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Crime scenes



If there is anything that sets the Eureka Reporter and Times-Standard apart from each other it’s how each covers crime in Humboldt County.

Crime coverage is considered bread and butter to most newspapers as it’s the one thing that tends to interest all readers, regardless of what neighborhood they live in or their age, gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. Just consider the popularity of the TV shows “Law and Order” and “CSI”.

If you read only the Eureka Reporter for your news, you’d get the idea that we live in a crime-ridden county. If you read only the Times-Standard you’d get the notion that very little crime occurs.

How’s that possible?

It’s all about what stories a newspaper decides to cover and which stories they pass over to cover something else. First off, newspapers can’t cover everything that happens, even in a small town. Just look at the Arcata Eye.Kevin Hoover’s weekly always looks as if the pages will split open if he tries to stuff one more news item.

But I get frustrated with the two dailies because they each go about covering crime and the courts in a superficial manner. Now, before all you bloggers with too much time on your hands go ballistic on me, here’s the disclosure you want to see: My husband works as a deputy district attorney and he used to be a criminal defense attorney. You’d assume I’d be particularly interested in the courts. But tell me, how many wives of insurance salesmen are all that interested in insurance?

Here’s what both papers miss in their coverage or lack of coverage of crime and criminal justice in our county: The stories behind the crimes. The people involved in or affected by them. At their heart, crime stories are human interest stories.

Readers feel directly connected to stories about crime. Why? Because we have all been victims in the past or we fear being victims in the future. When we see people accused of crimes, there’s the feeling of “There but for the grace of God we go.” And if you’ve ever had a child, you can’t help thinking about the parents of both the crime victim and the criminal; both represent the deepest fears we have for our child’s future.

But a good crime story needs to be told, not reported. What’s the difference? The Eureka Reporter tends to report crimes. It’s like the old Dragnet series — just the facts, ma’am. Take what was a top story in the paper in May, that of the trial of Thomas Applegate, a 44-year-old man accused of walking into a Bridgeville home and fatally shooting a man in front of his family.

In Kara Machado’s almost daily reporting of the trial from jury selection to the time a jury convicted Applegate and found him sane, you learn much of what happened through the testimony of witnesses and the statements of the prosecutor and defense attorneys.

But she never took the reader there — to Bridgeville, to the scene of the crime. And for a crime, this was about as big as you get. It was the one many of us fear — you sit in your living room one evening with your children, hearing how their day went, and a maniac walks in and starts shooting.

There’s an unwritten formula for how big a news story is: The bigger the crime or the smaller the town, the bigger the coverage. You couldn’t find a crime much bigger or a town smaller.

And it happened in such an odd little town — one that was for sale lock, stock and barrel. Everything about that story is fascinating, but except for what is told in court, we, as readers, learn little.

What did this crime do psychologically to the people of Bridgeville? If I lived in a town of two dozen people and a stranger walked into a house and started shooting, I’m not sure I’d ever shake off a feeling of paranoia. A crime reporter covering the trial of a murder after four years should talk to the neighbors, the postmaster, pretty much every one of the 25 residents old enough to talk and willing to do so. Four years after this murder, has this town really recovered?

Who is Thomas Applegate, really? How did he get to the point where he could kill a stranger in front of the man’s family? How does something like that ever happen? For that you need experts — psychiatrists, criminologists, sociologists who could help readers sort it out and try to understand something that seems so incomprehensible.

Meanwhile, the Times-Standard ran a handful of stories between April and June. None of them showed any depth and most were about the length of a news brief. Imagine if the T-S put enough time into and devoted enough space for the story of a murder as it does for its community profiles. It might be one hell of a story.

The problem with crime coverage in this area reflects the problem with much of the news coverage. Reporters go out and report what happened that day — they go to the courthouse, the press conference, the event whatever it is.

But that’s different from going after the story. The story is almost never inside the courtroom, or heard at a press conference. The story comes from what people tell you in their living rooms and backyards or over coffee at the diner or in the break room of the police station. It’s what people tell you when you don’t rush them, and after they’ve seen that you’ve put in a lot of time and energy to find them, or that you’ve done sufficient research to ask the right questions. That demonstrates to them that you actually care about the story they have to tell.

In general, people are bursting to tell their stories. But they aren’t going to hold a press conference to do so.

Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. If you want to comment on this story or let her know of some media coverage or issue you’d like her to look into, email her.

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