Read an Excerpt
DEAD BEFORE DEADLINE... and Other Tales from the Police Beat
By Robin Yocum
The University of Akron PressCopyright © 2004 Robin Yocum
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Value of Life
All life is not precious in the newsroom.
The value placed on a life in the newsroom is in direct proportion to the number of people who are likely to read a story about that death. I always thought of it as a story's entertainment value, although to utter those words in the Dispatch newsroom would have been heresy. It would have been seen as being too much like television news.
But it was true. During my years on the police beat, I looked for stories that would cause some guy to take the paper, shove it across the table to his wife, and say, "Jesus Christ, Margaret, read this story."
It has been said that every corpse has a story to tell. That is true. However, some corpses tell stories that are a lot more compelling than others. The death of a drug dealer who gets shot in a bar or of a homeless man who gets hit by a bus will rarely get more than a brief. They do not get detailed stories because no one cares. That sounds harsh, but it is true. (Okay, their mothers care, but beyond that ...) If a drug deal goes south and one of the two business associates gets killed, does anyone outside of the immediate family care? No. In fact, if most people were honest, they would say, "Good. One less dope dealer on the streets."
Although they would never admit it openly, the cops worked the same way. I once asked a detective about the progress of an investigation into the June 1984 shooting death of David Scott, a fifteen-year-old leader of the Dozen Cousins street gang, who had taken a shotgun blast to the stomach, supposedly from a rival gang member. The detective gave me the standard response of continuing to interview witnesses and gather evidence, then said, "Off the record?"
"Sure, off the record."
We were standing on opposite sides of a barred window that separated the lobby from the detective bureau. He leaned closer to the bars, grinned, and said, "We don't want to solve this one too soon. We heard he might be planning to take out a few other members of the posse."
He was kidding, I think. But, the fact remained, just as the cops devoted less effort to some homicides, we gave less ink to those same deaths.
Thus, all lives are not equal.
Over the years, I had this discussion with people-usually the relative of a homicide victim-who argued that all deaths deserved equal and compassionate coverage. In other words, they believed that the death of a drug dealer deserved the same effort as the deaths of two high school track stars who were killed in a car crash on their way home from practice. I didn't buy it. The strangulation death of an eight-year-old girl who was abducted as she walked home from school, or a college student shot to death while driving down the street with her father, or a mother killed by a drunken driver was going to get more play. These were tragic stories about the deaths of innocent people. Readers are drawn to those stories. They want to know more.
Sometimes, the bizarre nature of a story-the entertainment value-will draw readers in. A colleague of mine, Mike Norman, once wrote a story about a seventy-one-year-old man who had been shot and killed by his twin brother because they could not agree on which television show to watch. We're drawn to those stories the way we're drawn to the headlines in supermarket tabloids.
An easy way to determine the previous character of a corpse was to measure the comments made by his loved ones. If someone told me, "He was just getting his life back together," warning lights would go off all over the place. This was the standard comment about someone who had caused his family-it was always a "him"-an ungodly amount of heartache. However, since he was now dead, and in spite of the fact that his entire life had been the equivalent of a train wreck, they wanted a nice story about him in the paper.
It was okay to print those comments, but I always tried to do a criminal background check before running the story.
That, however, was not always possible. One of the difficulties of working the police beat was that I was usually working on deadline. In these instances, I was forced to rely on the word of witnesses or neighbors I was able to interview. I covered the murder of Byron Sprague, a fifty-eight-year-old fifth-grade teacher at South Mifflin Elementary School, who was found stabbed to death in his north-side apartment in January 1982. At the scene, neighbors described Sprague as a nice guy, a dedicated educator who spent his evenings tutoring terminally ill children.
By early indications, he was a great guy.
A day later, I found out that he had two previous charges for child molesting. In 1964, he was arrested for sodomy and assault on a minor and spent time in jail for the offense. In 1969, he was charged with sexual assault on a minor.
It's the nature of the business.
Excerpted from DEAD BEFORE DEADLINE by Robin Yocum Copyright © 2004 by Robin Yocum. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.