Chapter 35: Crime reporting introduction

In this and the following three chapters, we discuss what makes crime newsworthy. We suggest some basic principles of reporting crime and tell you how to become an effective crime reporter. We give advice on gathering and writing stories, and how to avoid some of the dangers of crime reporting.

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Crime reporting teaches some of the essential techniques of journalism. You learn how to dig for a story, how to follow leads, how to interview people to extract information and how to write crisp, clear, interesting stories under pressure of a deadline.

In small newspapers, radio and television stations, general reporters cover crime stories, while in bigger organisations there may be a specialist crime reporter or team of reporters who cover nothing else but crime.

These specialist reporters are occasionally called police reporters, although this title gives a misleading idea of their task. It suggests that all they do is report on what the police are doing when, in fact, crime reporting should cover all aspects of law-breaking - the police, the criminals and the victims.

In this and the following three chapters, we define crime as any action in which people break the law.

Why report crime?

Crime reporting has long been a central part of news coverage in free press societies, because crime stories are usually newsworthy.

There are several reasons why you should report crime and why people want to read about or listen to stories of crime:

  • Readers or listeners often want an explanation of why crimes happen. They ask: "Could it happen to me?" They may want to know so that they can prevent a similar thing happening to themselves.
  • Your readers and listeners need to know how laws are broken, and how people who break laws are caught and punished. This helps them understand what laws are and what are the penalties for breaking them.
  • Most people obey the law, so crime stories are about unusual events - one of the criteria for news.
  • Some people are interested in the way criminals get something without much effort. For example, although a gang of crooks may spend weeks or months planning a robbery to net them $100,000, it might take ordinary workers many years of effort to earn that much legally. Some crimes may fascinate people who obey the laws but who wonder what it might be like to break them.
  • Criminals take risks and face punishment if they are caught. This may make them fascinating to read about.

You have a role to play, in providing information to counteract rumour. People will hear about crimes through casual conversations or rumour, or they may hear a siren as a police car dashes along the road; they will be only half-informed. It is your job as a journalist to tell them the truth about the rumoured crime or explain why the police car went past. If you can establish a reputation for reliability in this field, people will buy your paper or tune into your station as a way of making sure they know what is happening.

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Types of crime

There are many types of crimes, criminals and victims. There are serious crimes and small offences. There are professional criminals and ordinary people who occasionally break the law. There are crimes which have obvious victims and there are the so-called victim-less crimes (although, as we shall see in a moment, all crimes have a victim somewhere).

It is not always the major crimes which make the most interesting news. Of course, your readers or listeners will be interested to know about an armed hold-up which netted a million dollars. But they may also be interested in the story of a sneak thief who broke into a poor widow's home and killed her much-loved cat.

As with all news, crime stories should be new, unusual, interesting, significant and about people.

New - Crime reporting has to be as up-to-date as possible. This is partly because some crimes depend for their news value on being current. For example, a story about a violent killer on the loose will lose much of its impact (and its value in alerting your audience to danger) once he is captured. Also, because in some societies crimes are a regular feature of life, today's break-and-enter quickly replaces yesterday's break-and-enter in the public's attention. Crime stories get stale quickly.

Unusual - Murders or armed robbery are not everyday events in most communities, and so have news value. However, less serious crime can also have unusual elements. Someone who sneaks on to a bus without paying or throws rubbish on the street may be breaking the law, but it is not very newsworthy. However, if a person stows away on an international airliner, that free flight becomes newsworthy. If the rubbish someone dumps fills three garbage trucks, that too is newsworthy.

Interesting or significant - As we have said, most law-abiding citizens are interested in people who break the law in big or unusual ways. Crimes which by themselves are ordinary can become significant when placed in context. For example, the car theft can be one of hundreds in a city, but it may become significant if it is the hundredth car to be stolen this year.

About people - Crimes involve people, as criminals and victims. The so-called victim-less crime does not really exist. The motorist parked in a No Parking zone at the very least may inconvenience other people and at worst may cause an accident. People who make false declarations to claim government benefits are taking money which could have gone to other people.

Always try to tell a crime story in human terms. Do not concentrate all the time on the police or the criminals. Look at what has happened to the victim. Your readers or listeners are more likely to be victims of crime than they are to be either police officers or criminals.

Remember too that the person the police refer to as "the victim" or "the deceased" is (or was) a real, living, breathing person. Try to visualise what their life was like before and after the crime. How did the crime affect them, their family or community?

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News value

Most stories about crimes will have some news value. Exactly how much depends on several factors, which you will have to consider.

Seriousness

We usually assume that more serious crimes are more newsworthy. A murder is more important than an armed assault, which is more serious than a break-and-enter, which is more serious than a parking offence. In terms of money, the bigger the amount stolen, the more important the crime. Remember, however, that money has a different value to different people. The theft of $100 will be more newsworthy when it is money taken from a poor widow that when it is stolen from a rich businessman.

Unusual nature of the crime

The more unusual crimes are generally more newsworthy. A break-and-enter at a school may be more newsworthy than a break-in at a home, but a burglary at a crocodile farm may be more newsworthy still.

Size of the community

Crimes are usually viewed as more important by smaller communities. If you are a journalist on a big city newspaper, an ordinary car theft may not be newsworthy at all. If you are a journalist in a small community, a car theft may be the biggest news of the week. Everybody may know the owner - they may all know the car. It is a sad fact that quite horrible crimes do not make the news in a big city because they are so common and because the chances are small of readers or listeners knowing the victims or caring about them.

Identity of the victim or criminal

Crimes become more newsworthy if they involve people who are themselves newsworthy. An ordinary person attacked on the street may not be big news, but if that person is a local chief, that will be very newsworthy. A fraud case becomes more important when it involves a leading politician. A robbery becomes bigger news when police reveal that the robber was an escaped prisoner with convictions for murder and rape. It is generally true that a crime becomes more newsworthy if there is a strong chance of it happening again - usually because the criminal is known and likely to strike again.

TO SUMMARISE:

  • Write crime stories about people - the criminals, the police and the victims
  • Consider the news value of the events on which you report

This is the end of the first part of this four-part section on crime. If you now want to read on, follow this link to the second section, Chapter 36: Reporting crime.

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Index to Chapter 35

  1. Why report crime?
  2. Types of crime
  3. News value
  4. To summarise
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