The crime & accident beat is usually the first assignment for new reporters for many reasons:
You learn the community
You learn news values and need for accuracy
You meet many people and develop sources
It’s a stressful, difficult and undesirable beat
Most editors maintain standards. Car accidents happen everyday, and several times a day in most communities. Whether a particular accident gets front page coverage, a brief or no mention at all depends on factors like:
What is the severity? A fender bender isn’t news; fatal accidents always are.
How many people are affected? More than just victims may be impacted if the accident causes delays on major highways
Is it local? Proximity is a major factor in newsworthiness.
As Edna Buchanan, the legendary Miami Herald crime reporter, put it, the crime beat "has it all: greed, sex, violence, comedy and tragedy."
Newspapers in all but the largest cities dedicate a column or more per day to a small-type accounting of transgressions and misfortunes – arrests for driving drunk or passing bad checks, reports to police of break-ins and thefts, convictions for larcenies and welfare fraud. The task of daily compilation often falls to the police reporter.
It’s not an easy task. Cops are leery of journalists, and many journalists are cynical about cops. Before you write your story, it’s important to understand some basics.
State and federal crime laws fall under two categories, civil and criminal.
In civil cases , as the Associated Press Stylebook puts it, "an individual, business or agency of government seeks damages or relief from another individual, business or agency."
Civil law concerns conduct alleged to have harmed an individual or organization rather than society at large. In most civil cases, one party sues another for financial damages or relief. One category of civil cases, called actions at law, includes property and contract disputes as well as personal injury cases. The second category, equity proceedings, concerns attempts to compel a person, business or group toward some action – to stop polluting, for example.
Criminal cases concern actions brought by the government, on behalf of citizens, against individuals alleged to have harmed the state or society at large. Under the federal definition, a felony is a crime that carries a potential penalty of more than a year in prison, a misdemeanor less than a year. However, the definition varies broadly from one local or state jurisdiction to the next. It is safe to say that a felony is more serious than a misdemeanor. A violation is an even lesser offense – speeding or petty littering, for example.
Terms: Some journalists confuse robbery, burglary, larceny and theft…
Larceny encompasses any wrongful taking of property.
Theft is larceny without a threat or violence, such as a picked pocket. Many forms of white-collar financial crimes are variations of theft.
Fraud is a form of theft, sometimes defined as theft by deception.
Tax evasion is another form of theft.
Auto theft is self-explanatory.
Robbery is a larceny accompanied by violence or threats, including a finger under the jacket to indicate a gun.
Burglary is the unlawful entering of a premises with the intent to commit a crime. A burglary does not involve violence. But if a homeowner discovers the burglar and violence ensues, the burglary becomes a robbery. (" Home invasion ," a phrase that became popularized in the 1990s and was followed by special-penalty laws, is a break-in robbery.)
Remember, in the U.S., people are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
So, until someone has been convicted of a crime by a judge or jury, you can not call him a criminal, burglar, murderer, etc.
Instead, use language such as “He has been charged with [crime]” or “She was arrested on charges of [crime]” – and attribute any allegations to police.
Otherwise, your media outlet could be sued for liable. Sometimes charges are dropped. Sometimes police botch investigations. Sometimes suspects win their cases and are vindicated. Be very careful with how you word your crime stories. People’s reputations are at stake, including yours.
Go to the scene: A police dept.’s public information officer usually doesn’t go to crime scenes. You may miss important details.
Use the best sources. Don’t rely on hearsay (e.g. “The neighbor said the police said …”). Get it from the horse’s mouth: talk to the police and witnesses and, if possible, victims and suspects.
Spell well and report accurately: No beat produces more possibilities for error than breaking news, with its daily diet of fresh names, ages, addresses and other 5-W details. Be sure to double check all facts, including proper nouns and numbers.
1. Outline: "I make a quick list of the highlights, so I don't miss any. Do a quick outline, to make sure it flows logically without repeating points. (As Ron Meador once advised me, 'You can make as many stops as you want, but only take me once around the park.')”
2. Write, don't ponder . One of the biggest time-wasters on deadline is the lead. Don’t ponder the lead while you look at a blank screen. Write a simple declarative sentence: "The school board voted Tuesday to cut funds for its program to teach English as a second language." That will get you launched. Keep writing. Maybe halfway through the story, you will think of a better lead. Then you can go back and fix the lead, and maybe that will require fixing a few other grafs.
3. Identify the minimum story: Decide early what your minimum story is, the story that answers the basic who, what, when, where questions. This is the story that meets basic levels of journalistic competence and allows you to keep drawing a paycheck next week. This is your first goal.
4. Identify the maximum story: Decide early what your maximum story might be, the story that readers will be talking about at work and in coffee shops the next day. This story may answer difficult how, why, so-what or how-much questions or it may address the who-what-when-where questions in greater depth. The maximum story may have such enticing story elements as setting, plot, characters and dialogue. The maximum story may be a narrative, unfolding the drama rather than summarizing. You are looking for elements that might make this story especially memorable.
5. Secure the minimum, then pursue the maximum: On deadline, you want to identify immediately the potential sources who could provide the information for the minimum story and get the information from them as quickly as possible. After filing for the web, you zero right in on the sources who might provide the maximum story. Maybe you can't get the maximum story on deadline. It might be a second-day story or a Sunday follow-up.
6. Tell your best friend: "I assume my topic is as interesting as lint from a clothes dryer. In other words, work to make it inviting - either by finding an unexpected perspective, telling fact, or a quick anecdote to lure in the reader. Try, if possible, to write what the other guy isn't. As someone once said, 'Write like you're composing a letter to your parents.'"
7. Proofread: Search and destroy. There are a lot of little things, like checking to see that you don't start a lot of graphs with the same phrase. Or, do a computer search of words you know you tend to overuse. Don't agonizing over it while you're writing; just write. And then seek out the words later and change them.
8. Give yourself a buffer: Set your own deadline. If story is due in 1 hour, give yourself 45 minutes and spend the extra time double-checking names, titles, quotes, facts, and figures. Also: Allow time to file. Finish writing with enough time to file, and to file again if the first time doesn't take.