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Plain truth on crime stories is hard to come by today

POSTED: February 6, 2011 12:30 a.m.

Working with Bob Morris felt like accompanying the grim reaper. He wore black clothes every day, drove a black car, and covered police and the crimes they handled better than anyone I've ever known.

Bob was a news photographer and weekly columnist. When he died, Monday circulation tanked. Thousands of people, including 600-plus sworn officers in Chatham County alone, simply stopped reading that day's paper.

The public recognized him, too. Families often bowed their heads when we rolled onto their driveways. Our arrival usually meant someone they loved was killed.

The beat we shared paralyzed me, Bob's passenger for a couple years.

But he embraced the job as a personal quest. His philosophy, fine-tuned over three decades work, centered on this singular belief: Our mission matters.

"We can present a human face to victims left without a voice," Bob said. "We can tell this story better than others can ... what we do is important ... this is our job ... take a deep breath ... get out of the car."

That was almost 10 years ago. I buried a lot of those memories when Bob died in 2004. But every bit of it unearthed recently.

And it all started on the Gainesville bridge where Operation Thunder launched loudly. Cruisers rolled. Cameras snapped. Glitzy press folders were presented by state PR folks in fluorescent jackets, one of whom called me Ed. And high-ranking speakers lined up to cast words at the noisiest podium place on the planet.

Their message to troublemaking motorists seemed simple compared to the hoopla: We're working together to find you in order to save lives.

It was a story. I wrote it. Done, I thought.

But a question related to how I covered the subject sprang unexpectedly the next day in a conference room.

There and then, I pictured Bob's ghost at the head of the table taking a long drag of his cigarette.

For most of the introductory meeting, I nodded at the roundup of media procedure buzz words I'd heard for a month. Officers have to be "trained" to release information, see. "Handling" reporters takes grooming, you know. And what's that cliche, one officer asked with a bit of a grin: "Loose lips sink ships?"

That's when I mentally noted the next half-dozen open record requests I'd file just for fun.

Of course, I won't do that. Such paranoia is not personal, I know.

The plain truth is that the full-access days championed by Edna Buchanan, Pulitzer-winning crime reporter who covered Miami are long gone. And sadly, this is why crime stories today often fail to deliver the sense of gravity police claim they want to convey.

Sgt. John R. Baker, author of "Vice: One Cop's Story of Patrolling America's Most Dangerous City," put it best in a recent NPR book review: "As long as there have been cops, there have been cop stories. The best of these stories are the ones written by the cops themselves - and by the crime reporters who cover them. There is no substitute for a hands-on, eyewitness account of what life on the street is really like for the men and women who risk their lives to keep our communities safe."

I believe that. So I posed a challenge at the conference table as a way to "make up" for my supposed miss on the Thunder thing. Put me in a car with a cop on the job to better grasp this story, I said.

The answer: "Let me think about it."

Bob's memory flashed again. I pictured him nodding to me in acknowledgement, "Well, Erin, that's a start."

His words kept haunting me when I left, of course.

Only this time, I was driving alone.

"We can tell this story better than others can ... what we do is important ... this is our job ... take a deep breath ..." and go to work.

Erin Rossiter is a reporter for The Times whose columns appear on Sunday's Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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