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Why we don’t report scanner traffic

Posted at 10:00 AM, Dec 15, 2019

CLEVELAND — Police scanners were once the domain of first responders, newsrooms and nosy nosersons who like nosing around police and fire department activity. Thanks to popular Twitter accounts like NE Ohio Scanner, police scanners now have a significant audience. The NE Ohio Scanner account has over 22,000 followers, and because that account tweets potentially newsworthy (and sometimes humorous) developments, we monitor it here in our newsroom, along with other actual scanners.

We use scanners because they alert us to events that we may end up reporting as news. A police scanner might be the first indication we get about, for example, a major fire, as first reports are relayed between residents, dispatch and first responders.

How we use them
Our assignment editors, and our overnight photographer Mike Vielhaber -- you can follow his excellent Twitter account here -- use scanners as a starting point to lead us in the direction of news. It’s like when we get a tip from a viewer. We assess its value, and we attempt to verify. We then use that verified information as the foundation of our reporting. Unlike some other news organizations, we do not consider what is said over the scanner to be reportable as news.

Now you might be thinking, why not? It’s publicly available information. Why withhold information from the public?

Yes, it is publicly available information, but as journalists it’s our job to weigh the value of that information and determine what, if anything, to do with it, not to mindlessly report everything we hear.

We don’t report on scanner traffic because relying only on those initial reports increases the likelihood that the story will be incomplete, untrue or devoid of what is so essential in any breaking news story -- context. A resident, a dispatcher or a first responder arriving on scene does not have a complete view of what has occurred.

As with any story, we check the accuracy of information to the best of our ability before reporting it. These efforts include sending our journalists out into the field, calling sources, talking to witnesses and combing through documents. After we gather facts, we decide how we will publish that information. Online only? In a push alert? As a television reporter story? As part of a larger investigation? Sometimes we obtain information, but we decide it’s not enough for a story, so we decline to report that story, or we double down and work to gather more information.

When news is breaking, this is a fluid process, and we are transparent when a story changes, usually by explaining how we obtained the initial information in our report and what we have learned since then.

But, but, you guys said
Here’s what “we don’t report on scanner traffic” doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean we never use information from the scanner to add color or details to a story. This information can be valuable, for example, when attempting to reconstruct a newsworthy event, or in some other way that strengthens our reporting on a story.

Signing off
This is probably more than you ever needed to know about police scanners, but we do sometimes get asked on social media why we have not reported on some piece of information that's floating around publicly. In most of those cases it’s because we’re working to verify before reporting.

Joe Donatelli is the digital director at News 5 Cleveland. Follow him on Facebook @joedonatelli1 and Twitter @joedonatelli. Have a question about how we report the news? Email joe.donatelli@wews.com.


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