One Reporter's Notebook
Online Investigative journalism: more on reporting through analytics

Five months ago I wrote about how I use Homicide Watch’s real-time analytics reports as a reporting tool.

Since then, analytics reports has become an even greater tool for us, made more important by recent changes in police communication.

Using analytics as a reporting tool is so dead simple that it sometimes amazes me. 

Here’s what happened this weekend:

1. I woke up early Sunday morning and saw a listserve report that a juvenile male had died after being stabbed Saturday evening around 7:30 p.m. near Quincy Street NW. I did a quick news search and found that no one had reported anything on the case yet. I wrote a quick post linking to the listserve report from the police department.

2. I glanced at the “search terms” section of my analytics report on Google. Whoa. Here’s what I saw:

See what grabbed my attention? First, the search for “Jamal… Oct. 8.” Then the search for “16 was kill,” which I interpreted as 16-year-old. The the “Quincy St” search. 

These were all significant clues individually, but my hunch was that they were all searches from the same person because they used similar language in the searches. (Beginning with the letter ”a,” similar number of words, similar cadence, similar amount of information but vagueness, etc.

3. I took the information to Facebook and Twitter where I used a few specialized searches based on what this person had clued me to. Within an hour I determined that the unintentional tipster was wrong; it wasn’t Jamal, it was Jamar. And he was 17-years-old, not 16. But those search terms got me there and led me to more than a dozen of Jamar Freeman’s friends and relatives. I held on to my story until I was certain, but soon one of Jamar’s friends posted an RIP message to Twitter and linked to my initial report of the homicide. It was the confirmation I needed to run my story.

It wasn’t until late Monday morning ( about 40 hours after the crime and 26 hours after my first post) when the police department issued a press release stating that a homicide had occurred. At that time they identified the victim as Jamar Freeman. In those 40 hours, Homicide Watch was the only news organization to have the story with the identity of the victim.

Why does that matter? A few reasons, first the selfish one: traffic and engagement skyrocketed in those 24 hours. Jamar’s family and friends, those who live near where Jamar was killed, etc, wanted and needed a place to find information and connect with others experiencing the tragedy. The only place for that to happen was Homicide Watch.

The second reason is that those first hours were the most important moments for those responding to Jamar’s death. That the teen was killed was no secret in the neighborhood or online. Conversations were happening in public right then. That it took the police  and most media 36 hours to report what family, friends, neighbors and others already knew, was a missed opportunity to connect with the groundswell of reaction to Jamar’s death… and to understand the true impact of his death.

Sure, we all like to be first. It’s the mantra we grew up with in the newsroom. If you don’t have it first, you’re following and following is not news.

But reporting from analytics on Homicide Watch has changed why being first is important to me; it’s not about the gold star any more.

This weekend, while reporting and publishing, I was providing a public service. I made a place for Jamar’s uncle to ask for help. For his teachers to share memories. For his friends to comfort one another.  And that’s what reporting on Homicide Watch is all about.

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