Reporting on crime is often delegated to the newest, least-experienced reporters in a newsroom. Learning to do it well requires time and effort. Taking on this beat means looking for more than an entry on a police blotter — rather, it takes digging deeper, following cases through sentencing and looking for trends in a community.
Reporting on a crime itself is only one element of this complex beat. The court and prison systems also need to be navigated. So, how should you get started?
The first step, as always, is to educate yourself. The criminal justice system can be intimidating for reporters — from disturbing crime scenes to the confusing legal terminology of the courts and the inaccessibility of corrections facilities. If you have not had any kind of legal reporting class in college or some other practical knowledge, you’ll need to start at the beginning.
When Morgan Burger, anchor and multi-media journalist at WTVA in Tupelo, Miss., started as a rookie reporter, she didn’t have any experience with crime reporting — but was determined to figure it out in a hurry.
“I did Google a lot of terminology at first because I wanted to make sure I understood what I was talking about,” Burger says. “When you’re covering a court case or you go to a bond hearing, there’s a lot of words that we don’t use every day. If we don’t know what we’re talking about, then the viewer is sure not going to know what we’re talking about.”
What’s the difference between a district and a circuit court? What is an arraignment? How is it different than a first appearance? You’ll need to know the answers. You won’t necessarily include those explanations in your story, but you need to know to understand what’s happening and be able to focus on the bigger picture and context within your community and communicate it effectively to your audience.
Courtrooms are open to the public (when not restricted for Covid-19 precautions). You can attend a trial and just listen to understand some of the basic structure of criminal proceedings. Some courts are now livestreaming, to allow for social distancing. Take advantage of that access and get familiar with the courts.
To cover a story, first you have to find it. Most newsrooms have a system in place to monitor breaking news — listening to police scanners, making beat calls to sheriff’s offices and police departments and monitoring the social media accounts of those offices and others like mayors and district attorneys. Social media savvy officials post tweets or Facebook live or just a quick video on their social media pages that news outlets can access.
Stephen Quinn, reporter for ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, Ala., says community Facebook groups are a great place to look as well.
“One of the first things I did when I moved to Birmingham, I spent an afternoon just trying to find every different community Facebook group in the area and join it,” Quinn says. “If you have car break-ins, burglaries, crime along that level, that’s often going to be the first place that kind of story surfaces and if you’re really lucky there will be photos. Those are ways to try to get that first little bit of information.”
Quinn says there are often jail logs online too. Similar to making beat calls, he says you should check those digital listings every morning, looking for names you know or cases that might be interesting that will prompt a phone call to the station. And at the federal court level, PACER — Public access to court electronic records — may help you find something fairly efficiently.
Quinn and Burger agree there is no substitute for making personal connections — and that often has to happen on your own time.
“Developing sources and trust with police especially is difficult, but it’s rewarding when you get that interaction and get those stories that are meaningful,” Quinn says. “There’s an inherent friction between what we do and what police do. We’re there to cover a story. They’re there to do a job. Sometimes those don’t align. Often, they do.
“But make a point to meet them, to understand what they do. If the first time you meet them, you’re asking for something — your success rate will not be as high.”
Burger attributes much of her success to making those personal connections. “To be honest with you, I just really took my own time to reach out. I love hearing people’s stories,” Burger says. “I would take my days off and just go hang out at the sheriff’s office. I had a lot of work questions. How does this work? How does that work? Why do you not release information when you have it? Just little things that early on I didn’t understand.
“Taking the time to build a friendship with these people — where they can trust you — was really beneficial for me in my coverage. Also, it made for such a better interview when I did have to interview them or go talk to them, we had that friendship and that trust built up. They felt more comfortable talking to me about things.”
DIVERSIFY YOUR SOURCES
Ted Gest, the Washington bureau chief for The Crime Report and president of Criminal Justice Journalists, says a real challenge for reporters covering crime are the time constraints they face as newsrooms try to do more with fewer resources. He laments — and cautions — that often the account provided by police is the only one that reporters rely on.
“In a lot of cases that doesn’t work because there are a lot of things going on that either the police don’t know or they aren’t telling you,” Gest says. “One question that comes up is the treatment of the victim. This is a question reporters should be asking themselves. How much should they be saying about the victim? Assuming it’s not a homicide, should they be trying to talk with the victim? Of course, a lot of reporters just don’t have time to do that.”
Gest says finding eyewitnesses adds invaluable perspective to the story, so going to the scene is key. Social media can help you find those eyewitnesses. Snapchat has a map feature that can lead you.
“If you have something that’s big like a shooting in a neighborhood or a chase, you can use the maps on SnapChat to see what people are posting and sometimes you may get lucky and you’ll find somebody who posted something on there,” Quinn says.
Finding additional sources is also crucial to reporting on trends in crime and the broader meaning for your community.
“If you’re going to do a real story about this in your locality, don’t just base it on one talk with the police chief. Talk to other people like academic criminologists or a probation and parole officer. Get other views if you’re going to be reporting that something is a trend,” Gest says. “Do a little more digging.”
He also warns that if you’re trying to do anything meaningful, don’t base your story on limited crime statistics. Analyzing a longer period of time will give you a much better picture. Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) has written a guide for reporters on “Understanding Crime and Justice Statistics” that may be helpful.
COVER THE COURTS
Covering cases to completion in the court process is crucial to substantive criminal reporting. The initial facts of a story often tell a very limited viewpoint. To be effective, you need to understand the process of prosecution — from arrest through acquittal or sentencing.
Quinn has advice for learning the ropes and getting comfortable in the courtroom.
“Be nice to the bailiffs. They can be your friends,” he says. “Try to get into courtrooms early. Get to know the people, as in any part of this job. They may be on the periphery, but they know a lot of what’s going on. Bailiffs know where people are coming in. They know how the judge is going to act. Get to know the clerks who work for those judges. They’re very nice people and a lot of times they can be very helpful. You can forget in the moment — because it can be intimidating when you walk in a courtroom.”
In addition, there are basic reporting tactics you should follow:
- Learn how to get copies of the court record, filings and testimonies
- Read case files, including pre-trial motions
- Stay abreast of court proceedings, even when you cannot be there
THE PRISON SYSTEM
Covering the corrections system is inherently difficult. Most reporters don’t have a lot of access because prisons are obviously restricted from public view. Occasionally, we’ll get a glimpse inside through cell phone video captured by inmates or family members.
Despite the challenges involved in covering prisons, Quinn says it’s imperative to shine a light on it — not only for the inmates, but also for the community at-large.
“There’s an old saying: journalism comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable,” Quinn says. “These are people that are in prison for a reason — but they still have rights and often have very few people to speak up for them and to make sure that those rights aren’t abused. Prisons are taxpayer-funded institutions, so we have a right to know how those are being administered.”
For a more in-depth look at how to cover the prison system, Gest suggests this online guide from The Crime Report.
CONSIDER THE CONSEQUENCES
As you delve into this endeavor of reporting on crime and justice, consider the consequences of your reporting. Ask yourself — and perhaps get the conversation started in your newsroom — is this a story worth covering?
Many news organizations are reviewing and rethinking their approach to covering crime and the justice system, understanding the impact their coverage can have on an individual and the entire community.
Susan Chira, the editor in chief of the Marshall Project, a digital news site that focuses on the criminal justice system, told The Washington Post, “The basic [journalistic] principle should be, treat the police like any other source, with the same degree of skepticism as you treat any other source.
“‘Police said’ is not a shorthand for truth,” she added. “You don’t give up your obligation to verify and corroborate” just because the source is a police officer.
And in the end, as with all things related to journalism and success as a reporter, there is simply no substitute for initiative and tenacity. Especially when covering the criminal justice system.
This story includes some content from a previous version reported by NewsLab founder Deborah Potter.