Citizen Journalism: A different perspective for local news

Larry Calhoun, founder of Twitter feed DC Realtime News

Since Larry Calhoun created DC Realtime News on Twitter in May 2020, the account has amassed more than 40,000 followers and become a source of news for local journalists, the general public, and even local elected officials. He is among other tweeters, including Alan Henney and Killmoenews, that have been part of the freelance/citizen journalism effort to broadcast every public safety incident.

I spoke with Calhoun over the phone about his involvement in the growing practice of citizen journalism through minute-by-minute updates on the D.C. region’s emergency response services.

Running DC Realtime News

Maintaining the account, which gathered almost 40,000 tweets in just two years, means Calhoun has to stay tuned in to his sources all the time. OpenMHz, a crowdsourced platform with emergency services transmissions from all over the United States, is one of his main tools. “I’m dialed in to public safety chatter, of what’s going on in the national capital region,” he said. “Every day I’m listening to the chatter, and as things come out — it could be shootings, major stabbings, major fires, major auto collisions, anything involving police, fire, EMS responses — that’s kind of my lane, just to alert the public of what’s going on.”

Calhoun sometimes will drive to active scenes where he can post videos or speak with detectives and witnesses. 

His motivation to do this often tiring work is based on his community. People see emergency vehicles pass their house, or they hear gunshots or see smoke, and they need answers to their questions: What’s going on? or even Is it safe to go outside? 

“So that’s when I step in. They now have a go-to source instantly,” Calhoun said. As a freelance citizen journalist, he can use social media freely and work at all hours of the day. 

“They don’t have to wait for the five o’clock news or the 10 o’clock news to find out oh, there was a shooting on my block. … So when I do tweet out an incident, they’ll get an alert in their little inbox that I’ve dropped the report.”

Citizen journalism & traditional media

Calhoun’s reporting often works alongside traditional media like local TV news. Whereas a station may have certain topics like weather and politics it must report on, Calhoun says he has the flexibility to choose a focus and stick with it. 

“[Scanner traffic] is the bread and butter of our work. … That’s the advantage we have, is that we’re … locked into it,” he said. “A lot of times, we get stuff out faster than the media, but we’re helping them out.” He said that a lot of times, journalists will show up on a scene not because the police told them it’s happening but because they read about incidents on accounts like Calhoun’s.

His work also looks a lot like that of traditional journalists: “I do a great job of collaborating with public safety folks,” he explained. “You build sources within the fire department and police and try to get the information confirmed as fast as possible so you can get an accurate report out.”

So what’s the difference between traditional journalists and citizen journalists like Calhoun?

In the basic reporting both do, he said, “it’s honestly not much different.” They both listen to the scanners and keep an eye out for press releases. And when a story comes out, he said, “I’m going to write a short report of the incident when it’s taking place; I’m going to do an update as I get more information from the incident. I go to scenes and document them.” 

But his motivation is different, he said, adding he can produce more community-minded reporting. “I’m a retail manager by trade. … I’ve been in retail management and customer service … almost 20 years. So I love it,” he said. 

Reporting is something he picked up on the side “as a community service,” in his words. As a resident, he said he can speak to issues such as public safety with more authority and experience than most traditional journalists. A couple months after he started reporting in 2020, Calhoun was driving when he suffered a gunshot wound. His reporting only became more focused after becoming a victim of the very gun violence he was reporting on. 

“I’m happy that I found something that I could do to give back, because it’s not about getting any money,” he said. Though he has links to receive donations in his Twitter bio, he points out that he doesn’t solicit donations in the way that some other accounts do. 

Access to information

D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department led the trend toward encrypting radio traffic from emergency services when they switched in 2011. “DC is probably the most difficult city for me to report on,” Calhoun said. When a crime occurs in D.C., he has to wait much longer before he hears about it. However, in Prince George’s County, right outside D.C., Calhoun can tune into the initial radio transmission between officers.  

“I’m trying to get it back unencrypted [by] talking with the city council” as well as other city officers, he said. “It’s not to put officers in danger. … It’s just for transparency.” 

Access to police records by any kind of journalist is a problem that has been highlighted lately, but Calhoun hasn’t seen significant strides towards transparency. When much of his audience uses his account as a way to stay informed about public safety, he says that it is crucial that he is able to continue to provide up-to-date and valuable information.

He has a number of ideas for solutions. “Why wouldn’t you want the community to be able to listen to the basic dispatches,” he asked.“You can delay those dispatches. They don’t have to be live.” Another possibility is opening up the radio for specific members of the press, including citizen journalists like Calhoun. He said a fair way to allow access to real-time information like police communications could be to fill out an application to prove a legitimate use for the information.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Calhoun was grazed by a stray bullet. It has been corrected.

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