In 2012, Forbes reported Grand Rapids, Michigan, the “Best City for Raising a Family” based on the low cost of living, the school districts that rate the top third in the nation and housing statistics. However, any city, however family-friendly, also has crime. In Grand Rapids, the 2012 crime rate was 379.4, which was higher than the national average of 301.1.
Grand Rapids Press crime reporter Heidi Fenton has wrote for the Press for three years and has experienced the ups and downs of reporting in West Michigan. Fenton said that she often reports on graphic crimes and crimes that are especially sensitive to this family-oriented community.
Every community has crime, but Grand Rapids is more sensitive to crime because of its emphasis on family and faith, according to Fenton and fellow crime reporters.
“Grand Rapids, I think, still adheres to certain values so that particularly grotesque or unusual stories [or] crimes have a great impact on readers,” fellow crime reporter John Tunison said. “West Michigan is still known to many as the state’s ‘Bible Belt’ and that often shows through with the way readers rally around those who have suffered tragedy and loss.”
According to Fenton, this last year has produced more issues with inappropriate student-teacher relationships than in previous years. The Press reported on 10 cases since 2010. The most recent issue involved Catholic school tutor Abigail Simon, who was deemed guilty and sentenced for eight to 25 years on Jan. 14. The issue got a lot of play online, and some articles had more comments than any other article other than a sports article at the time.
“It kind of shows the level of concern that people have for that kind of thing. It was a learning experience for us covering it too, meeting that demand for interest,” Fenton said. “There is a level of concern for parents, other teachers that feel that they’re held to a high standard and are disappointed to hear that they are judged because of what their other colleagues might be doing or not doing,” Fenton said. “It’s just kind of touches people from a lot of different areas and I think that it’s something that so many people are affected by.”
The morning shift reporter, who generally reports on crimes that happen between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., said one of the hardest things about crime is finding a balance with sources.
“You’re dealing with people who are going through some of the hardest things that they’ll ever go through in their lives,” Fenton said. “You’re calling people that may not want to talk to you, may be extremely rude, you’re dealing with some really strong emotions.”
She initially was interested in going into the social work field because she is a “caring person by nature,” Fenton said. Her coworkers and managing producer said this helps her reporting process.
“One of Heidi’s many strengths is her ability to connect with people on a breaking news scene,” Tanda Gmiter said, Fenton’s managing producer. “Whether it’s talking to someone who just rescued a neighbor from a burning home, or interviewing a driver involved in a freeway pileup, Heidi handles herself professionally at scenes, and there is a real caring behind her questions. She treats people with respect and they respond to her genuine interest.”
Tunison said she is able to relate to her sources.
“Fenton, in addition to being a strong writer, is able to put herself on the same emotional plane as the people she is writing about, with a good understanding of their plight and, in most cases, distress,” Tunison said. “It’s that compassion, while still being even-keeled, that makes her able to accurately portray their feelings.”
According to Fenton, when dealing with sources in crime cases, “it’s about setting boundaries for yourself.”
Fenton has even had sources call her after she’s done reporting on a story to talk through the issue and has had to direct them toward a counselor.
“It’s natural for me to show empathy, but you kind of go through training in college and beyond in how to approach things professionally and to be objective and to maintain a certain distance from people as you’re reporting,” Fenton said. “You let them know that you care about them, but that you’re doing your job in calling them.”
Although Grand Rapids does have crime like every community, at the heart of it is one of concern for community and family. Similarly, even with the role of a hard crime reporter, Fenton is able to use her warm interior and passion for people when doing her job.