Weaponizing Truth: U.K. Newspaper Fears D.C. Crime Reporting Feeds “Rightwing Agenda”

Gun Rights

Last month, a progressive Chicago alderman decided to stop disseminating alerts about crime in her ward because “over-reporting of crime leads to an inaccurate public perception about violent crime rates and negatively impacts our most marginalized and underserved neighbors,” and sharing this information supposedly runs contrary to values of “empowerment, anti-racism and community.”

In another incident of undermining factual reporting as ideologically or politically harmful, an article in The Guardian, a left-leaning British daily, claims that “spot” news reporting by social media users in the D.C. metro area feeds a narrative of failed progressive policies.   

Like Chicago, the Democrat-run District of Columbia has seen homicides, carjackings and robberies escalate to unprecedented levels. The District’s 274 homicides in 2023 represent a twenty-year high, while robberies in 2023 increased by 67% over 2022 and motor vehicle thefts in the same time period increased by 82%.

Amid this rising crime and during police defunding and reductions in force, public safety understandably became a hot issue for residents of the Nation’s Capital. Local “crime trackers” posting spot crime news on X (formerly Twitter) stepped into the informational gap. The accounts, like Larry Calhoun’s DC Realtime News (@RealTimeNews10) and Alan Henney’s eponymous account (@alanhenney), to name just a couple, report on police, fire and EMS activity in near-real time. Another account, DC Crime Facts (@dccrimefacts), focuses on crime statistics, 911 response times, prosecutions, and other law enforcement concerns.

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The Guardian article (DC crime news trackers aim to inform–but are they being used for a rightwing agenda?) views this reporting as problematic because, it claims, conservative lawmakers are exploiting the District’s breakdown in public safety. This “overwhelmingly Democratic city” is not the only jurisdiction dealing with rising violent crime, “but ahead of the November presidential election, Republicans have singled out its plight to argue that progressives everywhere cannot be trusted to keep the public safe.”

Another sticking point for The Guardian is that, while these volunteer reporters follow the same kinds of events as major newspapers or broadcasters, “the people behind them can also be more openly political than professional journalists, and wind up squarely in the local and national discourse over crime.” As an example, the newspaper points to an “argument” that reporter Alan Henney had on X with D.C. council member Zachary Parker (Ward 5).

In 2023, Parker had introduced a bill to combat “gun violence” by allowing public and private lawsuits against the firearm industry, even in cases of criminal misuse of guns by third parties. Henney’s post on X noted that, “Just as autos don’t strike pedestrians, guns aren’t the source of the killing. The problem is that this city has a terrible time managing conflict among young men. It’s not a gun problem, this is a violence problem.” Parker’s retort, The Guardian states, was to allege that Henney “and others are quite active on this app promoting crime…” The article fails to explain in what way this seemingly impartial observation is “openly political” (Henney’s political leanings are not mentioned), while also neglecting to challenge the assertion that reporting crimes amounts to their endorsement.

Another allegation The Guardian raises is that while crime reporting accounts may serve a community need, the information these volunteers provide “often ends up being far more limited than what a professional news outlet could produce, and without editorial oversight.” The newspaper quotes the associate dean of academic affairs at the University of Maryland’s college of journalism as saying that these reporters are missing the big picture. “They’re not able to take the time to put things in context, to write a trend story, to dive into six months, a year, multiple years of data, and do the kind of work that a professional journalist in a newsroom might do…We have a better sense of what’s happening day to day, but does that give us a true sense of what the community is like now compared to last year, a decade ago? I’m not sure that is helpful in that way.”

That may be true, but it ignores the very obvious point of spot reporting, which is a focus on as-it-unfolds news rather than in-depth contextual analysis. Henney observes that “[m]y goal is to try to get the information out there timely. You want to get your people going – if you’re in the news business, half an hour makes a lot of difference.” Residents worried about a crime in progress or another kind of emergency in their neighborhood can’t afford to wait for trend stories that drill into months or years of data (and, in the case of the local Washington Post, may be secured behind a paywall, anyways). As Calhoun stated in an interview in 2021, “My feed is providing public safety awareness. If a shooting is going on, you want to know because your kids could be outside playing. I’m gonna get it out within five minutes of it happening.”

Crime-reporting social media accounts can also play an important role in political accountability and transparency. These feeds can serve to prod politicians into responding to public safety issues, and highlight problems that the mainstream media and more official sources might bypass – the inverse of the “big picture” approach.  In a June 14 post on X, DC Crime Facts wrote that the “vast majority of media stories about crime in DC are the result of a MPD [Metropolitan Police Dept.] or USAO [United States Attorney’s Office in DC] press release. If you’re only reporting on what they want you to focus on you’re missing most of what is broken in DC’s criminal justice system.” 

Crime itself tends to be politically indiscriminate. In a June 12 X post Calhoun wrote that criminals “don’t care about your politics” – a carjacker isn’t “going to first ask are you democrat or republican before taking your property. Hell no. My priority is always to my community no matter how they vote. I could care less about that. It’s about public safety.”

What these accounts do is shed a light on what’s not working. It was one such social media report that spectacularly put paid to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s attempt to convince Americans that Democratic politicians can, in fact, be trusted to keep the public safe.

 In an April interview on national news, Buttigieg boasted to host Jen Psaki (Biden’s former Press Secretary) on how much safer D.C. was during the Biden Administration. “I can safely walk my dog in the Capitol today, in a way that you couldn’t do when, when we all got here,” he said, adding a gratuitous dig about spin vs. substance. “Again, there is a lot of funding and a lot of energy going into telling a different story, especially on ideological news outlets and online. But the simple facts and the simple reality are right here staring us in the face.” Buttigieg’s “simple reality” claims fell apart almost instantly once an X post by Henney, featuring a D.C. police report, described how a different dog-walker had been robbed and stabbed in the back by six juveniles in the same Capitol Hill neighborhood the same day.

In the meantime, professional journalists who take the time to “put things in context” and to “write a trend story” might want to examine narratives about public safety advanced by leftist politicians and their anti-gun supporters in furtherance of “common sense gun reform” – with dubious claims that gun-control measures have a meaningful impact on violent crime, that violent crime has fallen to record low levels, that responsible citizens owning guns for self-defense “makes everyone less safe,” and that, contrary to rhetoric and appearances, Biden “respect[s] the culture and the tradition and the concerns of lawful gun owners.”

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