statements from public information officers.
Calhoun won’t release names of victims until the police make them public. He also won’t share “lookouts,” descriptors of potential suspects, because he believes they’re not reliable. He goes to scenes of major incidents about five times a month with a press pass he had made and business cards.
“The biggest scene I went to was a triple shooting in Southeast,” he says. “That was the most media I’ve seen. [NBC4 reporter] Shomari Stone was there. When I get there and I’m with the big media, that’s when I realized I’ve made it. And the ultimate compliment is when the police know who you are.”
Calhoun ran into Derrick of Killmoenews for the first time in decades at a crime scene. “I watched him grow up,” Calhoun says. “Me and his sister were best friends. For us both to be doing what we’re doing, I’m proud of him.” They repost each other’s content almost daily.
Derrick, 30, goes to more scenes because he also uses Instagram, which is more visually driven than Twitter. The former dump truck driver transitioned to running Killmoenews full time about a year ago. He considers himself a journalist and calls his new line of work “modern day news.”
“No one in the house is watching the news on TV unless they’re older—my great aunts and grandmas,” he says. “It’s a lot of teens that look up to the page. I’m making the news popular.”
FOX5 photojournalist Van Applegate runs into Derrick and Calhoun at scenes. “I not only think the local media respects what [Calhoun] is doing, anyone who says he hasn’t been on the radar of newsrooms is lying,” he says. Reporters check these accounts looking for stories, according to Applegate, and they often cite them in their coverage. “What they’re doing is relatively harmless and more so helpful to actual media establishments,” he says. “I’ve often joked with those guys saying, ‘Call me when you’re ready for a full-time job.’ I’d put these guys on our assignment desk.”
Henney, 54, worked the assignment desk at WUSA9 from 2006 to 2009. Now he splits his time between Takoma Park and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. His career in spot news started in the 1980s, when he broadcast messages about emergencies using pagers for the Public Safety Network and Breaking News Network. Henney says reporters, lawyers, and public safety enthusiasts paid for the breaking news blurbs that were limited to about the same number of characters as a tweet.
People have been eavesdropping on scanner chatter for decades, but a policy shift in 2011 changed practices in D.C. MPD, then led by Cathy Lanier, encrypted most police radio traffic. In testimony defending the move, she argued that “new technology has allowed people—and especially criminals—to listen to police communications on a smartphone from anywhere.”
Lanier cited an example in her testimony where a 7th District sergeant suspected people were selling drugs out of a laundromat: “He tested this theory by going over the air to instruct units to meet him at the location, and then watched the subjects immediately clear the building.” In addition to “deterring crime,” Lanier said encryption protects officers, witnesses, and victims. News organizations weren’t pleased. “News media thought she was sticking it to them,” Henney says. “We’re all worried about the future. It’s a matter of control.”
Central to the debate is whether encryption gives police departments the opportunity to spin what happened. Henney points to the press release Minneapolis police distributed in May 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. The headline of the release read: “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” It did not mention that former officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck.
“If you read the press release that Minneapolis police put out and then you saw the video that the young people shot, there were two completely different narratives,” says Dr. Margot Susca, an assistant professor of journalism at American University. “News organizations are reckoning with a huge issue of police power and police authority and how over the past few decades they’ve given control to that kind of police authority. … Reliance on official police sources has been a narrative that has marginalized people of color.”
She sees the popularity of accounts such as DC REALTIME NEWS and Killmoenews as tethered to America’s obsession with crime news and true crime stories. The same infatuation drives people to join neighborhood listservs and sign up for Citizen, a crime-tracking app. “People want to know what’s happening in their neighborhoods,” she says. “Is it news? No. Is it interesting? Yes.”
That said, Susca does think social media spot news accounts compete with local TV news. FOX5’s Applegate agrees. “Larry has gone out to the scene to see for himself,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s much different than what we would do. He gets eyes on it.”
Susca cautions Washingtonians against over relying on these accounts. “It fills a void and that’s great, but it shouldn’t be someone’s only source for news and information in the District,” she says. “What concerns me as a media scholar is an overreliance on police voices. If it’s people sitting in living rooms with scanners tweeting out whatever they hear, who gets the power in that narrative? It’s the police.”
Henney and Calhoun counter Susca’s statement and say what they’re doing takes skill and nuance. “A seasoned, competent public safety scanner listener is not the same as a forum on TikTok or Reddit that just decided one day to start monitoring police radio traffic,” Henney says, adding that the police dispatchers in D.C. work for the Office of Unified Communications and act independently from MPD. “We do it responsibly and as factually as possible, being careful not to jeopardize a case or expose innocent people’s info.”
“My reports are the fastest and arguably the most accurate,” Calhoun adds. “And I’m doing all that without even a conversation with a [public information officer] or press release. I have even had police tell me, ‘You have more information than we do.’ So how could I ever be a mouthpiece for anyone other than the community I love?”
That community stretches beyond D.C. proper to include Prince George’s, Montgomery, and Fairfax counties, where police dispatches aren’t encrypted. In D.C., they have to get scrappy and use unencrypted Fire and EMS channels. But if a shooting occurs and no one requires treatment, he might not hear about it.
He used to glean information about victims from the calls ambulances make en route to hospitals to tell staff what to expect. “We’ve got a 28-year-old male with a single gunshot wound to the arm and vitals are stable,” he says, mimicking a “consult call” he’d overhear before the city encrypted those in November 2020. “Now I have to say, ‘Severity of injuries unknown.’ I’m going to have a talk with the fire chief to see why that changed.”
FEMS Public Information Officer Vito Maggiolo says encrypting these channels allows the department to protect private health and medical information. The information on radio calls, he argues, is specific enough that patients could easily be identified later. He also says encrypting “helps prevent those who commit acts of violence from learning which hospitals their victims are being transported to.” Calhoun says he doesn’t name hospitals.
The social media spot news crew fights to get details fast because the immediacy of information draws people in. If they tweet erroneous or incorrect information, they usually send corrections and updates. “You have to understand that anyone who is providing breaking news like we do, you cannot expect it to be as refined,” Henney says. “That’s not our mission. If it was, they wouldn’t follow us.”
Gabriel Contreras, a Ward 8 resident, is an avid follower. “East of the river has a good amount of crime,” he says. “If I see a bunch of repeated events, I’m going to avoid the area if I’m driving or walking through there.” He describes social media spot news as “a new breed of journalism” that complements what he reads elsewhere. “I don’t know if you need to write a Peter Hermann story to be a journalist. They’re reporting on incidents that are happening in real time.” Hermann, a Washington Post reporter, may take longer to publish, but Contreras says he appreciates how he “contextualizes it and brings in the human element.”
“If you’re trying to get information about what’s happening at the corner of Good Hope and Martin Luther King and the Post isn’t covering that neighborhood or they’re covering it behind a paywall, DC REALTIME NEWS will tell you what’s happening there,” Susca says. Her concern, she says, is whether the feeds distort perceptions. “If this is a site you turn to, it will overemphasize how much crime you believe exists in the community,” she says.
Chammah from the Marshall Project agrees. “Scholars found that there are points in time when the public’s perception of crime is way out of sync with how much crime is happening,” he says, citing Donald Trump’s presidential campaigns as an example.
“Because people tend to reason from examples, the more examples they’re hit with—whether it’s tweets from the scanner or watching the 10 p.m. local news—it appears that crime is out of control,” Chammah says. “I’m not saying the reporting is inaccurate, but it’s so laser focused about what just happened that it doesn’t cover broader trends and contextual factors that cause these crimes.”
Consuming a steady stream of violent crime content without context, such as whether victims are random or targeted, can be problematic, according to Dr. Abigail Marsh, a professor in Georgetown University’s Department of Psychology. She studies emotional processes like empathy and how they relate to altruism, aggression, and psychopathy.
“It’s not bad to learn about crimes in general except that we’re not getting denominators—all the positive interactions that are going on in a city of 600,000 people every day,” Marsh says. “Those 600,000 people are helpful and trustworthy, but you’re not getting that denominator in the news. This is when people start developing the perception that the world is a much more dangerous, risky place than it is.”
As a result, Marsh says, people can become more anxious and lose trust in the people around them. She likens reading crime coverage without context to googling symptoms on sites like WebMD. You might put in that you have a headache and a fever and come away thinking you have cancer because you don’t have the complete picture a physician can provide. “You need a much more complete set of information to make good judgment,” Marsh says.
That said, she sees potential value in social media spot news because it creates a record of every incident. “I, like everybody else, care about my own safety and the safety of my family and friends and even people I don’t know,” she says. “It’s a terrible tragedy anytime anybody is killed. I’m a scientist and I believe in the value of knowledge. If we don’t understand the world accurately as it really is, we can’t fix it.”
Henney, who is White, believes exposure is critical, especially because he thinks crimes impacting White or affluent residents attract more coverage. “We have a largely liberal press and yet they don’t cover the murders of Black men in Black neighborhoods,” he alleges. “Addressing the root of violence starts with acknowledging there is a problem. That starts by us, and others, documenting it.”
Take the July 17 shooting outside Nationals Park as an example. Derrick, who is Black, was incensed by how much coverage it received, with both CNN and the New York Times weighing in. Six-year-old Nyiah Courtney was killed in a shooting in Congress Heights the night before.
On Aug. 8 Killmoenews tweeted: “IT WAS A MASS SHOOTING LAST NIGHT ON NEW YORK AVE AND THE NIGHT BEFORE ON 53RD STREET BUT A SHOOTING OUTSIDE OF NATS STADIUM WAS COVERED LIKE IRAN BOMBED THE BALLPARK SAD!!!!!!!!!!!”
Print and broadcast reporters cover events and crimes in all quadrants of the District, but resources—time, energy, and staff—are limited.
“We’re not going to report on every shooting that comes down the scanner feed,” Applegate says. “[Social media spot news is] putting it out there for people to see. But I would take it with a grain of salt and caution people to understand how dispatch works.”
It’s not uncommon for Calhoun, Derrick, and others to tweet emotional appeals calling for better, more even crime coverage from mainstream media or they make stop-the-violence pleas.
On Aug. 12, DC REALTIME NEWS tweeted: “There is some senseless ass killing going on, these are not people who are in the streets gangbanging, we talking about hardworking taking care of their family folks. PROTECT YOURSELF and your love ones by anymeans necessary. I said, what I said. Damn Shame.”
Lewis George observes how their points of view come through in their tweets. “One of the things they do sometimes is they add an emotional aspect,” she says. “I’ve seen them memorialize individuals who have passed away. I’ve seen them take the opportunity to talk about us needing to do something. They also add an advocacy piece there. They can do some of those things that news stations aren’t able to do.”
She considers the accounts as part of “the natural evolution of journalism and social media” that grants more people, especially those who have been historically marginalized, entry into a competitive and shrinking field. “You have your major news outlets and newspapers, but this is an opportunity for a generation to shape their own stories and not let major news stations shape stories for them,” she says.
The 17-year-old behind MoCoPG News and the 21-year-old running CordellTraffic are both White, but they’re a part of the next generation. Cordell Pugh, an undergraduate student studying global health who writes for the MoCo Show, has been tweeting about Montgomery and Fairfax counties for a couple of years. He considers himself to be his biggest competition because school and friends also demand his attention.
“I originally started it as a traffic account when I thought there were many traffic instances going unreported and I moved into public safety when I noticed the same thing,” he says. “What I try to do is answer the simple ‘what?’ What are those 47 emergency vehicles doing on my street? I try not to get into motives or nuance, both of which can quickly be a slippery slope of getting one detail wrong or misconstrued.”
The founder of MoCoPG News is in high school and asked to remain anonymous. He picked up scanning during the pandemic. He mainly covers Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, but will help out in D.C. if it gets busy and his colleagues need assistance. “I never wanted to do news,” he says. “That seems like a very hard job. You have to be all professional.” Henney reached out in January and encouraged him to start his own account.
He’s young enough that he’s still learning how to drive but old enough to consider his mental health. “It got to me over the summer,” he says. He was taking a month off when Cordell messaged him about a crash. He pulled up OpenMHz. “A guy was decapitated. It was very brutal just hearing it. It made my stomach hurt. I never realized how brutal things are sometimes.” He takes breaks. “During the day I try to stay away from it because I’m young. I want to enjoy my last year of high school, but I’m willing to work at night sometimes because I enjoy doing it.”