Apr 19

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New York Times does balanced coverage of police vs. privacy issue

Police are increasingly being granted access to phone records such as text messages. Photo by Meagan Ramsay

We often hear of court cases in which cellphone records helped nag the criminal. But do we ever consider the legality behind it? A New York Times story by Eric Lichtblau takes a balanced and well-structured look at the tracking of cellphones by law enforcement. Structure is always an issue in my writing, so I love finding stories that flow easily from one idea to the next.

The first requirement in this story is an explanation of the problem. The writer explains in a lede that is much longer than I would prefer, but it does explain exactly what readers need to know right off the bat by summarizing the issue:

“Law enforcement tracking of cellphones, once the province mainly of federal agents, has become a powerful and widely used surveillance tool for local police officials, with hundreds of departments, large and small, often using it aggressively with little or no court oversight, documents show.”

The attribution is tricky, though. The writer ends the lede with “documents show.” A couple of paragraphs later readers learn that those documents are from the American Civil Liberties Union. But is that good enough attribution? In this case, I think it is. Normally I want to see the exact attribution with facts, but since the lede is already so lengthy and the full attribution is given later, I am satisfied with “documents show.”

Following a little more explanation, the writer addresses why cellphone tracking is such a problem, as well as finally citing the ACLU documents, which he provides a link to:

“While many departments require warrants to use phone tracking in nonemergencies, others claim broad discretion to get the records on their own, according to 5,500 pages of internal records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union from 205 police departments nationwide.”

As a reader, my next question is “what are specific examples of police using cellphone records?” The writer was way ahead of me. He cites specifics in five different states, which includes how police use the records and tracking services, as well as why the police need them.

Next comes the explanation from police about why using the information is important. This is where the balance is introduced:

“It’s pretty valuable, simply because there are so many people who have cellphones,” said Roxann Ryan, a criminal analyst with Iowa’s state intelligence branch. “We find people,” she said, “and it saves lives.”

Although that was the only direct quote defending police officers, there are other instances of balance, such as “there is no evidence that police have listened to phone calls without warrants” and “the ACLU documents give no indication that departments have conducted actual wiretapping operations.”

The AFP ran a similar story on Yahoo! News about police cellphone tracking, but it focuses on one side. There are no quotes from police explaining why using cellphones is important for solving cases. For a story about the actions of police, one would think the police would get a chance to defend what they do. The New York Times gave them that opportunity.

Here is an example of information AFP didn’t give police a chance to defend:

“What we have learned is disturbing. The government should have to get a warrant before tracking cell phones. That is what is necessary to protect Americans’ privacy, and it is also what is required under the constitution,” said Catherine Crump, an ACLU attorney.”

While the Times’ story is not perfect, it shows how stories can be structured and balanced to effectively inform readers on important issues.

Permanent link to this article: http://thewashingtonjournalismcenter.com/?p=4296

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