Citizen journalist talks about covering gun violence on Twitter: NPR

NPR’s Michel Martin speaks with Larry Calhoun, who tracks and reports gun crimes through his Twitter account, DC Realtime News.


Time and time again in recent weeks, Americans have been confronted with the horrific reality of gun violence, especially mass shootings involving weapons of war. These terrible events attracted the visit of high officials and attracted the attention of journalists from all over the world. But these events, horrific as they are, represent only a fraction of the tens of thousands of gun deaths in the United States. To find out more about the rest, you have to increasingly follow someone like Larry Calhoun. With the exhaustion of local news outlets in some places and the abandonment of police and other reporting, the task of reporting on crime has been taken over by so-called citizen journalists like Larry Calhoun, who has started listening to police scanners and tweeting. reports in 2020 when his day job as a retail manager was sidelined by COVID stay-at-home orders. Now he’s become a go-to source for local officials and even journalists who follow his Twitter account, @DCRealTimeNews (ph), to the point that he’s landed a part-time gig as a contributor for a news station. local. We wanted to hear Larry Calhoun talk about his work and his perspective on the rise of gun violence in the country, so we asked him to take a break from monitoring his pace. And he is with us now. Larry, welcome. Thanks for join us.

LARRY CALHOUN: Thank you very much. It’s very – I’m very honored to be here to share the work that I do in the National Capital Region.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for joining us. So to start with, as we mentioned, it started during the pandemic when you – as you mentioned, you run a few stores and like, you know, so many people, you had to stay home for some time. But what was the appeal of listening to police scanners and tweeting about crime? Like, how did this come to you?

CALHOUN: It was early 2020, maybe February or March. I contacted a citizen journalist who was doing this type of social media work. And when the pandemic hit and I was furloughed, I had plenty of time at home, obviously. And he said, man, you should help me. There’s always a lot going on because he was kind of DC focused. And I said, cool. He showed me the ropes, just the scanners, the language because, you know, believe it or not, people think it’s, you know, easy. You’re just, oh, filing scanner reports. It’s easy. It’s not easy because the police have their own language. Firefighters have their own language. And you need to learn this to be able to report responsibly and accurately. So in May 2020, I launched an official feed dedicated to police, fire, EMS, National Capital Region news. I named it DC RealTime News.

MARTIN: What draws you to it? I mean, some people would find that upsetting.

CALHOUN: What appeals to me is the public safety (ph) lane because you wouldn’t believe it – I get DMs all day and never thought it would get the interest it has. There are a lot of community members who want to know what’s going on around them, whether it’s just, you know, three police cars sitting at the end of their block or the fire trucks. They want to know, is that something I need to worry about or just, you know, human nature to want to know what happened? So I really believe that I’ve built an asset for the community to know what’s going on around it when it comes to public safety incidents.

MARTIN: You know, you’re actually a person who has experienced gun violence yourself. I mean, you got hit by a stray bullet in 2020. And I hope you’re okay, aren’t you? No lasting injuries – I mean, are you okay?

CALHOUN: Yes, ma’am.

MARTIN: So I’m glad to hear that. But it must have been scary. And I just wonder if it changed your perspective on what you do.

CALHOUN: It actually motivated me even more to show the importance of the work I had just started doing. I’m two months away from the beginning (inaudible) of July. We come to the anniversary of this shooting, July 16 or 17. And, you know, it was random in my community – it could have happened to anyone because I was just driving around in my vehicle, going to work at 10:30 in the morning. So, you know, it’s broad daylight and only one shot came through my door and hit me. Very unfortunate, but it motivated me because here I am only a regular person (ph). My shooting, you know, didn’t make headlines until people realized, oh, he’s the guy who reports a lot of incidents. But if I was just an ordinary person, you know, a lot of times bachelor shootings, non-life-threatening shootings, don’t make the headlines. So that’s what I wanted to change, that energy to report as many incidents as possible, even if it wasn’t a homicide shooting. He’s a person who has been hurt in a community, and that community should know that because that person is important.

MARTIN: You know, that brings me to who I was – one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is that crime is political. I mean, it’s not just political, but it’s – it’s also political. I mean, if something happens to you, like what happened to you, getting shot by a stray bullet, I mean, you’re just – like you just said, you’re just going about your day. It can be life changing. I mean, you know, you get hospital bills. You might be afraid. I know we have – you know, there was a shooting at a school near here in Washington, DC. Do you remember that? He was a guy who had moved across the street and was shooting these kids for some reason. We still don’t know why.

CALHOUN: Yes, ma’am, on Connecticut Avenue, yes, ma’am.

MARTIN: On Connecticut Avenue, which is, like, a main thoroughfare. It’s terrifying. Do you feel like you’re writing about people who don’t attract attention? Like, obviously, when a big incident like that happens, everyone’s focus is on it. But these individual cases – I guess what I’m wondering is, do you think the people who are affected by this, do they feel somehow forgotten or ignored or ignored?

CALHOUN: Here it is. There are a lot of communities and neighborhoods – in particular, we knew, as you said, how important this neighborhood was when this incident happened. This was not only going to get local media attention, but it was going to get national media attention because of this community. But you have so many incidents happening further east of the river from Washington, DC, that maybe don’t get much local media attention – national media. I am very friendly with the media. There is mutual respect. But I hold them responsible. Be sure to cover the whole city, as some of these other communities have a lot of issues.

MARTIN: When you think about the change that needs to happen, do you think about that? Like, what do you think? And the reason – one of the reasons I ask the question is, as I said earlier, you know, the crime is political. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is. And different groups like to focus on different things. Like, like, in general, you know, some people like to say that it’s a failure, you know, not to be tough enough – right? – not being tough enough with people who commit crimes. But others say, no, it’s a failure of the system, that the people who commit these acts, there’s something missing in their lives, and we should focus on that. And I’m just wondering – I understand you’re really busy covering the what, but do you ever think about the why? And if so, what do you think?

CALHOUN: I understand the arguments on both sides. There are people who want more police in their communities. Some people want less. But what I say to the community is, guess what? We can hold each other accountable for our actions. I did an interview with a local station about how we all know someone, maybe a brother, a friend, a cousin, who might be going the wrong way. It’s our responsibility that we can pull that person aside, especially if they know we care, and say, hey, I know the potential in you. You could go another route instead of causing, you know, a little chaos in our community. You know, we’ve got shootings going on and you’re involved or we’ve got robberies going on and we know you’re involved. We need to change that so we can have a safer community where our kids can play, our grandmothers can walk down the street. So it’s a real conversation that I think people can have within their own community. And they don’t need to be watched too much because we can take care of our own communities if we step in and do it.

MARTIN: Have you ever worried about what it does to your psyche, you know? For example, in the face of so much trauma, do you worry about being affected by it?

CALHOUN: I agree because I think you have to be a little different to report on this type of work. And even with my filming, as I said, it put me in a different realm and a different perspective now that I’m a journalist who’s been through gun violence. And, you know, I think the community respects me differently because I’m not just someone who reports on people’s tragedies and incidents and deaths. You know, I experienced it myself. So I think that puts my work in a different perspective. I grew up, like I said, in northeast DC, I grew up on violence and drugs and everything and survived it. My mother was a single mother and did her best. And so I’m kind of tough enough to do this job. I just think maybe it was a perfect time in my life to do it. Just an unfortunate shoot happened, randomly, but it put my work in a different perspective. So I can take care of it. If I absolutely couldn’t, I wouldn’t.

MARTIN: It was Larry Calhoun. He manages the DC RealTime News Twitter account and is a contributor for DC News Now. Larry Calhoun, thank you so much for speaking to us.

CALHOUN: I appreciate the interest. Thanks a lot.

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