Paid sources in PDs/Sheriffs/Highway Patrol, etc?
Radio scanners, mostly.
In no particular order, and probably missing things:
A) They ask and the police tell them.
B) The police tell them unprompted.
C) They hear it on a scanner (more police departments use encryption than in the past but most still do not, and some things will attract a fire/EMS agency and those are even less likely to be encrypted).
D) Someone else tells them. Many crime scenes are rather conspicuous affairs that attract a lot of onlookers.
For ordinary street crimes, finding out is not really some cloak-and-dagger thing. A shooting at the corner of Main and 5th is usually not going to be hidden like an investigation into espionage in the State Department or something.
It’s not just the local news tied into the police reports. A person making an illegal left turn hit my car, damaging it slightly. There were no injuries and both cars were driveable afterwards, but an accident report was filled out. It took less than 48 hours for the first solicitation letter from a lawyer to arrive in my mailbox. Over the next week more than a dozen others showed up, along with a couple from chiropractors offering to treat my “injuries”.
When I owned a couple of newspapers I was on the Sheriff’s email list. Once per day his office sent out a list of all actions his people had taken. Crimes responded to, minor altercations and so forth. Some of it was written in a pretty entertaining fashion.
So yeah, either police scanners - which are a pain in the ass, truth to tell - or some other means by which law enforcement lets them know. It’s certainly not paid informants.
Paid sources? Seriously? No.
In addition to the above mentioned methods, police reports are public records. When I was a reporter in a small town, I went to the cop shop daily and read all the reports. All of them.
While I was there, whoever was around would often point out interesting things.
I know this is GQ, but this made me laugh … did you ever see something like “I want that bastard at the papers brought in and pistol-whipped !!!”
Our office (a 9-1-1 call center) has a dedicated telephone line just for media inquiries. As a government agency much of our records are public so we are required to release certain information if asked.
That is enough to give any reporter a general sense of what happened and where it happened. From that information the reporter can easily go to the scene and ask around among the neighbors and onlookers for enough details to put together a report.
With some regularity a reporter calls simply because multiple emergency vehicles were seen heading in the same general direction. Often that indicates a major event, but on occasion it has been a coincidence. We can at least confirm enough details to assure the media when the three ambulances seen heading into the same neighborhood were going to three unrelated events and that nothing truly newsworthy is happening.
And once I got a media line inquiry even before we got the 9-1-1 call making the initial report about an event. No sooner than I had hung up after telling the reporter that we had not received a report of a shooting in a particular area when the emergency line rang and we go the report. I wanted to know what source that reporter had that night!
It’s called the “police blotter”. They phone at least once a day,and a police officer is assigned to disclose what is in the public record. The police can disclose as much or as little as they please, but only what is in on documents that the public is entitled to view. Largely limited to who was arrested and why. Or highly conspicuous non-crime events like fires and car crashes.
The police are in full control of this, and the news media kisses their ass. While the police cannot refuse the public viewing of records, they can make it very hard for a non-docile media or troublesome reporter to get to it. And also make life difficult for a reporter who does not toe the line, or asks too many sensitive questions, or publishes information that is not from police sources…
This does not happen so much in big cities, but the local reporter for the BFE Bugle writes word for word exactly what Deputy Dogg tells him to write, and the crime page is just another society page.
There was a recent incident here, a city with a daily paper and a TV station with a local newcast. A young girl’s body was found in the woods, and that fact was reported. Absolute silence since the first day, and rumors and conspiracy theories are flying all over about it, even with talk of clowns. Even the victim’s name was never reported. But the police said shut up, and the news media shut up, and it is treated as if it never happened.
I don’t think I’ve told this tale here.
First off, my mother had been married to a man who we will say was named Thomas Richard Jones, Jr. He was commonly known at T. R. Jones. At the time this incident happened, they were recently and quite acrimoniously divorced. Now, as it happens, in the same small town there was another man, unrelated to him, known as T. R. Jones, except his middle name was Robert.
One night the other T. R. Jones wiped out in a car crash. Now, there had been a long-standing battle between the sheriff and the local media. The sheriff would withhold identification pending notification of the relatives, but in the meantime local reporters would learn of the incident (I’m not sure if police scanners were around yet, but word-of-mouth certainly was), arrive on the scene, and ferret out the identity themselves. They would then announce the death on the radio or on signs posted on the windows of the local paper (really–I am not making this up), sometimes before the family had been notified. This resulted in the situation where the sheriff would be racing to get to the family before the local media got word out.
So, on the night that the other T. R. Jones was killed, the sheriff was in his customary rush. Complicating matters was that street addresses were not yet being used, even on driver’s licenses. The only information they had was something along the lines of Rural Route 5, Podunk, so they did not know exactly where the guy lived. The coroner, who was sympathetic to the sheriff’s cause, remarked that he knew a T. R. Jones, sort of. I should mention that the poor guy wasn’t in any shape to be identified visually, or the coroner might have realized he had the wrong T. R. Jones.
Somehow they made the connection to my mother. They raced into town, stopping to pick up a minister. The ministers in town took turns accompanying the sheriff on these errands. Now, had it been the Baptist minister, he would have said, “Wait a minute, I knew him, you sure you have the right guy?” Even had it been the general Christian one or the holy roller one, they would have probably said, “You know, there’s actually two T. R. Jones.” But, as it happened, it was the sprinkling one’s turn, and he not only had no connection to my mother or her ex-husband but he was apparently new in town.
So, my poor mother gets a knock on her door in the middle of the night, which is scary enough, and when she opens the door there stands the sheriff, the coroner, and the minister. Unbeknownst to them, my grandfather was in the hospital. It did not occur to my mother that had something happened to my grandfather, the hospital would not have sent the sheriff, the coroner, and a random minister. She became rather hysterical, and when they finally calmed her down and she understood it was in fact Thomas Jones, Jr. they had come about, she became quite irate. “I’m not even married to him anymore! Why are you bugging me about this?” They again tried to calm her, saying that they just wanted to be sure the family was notified, and then it came out that it was Thomas ROBERT Jones, Jr., and at that point she really got pissed. “That’s not even the right one!” She sent them on their way (I picture the three of them, including the poor minister, trembling with fear by this point) with the correct address.
She was furious at the coroner for years over that. Even as a kid, I couldn’t figure out why she didn’t blame the damn reporters.
So, to answer the question, sometimes they’re a pack of nosy vulture assholes, that’s how.
Newspapers have really bent over backward to cover their asses, as a matter of policy. How much column space is wasted in every paper by " . . . according to an anonymous official who said he could not be quoted because he was not authorized to comment on the subject." In some news stories, about half the words are just disclaiming any responsibility on the part of the press to accountability for what they do or do not report. I love it when old-style editors still put in people’s ages. “A bystander, 36, said he heard a shot fired.”
My favorite anecdote was a paper that reported that “an anonymous spokesman” in the state department revealed something or other. Next to the story was a stock headshot of Henry Kissinger, captioned “an anonymous spokesman”.
There was a time when papers would state as true what their reporter was reasonably certain was true, without bothering with much attribution. If anybody screamed “Cite”, they couldn’t hear them. If they were wrong, they’d print a retraction tomorrow. Maybe. They were in the business of telling readers what was going on, not what authorities said was going on.
I’ve worked as a print journo in Australia and we simply went to the local police and asked them what was going on.
At the last newspaper I worked at, whoever was handling the police rounds would have a coffee with the officer in charge at the local police station every week and get all the details of what they’d been up to.
Members of the local community or businesses would call us too, telling us about goings on (say a brawl at the local pub or whatever).
And sometimes we’d just find stuff ourselves - we’d be out and about and we’d see a car upside down in a ditch (for example) and then we’d go and ask the police (or bystanders) what was happening.
Very interesting. I fucking love straightdope! One of the best sites on the Internet.
How can SD be SO onpoint? I feel like I can ask almost anything and get legit answers pronto!!!
I live in a rural area and we had a big news story a while back. The TV news and various reporters came to cover the story…
Anyway I was chatting with the TV reporter and he asked me to call them whenever anything of significance happens in my area.
Reporters also use social media to get tips. If something happens, like a report of gunshots, it’ll hit Facebook and/or Twitter before too long, and the reporter will follow up with the police, either on site or by phone.
Back in the 90’s, a plane originating from L.A. crashed in Guatemala. The local FOX affiliate announced – quite excitedly – that they planned to capture LIVE ON CAMERA the family’s reactions when they were told their loved ones were dead (thus technically satisfying the requirement of informing next of kin before releasing the victim’s names.)
Later that night, the affiliate announced – rather despondently – that the plane had merely skidded off the runway, with no casualties.
“Private, I’m afraid I have some bad news for ya. Well, there isn’t any real easy way to say this, so I’ll just say it: Your brothers are dead. We have orders to come get you, 'cause you’re going home.”
“Oh, my God, my brothers are dead! I was gonna take 'em fishing when we got home. How - How did they die?”
“They were killed in action.”
“No, that can’t be. They’re both… My brothers are still in grammar school.”
“You’re James Ryan?”
“James Francis Ryan from Iowa?”
“James Frederick Ryan, Minnesota.”
[the whole crew looks embarrassed]
“Well, does that - does that mean my brothers are OK?”
“Yeah…I’m sure they’re fine.”
There was an incident in Alaska last year when the parents of the wrong person were informed of their son’s death. They found out he was alive when they went to his house to tell his girlfriend, and their son opened the door.
The Washington Post’s police reporter, Al Lewis, famously first reported on the very minor story about burglars breaking into a hotel room at the Watergate.
Sadly it seems that with the state of local news reporting they only have the personnel to print up press releases. They certainly don’t have money to pay informants. Going back 10 or 15 years they mostly showed up at scenes from monitoring radio broadcasts.