How an escapade on a frozen pond led one newspaper to reform its crime coverage

Photos (cc) 2022 by Dan Kennedy

One February day in 2020, an obituary caught Paul Cuno-Booth’s eye. At that time the police and courts reporter for The Keene Sentinel in rural western New Hampshire, Cuno-Booth had two years earlier written about one of those wacky incidents that editors and readers love.

A 47-year-old woman had driven out onto the ice on a pond, doing donuts, knocking over fishermen’s equipment and leading police on a slow-motion chase, throwing things out of her window as she drove. She was arrested and charged with criminal mischief and disobeying an officer.

Now, reading her obit, he learned more about the woman who’d been arrested on the ice that day. She’d had surgery for a brain tumor in 2016. She’d worked with mentally disabled people. She was a triathlete. Hers was a deep, well-rounded life, and the Sentinel’s story had reduced her to a caricature for the entertainment of its readers.

Cuno-Booth and others at the Sentinel started talking about how they could cover criminal justice in a way that reflected the complexities of the people they were writing about — people who were, in many cases, suffering from substance abuse, trauma and poverty. Crime coverage at the Sentinel, he said, was typical of most papers, consisting of “a lot of quick-hit articles,” press releases from the police, “not a lot of reporting, not a lot of context.” They decided they needed to make some changes. But where to begin?

From Cuno-Booth’s slideshow

Cuno-Booth described the Sentinel’s dilemma and the steps that it took to improve its coverage at the Radically Rural conference last week in Keene, New Hampshire. Sponsored by the Sentinel and the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship, the conference, now in its fifth year, featured panels on agriculture, housing, the environment and community journalism. Ellen Clegg and I interviewed the Sentinel’s president and COO, Terry Williams, on the “What Works” podcast a few weeks ago.

Cuno-Booth said he left the Sentinel but stayed in touch with the paper; he’s now a freelancer, working with New Hampshire Public Radio and other outlets. The paper’s crime coverage, he told the audience, was reoriented with the help of Kelly McBride, an ethics specialist at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Essentially, it came down to being more deliberate — individual crimes would not be reported unless the paper was prepared to follow them all the way through the court system, which immediately ruled out minor offenses. They’d look for trends rather than writing about, for instance, an 18-year-old picked up on an alcohol violation. They’d give people a chance to have stories about their earlier misdeeds be removed from Google search, although they’d remain in the Sentinel’s archives — a step taken by a number of news organizations in recent years, including The Boston Globe. Mug shots would rarely be published.

“I think it’s still very much a work in progress,” Cuno-Booth said. Nevertheless, that one moment of infamy for a troubled woman in 2018 has led to some significant changes in the way that the Sentinel covers crime and serves its community.