This week came news that the Homicide Watch D.C. might go on hiatus because its founder and proprietor Laura Amico has been awarded the Nieman-Berkman fellowship. Amico is attempting to keep Homicide Watch alive with a Kickstarter campaign to turn the website into a teaching lab for burgeoning crime reporters. In this interview from November, 2011 Brooke talks to Amico about the site's mission and how it works.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A well-intended grant is having an unintended impact on an unorthodox news gathering operation, Homicide Watch, a website that tracks every murder in the Washington, D.C. area. The two-year-old website has only one full time staffer, its founder, Laura Amico. Next week she’ll begin a year as a Nieman- Berkman Fellow in Journalism Innovation at Harvard. Her plan was to keep the site up and running during the fellowship. But after a last-minute deal with a local news outlet to take it over fell through, the future of Homicide Watch is uncertain.
With the possibility looming that the singular site could end, we’re rerunning last November’s conversation with Amico. She explained why she posts the names of murder victims, even before the police do.
LAURA AMICO: People are talking about crimes that they're seeing and they want there to be a place to find information and connect right away. They want to leave memorial messages for the victim. They want to talk about the suspect. It's about providing crime coverage that is complete and honors the experiences that people have in their lives in their experiences with violent crime.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how do you get the jump on the cops?
LAURA AMICO: By watching Twitter and Facebook and my web search analytics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: O-kay.
LAURA AMICO: Basically, what happens is that someone goes to a search engine, Google or Bing or something like that, and types in what they want information about, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].
LAURA AMICO: We often see people searching victims' names and suspects' names, addresses, where they know a crime has occurred. When people come into Homicide Watch by searching those terms, I see that search term that they initially used to find me. A lot of times those give me clues on what's actually happening out there in the streets.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: People will search for you, as a crime reporter, to find out about something you haven’t written about, and you turn around and use their search parameters to search it yourself.
LAURA AMICO: Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What sort of terms do you use when you're searching Twitter and Facebook?
LAURA AMICO: It's taken a lot of practice to learn the terms that are most important in my community. I search R-I-P, with and without periods, Rest in Paradise, SMH, short for shaking my head, tears. Visual, V-I-S-U-A-L, is often used to mean vigil –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm!
LAURA AMICO: - for a candlelight vigil.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can give you an example of how it works?
LAURA AMICO: Sure. A couple of weekends ago I woke up early one Sunday morning and checked the community list-servs, as I often do, and saw that there was a police report that a juvenile male had died after being stabbed at about 7:30 the evening before. And that happened on a street they listed as “Quincy Street Northwest.”
When I looked at my Google analytics, I saw search terms, including, “killing of Jamal in D.C., October 8th, 2011,” “a sixteen was kill in Washington D.C.” and “a man was murdered on Quincy Street Northwest on October 8th 2011.” Those were all search terms that people were using to find my site.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, you had those clues. Then what did you do?
LAURA AMICO: I took those clues to Twitter and I started searching “Jamal R-I-P, 16-year-old.” And that led me to a Facebook profile of a 17-year-old named Jamar Freeman. His friends and family were leaving memorial messages connected to his Facebook and Twitter accounts. Finally, one of them linked to my initial report, just stating that a crime had occurred. At that point, that was confirmation for me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you don't go to the police after to make sure you’ve got it right?
LAURA AMICO: A press release was eventually issued in that case. The press releases happen on our own time, and in this case that wasn't until a day and a half later.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you ever worry about wrongly identifying someone?
LAURA AMICO: I don't publish until I am absolutely certain that what I have is correct.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How is what you do different from what eventually comes out in the paper?
LAURA AMICO: Homicide Watch is a setup around people. We have individual pages for every victim and every suspect. Every story that I write appears on that victim or suspect’s page. So with one click, you can see everything from their obituary to the initial report of the crime, to who was arrested, to where that is in the court’s process, to maybe a profile, interesting comments that others have left in their memory, which is something that I think you don't see in a lot of either daily newspapers or news websites. Having that all in one place gives more of a complete picture than a crime brief every so often.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you try and cover every single homicide in D.C.?
LAURA AMICO: Every single homicide.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you familiar with the great Miami crime reporter Edna Buchanan?
LAURA AMICO: I am, yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She used to pride herself on knowing every homicide case in Miami. When she went on vacation, she would come back and check on the murders that she missed. And here's a story that she once told me.
EDNA BUCHANAN: And one was the murder of this young man who lived with his grandmother. And I happened to find myself in that neighborhood, and I stopped by, knocked at the door. And she opened it, and I introduced myself and said I wanted to talk to her about her grandson. And she took a deep breath, stepped back, threw the door open wide and invited me in. And she said, “I wondered why nobody came.”
LAURA AMICO: That's really what I find happens every day, covering this beat. People have these deeply emotional moments, and what we see is that when they're not asked for their stories and when they’re not asked what happened, they get the impression that it doesn't matter - their son's life or their mother's life wasn't worth talking about. And I think that's the saddest thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You remind me of Edna Buchanan.
LAURA AMICO: Brooke, that story means so much to me, and that really just made my day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Laura Amico runs Homicide Watch D.C.
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Laura, thank you very much.
LAURA AMICO: Thank you, Brooke.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Amico has created a Kickstarter campaign to keep Homicide Watch going for the coming year, by turning it into a journalism training lab of sorts, to teach students how to do crime reporting. We’ll link to that campaign on our website.