Chapter 36: Reporting crime

Chapter 36: Reporting crime

In this - the second of four chapters on reporting crime - we suggest some basic principles of reporting crime and tell you how to become an effective crime reporter. In the following two chapters we will give advice on writing stories, and how to avoid some of the dangers of crime reporting.


One of the major problems of reporting crime is that the event itself is usually over before the journalist gets there. When reporting on a parliamentary sitting or the launch of a space rocket, the journalist has plenty of time to prepare, observe what happens and write the story in a logical sequence, from beginning to end.

By the time the reporter learns of a robbery, the robbers will probably have fled, the victims will be in hospital, answering police questions or in a mortuary, while the police themselves will already have started their investigation.

In trying to bring some order out of this chaos, you have to revert to the basics of journalism. Find out what happened to whom, then try to build up the story - always with one eye on the deadline.

Personal qualities

You need a lively mind so you can think of ways around any problems you may come across in reporting. You need to be sympathetic to draw answers out of people who may be upset about the crime. You should also be suspicious of what you are told. The police and witnesses may not intend to mislead you, but victims and witnesses are often shocked and unclear about what happened, while the police are more interested in catching criminals than in answering journalists' questions. The criminals themselves will usually lie.

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Sources of information

To limit the risk of inaccuracy, try to get information from as many sources as possible. If it is a small story about the theft of a car, you might get enough information from the police report. The police report can be a written report submitted by the investigating officer to his superiors or a press release summarising a case.

With more important or complicated stories, use a variety of sources. You may want to start with the police report to establish that a crime really happened, then go on to question the officer dealing with the specific case.

Try to interview any victims for a first-hand account of what happened or what was stolen. If the victim is not available, try relatives or friends (we will consider some of the ethical problems of this later in this chapter). Interview any witnesses, but be aware that they will not usually be trained to observe things as accurately as police or journalists.

Visit the scene of the crime so that you can add important details to your story or get pictures for publication or broadcast. Visiting the scene will also help you to visualise the event when it is described to you. It is much easier to understand a description of how the robber "disappeared round a corner" when you can stand at the scene of the attack and see the corner itself.

With big or unusual crimes, you will need to provide some background to help your readers or listeners to understand what happened or what the consequences of a crime might be. You can approach independent sources even though they have no knowledge of the crime itself. For example, a psychologist at the university may be able to explain a spate of arson attacks, a naturalist may be able to give you background on why certain animals are being smuggled out of the country. Remember, though, that there are legal limits on comment once a person has been arrested for a crime and while the trial is taking place (see Chapter 64: The rules of court reporting).

Once you have gathered all the information, you should sort through it carefully, double checking any doubtful or conflicting information where necessary.

Identify those facts which are reliable and those which are not. If it is agreed that the crime took place in Avoca Street, you can state this without attribution. However, if one witness says it was breakfast time and another says it was just before lunch, say "in the morning"'. If one person says the car was red while the other says green, you have to say that the car was either red or green. If the victim says the attack was "horrifying" while the police officer describes it as "minor", quote both of them.

Although police reports are usually quite accurate, they are seldom entirely reliable, so you may have to cross-check some of what they say. It is a useful practice.

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Reporting techniques

In practical terms, there are many things you can do to make your job as a crime reporter easier and more interesting. The most important of these is to establish good and reliable contacts.

Making and keeping contacts

Although the police may be busy all day investigating crimes, many crimes never become news because no-one thinks to tell journalists. Unless the police want to appeal to the public for help in finding someone or something, they may not tell the media about crimes. In some cases, publication of a report may actually frighten off a suspect and make the job of the police harder.

It is your task to establish good contacts - people who will tell you about events as soon as they happen.

Although your most reliable contacts may be on-duty police officers such as the police commander or duty officer, do not limit yourself to these. Get to know other sources within the police force. This may be officially discouraged by the police commissioner (who wants you to work only through official channels), but good confidential sources can often give you an off-the-record tip of something which you can then check through official channels. For example, you may be officially told to contact the duty sergeant for all details of who the police are prosecuting in court each day. However, if you have a good contact in the prosecutor's office or in the court administration, they may be able to give you information on cases which will be especially interesting.

Confidential sources, even in the police force, often take pleasure in a discreet relationship with a reporter they can trust. But remember, if you reveal the identity of a confidential source, you will land that person in trouble.

Contacts outside the police force can be just as valuable. The best are people whose work or social life bring them into regular contact with crimes or criminals. Ambulance drivers, for example, are called to crimes where people are hurt. Individual ambulance officers are useful sources, but the radio controller of the service is in the best position to know everything that is going on. Nurses see victims of violence brought into their hospital, but nurses on intensive care units see the worst cases. Many barmen or hotel keepers either know criminals and victims or hear the gossip about what is going on.

Never waste an opportunity to encourage contacts. Regular visits or telephone calls remind them that you are still interested. A few minutes spent talking to a pathologist at the scene of a murder could establish him as a future source of information about deaths and post mortems.

You must work hard on keeping contacts. Make sure that they have telephone numbers where they can find you. If you leave the office, let your colleagues know how they can get in touch with you in an emergency if any of your good contacts calls with an urgent story. If the contact is happy to be seen giving you information (or if the relationship with you is officially approved by their organisation), you could send them occasional greetings cards on birthdays or festive occasions. If the contact wants their relationship with you to be kept secret, respect their wishes and do not let anyone know who your informant is.

Police contacts

You should get to know your local police well. Make sure that you know their names (and how to spell them correctly) and their ranks. Find out what their jobs and duties are within the force so that you can go directly to the right person when you need information. Take an interest in what they tell you, even if there is no news story in the information at that time. Store it away in a notebook for future reference. Do not appear bored or critical if they give you information which is not newsworthy - you will only discourage them for the future. Remember, you are the journalist, trained to judge what is newsworthy and what is not.

Do not expect even the best of police contacts to go searching for you with story ideas. Make regular visits or telephone calls at agreed times. The good crime reporter always spends the first part of any day ringing round or visiting contacts, just to ask if anything is happening. It is good practice, on a day when there is not much happening, to use your time talking to your contacts, checking for news or simply having a chat if they are not busy.

Become known around the police station or police post, so that your presence is eventually taken for granted and officers will talk freely in front of you. However, you must remember that you are their guest. Leave the room if you are asked and do not go into places where you have been specifically banned (such as the cells).

You must also remember that, however much time you spend with the police, you are not a police officer. Your job is quite different from theirs. Your first loyalty is to your readers or listeners. Sometimes this will put you in conflict with the police. If you are too close and bound to them by favours, you cannot do your job as a journalist properly.

Police press cards

In some countries, the police issue press cards to certain journalists. These are often small plastic-covered cards with the journalist's photograph to identify them as a journalist in the eyes of the police. Police press cards may give journalists special access to places, such as the scene of a crime. Some reporters enjoy the status that such a card gives them, without realising the danger. If journalists accept police press cards as the official recognition, the police are in a position of power to withhold cards from journalists who write things they do not like. This is very dangerous in democratic societies and should be avoided whenever possible. The alternative - a press card issued by a professional journalism body - is usually preferable, although any system of licensing journalists can restrict your freedom to do your job.

The police press conference

Your newspaper, radio or television station should have regular contacts with the police on a formal level. This is usually done through a regular daily or weekly press conference with a senior officer, at which journalists are told about crimes or developments which have happened since the last conference. Depending on the personality of the officers or their relationship with the journalists, you may be told everything which has happened or only the very minimum. If you want to know more at the press conference, just ask. If the police do not want to tell you, they will say so (although you should determine whether they are keeping quiet because of their investigations or because they are feeling lazy).

You should try to get as much information as possible at the press conference. The police usually hold them so that they can deal with the media at one time and then get on with their other work. They will not be happy if you come back later in the day and ask a question you could have put quite easily at the conference. If you work for a newspaper or television station, ask for pictures which will help to illustrate the story. This could be a photograph of a stolen statue or a Photofit picture of a suspect. Photofit or Identikit pictures are portraits put together from facial features such as eyes, nose, mouth, hair, glasses etc which witnesses think are like those of the suspect. The police show the witnesses a selection of pictures of each feature then combine the chosen ones together into a best fit.

Observation and monitoring

All journalists should develop their powers of observation. On the crime round, you must always be aware of what is happening and what is not, what is said and what is not said. For example, if all of your contacts in a police station are suddenly unavailable when you call, you should suspect that something big is happening. It could simply be that they are all in the same meeting, but when you are told that no-one has time to talk to you at the moment, get suspicious. Start sniffing around for the reasons; ring your other contacts (such as the ambulance service). If you think that something big is happening, get down to the police station straight away to find out.

In some countries, crime reporters are legally permitted to monitor the police radio using special scanners which search the different wave bands for the emergency services frequencies. You may not always be able to understand what is said (in some cases you can only pick up one side of two-way radio conversations), but you will be alerted if any major events happen.

Be warned, however, that monitoring police radio frequencies is banned by law in some countries (this is to stop criminals knowing what the police are doing). If such monitoring is banned, you must officially respect that ban. If you listen in illegally then turn up at the scene of a crime, you could be in trouble unless you have a good answer when the police ask who told you of the incident. Check what the law of your country says about monitoring two-way radio messages.

Documents and reports

You should take an interest in any documents about the police or crime, whether or not you are on a special crime round. The annual crime statistics always make news, whether there is more crime or less.

Look behind the facts and figures for the human drama. If there is an increase in break-and-enters you should find out why. Are people becoming careless? Is there a new gang working in the area? What advice do the police have for preventing such crimes? Always try to put a human face on the figures; go out and interview a victim. Find out whether their lives have changed because of the break-and-enter? How do they regard the police?

Always be suspicious about the figures themselves. If the police are campaigning for more staff, they may choose to highlight those statistics which suggest crime is on the increase. If the Police Minister is standing for re-election, he may try to minimise the problem of crime.

Do not be frightened by jargon used by the police in writing reports. If it is not clear, ask. We talk later about jargon.

Keep a filing system and diary

Crime reporters are usually busy and deal with a large number of different stories. Although there may be a few long-running major criminal investigations or court cases, most of the stories come and go quickly. Because of this, it is very easy to lose track of what has happened. Crime reporters need a good system of filing information for future use. This is especially important for stories which run for a long time, with occasional bursts of activity separated by long periods when nothing seems to happen. For example, a murder has its first peak when the body is discovered and police start their investigation. It peaks again when the post mortem examination reveals officially how the victim died. It peaks again whenever police reveal a major new clue, and again when they arrest someone. At this point the pace of the story is governed by the legal process - when the accused first appears in court, when he is remanded, committed for trial, tried and sentenced or released. At each stage along this process, from murder to imprisonment or release, you must keep your readers or listeners up-to-date on what is happening.

You need to do two things: you should monitor developments in the case and make diary notes of when further developments are likely to happen. With small cases, such as a break-and-enter, you may let the police determine how often you update your coverage. Following your first report, you may not cover the story again until the police arrest and charge someone. However, with bigger stories you need to set the pace by contacting your sources regularly and asking what is the latest development.

This in itself may make a story, even if it is the rather weak news angle of "Police say they are still struggling to find witnesses to the killing of a 23-year-old Koror schoolteacher last month."

On the other hand, your checks may unearth information which the police have forgotten (or declined) to tell you - such as they have charged a man with the murder.

In any crime story which is still active, make a note in your diary to check developments by a certain date, at the latest. If something happens before that date, all well and good.

The actual date will vary from story to story. If police are hunting a crazed murderer, you may want to check for developments every day. If they are investigating a tax fraud in a big company, you may want to call the officers concerned each week. If a police investigation is taking a long time and getting nowhere, you may want to note in the newsroom diary to check in a month's time.

In many circumstances, the date for the next development is known in advance. Detectives investigating a murder may decide to stage a dramatic reconstruction of the killing at the scene at the same time of day the following week. Make a note to check with them the day before the re-enactment, so that you can make plans to cover it.

In another example, the police may charge someone with murder and tell you that he is due to appear in court at 10 o'clock the following morning. Make a note in the newsroom diary either to cover the story yourself or to get someone else to cover it, possibly the reporter on the court round.

Always keep a file on any major running story. Your organisation should, in any case, have a system of filing all stories so they can be referred to at any time. If you are on the crime round, start your own filing system to keep copies of any story about continuing cases. If you do not know how to keep a filing system, seek advice from a good, experienced secretary.

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What information do you need?

All the advice we have just given will help you to get information, but you must decide what information you really want. Although it is not possible to make a fixed rule for writing crime stories, there are certain details which you should try to get for every story about a specific crime. These include details about the following:

The crime

What is the exact nature of the crime the police are investigating? Until they arrest and charge someone, the police will often be vague about the exact nature of the charges they will bring. A man may have died, but police may say only that it was an assault. They may say that they are looking for someone "in connection with a killing" or say that they are "treating the death as murder". We will talk more about this shortly, in the section on language.

You will also need to know exactly where and when the crime was committed, even the time of day or night. You should try to find out how it was committed, but take advice on how much you should say in your story. If the thieves have used a new and clever way of breaking into a building, you may give other criminals an idea by describing it exactly. On the other hand, if you tell your readers or listeners how crimes are committed, they may be better prepared to protect themselves.

The method the criminals used is often the most newsworthy aspect of the crime, even when it was not successful. For example, there are occasional stories of thieves who steal a heavy safe then try a succession of different methods to open it. They unsuccessfully try pick-axes, crowbars, oxyacetylene torches, dynamite and dropping it from a great height before eventually giving up in disgust and dumping the safe, still with its contents intact. The journalist who says that there is no news because the safe was recovered would miss a good story.

As with all news, you will write a more interesting story if you can visualise what happened while it is being described to you. Build up a mental picture of the crime, asking for missing details when you see gaps in your picture.

You should, where possible, ask the value of anything stolen, both individual items and a total sum. Always ask whether a weapon was used, particularly in violent crimes. What kind of a weapon? How was it used? And do not forget to ask how the criminals travelled to and from the crime. The police may be happy to give you a full description of any get-away vehicle in their bid to trace it.

Victims and suspects

Get as many details as possible about any victims. This should include their names, ages and addresses (although not always for publication), possibly their occupation and certainly details of any injuries they suffered. Get details of any witnesses, so that you can talk to them.

The police may have a suspect or list of suspects. Although you may not be able to use the actual names, you might be able to describe them, for example as "a man in his late forties, well-built with a star tattoo on his forehead" or "a convicted murderer who escaped from prison while awaiting trial" (If you are not clear how much you can legally say about a suspect, see Chapters 64 and 65 on court reporting.)

Unusual circumstances

There may be some special circumstances which make the crime more newsworthy. For example, your intro may be that this is the fifth time that a certain office has been broken into in a month or that the landlord is a cabinet minister.

Appeals for help

The police will often ask for help from your readers or listeners, particularly in finding wanted men, stolen property or get-away cars. You should try to cooperate whenever possible, but make sure that you also get the information you want for a news story itself.

Because it may concern minor details, you will often put the police appeal at the end of the story, with clear instructions to the sub-editors or newsreader not to cut it out. However, the appeal may occasionally give you the intro. For example, if police believe that the latest crime was committed by a particularly dangerous man, their appeal may be your intro, as in the following:

Police in Funafuti have warned women living alone to lock their doors after dark, following the murder of a 23-year-old schoolteacher.

Quotes and actuality

If you are writing for a newspaper, get plenty of lively quotes to add interest to the story. If working for radio or television, record people talking about the crime. Beware of quoting police officers who sound very official, their quotes will sound unrealistic and boring. Instead of quoting a policeman who says "The assailant then struck the victim several blows about the head", find a witness who can tell you things like "Then this big man started beating the little fellow, who screamed and screamed for mercy".

In all the information you gather, you must always aim for accuracy. Not only do you risk legal action by being inaccurate, but your reputation with your readers or listeners, as well as with the authorities, will suffer.

Double-check that you have understood what you were told and have made an accurate note. Cross-check with another source if you have any doubts about information you have been given. You can often use reference books, maps or directories for double-checks. If the police say the company's head office is in Mango Street, the telephone book should confirm it. If you are told the get-away car was found in Banda Place, ten kilometres from the bank, you can check the distance on a map.


Write crime stories about people - the criminals, the police and the victims

Develop good contacts and protect them if you have to

Use your diary to keep track of likely developments in continuing cases; organise a filing system to keep your information readily available

Get good quotes or actuality

This is the end of the second part of this four-part section on crime. If you now want to read on, follow this link to the third section, Chapter 37: Writing about crime

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Index to Chapter 36

  1. Personal qualities
  2. Sources of information
  3. Reporting techniques
  4. What information do you need?
  5. To summarise
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