Crime reporting for beginners

<a href="" target="_new">Image by Brandon Anderson</a> released via <a href="" target="_blank">Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0</a>
Image by Brandon Anderson released via Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This training module was written for a journalism training course in Serbia where those attending had no previous journalism experience or training.

Why do we report crime?

People want to read about crime. It sells newspapers, TV advertising and books. It’s about greed, violence, sex, revenge – all the really powerful human emotions.

Sometimes crime reflects important issues in society: corruption, drugs, homelessness, hunger, lack of education, or whatever. And sometimes it is just a good story, with no wider implications.

Either way, you need to cover it properly. Your audience expects it. So here are some things to remember about crime reporting.

1: Everything is built on the basics of good journalism

In crime reporting as in all other specialisms, you must first have acquired the basic skills of journalism.

Your copy must be accurate. It must be spelled correctly. You must have facts to support every sentence you write. Your copy must be clear and unambiguous. It must capture the interest of the audience.

2: Success is built on integrity

Your personal and professional behaviour must be above reproach. You must be honest, thorough, trustworthy and fair-minded. You must be considerate and compassionate. Do not abuse the power or responsibility of your position.

Accept criticism where it is justified. Correct your mistakes. Be punctual. Deliver your work on time and be a good colleague.

3: Gather all the facts

This is a requirement of all journalism, but perhaps especially so of crime. The American newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer (the Pulitzer Prize is named after him) was very keen on crime reporting. He always wanted his reporters to provide “details, details, details”.

Readers want to know everything about a crime. What kind of masks were the raiders wearing? What colour was the getaway car? What was the weather like? The more facts, the better the story. So work hard, keep digging, keep adding facts.

4: Know your patch

The good crime reporter does not sit around waiting for the next bank raid to happen.

To work effectively, you must have excellent contacts with all the relevant agencies, police, government bodies, courts, press officers etc.

Cultivate these people. Make sure they have your contact numbers. You need a close working relationship, so that when a big story happens, they ring you to tell you about it, rather than you having to chase them for information.

5: Dealing with criminals

Being a crime reporter involves getting to know criminals. This has obvious dangers, to your work and to your safety. It is vital that you are completely straight in your dealings with people on the wrong side of the law.

Always be open about the fact that you are a reporter. Carry identification. Keep notes. Tell your news editor where you are going and whom you are going to meet. Don’t take silly risks. It is generally OK to be friendly with criminals, but not to become their friends. Do not build up any obligations to your criminal contacts. This is inviting them to try to corrupt you.

6: Dealing with sources

  • On the record: It is good practice to identify, in your report, your sources of information. Explain their credentials, so that your audience can make a decision about how much weight to attach to the information.
  • Off the record: Often the best information comes from sources who wish to remain anonymous. You must be clear with such sources about how the information is to be used and you must be careful to protect their anonymity. That means, in the ultimate case, being willing to go to jail yourself, rather than disclose the source’s identity.

7: Remember all electronically held data is insecure

Information you keep on your computer, personal organiser, mobile or any other electronic device is “discoverable” by the authorities, thieves or hackers.  If you keep confidential information in electronic form make sure it is encrypted.

8: Keep your hands clean

This should go without saying, but just in case:

  • Do not accept gifts or favours.
  • Do not at any time take part in or condone criminal activity.
  • Do not provoke criminal activity.
  • Do not describe criminal activity in such a way that it encourages others to engage in crime.
  • Do not celebrate crime.
  • Do not glamorise criminals or turn them into celebrities.

9: Do not sensationalise

There is a proven link between the way the news media reports crime, and the public fear of crime. Crime is bad enough. Reporters who make it appear worse than it actually is are doing society a disservice. Do not exaggerate the worst aspects of a crime. Report what has happened rationally and factually.

10: Dealing with the victims of crime

The victims are obviously key people in any story. You need to gain access to them, deal with them respectfully and sensitively, collect their version of events and report them carefully. Remember that these people have been under great stress. Don’t add to it by dealing carelessly with them. But remember, too, that crime against a person is an outrage and the victims are entitled to their anger and distress.

11: Dealing with suspects

Remember, the presumption is that a suspect is innocent until proven guilty. It is not the job of the news media to prosecute or defend, to deliver verdicts or pass down sentences. Leave that to the courts.

12: Handling news blackouts

Sometimes police will come to journalists with the request that they keep a story out of the news. Usually it is because it might compromise a continuing surveillance operation, or put someone’s life in danger. Occasionally, the motives behind the request are less admirable.

It is not for the individual reporter to decide whether to co-operate in these cases. Always refer it to the editor of your publication.

13: Taste and decency

Some crimes are so appalling that it is difficult to report them without breaching the bounds of good taste. Handle such material with care and sensitivity to the local culture and the sensibilities of the community. Remember the victims and their families.

14: Trend or one-off?

This is an important question to keep in mind. Is the individual crime you are currently reporting part of something wider going on in society? Does it raise a general question about public safety? Are hold-ups increasing because drug-taking is on the rise? If knife-crime is increasing among the young, what is the reason behind it? If a certain make of car is repeatedly being stolen, is there some organised smuggling racket behind it?

Work out whether there is some context to the crime and if there is, include it in your report. But if it is simply a one-off crime, report it as such.

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