COVERING CRIME AND COURTS Investigative Reporting/Chapter 11
CRIME STORIES Access – most of the info gathered on the police beat comes from the daily police log or blotter. THIS IS PUBLIC RECORDS and is available for anyone, including the media. Logs are available at the jail or fire stations and should be checked regularly. Police departments have Public Information Officers, or PIOs, who talkdirectly with reporters about the officers involved in the cases. The PIO’s duty is to provide information. The crime reporter should: - Check previous criminal records of suspects (Where there have been convictions, there will be info in court records under the person’s name) - The internet can be a source of records on sex offenders, many court records and other public records however, some info is difficult to access. Names connected with crimes occurring on campus, for instance.
ACCESS (CONT’D) The records of juveniles are protected and states restrict identity of juvenile offenders under 18 unless it’s a major capital crime.Many newspapers withhold names of suspects in news stories until they have been formally charged with a crime. (Maine prostitution ring)- Remember, each person becomes an official suspect only after charges are filed in a court. - Other times, newspapers withhold names to protect privacy, such as in rape, sodomy or incest cases. - A crime reporter MUST make sure the names of suspects, including middle initials, are provided in full, spelled correctly and addresses are used as part of their identity.
LAWS A person arrested for a crime is considered innocent until proven guilty in court. Therefore, you must be VERY careful how you describe this person in news stories prior to trial. - The police can arrest, but they cannot charge a crime against a person. (This is the job of the DA) - Do not convict a person by saying prematurely he or she “did” the crime.- What you can say is that the person is charged with a crime, was arrested in connection with a crime or accused. ALWAYS attribute this to an official source, such as the DA police, sheriff ’s office, etc. - In a crime against another person, the accuser cannot be identified as the victim until the perpetuator has been convicted.
ALLEGED Avoid the word “alleged” The words means to declare or assert without proof. Law enforcement officers do not allege. They accuse.And, when you use the word accuse, make sure that when you use it, you say accused OF and not WITH. Nor is it: “accused bank robber Joe…” Instead, write: “Joe, accused of bank robbery, said…”
ATTRIBUTION I often tell you to attribute everything, but in crime stories, factual information like the crime’s location or that a person has been officially charged with a crime can be cited without attribution. On homicide: the term is the legal term for killing. Murder is the term forpremeditated homicide. Manslaughter is homicide but lacking premeditation. - Thus, a person may be arrested and charged with murder but is not a murderer until law enforcement have determined this or the court decides this.Nor is a deceased person murdered unless it’s determined by law – use slain or killed Homicide stories should include reference to the weapon used, clues andmotives, types of wounds, official cause of death, how the suspect came to be arrested and details from family, friends, witnesses, etc.
FIRES Not all fire stories have criminal connections, like arson, for example. Most fire stories are based on accidents, acts of God and the like. Still, the police reporter covers fires. Information about a fire should include when the fire started, how long it took the fire department to respond and when the fire was brought under control. Include in your story the number of fire companies and trucks responding,injuries and fatalities, cause of the fire, who discovered it, description of the structure that burned and estimated cost of damages. Follow-up stories should include fire inspection records and fire code violations, if any.
COURTS In order to cover the courts, you have to have a basic understanding of the court system. You will learn more about this in Communications Law at the university level but the highlights: Courts are concerned with criminal or civil cases (non-criminal lawsuits between two parties) Criminal cases are violations of laws that regulate crime, misdemeanors(minor matters that involve fines or imprisonment of up to a year) or felonies (serious matters that can involve lengthy prison terms) The court system operates on two levels – federal and stateFederal courts have jurisdiction over cases involving the U.S. Constitution and other federal laws including conflicts between people of different states.
COURTS (CONT’D)The federal system involves district courts where cases are tried. There are 12 federal courts of appeal that review cases on appeal from the federal district courts. The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the country. Cases areappealed at this level, but the justices pick and choose which cases to consider and which to ignore. States have three levels: trial, appeals and a state Supreme Court
ARRESTSA person who is suspected of having committed a crime may be arrested. Or, arrests can occur if one person has filed a complaint against another. The suspect is taken to a booking desk, where he or she is fingerprinted and photographed. The person’s name, address and physical description are entered into the police book or log, AKA the blotter. Some are held in jail while others are released until formal charges are made. - Arresting officers provide the DA’s office with information about the arrest. Is the the DA’s office that decides if a charge against the suspect should be filed in court. - The first hearing is called the arraignment. Charges are read in court, giving the suspect the opportunity to enter a plea of guilty or not.
HEARINGS Preliminary hearings are conducted in federal cases only. The judge determines if there is enough evidence to merit trying the person (probable cause)If so, the person is held for trial. If not, the person is released and charges are dropped. A grand jury, comprised of around 12 citizens, comes into play when charges involve political crimes, major drug case and cases headed to federal courts. The purpose of the grand jury is to investigate probable cause and, if it finds probable cause, the grand jury issues a true bill, meaning the case goes to court. If no probable cause, the grand jury issues a no bill, charges are dropped and the person goes free. Grand jury proceedings are secret.
TRIALS Time-consuming and costly Pretrial hearings and motions delay cases or try to get them dropped. Another technique is the plea bargain, which the prosecution negotiates with the defense on a mutually agreeable guilt to a lesser charge, which eliminates the need for a trial. If a defendant pleads “no contest” he or she is not admitting guilt but will abide by the court’s decision in the matterShould things result in a trial, the jury is empanelled for criminal cases. In civil cases, the judge usually makes the decision although juries are also used in some civil trials. The jury’s job is to determine guilty or not guilty based on the evidencepresented in court. A person convicted in court can appeal the decision in one of the appellate courts, but there is no guarantee that the case will be considered or that the appellate court will reverse the trial court’s ruling.
TRIAL (CONT’D) Civil court cases involve disagreements between two parties and do notinvolve criminal activity. A judge sometimes decides the case, and sometimes juries are involved. A judge may dismiss a civil case because it lacks enough evidence to justify a trial. A judge may also render a summary judgment, in which the judge decides on the face of the evidence.
WRITING COURT STORIES Translate all court jargon into commonplace, easily understood words and phrases. State the exact charges involved Give background to the issue – especially if it is a criminal case Give the correct name of the court that is considering the case Seek comments from all parties involved – prosecution, defense, the judge, jurors and relatives.Sometimes, the defendant’s attorney will discourage his client’s talking to themedia. Other times, the defendant seeks to use the media to tell his or her side of the story or to win sympathy from the public. In verdict stories, tell how long the jury deliberated. Write a next-step story about what may happen after the verdict is rendered, such as appeals, next court appearance, etc.