Crime Notes: A Crime Reporter’s Reflections On 30 Years At WCCO TV
March 1977: The Rocky Start
The same week Mary Tyler Moore was ending her career as a producer at a mythical TV newsroom in Minneapolis, I began a 30-year career in the same city at a real news station, WCCO-TV.
I admit I had images of the MTM show in my head on March 15, my first day on the job as the newsroom film librarian and clerk.
I was a political science major who grew up in Washington, D.C., and had no background in journalism. My lack of training became painfully obvious just hours into the job at WCCO. I was answering phones and pecking away on a manual typewriter when my boss told me to take some magazines to the scene of a fatal blaze in South Minneapolis. Two firefighters had died in the fire, and the photographer on the scene had radioed in for the magazines. I thought it sounded like a strange request but still scooped up a Time and a Newsweek and headed to the scene on Hennepin Avenue. When I arrived, the photographer was shocked and disgusted: He meant film magazines, not reading materials! I quickly hustled back to the station and picked up the right kind of magazines, fearful I would be out of a job by the end of the day. I was lucky to survive that horrible start, and I learned a key journalism lesson: Never hesitate to clarify something if you are not sure.
I spent about a year as the newsroom clerk and often would tag along with reporters and photographers in the evenings and on weekends to learn about the newsgathering process. Several of those reporters moved on to the CBS network, including Susan Spencer, who still works there as a correspondent for “48 Hours.” Susan co-anchored the news with Dave Moore, who became one of the many wonderful teachers who showed me the ropes of being a reporter.
Dave often would come in on his off hours to coach me on script reading and writing. We have a bust of him in our newsroom, a visible reminder of a very talented and generous man who is still missed.
Don Shelby arrived at WCCO about a year after I started and quickly became one of my mentors, a role he still plays. For the next couple of years, I worked as a researcher, often assigned to stories reported on the air by Don. We were assigned to WCCO’s St. Paul newsroom, which was located at the corner of Fourth and Wabasha, across the street from City Hall and the Ramsey County Courthouse.
I loved working out of our St. Paul Bureau, watching Don and Skip Loescher, our bureau chief, hunting for news scoops. It was there I learned the value of developing sources — building relationships with people who would trust giving me information on important stories. I also learned from Don to never stop digging for information, to make one more call, to ask for one more document.
1978-1980: Learning the Crime Beat
From 1978 to 1980, I found that I particularly liked covering the crime beat, working with police sources, getting to know victims. This was a bit of a surprise since I never had been around law enforcement people back in Washington, D.C., where I grew up.
Occasionally, I was allowed to go on the air (usually when I had found a story and the station was short of reporters). That was case when I did my first story — about an alleged plot by a group of foreign students to kidnap Gov. Al Quie. I was so green and it really showed! I can still remember one top station official saying I wasn’t an “embarrassment,” but I wasn’t WCCO quality either. That person is long gone, but he was so right! I still cringe when I look back at old stories while working on cold case reports.
Fortunately, I was allowed to continue reporting on a hit-and-miss basis. My goal was to find as many “scoops” as possible so the viewers would pay attention to the story and not, I hoped, to my stiff, inexperienced delivery, particularly during live reports.
1981: Becoming a Crime Reporter
Finally, in 1981, I got my big break and became a full-time reporter, still assigned to our St. Paul Bureau.
That was a year I will never forget. It started with Paul Stephani, a serial killer who would attack women and then call 911 in a weepy voice to report his crimes. Sadly, three women were murdered and two brutally attacked before Stephani was caught. One of my first “scoops” came when I convinced the St. Paul police chief to release the 911 tape of the assailant’s first call –- regarding a woman beaten on New Year’s Eve. We hoped someone would recognize the killer’s distinctive voice. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen until many months later, when Stephani called 911 after one of the victims fought back and attacked him with a broken bottle.
That same year, in March, I covered the double murders of Diana Smith and Scott Jones. It took a couple of months for forensic tests to determine the couple was chloroformed to death, a very rare, Hollywood-type method for murder. Today, police have a suspect in the case, but no one has been charged. (I did a “Cold Case” report on the mystery last year.)
The year 1981 ended with one of the saddest stories of my career. On Nov. 10, my assignment editor, Mark Hooper, woke me up very early in the morning. Searchers had been out all night looking for 6-year-old Cassie Hansen. Cassie has disappeared from a church on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul after she went to use a restroom. She was there that night with her mom and sister for a family event.
I raced into work, sure the little girl would soon be found. I expected she just had wandered off like my younger brother sometimes had done at the same age. A few hours later, however, Cassie’s body was found in a dumpster at Grand Avenue and Grotto Street, a couple miles from the church. She had been strangled and sexually assaulted. I managed to do a live shot for the noon news, but the brutality and horror of Cassie’s tragic death left me feeling numb.
Cassie’s murder shocked our entire community. Parents were fearful for their children, and police felt enormous pressure to catch her killer. That same day, a source from the Mayor’s Housing Office called and told me she suspected the killer might be a cab driver named Stuart Knowlton. The caller, Janice Rettman, had told me before that she was worried about Knowlton, who had been investigated for possible abuse of children. Rettman knew Knowlton frequented the same area where Cassie was abducted.
I put Rettman in touch with police, and she spent the next several months working with investigators on the murder case. (I am naming Rettman here only because she later went public with her role in the case.)
A few months later, a former masseuse named Dorothy Noga wrote me a letter, saying Knowlton had tried to kill her when he suspected she was helping police investigate him for Cassie’s murder. He stabbed Noga nearly to death, and she lost her memory for a while. Noga agreed to share her story in an on-air report, showing the scars on her neck from the knife wounds.
Knowlton was indicted for Cassie’s killing in late 1982 and later was convicted of first-degree murder. When he was up for parole almost 17 years later, Cassie’s family vigorously fought to keep him locked up. They succeeded, and he died in prison Oct. 31, 2006. His death came just a couple of weeks before the 25th anniversary of Cassie’s murder. Cassie would be 31 years old if she were alive today. I still keep a picture of a smiling Cassie on my desk and often think of her when I drive by the Grand Avenue corner where her body was found.
1983: Marrying the Competition
In March 1983, I married Jack, city editor of the St. Paul Dispatch. We had met when he was a reporter covering St. Paul City Hall. I also became a step-mom to Jack’s two young children, Jeff and Amy.
1984: Becoming the First Pregnant TV Reporter
In 1984, I became the first pregnant, on-air reporter at WCCO. My son, Michael, was born in September. A couple years later, the number of anchors and reporters having babies became almost epidemic. But when I was pregnant, it was treated like an oddity and somewhat of an embarrassment. Photographers would go to great lengths to conceal my pregnancy, sometimes shooting me from the shoulders up or with a car blocking my big stomach! It’s so funny to look at some of those stories now.
During most of my pregnancy I was assigned to cover the investigation and prosecution of the Scott County child sex ring. It was a very strange experience to feel my unborn baby kicking inside me as I sat in a courtroom, listening to horrific, graphic testimony about child sex abuse.
I worked right up until the night before Michael was born, spending long days sitting on hard, wooden courtroom benches. His birth was announced on our news the day he was born, and I heard from a lot of nice viewers who sort of suspected something like a pregnancy had been going on.
Three way-too-short months after Michael’s birth, I returned to reporting.
It was harder than I expected, leaving a new baby at home to go off to work. We were very fortunate to have a wonderful woman, Dorothy Fermoyle, take care of him for that first year. But it was still difficult, and I often wrestled with guilt like so many other working parents.
I can still remember Dorothy excitedly calling me at work, just days before Michael turned 1 year old, to report he had taken his first step. I hung up the phone in tears, then raced to finish writing my news report so I could get home to see Michael take some steps.
To help have more “normal” work hours, I was assigned the health beat during my first few months back from maternity leave. It made for a more predictable schedule, but I very much missed the crime beat. After about nine months, I was back covering criminals again
1987: Going “Part Time”
Three years after our son was born, I gave birth to our daughter, Shelby. She came five days past her due date. I had spent many of the early weeks of my pregnancy in a Ramsey County courtroom, covering the child abuse murder trial of Lois Jurgens. The White Bear Lake woman was convicted of murdering her adopted 3-year-old son, Dennis, two decades earlier. The incredible story gained national attention and is chronicled in a book, “A Death in White Bear Lake,” by Barry Siegel.
The case had been reopened because of the persistence of Dennis’ birth mother, Jerry Sherwood. I was scheduled to interview Sherwood the morning I went into labor with Shelby. Pat Kessler, who usually covered politics, took over the interview for me that day. I briefed him on the story between contractions, from my hospital bed. It sounds a bit strange to think about it now, but it all made sense back then!
After Shelby was born, I was able to scale back my schedule and just “officially” work two days a week. I say “officially” because I spent large parts of every day at home on the phone, touching base with sources. I think this approach to part-time work is why I was able to negotiate such a family-friendly schedule with my bosses. My kids sometimes would complain about me being on the phone so much, but I think they now understand the benefits of that kind of “working mom” schedule.
During that “two-day” schedule, I broke one of my biggest stories, which also went national. It was a snowy day in March when a police source tipped me off that a Northwest Airlines plane had landed in a blizzard that morning. Three allegedly drunken pilots were at the controls, and more than 90 passengers were on board. In the next several days after the story broke, I continued to work it from home — constantly on the phone, coordinating with our newsroom, checking in with sources. My kids ate way too many cans of SpaghettiOs and watched too many videos during those days. Somehow they survived, and I was happy to be able to stay on top of a big story, even if my kitchen was my operations base!
1994: “Missing the Beat”
“Missing the Beat” was a high-impact, investigative series of I-TEAM reports that started as a small tip I picked up just making routine checks on the crime beat with photojournalist Nancy Soo Hoo. We never dreamed it would win lots of journalism awards, including the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia, and lead to an appearance on “Oprah.” The most satisfying result was that the reports led to real change and an improved downtown Minneapolis foot patrol unit to serve the community.
During 16 nights of surveillance in downtown Minneapolis, our I-TEAM cameras captured on-duty foot patrol police officers sleeping in a movie theater, hanging out in a strip joint and bars and playing pinball. We also watched the supervisor of the unit working a second security job in the middle of his police shift. Nancy and I looked pretty goofy in our undercover outfits, wearing wigs and fake glasses, but it allowed us to blend into the scene on Hennepin Avenue.
Even before our I-TEAM series aired, it had impact. The police chief ordered an internal affairs investigation after we shared the results of our four-month investigation with him. Eventually, the beat supervisor was fired, other officers were transferred or disciplined and a reorganized unit with new bosses was established.
It wasn’t an easy decision to be the reporter whose face was attached to such a high-profile, potentially controversial investigative series. I knew it had the potential to alienate many of the law enforcement sources with whom I had worked so hard to build trust over the years. I also knew, however, that the community needed to be informed about the behavior of several on-duty officers who were drawing paychecks while repeatedly loafing on the job.
The series rocked City Hall when it hit the air in May 1994, and the newspapers picked up on it, too. As expected, I did get heat from some officers. But I was pleasantly surprised that the majority of officers I knew were embarrassed by what they saw. Many of them also were angry that the beat officers we observed hadn’t been dealt with by the Police Department brass long before our cameras captured them goofing off. Their behavior was no secret to most officers I talked with. Some even told me they had complained to their superiors to no avail.
(Personal footnote: By the time I worked on this series, I was “officially” working three days a week, still considered a part-time employee. Obviously, there were many weeks when I worked a lot more than three days, especially when I was immersed in the surveillance part of the investigation. I hope this in some way helped other moms and dads in our work place by showing you can be a productive employee without punching a five-day work week timecard.)
1995: “Murderapolis” and “Inside Homicide”
One year after “Missing the Beat,” Nancy Soo Hoo and I were given unprecedented access for six months to follow two teams of highly respected homicide detectives as they investigated murders in Minneapolis. For the previous 10 years, I had tried unsuccessfully to get the access I needed to do this story. In 1995, the new police chief, Robert Olson, gave us a green light for what became a story called “Inside Homicide”.
When we started this project, Nancy and I had no idea we would have front-row seats to what became the bloodiest year in the city’s history. When the detectives, Sgts. Marv Rorvick, Mark Lenzen, Don Smulski and Scott Gerlicher, were called to a murder scene, we also got called in. Sometimes, that meant crawling out of bed at 2 a.m. or leaving a social event to go a murder scene.
We were there on a night in August when the city broke the previous record for murders. A man had shaken his girlfriend’s baby to death. We watched Sgt. Rorvick comfort the mother and investigators question the suspect. It was a very heartbreaking night in Room 108, the MPD homicide office.
On another night, we watched a 16-year-old murder suspect take the investigators to an apartment near the state Capitol to locate a weapon. We were there when the detectives dug up a gun, buried next to the apartment where the young suspect led the detectives.
Nancy and I learned so much in the many long hours we spent with the investigators. We were most impressed watching them interview suspects. Using excellent interviewing techniques, they secured murder confessions from hard-core gang members. It wasn’t anything like you sometimes see on TV — no fist pounding on tables or threats under bright lights.
We eventually produced a two-part “Inside Homicide” series and a half-hour special report, which you can check out. The reports don’t really do the detectives justice, but they give you a small window into how Minneapolis homicide detectives investigate crimes.
1996: Going Back to School
I did not have a college degree when I was hired at WCCO, having dropped out of Trinity College in Washington, D.C. Back in my college days, school seemed like a speed bump that was keeping me away from Capitol Hill, where I worked full time as a Congressional aide. (Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi graduated from Trinity several years earlier; staying in college obviously didn’t keep her from a successful career in politics!)
My lack of a college degree didn’t impede my career as a reporter at WCCO. But it always bothered me. I had a feeling of “unfinished business.”
I guess that’s why a young Minneapolis police recruit really struck a raw nerve with me when I was speaking to his class about the role of the media. He kept grilling me about my “credentials” for covering the crime beat, demanding to know how many criminal justice or law enforcement classes I had ever taken. I was busted. After rattling off a long list of ride-alongs, etc., I had done to learn the beat, I had to admit I had no formal training in this area. (Truth is, most reporters haven’t taken criminal justice or law enforcement classes.)
That young officer got under my skin, but he also did me a huge favor. That encounter prompted me to finally go back to school and take a step toward finishing my college degree. I never expected it would also become a first step toward obtaining my Minnesota police officer’s license!
The next week, I walked into the registration office at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul and signed up for a criminal justice class on research methods. I was instantly hooked on academics this time around, thanks in large part to a wonderful professor, Mensah Adrinkah.
For the next several years, I cherry-picked my way toward a degree in law-enforcement, averaging one class a semester as I tried to balance my studies with covering the crime beat and being a mom.
I loved my time in the classroom this time around and became an over-achiever. (I hear that’s pretty typical for adult learners.) I had a great mix of professors. Some were from the academic world and others were real-life practitioners, including John Harrington, who later became St. Paul’s police chief; Linda Finney, who recently retired as superintendent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension; and Tim O’Malley, who replaced Finney at the BCA.
As part of the Bachelor of Science program, I attended the “Skills” program at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, where I learned a lot of the basics of policing such as use of force, patrol operations, responding to calls for help and investigations. I turned the “Skills” training into a four-part Dimension series, which you can check out. It was a humbling, but very rewarding, experience to go through “Skills” with many students young enough to be my kids.
I finally finished my degree in May 2002 and was honored to give the commencement speech at Metropolitan State University’s graduation. My parents had waited a long time to see that day. My dad died less than a year later, and I will always be grateful he and my mom were able to be there. Dad was pleased that I continued my studies that fall by enrolling in a master’s in Police Leadership program at the University of St. Thomas. UST was also a wonderful experience that helped me become better at covering law enforcement issues on the crime beat at WCCO.
For years, I had avoided discussing my college experience, ashamed that I was a dropout. Now, I often talk about it, emphasizing the message that it is never too late to go back to school. I recently was invited to join Metropolitan State’s Alumni Association Board, where I hope to have more opportunities to spread the “never too late” message.
2003: Becoming an Officer
A few months after graduating from Metropolitan State, I decided to take the Minnesota police officer’s licensing exam. I had no plans to switch careers and just wanted to get the experience of taking the same test all new officers must pass.
A short time after passing the POST test, I was assigned to do a story on security at the Minnesota State Fair, since it was the first fair after 9/11. While there, I mentioned to Art Blakey, the State Fair police chief, that I had passed the POST exam. I had known Chief Blakey for many years in his other roles at the Minnesota Gang Strike Force and as a deputy sheriff for Ramsey County. Chief Blakey encouraged me to consider working as a State Fair police officer, noting that many licensed officers who work at the Fair also have non-law enforcement jobs.
I was intrigued by the idea but didn’t follow through. I figured there could be too many ethical land mines if I tried to wear both hats, that of crime reporter and licensed officer. I also doubted my bosses would allow me to do it. Fast-forward about six months and I heard from Chief Blakey again, wondering why he hadn’t heard back from me. I explained my concerns, but this time decided to at least explore the possibility.
I spent lots of hours researching the topic, consulting with other officers and journalists and surfing the Internet. I was able to find doctors who had become medical reporters and reporters who quit journalism to become cops. But I couldn’t find anyone who was doing what I was considering. I knew I would be wading into uncharted, potentially very controversial territory. I also believed the experience and insight would enhance my ability to provide better crime coverage to our viewers.
Armed with my research, and now deeply determined to pursue the State Fair police experience, I approached our news director with my request. As you can imagine, she was shocked and very skeptical. (I also had enlisted the support of anchor Don Shelby, who agreed this could work with clear ethical conditions spelled out in advance.)
After CBS officials in New York reviewed my request, I was allowed to work as an officer at the State Fair on the condition that I take an unpaid leave of absence during my time at the Fair and that I not cover any stories connected with the Fair. I was thrilled to get the go-ahead from my bosses, but I still expected some heat from the media.
The next challenge was meeting the firearms qualification and buying a gun, uniforms and a bullet-proof vest. That was easy compared to breaking the news to my daughter, who was 15 years old at the time.
Shelby was mortified at the idea of me in polyester pants and fearful that I would soon be switching careers altogether. She was also concerned about my safety. My son, Michael, who was about to start college, took it all in stride, seeing it as just another one of mom’s adventures.
As I said, I was braced for heat from the media, and I got it. Star Tribune reporter Joe Kimball wrote a nice piece in his column about a month before the Fair started. Later that day, I was surprised to see that the Strib had posted an online poll, asking readers what they thought about my plans. (Most didn’t care or were positive. I made sure my daughter didn’t see the poll and organize her friends to vote no!)
Brian Lambert, the St. Paul Pioneer Press’ media columnist, did a couple of pieces that included support from some of my colleagues and strong criticism from Jane Kirtley, a media ethics professor at the University of Minnesota. After the Poynter Institute picked up the stories, it became an issue with some crime reporters around the country who blasted me online. None of the critics contacted me directly to discuss my decision.
I also heard from a number of officers who were curious about my plans, and I know Chief Blakey got an earful from people who questioned his decision to hire me.
Fortunately, the heat died down, and the day finally came to actually put on the uniform and walk the beat at the 2003 Minnesota State Fair.
It was an incredibly humbling first day. I wondered if I would be able to perform the job I had been hired to do. Once the first day was done, I was hooked and couldn’t wait to return the next day. I loved finding lost children in the Midway area, giving directions to the latest Fair attraction, providing water to dehydrated seniors and making people feel safe by providing a law enforcement presence.
People often recognized me and asked if I was making a career change or working some top-secret, undercover assignment for WCCO. My fellow officers were incredibly patient and very good teachers. Most work at departments around the state during the rest of the year and take vacations to work the Fair. Some openly admitted they had been skeptical about me at first, but eventually were OK with me being there.
It was interesting to see the impact wearing a uniform has on people.
Fairgoers would immediately comply with rules when they saw us standing somewhere in uniform. I also got to see the negative side of people making rude comments based on whatever perceptions they had of law enforcement. You really have to shake off the comments and not take them personally.
I have now worked at the Fair for four years. I still get excited at the prospect of taking another 12 days leave of absence from WCCO to walk the beat. Sore feet are my only complaint! I believe the Fair experience has made me better at my “day job” as a crime reporter by providing me with valuable insights into law enforcement work.
Remembering the Victims
Being a crime reporter, you see a lot of sad situations and meet so many people who have lost loved ones to tragedy. I have tried to be as sensitive as possible in dealing with victims’ families, but you never get used to seeing their pain.
I have photos of many of the victims on a wall next to my desk. Several of their cases are still unsolved and have been featured in our Cold Case reports. The photos of are of people like Jacob Wettterling, abducted in 1989 when he was 11 years old while riding his bike home from a convenience store with his brother, Trevor, and a good friend. Jacob is next to a photo of Jodi Huisentruit, the Mason City, Iowa anchorwoman who vanished on her way work in 1995. There is a photo of Marcus Potts, an 11-year-old North Minneapolis boy who was stabbed to death in his home by an intruder. (His murder was finally solved in 2006.) Marcus is next to a picture of Anne Dunlap, whose body was found in the trunk of her car, parked in a K-Mart lot on Lake Street in Minneapolis on New Year’s Day 1996.
Another photo is of Katie Poirier. Katie was 19 years old when she was seen on grainy surveillance tape being kidnapped from a Moose Lake, Minn., convenience store where she worked as a clerk. Donald Blom was convicted of her murder. Minnesota law enforcement investigators believe he may be connected to several other unsolved homicides in this state. Blom denies he has killed anybody. He frequently writes to me from prison in Pennsylvania, where he is serving a life sentence.
Some of the newer additions include murder victim Suzanne Sayles, a secretary at the University of Minnesota Dental School when she was strangled and raped in 1979. Police recently took DNA swabs from six men who knew her and are waiting to see if any of the samples match DNA evidence found at the crime scene. Next to Suzanne is a photo of Linda Rousseau, who left her home in the Midway area of St. Paul in 1970. Her body was found near the Mississippi River a few months later. Her killer is still free. You can see our reports on the unsolved murders and abductions by going to our Cold Case page.
In the middle of all these pictures is a photo of Sgt. Jerry Vick, who was shot to death working undercover in an alley in St. Paul in May 2005.
He is the only person I have ever personally known who was murdered. I was stunned to receive a phone call in the middle of the night from a WCCO producer saying an officer had been critically wounded. When I learned his name, I kept saying, “No, no, not Jerry Vick.”
I raced that day to the St. Paul Police Department, where I had to report on the story live, knowing Sgt. Vick had already died but not being able to say it officially while relatives were still being notified. I cried a lot between live shots, especially when I first spotted Deanna Fink, his former partner in the Vice Unit. It was one of the toughest days I have ever experienced on the crime beat, yet I felt I needed to be there that day.
I met Sgt. Vick when he was running the Vice Unit. I spent several days watching him and Officer Fink conduct undercover vice details. He spent much of his time trying to clean up prostitution in the Frogtown neighborhood in St. Paul. He also did undercover details in Crosby Park, where men were picking up other men for anonymous sex while families walked in the same area.
We featured Sgt. Vick’s efforts, along with Officer Fink, in a couple of reports. Sgt. Vick –everyone called him Jerry — was a lot of fun to watch at work. I was particularly impressed with the respectful way he treated everyone, even the people he arrested. After he was murdered, I learned about his efforts to help prostitutes get off the streets and into a safe shelter. Jerry was also known for taking them to the grocery store, spending his own money to feed their children. I have met some of the women, and they insist Jerry Vick saved their lives.
Jerry Vick’s mother, Maggie, is now trying to help keep her son’s legacy alive by raising funds for Breaking Free, an organization that helps women and girls escape prostitution. The funds will be used for “Sgt. Vick House of Hope,” a transitional housing complex where former prostitutes can acquire the skills to live independently. (I am working with Maggie on a fundraiser scheduled for May 20, 2007. Information is available on the Breaking Free Web site).
Jerry Vick, Jacob Wetterling, Cassie Hansen, Jodi Huisentruit, Marcus Potts, Suzanne Sayles, Anne Dunlap, Katie Poirier and Linda Rousseau are just a few of the victims whose crimes I have covered in the past three decades. You never get used to meeting the parents and siblings of victims, seeing their raw pain up close. As Edna Buchanan, the famous Miami-based crime author wrote, “You can’t grow calluses on your heart.” Nor would I want to.
Don’t Forget the Folks Behind The Scenes
Anchors and reporters get most of the credit and glory that goes with being in the television news business. But the fact is, the talented people behind the scenes — the photographers, engineers, assignment desk staff, producers, promotion staff and managers — are what make it all work. You rarely hear their names, but their skills and creativity are essential to our industry.
They are people like photographer Dave Chaney, who has been at WCCO for almost as long as I have. Dave is there when a riot breaks out on a city street on a summer night, or when a mother has just lost her child to a random bullet. He can be tough as nails when he has to and the most sensitive of human beings when dealing with victims. Dave has kept me “honest” over the years, never hesitating to share his suggestions to make a story better or conceal his disgust if he didn’t think it was worth pursuing.
I don’t get to team up with Dave as much as I used to, now that I mostly work in our Special Projects Unit on longer-term stories. While there are many talented photojournalists at WCCO, no one has been with me more on the crime beat than Dave Chaney.
Teaching Police And Media Relations
Two years after finishing my master’s studies in Police Leadership at the University of St. Thomas, I am often back in a classroom -– usually teaching police and media relations to Minnesota law enforcement officers. I also am an occasional guest speaker at police conferences and journalism classes, discussing the same topic. One of my key goals is to try to bridge the communications gap between law enforcement and the media by explaining each other’s professions. I find it very rewarding to use my background as a reporter and my training as an officer to help educate cops and news people about each other’s roles and ways to improve communication. (I try to break up the talking with a few videos, including my experiences getting Tasered and being “apprehended” by police K-9 teams. The cops seem to enjoy seeing me as the “suspect.”)
My teaching activities stemmed from many informal conversations with officers and reporters in recent years. On the crime beat, I often get earfuls of complaints from frustrated cops. They’re generally upset over the way the media reported on a high-profile incident such as an officer-involved shooting or a high-speed chase. It drives them nuts when a reporter doesn’t know basic legal terminology such as the difference between a burglary and a robbery. And they contend the media focus only on stories that are sensational and put a bad light on law enforcement. They worry that releasing too much information on a crime can hurt an investigation.
Back in the newsroom or at a crime scene, reporters complain about officers who are too tight-lipped when it comes to sharing basic information about crime in their communities. Photographers complain when officers sometimes try to interfere with them trying to shoot videotape from a public spot, such as a sidewalk. (The complaints are not unique to this area. Check out what a New York City TV reporter says about his experiences covering the crime beat in his city.
I have been on the crime beat long enough and know enough officers and reporters to understand where both sides are coming from.( I also studied the topic as research for my Capstone paper on the subject at Metropolitan State University. ) A key problem is that, too often, neither group really understands the other group’s job. It’s extremely gratifying for me when someone in my class has a “breakthrough.” After one of my recent presentations, an officer told me it had helped him understand that reporters have an important job to do in helping making a community safe. Another said it reinforced the necessity of trying to walk a mile in another’s shoes and to build trust with a reporter before a big crime or crisis occurs. That’s music to my ears.
After I spoke to a college journalism class, I received a letter from a student who said it made her understand how important it is for a reporter to do her “homework” when covering the crime beat in order to gain credibility with law enforcement and to ask better questions. I loved hearing that, too!
As a former college “drop out,” I never saw myself some day spending so much time in a classroom, actually in front of the class. I don’t plan to do it full time anytime soon. But I do hope — in some small ways — to improve police and media relations by sharing my unique perspective.
2007: Crime Coverage, What’s Next?
Writing this piece has been a fun opportunity to reflect on three decades working for WCCO, most of the time assigned to the crime beat. As I write this, my daughter Shelby is preparing to become a television journalist and she’s also interested in covering crime. Her world will be much different than the one I started covering 30 years ago, but I still see an important role for her and other future journalists.
Over the years, many of our news gathering tools have changed. We long ago abandoned typewriters for computers, we haven’t used film magazines in years, and I wonder how I survived so many years without Google and my BlackBerry. I never imagined I would be writing something like this as part of a “blog.” I’m not sure we even had a fax machine when I started.
To be sure, we also face new challenges brought by new technology. One of the biggest: fewer people watching TV news because they’re getting their information from the Internet. This will require future journalists to become a lot more techno-savvy than I ever was. But news consumers are still going to need reporters and photographers to get the news and help them sort out what it means to them and their community. Maybe we will be relaying that information to a cell phone instead of a television set, but the core objectives will be the same.
The latest instant information tools are great, but the basics of digging deeper to find meaningful information to tell compelling stories aren’t going to change. Having good communication skills that get people to trust you and share their stories is as important today as when I first started reporting.
Working at WCCO has been a great ride. Fortunately my kids seemed to have survived living with a mom who is more adept at writing a news story than reading a recipe. (It helped that my husband was a good cook!)
I am one of those lucky people who get to work at something they feel passionately about. A lot of people have helped and supported me, including my family, friends, colleagues and employers. I want to say a special thank you to the many, many sources who have trusted me with information or let me share their stories with our viewers. (Many of you have chosen to remain anonymous, but you know who you are!)
Friends often tell me I should write a book about my experiences covering so many interesting crimes. I don’t know if I ever will get around to doing that. For now, this “blog” will have to do. I am much more interested in chasing the next big crime caper and reporting on unsolved murder mysteries than in writing a book.
I don’t anticipate another 30 years on the crime beat, but I do look forward to many more years to share stories on WCCO-TV and on our web at WCCO.com. Thanks for watching!