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A citizen journalist talks about covering gun violence on Twitter

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Over and over again in recent weeks, Americans have faced the horrifying reality of gun violence, especially mass shootings involving weapons of war. Those terrible events have drawn visits from top officials and the attention of journalists from around the world. But those events, awful as they are, represent only a fraction of the tens of thousands of deaths caused by guns in the U.S. To hear about the rest of them, increasingly, you have to follow somebody like Larry Calhoun. With the depletion of local news outlets in some places and the move away from police blotter reporting and others, the task of reporting on crime has been taken up by so-called citizen journalists like Larry Calhoun, who started listening to police scanners and tweeting out reports back 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 handle, @DCRealTimeNews (ph), to the point that he's landed a part-time gig as a contributor for a local news station. We wanted to hear from Larry Calhoun about his work and his take on the country's surge in gun violence, so we asked him to take a break from monitoring his beat. And he's with us now. Larry, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

LARRY CALHOUN: Thank you so 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, thanks for joining us. So to start us off, as we mentioned, this started during the pandemic when you - as you mentioned, you manage a couple of stores and like, you know, so many people, you had to stay at home for a while. But what was the draw to listening to police scanners and tweeting about crime? Like, how did that come to you?

CALHOUN: It was early 2020, maybe February or March. I connected with a fellow citizen journalist that was doing this type of work on social media. And when the pandemic did hit and I was furloughed, I had ample time at home, obviously. And he said, man, you should help me out. It's always a lot going on because he was kind of just focused on D.C. 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, dropping reports from off the scanners. That's easy. It's not easy because the police have their own language. The fire department have their own language. And you do have to learn that so that you can report responsibly and accurate. So May 2020, I started an official feed dedicated to police, fire, EMS, news for the National Capital Region. I named it D.C. RealTime News.

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

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

MARTIN: You know, you're actually a person who's experienced gun violence yourself. I mean, you were hit by a stray bullet in 2020. And I'm hoping you're doing OK, right? No lasting injuries - I mean, you're doing OK?

CALHOUN: Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: So I'm happy to hear that. But that had to have been frightening. And I just wonder if that changed your perspective on what you do.

CALHOUN: If anything, it actually motivated me even more to show the importance of the work that I had just started doing. I'm two months out of starting (inaudible) July. We're coming up on the anniversary of that shooting, July 16 or 17 it was. And, you know, it was random in my community - could have happened to anyone because I was just driving in my vehicle, going to work 10:30 in the morning. So, you know, this is broad daylight and just a single shot come through my door and struck me. Very unfortunate, but it did motivate me because here I am just one regular (ph) person. My shooting, you know, didn't make the news until people realized, oh, it's the guy that's reporting on a lot of incidents. But if I was just a regular person, you know, a lot of times single shootings, non-life-threatening shootings, don't make the news. So that's what I wanted to change, that energy of reporting on as many incidents as I could, even if it wasn't a homicide shooting. That's a person that was injured within a community, and that community should know because that person is important.

MARTIN: You know, that kind of leads me to what 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 has - it is 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 - as you just said, you're just going about your day. That can be life-changing. I mean, you know, you get hospital bills. You could be afraid. I know we have - you know, there was a shooting at a school near here in Washington, D.C. You remember that? It was a guy who set himself up across the street and was shooting at 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 major thoroughfare. It's terrifying. Do you feel that in a way you're writing about people who don't get the attention? Like, obviously, when a big incident like that happens, everybody focuses on it. But these individual cases - I guess what I'm wondering is, do you think that the people who are affected by them, do they feel forgotten in some way or ignored or overlooked?

CALHOUN: There you go. There is a lot of communities and neighborhoods - specifically, we knew, like you said, how prominent that neighborhood was when that incident happened. It was going to not only get local media attention, but that was going to get national media attention because of that community. But you have so many incidents that happen more east of the river of Washington, D.C., that don't get a lot of attention from maybe local media - national media. I'm very good friends with media. There's mutual respect. But I do hold them accountable. Make sure you're covering the whole city because some of these other communities are facing a lot of issues that is going on.

MARTIN: When you think about what change needs to happen, do you think about that? Like, what do you think? And the reason - one of the reasons I ask is, as I said earlier, you know, crime is political. Maybe it shouldn't be, but it is. And different groups like to focus on different things. Like, for example, broadly speaking, you know, some people like to argue that this is a failure of, you know, of not being tough enough - right? - not being tough enough on people who commit crimes. But other people say, no, this is a system failure, that the people who are committing these acts, there's something missing in their lives, and we should focus on that. And I just wonder - I understand that you're really busy covering the what, but do you ever think about the why? And if you do, what do you think?

CALHOUN: I understand the argument on both sides. You have some people that want more police in their communities. You have some people that want less. But what I do say to the community is, guess what? We can hold each other accountable in actions. I did an interview with a local station talking about we all know someone, maybe a brother, a friend, a cousin, that may be going down the wrong path. That's our responsibility that we could pull that person to the side, especially if they know we care about them, and say, hey, I know the potential in you. You could be going down another path instead of causing some, you know, a little bit of chaos within our community. You know, we got shootings going on and you're involved or we got robberies going on and we know you're involved. We need to change that so we can have a more safe community for our kids can play, our grandmas can walk down the street. So that's a real conversation that I think people can have within their own community. And they don't have to be overpoliced because we can take care of our own communities if we step up and do it.

MARTIN: Do you ever worry about what this does to your psyche, you know? Like, dealing with so much trauma, does it ever worry you that you're being affected by it?

CALHOUN: I'm OK because I do believe you have to be built a little different to report on this type of work. And even with my shooting, like I say, it put me in a different realm and different perspective now being a journalist who have been through gun violence. And, you know, I believe the community respects me differently because I'm not just someone reporting on people's tragedies and incidents and deaths. You know, I've been through it myself. So I think it puts my work in a different perspective. I grew up, like I said, in northeast D.C. I grew up around violence and drugs and everything and survived it. My mom was a single parent and did her best. And so I'm a little tough enough to do this work. I just believe it was a perfect maybe timing in my life to do it. Just an unfortunate shooting happened, random, but it put my work in different perspective. So I can handle it. If I definitely couldn't, I wouldn't do it.

MARTIN: That was Larry Calhoun. He runs the D.C. RealTime News Twitter account, and he's a contributor for DC News Now. Larry Calhoun, thanks so much for talking with us.

CALHOUN: I appreciate the interest. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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