This month In the Tank, we talk to Kristen Johanson, crime and justice reporter with KYW Newsradio to discuss the impact of local journalism, covering challenging subject matter, and how PR professionals can best work with regional reporters.
Eric Fischgrund: What was it like being a local reporter for an important city/state like Philly/PA during the 2020 election?
Kristen Johanson: We knew Pennsylvania was going to play a pivotal role in the elections. We didn’t understand the magnitude though. We also knew it wasn’t going to be a normal election, figured out in one night. We had to keep track of every court case filed: at the city, state and Federal level. The one that made the most headlines here, actually started election night in a city courtroom. It was the poll watcher case, an allegation by the Trump campaign that poll watchers were being banned from watching ballots being processed.
The case was rejected in City Court. Two days later, the campaign filed an emergency injunction to stop ballot counting in Federal Court. I remember actually running to the Federal Courthouse to watch that hearing and there were only a few journalists inside listening to the arguments. We didn’t know then how important that case would become, and how it would repeatedly surface. That week was a blur. We were keeping files and notes on every case filed in PA.
I was on a Zoom call doing a mentorship program called Newstudies when I got a text message about Biden winning Pennsylvania, and had to rush out to cover Biden’s presumed victory. It was definitely a day of celebration here in the city, and the fact that it was Pennsylvania votes that ensured Biden won meant people were elated.
Six months before, I was reporting on the unrest, people tearing apart downtown Philadelphia. Now in the same spot, I was watching utter joy, people crying, spraying each other with champagne, dancing in the streets. It was joyous for so many, really a party at City Hall for so many people.
What do you think is the public’s perception of local media?
Kristen Johanson: I do think people fold local media into mainstream media. It’s become the evil word: media. But it’s largely the local media: local TV, local paper, local radio that really breaks the big stuff. For example: Fox 5 in DC was breaking news on the Capitol riot and insurrection even before some of the national media. They have sources within the department(s) they work with every day, not just during national events. It was these local stations like Fox 5 and WTOP that were the ones breaking news of who was arrested, or who they were looking for, or about devices found. And so, it’s their connections and sources that break the news because the authorities trust the regional reporters. Local media is critical to society, more so than national.
When we had the DNC here in Philly, I remember there was a bus following Hillary’s tour of some Black churches. On board were some of the National correspondents, and then some of the younger crowd of journalists that were not really the reporters, but they were associate producers and they kind of sectioned themselves off from local media. But the more senior correspondents were trying to buddy up to us, the local journalists, because they knew how vital we were to understanding the dynamics and the demographics within these neighborhoods. So they were asking us about it and trying to really get to know the area.
And that’s just something that stands out to me because we’re all colleagues together and help one another, but even the national press really realizes how important local media is, especially beat reporters. Sometimes they use us to get connections within the towns and cities they cover, giving credit us where credit’s due if we break a story. We, actually just had an exclusive interview Bruce Castor, Trump’s defense attorney and the former Montgomery County District Attorney. My colleague, Jim Melwert did the interview and MSNBC’s Brian Williams was crediting KYW Newsradio for getting it, playing a piece of it on national TV.
Is it difficult to stay positive when you cover the criminal justice system, gun violence, and other very challenging topics?
Kristen Johanson: It’s timely you’re asking me that the question, as it’s something that’s taken a toll on me recently. You have to, in a sense, desensitize yourself a little bit from it because you can’t absorb the emotions or else you’ll just drive yourself crazy. Keeping a victim-focused mindset really helps me. I don’t do stories to exploit a murder or somebody’s suffering. I’ve said no to interviews for TV crime shows because I’ll never do it if it is just to exploit a victim’s pain and the family’s suffering.
But I do think it’s important to keep these stories alive though, and I have found it can be cathartic for families to speak about their loved ones, in hopes of getting justice or otherwise, because they often feel so powerless and that massive void of losing their loved one. Allowing them to resurrect these memories of their loved ones and then also, beg for answers and have the story told, gives them some control over trying to find the person who is responisible for the crime.
We have a podcast, Gone Cold KYW, that looks at unsolved murders in the Philadelphia area and is always very victim-focused. The family has to give us approval to do the story, and whether through police or individually interviewing the family: we have to have their OK. I never want to be feeding salacious details for entertainment.
There’s a new hunger for true crime stories and a new wave of audiences that just can’t get enough true crime, whether documentary or podcast. The trend started around the time of the podcast Serial. I don’t think people are sick or love horrific details, but I think it’s kind of a whole ‘gaper effect,’ and it’s a puzzle people want to help solve. I think everybody wants to find the solution to the mystery, which is why people really gravitate towards true crime.
But you never forget a mother’s soul-crushing the cry of her child being taken.
And so when you’re that close to it, you always keep them in mind first, and you never want to put their pain out there for entertainment purposes. You want to put out their story in hopes of getting them some answers. But again, I think sometimes it’s just cathartic for the family to know that their loved one was never forgotten.
And doing those stories on top of doing Philadelphia’s ridiculous homicide rate and disturbing shootings, is what gives me some purpose in being a crime reporter. I have to say, I also like talking about the science aspects of crime: DNA, ballistics, etc. and how they’re working towards solving some of these crimes. Recently the genealogy angle has gotten really interesting. I think we’re just hitting the tip of the iceberg, I don’t think we’ve even broken through what DNA can do, like how many Jane Doe’s we can identify, crimes we’ll solve, or wrongfully convicted will be released.
It’s also really important to keep tabs on the court system, and the entire criminal justice process, because there’s so much broken. And I don’t think it’s broken out of conspiracy or spite; I think it’s broken out of the fact that we didn’t have the tools that we have now. So I do think it’s a really exciting time for the criminal justice system, where a lot is being shaken loose, and reorganized in such a way that not only you have victim’s families getting answers, but you also have maybe wrongfully convicted people being given a second chance, and maybe getting the right person in custody.
What do the best communications and PR professionals have in common with respect to working style and relationships with you and with other journalists?
Kristen Johanson: I think the best traits are honesty, kindness and just being professional. I have a very good relationship with most communication people, PIOs and spokespersons. Overall, they need to understand their subjects and the history of it. They need to known the ins and outs of process within whatever that group may be.
I work really well with the press secretary for the Pennsylvania Attorney General, Josh Shapiro, because if she doesn’t know the answer to something, she just says, “Okay, let me go find the answer for you.” She realizes the urgency of what I need, and I know she’s getting it as quick as she can.
The people that really are bothersome are the people that don’t even understand the subject they cover or the process, like the criminal justice system and how it works, or those who have blatantly decided they don’t want to deal with you, don’t want to answer questions, and want to ignore you or tell you what story to put out. If you give me an honest answer and the right information, it’s better for everyone involved. PR people have to understand that many times it’s not reporters trying to be adversarial or controversial: it’s just me asking a question, maybe because I don’t know and therefore I know the public doesn’t know. It’s not always a, “gotcha!” game, which I think some PR folks think it is. Sometimes it’s just a question, and I just need an answer.
The last question is, what advice do you give an aspiring journalist?
Kristen Johanson: News gathering is number one, but writing is a very close second. You have to be clear and concise with what you’re writing. Don’t try to dazzle it into something it’s not. Take the fluff out. Knowing how to get stories, how to actually break news, is so critically important. Most of the time, it’s just by talking to people in your community. It’s about listening, being inquisitive, being a busybody and nosey. You can’t walk into a story and think you know ity already. You have to walk into the story knowing it’s something interesting, but also realizing what you don’t know.
Take something as simple as the snow day we recently had. Yes, you can cover the snow and talk about how slippery the roads are, etc., but we’re also in a pandemic. I went to cover the snow day and as I was driving up and down Ridge Avenue, I was thinking about the small businesses desperate to stay open, needing every single customer they can get. It kind of dawned on me that was the story.
It’s just being inquisitive by nature, asking as many questions as you can to understand somebody else’s perspective, and knowing that you don’t matter in the story. If you don’t understand a court document, or wording, or something that you need to turn into a story, call up somebody at a local law school and ask them to look it over and explain it to you so that you can put it into words that other people will understand. This is where the writing comes in, because being clear is equally important. Having people read your material, edit your stuff, and be able to provide constructive criticism is so important.
Enabling readers to interpret words, thoughts, and ideas and meanings differently than you do is very really critical to being a good aspiring journalist. The point is, no one is perfect at writing, it requires constant practice. There are some great writers out there and I aspire to be one, one day.
I do think in this day and age, anybody who’s up-and-coming needs to know that traditional TV news, traditional radio news, traditional newspaper, is all kind of being lumped together into one thing. So you need to be able to do as many technical things as possible. You need to be able to shoot video on your iPhone, edit it, be able to record, take pictures. I mean, you’re doing it all. Everybody’s kind of a multimedia journalist. Even though we’re feeding our “beasts” differently, we’re all kind of doing as much as we can to put out our product and our stories to a wider audience.