When I taught one semester of journalism at Samford University in Birmingham and was still trying to figure out this college teaching business, I’d occasionally ask students if they liked the course. I recall asking this of one student who said she liked it very much. And why? My lectures, perhaps? Umm, no. The very first reason out of her mouth: “That woman from The Birmingham News was great!” That woman was the Alabama Media Group’s iconic crime reporter, Carol Robinson, who kindly came as a guest speaker, regaled the students with stories, and left them mesmerized. Oh, she also gave each of them her business card, so if there ever were a big crime on campus they’d know who to contact. Yet another example of why Carol is so good at what she does.
Carol, one of my first reporters at The News many years ago, is deservedly and deftly profiled by my friend and former colleague Alec Harvey in the latest edition of Auburn Magazine, the publication of the Auburn University Alumni Association. It’s worth your time just for the understanding of the life of a dedicated beat reporter (full disclosure: I’m in it).
For reasons I’ve never understood, many news organizations and individual journalists view the police beat as a temporary, entry-level position, maybe because of the uncontrollable and undesirable hours (I did it for a year). It’s a beat that will sap a reporter, in part because of the hours and in part because of tension with sources who often consider publicity an obstacle to crime solving. Mainly, though, the beat’s burden is the cynicism and perhaps psychological trauma of constant first hand exposure to the awfulness of life. Yet Carol has done it – superbly – for 23 years.
Among many other plaudits, Carol is AMG’s page view queen, a result of her remarkable volume of work and her more remarkable quality of work. Sure, she has the advantage of covering crime, which most research, including my own, shows is the No. 1 most-read topic among broad audiences. But good crime reporters such as Carol make something more of their beat than an endless series of sensationalistic headlines for the voyeuristic tendencies of readers. Crime reporting at its most basic provides essential information – kinds of crime, patterns and trends, locations – for residents to make informed decisions about self-protection. Beyond that, it is an opportunity to bridge gaps and suspicions between law enforcement and community, or perhaps in some cases to temporarily widen those differences with necessary watchdog reporting about law enforcement misconduct, with the ultimate aim of correcting failures and eventually strengthening perceptions and relationships as a result.
Another of crime reporting’s public services may be its most difficult and quixotic – and what Carol does best – which is to starkly and impactfully portray the human toll of crime. Bringing humanity to the stats and written reports is a chance to stir the community conscience, so that the next time, say, a 2-year-old boy or a 16-year-old girl senselessly loses their life, we might feel the compassion, outrage and, most importantly, the motivation to try to do something about it.