The Secondary Storyline
As a journalist, Chelsea Crawford saw the story no one else did
Published in 2022 Maryland Super Lawyers magazine on December 17, 2021
Chelsea Crawford had just landed her dream job as a weekend editor for Philadelphia CBS affiliate network KYW-TV when the city was gripped by the 2007 murder of police officer Charles Cassidy.
“It was really a crazy, heartbreaking story,” says Crawford, now with Baltimore’s Brown Goldstein & Levy. “Officer Cassidy unknowingly walked into an armed robbery at a Dunkin Donuts, was shot in the head and later died. Part of the shooting was caught on the store’s video camera, which showed that the suspect was a Black man.”
The suspect fled, Crawford says, and she and her colleagues were swept up in a whirlwind of activity as every news station scrambled to get crews on-hand for the first video footage of the scene and lock down key interviews as the police arrested the suspect.
Except it was never the suspect.
“This actually turned into a weeklong national manhunt, and the suspect was eventually found in a homeless shelter in Florida,” Crawford says. “As I watched the daily camera footage, it was filled with Black men being apprehended: pulled out of cars, detained with no evidence, cuffed.”
It was the biggest local story a rookie journalist could hope to cover. But Crawford was tuned into a secondary storyline.
“I just kept watching these men that any reasonable person would assume could not be the suspect—in one case, an elderly man with an oxygen tank—be arrested or detained, and thought, ‘This can’t be right. Why is no one else seeing or saying this?’ But that wasn’t the story.”
The thought of a career spent reporting started to lose the glow that a starry-eyed Crawford had ascribed to it as a child, when she decided journalism was her path. Growing up, she wrote her family’s monthly newsletters and was never without a tape recorder to cover events, like her civic-minded mother’s many meetings.
“It just felt like all kinds of civil rights violations were going on. It just didn’t feel right,” Crawford says. “That, coupled with the intensity and focus on news programming that led with crime and violence because that’s what people ‘want’—it just wore on me, because there’s so much more to tell, and so much more depth to bring to reporting. But you can’t do that in a two-minute segment.”
But you can in a two-hour national radio broadcast, like NPR’s All Things Considered, where Crawford landed next, as a booker. “I was with NPR for two years, and I learned so much, read so much, met so many people,” Crawford says. “It was such a big change, from local to national.”
By 4 p.m. each day, stories had to be pitched, approved, researched, written, vetted and executed. “We had so little time to pull off a really solid show,” Crawford says. “The audience had a high expectation of really thorough reporting with interesting interviews.”
As a booker, Crawford had to scour a well-worked network of the nation’s biggest newsmakers and thinkers to find an expert who could speak about a story. Once Crawford secured a source—“usually frantically”—she would do a pre-interview to ensure the source was the right one, develop story lines and craft questions for the hosts.
“I got to do what I couldn’t at KYW, which is really plumb the depths of a particular storyline,” she says. “These were really smart, read-in people. It was always so interesting.”
When news broke of Michael Jackson’s death in 2009, for example, All Things Considered was deep into its broadcast and needed someone to speak to Jackson’s musical canon. “I found this guy who was a sound producer on the Thriller album,” she says, “who agreed to talk, and not only told stories that fit wonderfully with a radio show, but also that were little-before-told. NPR explored that story on many levels: his music, the allegations of sexual abuse, his life.”
Booking has a shelf life, Crawford discovered, but when she looked around the newsroom, she realized she no longer wanted to be a reporter. Host, producer or showrunner didn’t fit, either. “Something just felt like … this is the end of the road,” she says. “I had been thinking of law school because I started to realize it’d offer me a chance to give back in a way that I couldn’t as an objective journalist. I had a perspective I wanted to explore.”
Her journalism background translated well, she says.
“NPR really taught me how to distill dense topics so they could be understood at surface level. Interviewing people taught me the value in creating questions that would elicit the kinds of answers that shed light on complicated issues. And really, I had to find my voice,” Crawford says. “Our morning meetings at NPR were intense. From interns to hosts to newsroom executives, everyone was in the room, and everyone was expected to pitch and be vocal.”
Now, the secondary storyline Crawford was following in Philadelphia has become her main narrative. She operates a robust civil rights practice with work heavy in the wrongful conviction and police accountability space.
“Trying, and succeeding, in getting our clients some justice for the decades that they’ve been wrongfully incarcerated in prison is not only fulfilling to me, but it’s so critical,” she says. “There is tunnel vision that law enforcement sometimes falls into: there’s a terrible crime that’s been committed, there is pressure to get it solved quickly, and there is an idea in their head about how it occurred—tunnel vision overrules objective. Young Black men are often powerless. In 2007, I watched Black men get yanked out of cars and thrown up against walls. We still haven’t moved forward.”