What Journalists Can Teach Us about Reporting Crime on Nextdoor.com
By Lurene Kelley
When I first started using Twitter in 2008, I imagined it could be everything local news could not be — a space to find out what was happening in my immediate surrounding, even the small stuff. I tried to make it that. One night, I saw several police cars gathered on my street. I issued my own personal APB on Twitter, asking if anyone knew what was happening.
Crickets. You could hear crickets.
Was it because no one cared or knew what was happening on my street? No. The people who followed me lived in Downtown Memphis, New York City or Switzerland. They didn’t live on my street.
Years later, as my networks have grown, Twitter and Facebook have grown into a de facto neighborhood news source for me. Sandwiched between pictures of kids, witty observations and articles shared from the New York Times are conversations among neighbors about power outages and crowd sourced recommendations for the best nearby dentist.
For the most part, though, we would never update our Facebook or Twitter status with “Suspicious man walking in my alley. Be aware.” Why? Because it would mean nothing to the bulk of our friends and followers scattered across the city, country and world. It would just look kind of … strange.
There is nothing strange about it on Nextdoor.com. The social media site is, by design, a very different networking platform. Only those who verify they live within neighborhood boundaries that have been established by an organizer can join a Nextdoor network. These privacy settings are intended to bring together people with one thing in common — their neighborhood.
The verification process alone makes Nextdoor a natural fit for inquiries and reports about neighborhood safety. Even though the creators of Nextdoor originally built the site to spawn highly localized versions of Craigslist or Angie’s List — it is about much more than commerce exchange and lost dogs. In fact, nationally “classified ads” only account for about 10% of all Nextdoor posts. On the other hand, “crime and safety” posts account for twice that, making up 20% of all posts on Nextdoor networks across the country — second only to posts about “civic issues.”
The national popularity of crime and safety on Nextdoor has been noted. In the past year, the list of partnerships between local police departments and Nextdoor neighborhood sites has grown rapidly. Law enforcement in California, Florida, Texas and Denver are just a few of the programs now sharing neighborhood safety alerts, conducting online Neighborhood Watch programs and sharing crime prevention tips on Nextdoor. And with 8,000 neighborhoods using Nextdoor and 40 new neighborhoods added each day, its force as a virtual Neighborhood Watch, builds.
Nextdoor has even been credited with solving crimes. In Baltimore, a series of posts about burglaries revealed a pattern that helped police eventually catch the burglar and recover the items. In Memphis, an alleged burglar was apprehended after a neighbor on the Central Garden’s Nextdoor network posted specifics about the time and location of a break-in. Another member of Central Garden’s network lived on the same street and regularly videotaped activity in his alley. He was able to match the time of his neighbor’s break-in on his video and captured a shot of a man walking in their shared alley. Police used the video to make an arrest.
Everyone is a crime reporter.
“Sometimes the emphasis on crime and safety can make reading Nextdoor downright grizzly. A bit too much for me at times; but there are plenty in the neighborhood who want to know” – Sara Lacey of tech website Pando Daily discussing her Nextdoor network in San Francisco.
The power of Nextdoor for sharing crime and safety information and, in some cases, solve crimes, is well established. It means that now there are hundreds of people with the ability to share details about every burglary, car break-in and suspicious person in your neighborhood. Where as before, you may not have known that a car was broken into two blocks away — now you do.
But what do we do with all of this? And, more importantly, how do we share crime and safety information in a meaningful way?
Before teaching journalism at the University of Memphis, I was a reporter at WREG-TV. Say what you will about journalists (particularly TV reporters,) but we do have standards. Quite a few, particularly, when it comes to reporting crime. Why? Inaccurately or inadequately reporting crime details can scare people, unnecessarily.
Private citizens now have the ability to publicly and broadly “publish” information about crime. So consider treating Nextdoor as the powerful tool it is – a neighborhood news source.
No one should expect pro-level reporting on Nextdoor and everyone, including professional reporters, makes mistakes. But there are a few ideas we can all learn from journalists to make our posts more meaningful and helpful … so that we can avoid creating confusion and stirring fear. (While these tips were written with Nextdoor in mind, it’s worth noting they can also apply to Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms.)
Location, location, location. When a crime happens, the first thing we all want to know is, “How close did it happen to me?” That takes on new meaning on a neighborhood site, like Nextdoor. Most local news operations will, at the very least, report the neighborhood and block number where a crime happened. This allows us to determine how close this event was to our home, workplace or school.
The Takeaway: Just giving the street name isn’t enough. Depending on what you’re comfortable sharing, give the exact address, the street and the block number or the cross streets.
Burglaries vs. Robberies. While many of us use these terms interchangeably, police and journalists use a distinct set of crime terminology. Some words indicate property crimes only — in which property was stolen, but the perpetrator never confronted the victim. Usually, property crimes take place when the owner is absent. Some words, however, indicate that property was stolen and the perpetrator confronted the victim. These are personal crimes and indicate a much higher level of seriousness and personal violence. While all types of crime can be disturbing, unintentionally leading neighbors to believe the crime involved violence causes confusion and fear.
The Takeway: Property crime — use the terms “burglary,” “theft” or “break-in.” Applies to homes or cars that were broken into or personal items taken while person is not around.
Personal crime — use the term “robbery” when an individual used threat or force to take property. “Armed robbery” indicates a weapon was used.
Be detailed. Provide as many details as you feel comfortable sharing. The more vague your post, the more troubling it can be for your neighbors. Just saying, “My house on Main Avenue was burglarized” raises more questions than answers.
The Takeaway: Date and time of day are critical details. As mentioned in the case from Baltimore, neighbors were able to piece together a pattern based on times of day that burglaries occurred. That level of detail provides meaningful information to your neighbors.
Point of entry. Sharing how the individual entered your home can reveal patterns and create awareness for those of us who do not have windows or back doors properly secured.
Confirm details. Be careful reporting on behalf of another person. It’s easy to
gather incorrect information from a friend or neighbor when you are both upset about what happened. Make sure you get the correct details (who, what, when, where) before you post. Better yet, encourage that person to report the incident on Nextdoor, first hand. Recently, a friend of a victim posted to Nextdoor that a violent crime had taken place on a Cooper-Young street. Ultimately, the correct address revealed the crime did not take place in Cooper-Young at all.
The Takeaway: If you file a report on behalf of someone, make sure you have accurate details before posting. Avoid feeling rushed to post it immediately. Accuracy on the first report is more important than speed.
Reporting suspicious individuals. Be as detailed as possible. Most news stations will not even release descriptions about suspects at-large unless they have enough to provide a meaningful description. Just noting the race and gender of a “suspicious” individual is not helpful to protecting anyone and can just perpetuate suspicion of anyone who remotely matches that description. Also, think carefully before posting this type of information – ask yourself if the individual’s activity was suspicious or did the person’s appearance just make you uncomfortable. If it’s only the latter, think twice about posting.
The Takeaway: Report suspicious activity, not people. Include as much detail as possible about the activity and the individual so that the reader can really use the information.
Correct errors. Journalists are not known for always correcting mistakes; so this is where you can do the pros one better! Sometimes, when a journalist makes an error in an initial story, even when corrected, it never quite makes the impact or reaches as many people as the original story. The Takeaway: If you make an error, correct it as soon as possible. If it is a more serious error, consider correcting it in the comments of your original post AND creating a new post, clearly labeled “CORRECTION.” In the case where the individual incorrectly identified Cooper-Young as the location of an armed robbery, the individual corrected the post in comments. But the main line of the post was what most people continued to read, not seeing the corrected version in the comments. A new post labeled “CORRECTION” would get more attention and will keep your neighbors better informed.
Nextdoor.com is proving to be a highly effective tool at connecting neighbors at the digital level. You may not create friendships on this network (that’s not what it was designed to do) but you can more quickly and widely share neighborhood information with people most interested in it. If the reports of crime in your neighborhood ever feel overwhelming, stop checking it for a week or two; then you’ll be reminded of what your life was like before using Nextdoor — when you just didn’t know about the burglary four blocks away and the two car break-ins on the edge of the neighborhood.
Accurately sharing information about crimes in our neighborhood could eventually result in our neighborhood being safer — because more people are connected, watching and, possibly, becoming more involved in neighborhood activities. But it can also make us more fearful, maybe walking around in our neighborhood less. In the worst case, it could make us feel like as if we should move to a different neighborhood.
Being instantly informed of all the happenings in our neighborhood, be they good or bad, is another stream of information we must all learn to share and consume … without letting it distort the reality of our day-to-day life.
Lurene Kelley works for the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office and writes for their blog, JustCity.org. She is a former journalism professor and television reporter. Kelley considers herself a resident of Central Gardens and/or Cooper-Young, depending on the day and the occasion.