This simple perp-on-gray image has been the visual bread and butter of crime stories for a long time. The St. Petersburg Times even has a whole Web site dedicated to them.
But they’re also valuable to the police, especially when they’re using the photos to help catch suspects or persons of interest in a crime. Sending a photo to news organizations means exposing it to thousands of eyeballs that can help detectives do their jobs.
But if it’s not a high-profile crime, they’re likely out of luck.
That was the case this week when the librarians at N.C. State were fed up after the brazen theft of a large $700 clock from their facility. They had security camera footage, but what news organization would have the space to print or air such a story?
As it turns out, librarians are pretty clever — they skipped traditional media altogether.
Miraculously, the clock soon found its way back.
Then a funny thing happened — The News & Observer’s Josh Shaffer picked up the story.
Shaffer was a little surprised too. Speaking with me over the phone Thursday, he admitted he was no social media expert, although he has been on Twitter since June. He found the story on Twitter and shared video of the theft with his coworkers, who watched it dozens of times.
“It’s the first time I’ve actually had [social media] as a source, so it’s a novel thing for me,” Shaffer said. “The fact that the library people used it to catch the guy was amazing.”
A former police beat reporter, Shaffer has spent plenty of time flipping through police reports and mug shots looking for stories. But not every crime is newsworthy.
“There’s this bar you have to reach — somebody’s dead, somebody was publicly assaulted,” Shaffer said. “If you see that this clock got stolen, you’re likely to flip right through it.”
But it wasn’t the crime itself that made this story a news story, it was how the community used social media to get results. After all, the newspaper was one of the last to know about it.
“It was the process that was so interesting,” Shaffer said. “This was all over by the time we got to it.”
But before some digital proselytizer breathlessly uses that last quote as proof that newspapers are obsolete dinosaurs that deserve what’s coming to them, let me point out that the N&O did exactly what they should have done — they verified the story.
Not a single person who retweeted the story or commented on it called the police. Nobody talked to the library. No one did the work to confirm details fill in the gaps that were unknown at the time.
Shaffer did. He got the facts, recapped and added another layer onto the discussion. In that sense, every player in this story — the library, the Twitter folks, the newspaper — worked together to build this narrative.
“We’re never going to be faster than television or the Internet,” Shaffer said. “We try to be sometimes, but I don’t think that’s when we do our best work.”
Traditional news organizations still have a role to play in this new media ecosystem, although they no longer have the same dominance they once did.
But that’s a good thing.
This altered environment now involves more people in the process of creating the news and finally turns journalism into something it probably should have been all along — a team sport.