The art of reporting 1: Crime

Every rookie reporter wants to join the crime beat. But the long hours and heinous nature of most crime means not everyone’s cut out for it. Dean Williams tells you everything you need to know…well almost.

Crime 1-1

If you’re fresh out of journalism school, looking to become a reporter, and have just landed your first job, then it’s likely that this will be the beat you’re assigned.

Crime reporting is not going to have you hunting down serial killers, or nabbing top mobsters. You’ll probably start off doing the crime gazette, which means you’ll be calling up police stations in various precincts and asking them to give you a few details of the cases they registered during the night. And yes, that’s pretty mind-numbing.

But there is a massive plus side to this seemingly pointless job, especially if crime reporting is where you see your future. By talking to various police officials on the phone, and time permitting, actually meeting them in person you’re building up a contact base.

Treat them with respect (because that’s what they want, not necessarily because all of them deserve it) and in turn they will remember your name.

And when it comes down to that valuable piece of information you need to take your story from Routine to Breaking, these same officials may have it.

Bob Eggington has got some great tips for rookie crime reporters here.

Have a strong stomach

More people read crime reports than any other beat in a newspaper, which means that your byline (when you eventually get one) will be recognized. So far so good.

But reporting on the crime beat also means you will bear witness to some horrific crimes and meet some pretty unsavory people. This beat is definitely not for those who go weak in the knees at the drop of a hat.

The hours are ridiculously long (it really is a 24×7 job) and sitting around police stations for hours means you must have the patience of a saint.

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The devil’s in the details

The foundation of a good crime report is in the facts, at least that’s what they told you in journo school. In the real world, however, you will more often than not be asked to sensationalise a story. Maybe you will even be told to up the gore level, even though your original report was accurate.

You could stick to your guns and refuse to sensationalise a story just to grab eyeballs, but then the Editor will just get someone else to do it, and you’ll end up looking like a rebel without a clue.

OK, so here’s the harsh truth. Most newspaper editors would rather you wrote: “15 dead in shocking traffic accident that sees four cars engulfed in fireball”; than this: “15 dead after four cars collide on highway”.

Don’t balk, most editors know what they’re doing. Unfortunately most readers prefer an imaginative adjective that leads to a fact, rather than a bland fact standing alone boring your readers to death.

Your newspaper’s audience reads crime reports for the same reason people watch thrillers and gossip: to take pleasure in another person’s misfortune.

We live in a curtain-twitching generation. If your newspaper isn’t going to rip open the drapes, then some other title will.

Here’s an article on the ‘sensationalisation’ debate

Some details just shouldn’t be in your report

There is a ugly habit among many crime reporters to give a blow-by-blow account of a crime. This comes to the fore most unfortunately in cases of rape and abuse against women.

The fact that most crime reporters are men (though most of the best are women) could probably explain the need to transmogrify a rape report into a sordid tale. But that’s no excuse.

A rape victim is just that, a victim. She has been through enough and it is not incumbent on the reporter to drag the world and its relatives through her ordeal. Be brief and be objective, but above all be empathetic and make sure you do not use her real name. Her identity is hers to disclose, not yours.

Keep the violent details out of the report. Most good editors will accept this, and some may even commend it.

When it comes to crimes involving children the grey area widens. The names of anyone under the age of 18, victim or perpetrator, must never be revealed. A crime against a child is heinous, and it is these crimes that have broken the back of many crime reporters. Treat these reports as you would a report on a rape. Don’t make it sordid, just report the facts.

Great report or too much information, you decide

The Daily Mail shows the way

Find the trends

While routine crime reports are part of the spine of a good news team, there is an increasing need for crime reporters to start doing trend features. Now before you turn your nose up at this, read on.

A crime trend feature is not a fluff piece on the food served in prison, or how Orange Is the New Black relates to real-life female prisoners. It’s about mapping crime waves, understanding them, and then deconstructing the police’s response. Believe it or not, crime trend stories have helped the police on more than one occasion.

Let me give you an example.

  • Say for instance that while you were on the crime gazette section you realized that a certain locality had an unusual rate of burglaries, and it has been steadily increasing over the months. Now you have your trend.
  • Contact the police in the area and find out why this is happening and what their response is (they maybe short-staffed and ill-equipped). Also find out if this is an individual burglar, a single group, or a cartel. You’ve now got your Official response.
  • Next talk to residents and victims of the burglars. What did they lose? Are they too scared to sleep? Are they planning on moving out of the locality? You’ve now got your human angle.
  • Get your hands on a former police officer who has dealt extensively with burglaries. Find out what hi advice to the current police officials would be. You’ve now got your expert.
  • Talk to a private security agency and ask them what people can do to make their homes more secure against burglaries. Give them tips and sugestions. You’ve now got your News You Can Use.
  • Do a statistical chart on the increasing number of burglaries and compare it to surrounding localities (preferably with a map and infographic). You’ve now got your Visual Takeaway.

All these elements when combined (hopefully by a sub-editor who knows what he’s doing) will form a tapestry that contains all the information a reader would need.

Here’s a superb crime trend infograph. Aim for this quality

Crime Rates in America

The reader will come away armed with far more knowledge and information than he had when he started reading your trend feature.

He is also more likely to discuss it with family, friends, and colleague. Your feature has now risen to Talking Point status.

So the next time your editor asks you for a crime trend feature don’t scowl, get out there and do the best damn job you can.

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