Edna Buchanan is one of the great true-crime writers in this country. She has covered the police beat for the Miami Herald for years and her memoir, The Corpse Had a Familiar Face, includes a chapter called, "Nobody Loves a Police Reporter."
In it she likens being a crime reporter to being an "unwelcome intruder."
"It can be lonesome and arduous," Buchanan writes. "People blame you for the bad news. It's human nature: Someone gets in trouble, you report it, and he (or she) turns on you like it's your fault, not his, that he is in this mess. The truth can get you in a lot of trouble."
I only covered the crime beat full time for a brief time. It was my first job out of journalism school and I was working for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. I was 24 years old and had lived a sheltered life. I was in for a serious dose of reality.
One day the city editor called me over.
"Jonesy," he said in his thick New Jersey tongue, "I've got a treat for you. They just pulled a stiff out of the bay. Go over there and see what you can find out."
I had never seen a body before except in a casket. As I drove over to the marina, I began to feel sick. But I knew I couldn't show my anxiety -- the cops loved to "break in" the newbies with gross photos and crass jokes and I didn't want to lose face with them or "act like a woman and cry." I was a reporter. Time to buck up.
I stood on the pier and watched as the police officers hauled the body out of the bay. It didn't even appear human, which helped. The body was kind of waxy-looking and bloated. It had been in the water for a while. Barnacles were attached to some of the clothing. The seasoned cops already had a nickname for the body: "Barnacle Bill."
I went back to the newsroom and told the editor what I had found. I knew he was watching me to see how I handled covering the "hard news." I didn't flinch as I told him about ol' Barnacle Bill.
Then I went into the ladies' room and threw up.
I covered several other "bad news" stories that first year on the job: A teenager who had been drinking and was killed in a car wreck on the causeway to Padre Island; a random robbery gone bad and ended in murder; and the deadly feud between two rival families caught up in a "Romeo and Juliet" fight over a love affair between their respective son and daughter. It ended with a drive-by shooting that left the 18-year-old son dead in the street with a gunshot wound to his neck.
The thing I hated most was having to contact parents or other loved ones for comment. Sometimes they were happy that they had a chance to make statements about their loved one. Sometimes they were too upset to talk.
My mother would call me after reading my coverage of these bad news events in the morning paper.
"Oh honey," she'd say, "I just hate you have to write about these things."
I hated to, too. I still do.
The accused had a familiar face
Covering crime is not pleasant. There's a certain adrenaline rush that comes from being dispatched out to a crime scene, not knowing what to expect. But there's always someone who is going to get hurt when people do evil and bad things happen to good people. Crime is not just a statistic. It has a human face -- and often, many faces.
When I first became editor of the Reporter, I knew I'd have to cover some crime. Thankfully, in a small town like Glen Rose and a small county like Somervell, there's not a lot of it compared with even nearby Stephenville and Cleburne. But it happens. And when it does, I report it.
Lots of people don't like this, especially if it involves their family members or friends. Take a look at the Reporter's Facebook page. I'm not exactly the most popular person in town. But that comes with the job. That's just the way it is.
Recently, the Reporter received a storm of criticism for publishing a story about Becky Mann on page A3. She was arrested for allegedly stabbing a man in Erath County. The Somervell County Sheriff's Department rarely releases photographs of suspects. The Erath County Sheriff's Department, however, does. There was a mug shot of Mann when she was booked into jail. It was not a flattering photo, but it spoke volumes about a tortured soul who did not get the help she needed.
Then the question became whether to run the mugshot and/or the story. I knew running the picture and story would hurt and anger her family members and friends. But I also had to weigh what might result from not running it.
I had seen Mann a few weeks before on the downtown square. Someone called the sheriff's department and reported that a woman was standing in traffic holding a sign. We have a scanner in the office turned to the sheriff's dispatcher frequency. I went downtown to see what was going on.
When I arrived, Glen Rose Police Officer Buck Martin pulled up in his patrol car and was talking to a woman sitting on the curb at Elm and Barnard streets. She had a brown paper grocery bag on which she had written "Will work for food." Turns out she had been living in Glen Rose, gotten into some kind of disagreement with the other residents and had left.
Someone was trying to contact the United Fund and find her a place to stay. Later that day as I was on my way home, however, she was still on the street corner. Several days later she was spotted sprawled on a sloping hill on the side of U.S. Highway 67. We received some questions from citizens asking us about the "homeless" woman in town. Some folks even thought about picking her up and taking her someplace to find shelter.
Then she disappeared.
A week or so later she resurfaced, this time in a story in the Stephenville Empire-Tribune about the stabbing.
In the past Mann has reappeared in Glen Rose periodically because she has family members here. If she were released on bail, I wondered if she'd try to come back here. What if she did and was violent again? What if she tried to hurt someone else? Didn't people have a right to know about her and what happened and to know what she looked like??The rule of thumb I use when making difficult decisions like this is whether there's a reason to do it. We sell plenty of newspapers. We could have sold even more if I had run the story and photo on the front page. I decided to run it inside. There was no reason to sensationalize it.
Then the angry phone calls and online comments -- and accusations of sensationalism -- began. Why did I run the story when the crime didn't even happen in Somervell County? Why did I have to run her picture? Why did I write about crime so much? Maybe we should change the paper's name to the Glen Rose Enquirer. And so on and so forth.
Not surprisingly, some of those making comments have had their own run-ins with the law. They ended up in the jail log and their names have ended up in the newspaper.
Shooting the messenger
No matter how many "good news" stories this paper publishes -- and they are the majority -- we will always be criticized for reporting the negative ones.
It would be nice to always run cheerful news. Unfortunately, that's not reality, even in a small town.
Crime happens, even here. Fortunately, when I look at the jail log each week, most of those arrested in Somervell County aren't from this area. Because a major U.S. highway runs through here, outsiders regularly pass through town. Some of them commit crimes. See today's front page for proof of that.
Maybe people don't want to know the bad news. Maybe they don't have to deal with it unless they see it in print or photographs. Maybe that makes it too real. But not reporting it doesn't change that it happened.
To not report the bad news does a disservice to our readers. They deserve to know how safe their community is, just as they deserve to know whether their tax dollars are being used wisely, whether rules are being followed and whether there are potential threats coming into their community.
If a sex offender has registered in Somervell County and has moved down the street, readers should know about it. The state of Texas even publishes a sex offender registry with photographs. The Somervell County Sheriff's Department runs a notice in the paper with the sex offender's name, photo and address.
But that sex offender is someone's son or daughter or brother or sister. And, yes, I've received calls from family members of registered sex offenders in Somervell County complaining that I'm making it difficult for their loved one.
I'm making it difficult? What about the child he was convicted of molesting? And what about her family?
It's human nature, though, to shoot the messenger bearing bad news. The Greeks did it and there are some folks who apparently would like to continue the tradition. I have been called everything from an "evil bitch" (by a former mayor pro tem, no less) to "heartless." Casting blame at a third party is a lot easier than dealing with the real problems - the drug abuse, the mental illness, the alcoholism, the sexual deviation that is part of our world.
Ponder these questions: Would you rather or rather not know about an attempted abduction at gunpoint in a grocery store parking lot in your community? You may feel safer not knowing about it, but are you really? Aren't you safer knowing and becoming more aware of what's going on around you? Aren't there some lessons to be learned from knowing that such a crime has been committed in your neighborhood?
What about the recent incident in which a 53-year-old man in Glen Rose struck up a conversation with a 13-year-old local girl on Facebook? Thankfully, a family member contacted the sheriff's department, which then was able to launch an undercover operations and catch this potential predator. He thought he was going to Big Rocks Park to rendezvous with a teenager. Instead, he had a rendezvous with a pair of handcuffs.
Are you better off knowing all this or not? You're the ultimate judge. ?So I will take the blame for reporting "bad" news. To ignore the bad things that sometimes happen to a good community and to deny readers information is not good journalism. It is not helpful to "protect" people from the real world or to sugarcoat the evil that exists around us. That, truly, would be a heartless thing to do. Not to mention gutless.
Kathryn Jones is the editor of the Glen Rose Reporter.