On Wednesday the newsroom received a vague yet exciting press release from the Columbia Police Department. It was to notify us that the department would be holding a press conference that afternoon to unveil an exciting new technology that the are employing to aid in the fight against crime.
Being journalists, our speculation was kept to a minimum, but I am sure everyone’s first thought was something to do with weapons or armored cars.
It was my first time at a press conference held by a police chief. The turn out was not quite what I imagined. The city council chamber, where it was held, was all but empty and there were more police officers than press (i think there were three other reporters). I don’t remember seeing any non-journalist civilians.
The assistant chief of police approached the podium and began to speak deliberately. Waiting for him to get to the “exciting new technology,” my mind continued to speculate.
“We are excited to announce that this Columbia Police Department officers will begin using Taser…”
“Tasers!” I thought. I was surprised they didn’t have them before and wondered how quickly we’d start seeing reports of taser-happy officers over using the allegedly more humane weapons.
Then the chief finished his sentence: “… Axon body cameras.”
It turns out Taser International is the misleading name of a company that manufactures wearable surveillance cameras. The stated reasons for buy 102 of these little black cameras that are worn on the chest were that they reduce complaints, provide clearer accounts and documentation of police-citizen interactions and, ideally, reduce the number of cases that actually go to trial.
I went back to the newsroom and wrote my little 10 inch story. It had all the factually information but my inner poetry major was kicking at me. It was a really boring read. All of the information I had to report had come from what the chief said and a two minute interview with another officer. Save for a brief description of what the camera looks like, the story had no imagery. Almost every graf ended with ” Chief Gordon said.” Very dry.
But being 5 p.m., I wasn’t going to sit there and try to turn it into the most beautiful, flourishing prose about body cameras. We published, and I went home.
The next morning I got several compliments on it and discovered it was among the most read articles all day.
In my selfish desire to write pretty words I had forgotten something(s): People really care about what the police are doing and they don’t need it to be presented beautifully so long as the get the information they want. The article I wrote, while not satisfactory to my own aesthetic standards, was informative and helpful, and most importantly, served the reader. It did what good journalism is supposed to do.
Update: the story is still on the “most-read stories” at http://www.columbiamissourian.com/