By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Online news sites enable two arrests

Video from surveillance cameras amplified by online news sites led to the arrests of two people sought by police in recent weeks.

One of the incidents took place last Thursday in the western New York community of Batavia, where a camera at a Walmart captured an image of a man who allegedly yelled loudly at a young child and then threw him onto a concrete floor.

According to an account in YNN Rochester, state police contacted Howard Owens and asked him to publish a photo in The Batavian, an online news site of which he is the editor and publisher.

That night, a 28-year-old man was arrested and charged with endangering the welfare of a child and harassment. Here is Owens’ account of the arraignment.

“Fifteen to 20 minutes of it being posted, we had numerous calls coming into our dispatch at the State Police Batavia and the Genesee County Sheriff’s dispatch,” Trooper Holly Hanssel was quoted as telling YNN. “Him posting the picture immediately on his website was huge and that absolutely helped us.”

Owens’ competition, The Daily News, referred to The Batavian simply as “an online news site” in its own report on the arrest, apparently not wanting to identify its crosstown rival. The paper also reported that “police did not provide The Daily News or other media with the photo.”

Frankly, that strikes me as odd. Regardless of why law enforcement approached Owens first, it seems to me that the police should have wanted to get the photo out to as many media outlets as possible. It also strikes me as a possible violation of public records laws, although police generally have a great deal of discretion while a crime is being investigated.*

Regardless, it was a coup for The Batavian.

The other incident involves a convenience store robbery that took place in New Haven on May 16. Paul Bass, editor and publisher of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit news site, posted a video clip from the store’s surveillance camera showing an older man calmly showing the clerk a gun and then grabbing cash out of the register.

Incredibly, the man’s family saw the story and persuaded the man — described as 57 years old and homeless — to turn himself in. “I’m just a drug addict. I’m just on hard times. My family convinced me to turn myself in,” the man reportedly told police.

A day later, police heard from someone who said he and a friend had been robbed by the same man when he approached them on the street.

Both the Independent and The Batavian are featured in “The Wired City,” my book on online community news.

*Update: Owens has posted a comment, and I realize now that I assumed The Daily News had requested the photo and was turned down. In fact, that does not appear to be the case.

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  1. Thanks for the follow up, Dan. I do take a different view on whether other media should have received notice.

    First, good reporters develop sources. I think I’ve done that. I’ve developed relationships with a lot of people in law enforcement over the past five years. This is a case of one of those relationships paying off. This is a competitive business and I want my sources call me and not the other guys. Conversely, I don’t complain when a reporter with the competition develops his or her own story and beats me; rather, I tip my hat. I only expect routine press releases to be shared equally.

    Second, my wife and I have worked hard to develop The Batavian’s brand as the #1 source for breaking news in Genesee County. We had already posted about this incident before a trooper called me. We crush the competition in repeat visit traffic for Genesee County because people know if there is anything going on, we’ll have it. That makes The Batavian a far superior resource for getting the word out fast in a situation like this and the local folks in law enforcement are keenly attune to this fact. The trooper felt time was crucial in this situation because the health of the boy (who turned out to be unhurt) was in question. When time matters, advantage The Batavian.

    Why should information be shared equally when the trust and respect hasn’t been developed equally?

    I’m aware of no provision in NYS public records law that would require a government agency to share information equally with all media outlets, except for in the open meeting law, which covers publicly noticed meetings. This obviously wasn’t a meeting of a public body. I would find such a law offensive to the idea that reporters should develop sources and be rewarded with exclusive access to information when they do.

  2. Dan Kennedy

    @Howard: I read more into The Daily News’ story than was there, and have since appended an update.

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