Tips for covering crime news


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This handout includes Paul Harral's tips for writing police stories from the Covering Texas Courts workshop held by the Texas Center for Community Journalism in May 2011.

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Tips for covering crime news

  1. 1. Paul Harral CRIME NEWST his might be the killer application for community operations, but it calls for a reinterpretation of what crime news is. It’s more than the police blotter and fatal traffic accidents.At its heart, crime news is about people. People who are victims and people who makeother people into victims. And there are secondary victims as well: Relatives of thevictim and the criminal; taxpayers who foot the bill for police forces and who pay a pricein increased insurance premiums; children who grow up with parents in prison and whofollow them there.The list is endless. But how you cover that and how you utilize it requires a great deal ofcreativity. And it is hard work. If it were easy, everyone would do it. But because it ishard, many who consider themselves “citizen journalists” would rather rip the facts offthe professional and then have opinions about the situation. That’s so much easier.Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan is credited with the comment: “Everyone is entitled to hisown opinion, but not his own facts.” And the battle for hearts and minds will be won on
  2. 2. facts and context, not on rumor and opinion. It’s easy to be drawn into trying to correctevery misstatement. That’s impossible. Ignore them. Concentrate on tight, concise andaccurate reporting.By the way, the platform that may eventually kill off dead tree newspapers is not theSmartphone. It is the iPad. WRITING POLICE NEWSIf I am correct that writing and reporting becomes even more important in the digitalage, then it is worthwhile for us to talk about structure and format of crime newsstories.You already know how to do this. I’m just going to remind of you of it.First: Think back to my earlier discussion about people being the focus.All presentations of information consist of three parts — a beginning, middle and anend. You talk this way, write emails this way and send postcards this way. What youwant to do is Capitalize on human beings’ instinctive way of formatting information.In writing terminology, we talk about the lead paragraph of the story. It’s reallyimportant. Scanners will give you a couple of seconds to hook them or they are gone. Soheadlines and lead paragraphs become super important it today’s competitive world.And that true in spades in digital media. More about headlines in a minute.I’m going to remind you of a standard format in formal newspaper reporting that can beadapted to any situation and to any platform.We’re going to talk about the first four paragraphs of a story and about the finalparagraph.First: Let’s talk about leads.What is the purpose of a lead paragraph?ANSWER: We always talked about the 5Ws and the H. What else? It’s the seller of astory.Favorite lead, written by Kathy Parker when she worked for me at the Florida Times-
  3. 3. Union in Jacksonville. This is not exact but it was something like this:She fought him for two long minutes, trying to scratch his eyes out, trying to kick him inthe crotch.Then she remembered the gun.“Shot him,” she said. “Deader than a doornail.“And I’d do it again.”Let’s examine that:OK, so it’s four little paragraphs and not one longer one. But who says the lead has to beonly one or two sentences and collected into a single paragraph?Does it have people? Does it trigger an image in your mind? Does it tell you whathappened? Does it make you want to read more?Here’s another. I wrote this one and this, too, is only representational. I don’t have anactual copy and it’s not available through archive searches I had access to. The name ismade up.Richard Johnson was a nice guy. He worked hard, taught Sunday School and was knownby neighbors as a devoted husband and father. Thursday he killed his wife and children.Friday he killed himself.Or how about this one:E.J. “Big Daddy” Jones, a tough guy from a tough part of Colorado died the tough way ona Denver street yesterday.All of those leads have some things in common: They punch you in the stomach. Theyhave life in them. They trigger images in the reader’s mind that begin to play out a littlemovie in your brain. It’s always good to plant that image and you can do it in a variety ofways.“Blue-steel revolver,” “bright yellow school bus,” “stone-cold killer.”So that’s the first paragraph.In our perfect world, what would the second paragraph be?ANSWER: It’s a killer quote that backs up the lead.
  4. 4. And killer quotes come from asking a lot of questions in a way that invites that kind ofcomment. John Smith had been six years homeless when he died Friday at the hands of twogang members who beat him to death for $1.29 cents. “It was alcohol that really killed him,” said his older brother, Bill. “If he couldhave stayed away from the bottle, he’d have been performing surgery instead of on thestreet.”By the way, note the twist on “six years homeless” instead of “homeless for six years.”Not much but enough to grab a little attention.So now we have two paragraphs or two blocks of copy that act like two paragraphs.What’s the next paragraph supposed to do?ANSWER: It’s the famous nut paragraph that summarized for the reader why he or sheshould care. One Star-Telegram editor called it the “Tarrant County give-a-shitparagraph.”How might that look?Let’s stay with the homeless man’s death since I’m making it up and it’s always easier toget facts and quotes if you aren’t hampered by stuff like ethics and accuracy. Now thestory reads like this: John Smith had been six year’s homeless when he died Friday at the hands oftwo gang members who beat him to death for $1.29 cents. “It was alcohol that really killed him,” said his older brother, Bill. “If he couldhave stayed away from the bottle, he’d have been in surgery instead of on the street.” Police officials have been alarmed at a series of killing that targeted the city’shomeless and said that video from a traffic surveillance camera provided them withclear pictures of the killers.So, now we have three paragraphs:What is the purpose of the fourth one?ANSWER: It is the lead to the rest of the story. It might only introduce the middlesection. Or, it can list the bullet points that will be covered in the report. If you use itthat way, then each section begins with a mini-lead paragraph, a killer quote and
  5. 5. another nut paragraph.You seldom get the perfect information you need, of course, but that’s no reason not totry and hope.I told you we would talk about the final paragraph of the story. What might the purposeof that paragraph be?ANSWER: In our perfect world, it is the summary paragraph that reflects back to thelead. It can be text or a quote. But in entertainment terms, it’s the round-off, thefinishing move in a performance.In very complex stories, you can write a number of separate sections and then pull themtogether under an introductory section that picks up the nut paragraph of each sectionto foreshadow the structure of the story.And structure is important. It doesn’t much matter whether the reader can pick out thestructure or not so long as the writer understands it.Think of it as a clothesline stretching from here to there and the information asgarments you pin to it in a logical order.That format can be modified for television reports — video goes where the quotes go.And you can use it in the next PowerPoint to argue for more budget with your boss. SIMPLIFYING THE STORYAlmost all crime stories have some degree of complexity to them. It is the reporter’s jobto bring organization to the presentation. One simple technique is to compile necessaryfacts into a concise presentation.There are rules: 1. The facts collected into such a format cannot be in dispute. 2. They should be important enough to be included but not so important as to demand a separate paragraph. 3. Dispose of routine facts as quickly as possible because they tend to bog down the flow but remember that their inclusion adds greatly to the credibility of your
  6. 6. reporting.Here’s a made-up example: A convenience store clerk was killed and a customer wounded when gunfirebroke out at a store on Jacksboro Highway shortly after midnight Thursday. “We’re sure more than one shooter was involved,” said Sgt. John Braun,spokesman for the Fort Worth Police Department. “We’re reviewing security tapes nowto see if we can get good visuals.” As police, eyewitnesses and others reconstructed the shooting: — Several young men entered the store about midnight, leaving a driver in arunning car at a gasoline pump. At least three shots were heard. One witness said threemen fled the store and jumped into the car outside. — The clerk was dead when paramedics and police arrived. The woundedcustomer was transported by CareFlight to John Peter Smith Hospital where heunderwent six hours of surgery. His condition is described as stable but critical. “We’ve had a rash of smash and dash robberies in this area,” Braun said. “We’reconsidering this to be gang-related until that theory is disproven.” The store – Ray’s Quickway at 2736 Jacksboro Highway – was robbed threemonths ago by several men armed with semi-automatic pistols. Police have made noarrests in that case. “I was walking my dog when I heard the gunfire,” said …. TEN COMMANDMENTS OF POLICE REPORTING1. Report only what you know and be precise about what you report. Be especiallycareful about names. There are at least three ways to spell Brown. Braun. Browne.Identify as fully as possible to avoid confusion among people with the same name,
  7. 7. especially the common ones.2. When reporting on arrests and charges, make sure you understand the law and thenreport precisely what happened. There can be great confusion around the term“charged.” “Arrested and booked into jail for disorderly conduct” is a description of anaction that does not address charges.3. Crime scenes can be chaotic and confusing. Be sure you know and find the rankingofficer in the field. Be polite, but do not accept “no” from someone who doesn’t havethe authority to say “yes.”4. Stories generally go downhill as you learn more about them. Learn all you can. It willsave you trouble later.5. When interviewing survivors of victims of a violent crime, don’t say, “I understandwhat you are going through.” You don’t. Say instead, “I’m sorry you are going throughthis but I need to ask you a few questions.”6. Ask permission when covering funerals. Generally it will be given. Report in the storyeither way. It builds credibility that we asked and, if we have been turned down, itexplains why.7. Do not take advantage of someone in tragic circumstances. That shows no class.8. Be aware of secondary effects of your reporting. Never put the sole surviving witnessto a violent crime in danger.9. Seek out and report positive stories about the police. The bad ones will find you.10. Count the bodies. If the number given is greater than the proven number, make surethat you are quoting an official source in a position to know the facts. This, of course,applies to more than bodies. Use what the Star-Telegram’s Kathy Vetter calls the “three-minute mile rule.” Since no one has every run one, it might be a good idea to checkwhen someone claims they did. Do not ignore your instincts about accuracy of facts. KNOW YOUR FIREARMS If you are not a shooter, take a friend who is to a range and get him or her tofamiliarize you with a variety of firearms.
  8. 8. PISTOLS COME IN SEVERAL TYPES:  Semi-automatic — not automatic as everyone says. (And there are two types of semi-automatics: The double action in which the initial trigger pull causes the round in the chamber to fire and then the pistol reloads automatically for the next round and the Colt 1911 platform in which the pistol is carried with a cocked hammer and the first trigger pull causes it to fire.) By the way, the bullets are loaded into a magazine, not a clip.  Revolvers. Cartridges are loaded into a revolving cylinder. Each pull of the trigger causes a bullet to fire and advances the cylinder to the next firing position. These are usually double-action pistols (see above) but they can also be fire more accurately by cocking the hammer before each shot. Single-action revolvers require that the hammer be cocked.  Pistols come in a variety of calibers. The most common are .380, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, 9 mm, .40 Smith and Wesson and .45 Colt.RIFLES Generally come in three varieties: • Bolt action. Working the bolt loads another round from the magazine. This is what Lee Harvey Oswald used. • Semi-automatic. Each trigger pull fires one round. • Fully automatic. Generally reserved for police and military although in the United States you can own one if you want to go through the necessary paperwork. You often see rifles described as assault weapons. This generally refers to a riflewith high capacity magazines pattered after military firearms. The M-16 is an example,but the one you can buy down at Bubba’s Guns is an AR-15 and it is an assault-stylefirearm. The difference? The M-16 is a selective fire weapon, ranging from single shot –one round for each pull of the trigger to three-round bursts to fully automatic. TheAR-15 fires once on each trigger pull. In the reader’s mind, if you can’t get those details right, what else did you getwrong in the story?
  9. 9. THE JOURNALISTS TOOLBOXCompiled by Tom McGannUPI Broadcast/ChicagoA kit of items journalists must have ready as they report, write and present the news ofthe day:Iceberg tips. These are extremely useful. As in ``Investigators say the scandal uncoveredtoday is just the tip of the iceberg. A very popular item.Sighs of relief. ``New Yorkers breathed a sigh of relief today as Hillary Clinton finallyannounced that she is running for the senate. This is a handy phrase.Wrong Place, Wrong Time Markers. ``An innocent bystander was shot to death during agang battle on the West Side tonight. John Jones was in the wrong place at the wrongtime.Mournings -- all varieties.  ``The rock world is mourning the death of ...  ``The nation is mourning ... etcMake sure you have a good supply of these: o Cuddabeens. ``Police report 25 people were killed but it could have been worse. A wonderful all purpose tool. o The Nightmare Card -- often played by the knowing journalist. ``A dream vacation turned into a nightmare tonight for the Spinola family. Make sure you have a stack of these versatile items. o Brutal Murder Tags. Very effective in separating the brutal murders from the sensitive and gentle homicides. o Deadly Labels. They modify any event in which there is a death. Deadly accident, deadly shooting. o Watching and Eyeing Assurances. ``The storm is building 900 miles out in the Atlantic, but well be watching it here at the weather center. Designed primarily for weather people but others have found it valuable. ``Well be keeping an eye
  10. 10. on this story and will report developments as they come in.o The Chauvin Ploy. ``Two Americans and 200 others died today when an airliner plunged into a mountain peak in Turkey.o All-purpose closers. A.) This one is suitable for deadly accidents, brutal murders, weddings, tornadoes, hurricanes and the return to a little old lady of her life savings found on the seat of a bus. ``This day is one theyll never forget. B.) Another serviceable closer is ``One things for sure, nothing is certain here. Heavily used on Washington stories.o Uneasy Calm. A useful quasi-oxymoron which can be applied to everything from hurricanes and wars to the aftermath of spring break beach rioting and racial disturbances. ``An uneasy calm spread over (BLANK) in the wake of (BLANK).o Full-Blown Investigation. Larger than a somewhat-blown investigation but of less intensity than an inquisition.o Blue-Ribbon Probe: Somewhat less sweeping than a full-blown investigation but peopled with big names. (Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark seldom deigns to join the cast of anything under the rank of a blue-ribbon probe.) ``The worlds of politics and entertainment will merge in a blue-ribbon probe of (BLANK).o Midair Collisions: They always seem to be in much higher demand than the one- quarterair or three-quarterair collisions, probably because most planes fly halfway between the ground and the altitude known as fullair.o Somewhere Betweens: Necessary to precise descriptions, as in: ``The probe to Pluto is somewhere between Mars and Saturn ...o Quiet Man Quoter: Required quotes from neighbors of the shooter after a mass slaying: He was a quiet man. Seemed friendly. Always said ``Hello.o Bus Plunger: Especially in Latin America, buses regularly and invariably ``plunged off a mountain highway killing (BLANK). This serial story can easily be programmed into the computer system and the blanks filled in as necessary.o Playing ground levelers. This tool is especially important during political season.o Critical phrases we dont seem to be able to do without: Completely destroyed and, better yet, almost completely destroyed Mass exodus
  11. 11.  It roared like a freight train Self-confessed Strangled to death Neighbors are trying to make sense of (BLANK). We just play em one game at a time. They (fill in the blank who) came to (fill in whatever) Police suspect foul play Helpless victim Raged out of control (When describing wildfires, nothing else will do. Deep coma (Is there any other kind?) An autopsy was performed to determine the cause of death New record or new precedent Old adage Free gift Perfect 10 Rescuers sifted through rubble Full and complete stop Premature death