The basics of crime reporting and writing (Part II)

(Editor’s Note: A journalism instructor asked for a primer on crime coverage, which led to the posts this week. Yesterday, we talked about the reporting/on-the-scene stuff. Today, we’ll close the loop with the work after the event and the writing process. If you ever need me to cover anything on the blog, just hit me up through the Contact page.)


Writing a crime story can feel like you’re trying to disarm a bomb in some cases. The trick is to make sure that you have a full understanding of what it is you’re trying to accomplish and where most of the danger zones are.

Leads: You want to almost always use an inverted pyramid lead, especially if you are new at this. Once you get better at it, you can always expand your range and approach. However,  you need to keep in mind that crime and disaster coverage isn’t something you want to get cute with. Someone has been victimized in this story. Somebody lost something or was hurt. Someone is accused of doing something that might turn out not to be true. The more direct you can be on this, the better off you are.

The lead is often the hardest part of this to build because you’re trying to cover the topic clearly and without libeling someone. You’re also trying to weave in key details that are going to grab someone’s attention without overloading the sentence and frustrating the readers.

Start with the noun-verb-object content, even if you have to write it in passive voice because you (and maybe even the authorities) don’t have a full set of information. In some cases things are easy because you can focus on that NVO structure without fear:

  • Fire damaged home
  • Flood displaces hundreds
  • Tornado kills three

In these cases, you’re not worrying so much that the fire’s mom or the flood’s cousin is going to call you up and scream at you about how they were “such a good act of nature.” You also don’t have to worry that the tornado is going to sue for libel. That’s easy. It’s harder in the cases of crime, particularly if you don’t know who did the deed

“The University Bookstore was robbed at gunpoint Wednesday afternoon.”

Who did the robbing? Well, a robber, but we don’t know who it was and if someone were to be arrested, they still have some due process coming before we can say they actually did the deed.

Here’s another one:

“A 43-year-old Oshkosh man was arrested Sunday on suspicion of threatening his neighbor’s dog with his pet King Cobra, police said.”

The noun is “police” here if we go NVO, with “Police arrest guy.” However, police almost ALWAYS arrest the people who get arrested, which is the same reason we don’t run headlines like “Voters elect Biden” for political stories. We can jazz it up by moving things around if we want:

“A 43-year-old Oshkosh man threatened to use his King Cobra to kill his neighbor’s dog Sunday, police said.”

“A 43-year-old Oshkosh man, accused of threatening his neighbor’s dog with a King Cobra, was arrested Sunday, police said.”

In each case, you get something and you give something else up. You get an active-voice lead in the first one and you move up the snake thing. That said, you lose the arrest, which could come in the second paragraph. In the second one, you lose the active voice, but you move up the snake thing. You also end up with a dependent clause and three commas. In all three cases, however, you have an attribution, which matters a great deal.

Speaking of which…

Attribute the heck out of stuff: Several professional journalists told me that attributions are boring, get repetitive and are really falling out of fashion with writers. A bullet-proof vest isn’t fashionable either, but if I’m getting shot at, I want one.

Attributions can save your life. I’ve never heard of anyone being fired or sued for over attributing. However, there have been cases where people get into a lot of trouble for not attributing.

In the ESPN film “Judging Jewell,” Bert Roughton of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution discussed several statements the paper made in print regarding Jewell, including one unattributed statement that said Jewell “fits the profile of the lone bomber.” Roughton said that the statement reflected the attitude of law enforcement officials the reporters had interviewed, but that without the attribution, this was something newspaper was reporting because it knew it to be true.

After 88 days of investigation, the FBI stated Jewell was no longer a suspect and in 2005, Eric Rudolph confessed to the bombing. The stigma of this intense scrutiny still stuck with Jewell for the rest of his life. It would be unfair to blame the lack of attribution for all of this, but it remains an example of a statement that demanded a “Says who?” answer.


Focus on the candy: What do people want to know most that they haven’t already heard should be the driving force of what goes up at the top of your stories. Look at the idea of what YOU would want to know most if you were being told this story. To that end, focus on things that matter most to your audience. Rely on the elements of newsvalue to drive your writing right up top. Don’t worry about what the police said was most important or what it is that happened first.

cartman whatever i do what i want - Focus on the Candy

Case in point: Let’s say you came home after class and your roommate said, “Hey, your mom called. There was a fire at your house.”

What is the FIRST THING you would want to know?

  • Is everyone OK?
  • How bad was the fire?
  • What the hell happened?

Now, read any fire department press release and see where that info is. In most cases, it’s at the bottom, because they tend to write chronologically. Also, they tend to focus on what THEY did because THEY are writing the press release. Imagine if your roommate started off with, “Well, the Boone County Fire Protection district dispatched Tanker Truck 12, Ladder 4 and Chief’s Car 1 to 212 S. Main St. on Sunday night in response to a 9-1-1 call regarding a fire. Firefighters deployed multiple hoses to attack the fire from both the north and west sides of the home…”

At what point are you grabbing your roommate by the neck and screaming, “JUST TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED!” Think about that when writing your piece.

Watch your words: If you are just starting in crime coverage, the terminology can be confusing. Before you use a word, make sure you know what that word means and that it actually fits what you’re talking about.

Not all homicides are murders. Burglaries are different than robberies. There is a difference between driving under the influence of intoxicants and drunk driving. If police say “alcohol was believed to be a factor in the crash” you don’t want to say a driver was drunk. If you don’t understand, ask for help, but don’t guess on your own.

That said, jargon in this area can be extremely awkward and problematic, so do your best to translate it into English. Here are a few examples:

  • Officer-involved shooting: What the heck does this mean? Did the cop shoot someone? Did they just load the gun for whoever shot someone else? Did they provide directions to someone’s house who was asking to be shot? Did they pack a lunch for the true “gunman?” This is one of the worst uses of soft language, so find out what happened. In most cases, it means the cop shot someone, so don’t be afraid to say it.
  • In nature: This is often added to the end of fire stories: “The fire was electrical in nature.” As opposed to what? In spirit? Did it want to grow up to be a forest fire, but it couldn’t pass botany at Fire University, so it joined its dad in the electrical fire trade?
  • Semi-automatic: This applies to guns, which is often stupid if you know what it means. The term refers to the idea that one bullet comes out each time the shooter pulls the trigger, without reloading the weapon or having to take additional actions. Unless the shooter was using a musket at the bank robbery, it’s a safe bet we had a semi-automatic weapon. If you want to include stuff about the gun, learn more about it.
  • “For:” Keep an eye on this one: “Smith was arrested for breaking into the home.” OK, you basically said, “He did this. Thank goodness we arrested him.” Sometimes, the longer version is better “Police said Smith broke into the home” or “Smith is accused of breaking into the home” or “Smith was charged with trespassing.”
  • Armed and dangerous: I’ll go back to Dennis Miller’s line on this one: “I think armed says it all for me. When are you ever armed and gregarious? Occasionally, you’ll bump into an Amish minister packing and uzi, but…”
  • Allegedly: This is just a thinly veiled accusation that gives people the sense that the person is basically guilty. I remember asking a friend of mine at the Student Press Law Center about this once and how much protection it provided you. None, he said before adding this:“The word “allegedly” is why libel lawyers can afford a second yacht.”

    You never want to convict someone in your story when they haven’t been convicted in court. Report what happened and attribute it: “suspected of doing X” or  “Police say he did X”  or “he was arrested Wednesday and will be charged with murder, police said.”

Also, when you write crime, you need to look out for  redundancies that make you look dumb. Things like “The armed gunman robbed the restaurant.” As opposed to what? The unarmed gunman? I would love to see someone report, “The double armed amputee entered the bank with a gun between his toes and demanded money…”

Same thing with “convicted murderer.” The only way you get to be a murderer (a legal term) is if you are convicted. “The body of a dead man” or my favorite “The corpse of a dead man.” If you aren’t dead, you’re not a body. You’re just a person.

Always go through and read your stuff out loud for any of these little pieces of joy.

And the last piece of advice I can give you…


A friend of mine was fond of saying that you can drown just as easily in 2 inches of water as you can in the Pacific Ocean. His point was that often people tend to pound out four-inch crime briefs without thinking through them and get themselves into a whole lot of trouble. It’s very rarely the huge investigative series about how your chancellor dresses up as a nun on the weekends and sells crack to grade schoolers that gets you into a lot of trouble. It’s almost ALWAYS the tiny crime briefs and the bad use of language that  lands you in hot water.

I often joke that paranoia is my best friend, but it really came from years on the cops beat. I look at every sentence I write and think, “How could this totally go wrong and screw me over?” If you approach crime writing like this, you’ll make more saves than you miss.

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