I got an “ask” from a journalism instructor to hit on a particular topic:
I was reaching out to see what guidance you could give me on teaching my students on how to cover crime stories.
As is the rule here, ask and ye shall receive. If anyone else has anything else you want me to cover, all you have to do is head to the Contact page and shoot me an email.
We’re going to do this in a two-parter because a) reporting crime and writing crime each involves a separate set of skills and b) I spent my entire journalism career covering crime, so I kind of geek out on it. I want to keep the posts tight (ish) so 10,000 or so words on crime is likely to crush your soul (or at least ruin breakfast and possibly lunch for you).
Truth be told, I always felt bad for my students because of my background. If they had a beat reporter in education, they’d learn about school board meetings, budgets and how to write features about first-grade kids making hand-print turkeys. If they had a business reporter, they’d learn about stocks, do profiles on industrialists and learn how to analyze budgets.
Instead, they get analogies that start with, “So there was this time that this drug dealer got shot to death on his porch…”
In any case, crime is important, even if we don’t always cover ourselves in glory while reporting on it. Let’s dig into the reporting elements of crime coverage and see where we go:
Covering crimes and disasters is an acquired taste, and doing it doesn’t come with a whole lot of guidelines. I’ve tried for years to “simulate” things for my students with police reports, mock press conferences, press releases and more, but it doesn’t really work. Until you’re on the scene of a shooting or you watch someone get pulled out of a farm thresher, you have no idea how you’re going to react.
Here are the two basic bits of advice that will help you the most in reporting on these things:
Stay Calm: Things can be blowing up all around you or you might never have seen that much blood before in your life. You may be fighting the urge to throw up. Whatever it is, you need to keep your head about you.
Focus on the task at hand by thinking about it like you’re picking up groceries off a list or like it’s any other event you’ve covered in your life. Don’t let the chaos throw you off. A panicking reporter is a useless reporter. You need to take a deep breath and get the job done to the best of your ability.
Stay Safe: Police, fire and rescue folks are trying to do their job. You are trying to do your job. Sometimes, those needs conflict with each other. Regardless of how important you feel you are, you need to realize that their needs trump your needs at the scene of a crime or disaster. In many cases, they put up special tape to keep you out of harm’s way. In other cases, they tell you where to stand or where not to stand.
Even when the authorities aren’t there to tell you what to do, you need to make sure you use common sense. Don’t stand in the middle of a hailstorm to do your stand up. Don’t drive into a flood zone and then expect people to bail you out. Whatever it is, you need to make sure you’re safe and sound. A dead reporter isn’t much more useful than a panicking one.
AT THE SCENE OF THE CRIME
At the scene of a disaster or a crime, what you get is always going to be a function of the incident itself and how much time you have to get it. If you are working for a traditional media platform, you may be pressed by a deadline for air or a print deadline.
If you’re using social media or a “web-first” model, you need to work through what you think, what you know and what you can prove before you start firing tweets into the atmosphere. In a lot of other stories, you can be a little off when it comes to your facts without being in a lot of trouble. Crime coverage isn’t one of those things. Say only what you know to be true and nothing more.
A great example of how this was done well came during the Waukesha Christmas Parade in 2021, when an SUV tore through the event, leaving six dead and another 60 injured. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel business intern Kaylee Staral happened to be at the event, but jumped into reporter mode when the chaos began. Her tweets are a perfect example of what to do when all you know is what you can see:
She was able to tell people what she saw and heard, didn’t add in speculation and then passed her audience off to other people who were covering this more deeply. That might seem simple, but simple isn’t always easy when you’re dealing with a chaotic situation.
At the most basic level, here are the things you need to get at the scene of a crime or disaster:
- Any death or severity of injury
- The identities of the people involved in the crime or disaster
- What happened? (Preferably this will come from the police. If not rely on corroborated witness statements. Don’t let the witnesses go rogue on you, though. More on this tomorrow.)
- Damage estimates (Again, from people in the know, if this is a fire, crash, flood or other similar incident.)
- Witness accounts
- Biographic information on those involved (age, hometown etc.)
- Description of the scene based on your observations
WHERE YOU GET THIS STUFF:
Both in dealing with on-scene and after-the-scene reporting, you want to make sure that you are covering all your bases by reaching out to all potential sources. This is the duty to report, meaning you want to gather as much as you can from as many angles as you can. However, just because you GET certain bits of information, it doesn’t follow you HAVE TO publish that information. We’ll cover that tomorrow when we talk about editorial discretion.
In any case, here are some good sources for information in crime and disaster stories:
Officials (police/fire): Always start with any officials acting in an official capacity. Although journalism has become far more broad-based and opportunistic thanks to social media and citizen journalism, the law has not. Officials sources can often operate under absolute privilege, which transfers to you as “qualified privilege.” If you’ve taken law, you know that this means you can quote officials acting in that capacity without fear. (This doesn’t always apply to police or fire officials, depending on the laws of your state/city. Check this out to make sure on it.)
Even if they aren’t operating under privilege, these people have seen it all before and are more well equipped to tell you what happened in a clear and coherent manner. Witnesses are always happy to talk, but they are probably jacked up on adrenaline and are more likely to make mistakes or offer hyperbolic statements. What they say may make for more awesome quotes, but their words aren’t gospel and can hang you out to dry.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that these people can be wrong or they can obfuscate the truth in some cases. Just because it came from an official source, don’t treat it like it came via a burning bush from God. Gather info, verify it and THEN publish it. (More on that tomorrow.)
Assisting agencies (Red Cross/volunteers): Any time there’s a major disaster (fire, flood, famine) there are other agencies that assist the police, fire and National Guard. These people are great at adding information such as how wide spread the disaster was, how many people have been displaced or what the next steps will be for the victims. The degree to which they are “privileged” has been the cause of various discussions, so be careful and know the law where you work. Still, in most cases, they’re a good secondary source of information.
Witnesses: These people are a wild card because they were on the scene before the police or fire folks arrived, so they saw everything. They are also probably freaked out a bit or really excited that you want to talk to them. To that end, be exceptionally careful with them and make sure you aren’t allowing them to assign blame or cast aspersions. There’s a world of difference between a witness saying, “The car just sped around the corner and hit the house” and “It was clear that idiot was drunk or just didn’t care about anyone when he sped into the house.” The second quote is peppier, but it’s also potentially libelous.
Victims: This is something that can be a bit dicey and will vary a lot based on the type of disaster, the people involved and the amount of time between the disaster and the interview. In some cases, you don’t want anything to do with the victims because there are bigger issues involved. Don’t get in the way of the police who are trying to ascertain what happened or emergency personnel who are trying to administer medical care. Talking to victims, whether direct victims of crime or tangential ones (such as family members) isn’t easy.
I’ve had to approach the families of kids who have been killed, people who have been stabbed and folks who just lost everything the owned in a fire. It’s never fun and in many cases, you’re going to take the brunt of their anger. The key is to make sure you approach with caution and respect, present yourself to them in a professional manner and abide by their wishes if they tell you to leave. Don’t take it personally if they go off on you. They’re hurt and they probably just don’t know how to react, so they react like any other wounded creature: They lash out.
If there’s nothing else I can leave you with here, it’s that you need to remember you are human. In a lot of cases, we are emboldened by our job or powered by our adrenaline and we get way too dumb for our own good. If you find yourself getting pushy toward a victim or asking the stupid “How do you feel about that?” question, you’ve started to lose your humanity and that’s not a good thing. You need to make sure you are being decent to people while you do your job.
Of all the good things you might do, people who get you at your worst will only remember that about you.
TOMORROW: Writing crime and disasters while avoiding creating a second crime (libel) or disaster (corrections).