Writing about Crime & Punishment

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  • Crime reporters need access to witnesses and public records so they can get

    details, ages, background, etc. what people were doing, wearing and saying

    when they became victims or suspects.

    This includes:

    Police log lists victims names and nature of crimes

    o Public record

    o Supporting documents (police reports) may not be available

    laws vary by state

    Jail log details on arrest check suspects name, age, birth date,

    race, occupation, place of arrest and charges

    Previous criminal records depending on state laws

  • Court records if person was convicted

    public unless sealed by a judge o Names of all parties involved, including


    o Description of crime and all motions filed in

    the case

    o Disposition of the case, including specific

    terms of the sentence, probation or


    o Some minor convictions may have record

    erased or expunged after a number of

    years or sealed and available only to law


  • University records o In 1986, Jeanne Ann Clery, 19, was raped

    and murdered at Lehigh U.

    o There had been 38 other violent crimes on campus

    within previous 3 years, but university at the time

    not required to divulge that info.

    o Landmark federal law was enacted for all colleges and

    universities getting federal aid to release 3 years of crime stats.

    Initially called Campus Security Act, amended in 1998 and

    renamed Clery Act

    Requirements: annual security report, crime stats, timely

    warnings, crime log

  • o Another federal law allows universities to withhold names on crime reports

    Buckley Amendment to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act

    prohibits govt. agencies from releasing any personal data about

    students and employees in institutions that receive federal funding.

    Another change to Act after VA Tech shooting in 2007 requires

    institutions to have a plan notifying campus of emergencies.


  • Juvenile records all states restrict release of records of minors

    o Judge can authorize their release

    o Newspapers can use name:

    If a juvenile treated as an adult (a decision made by a judge)

    If a juveniles name is mentioned in open court

    o Most media outlets have policies to withhold names of juveniles, but

    thats more ethical than legal. The media may use the name if

    received under legitimate means.

    Crime scene police have right to protect crime scene and limit access to

    press. If it is public property, press and photographer can get as close as

    police will allow. If private property, its at the discretion of police or

    property owners. Generally some access as long as not disruptive.

  • Withhold names of suspects unless formally charged with a crime

    Arrested = stopped for questioning

    Official suspect after charges have been filed at an arraignment (hearing)

    Person of interest more recently police have begun releasing name of a

    suspect as a person of interest before actual charges are filed. Most often

    used in high-profile cases and when police have good reason to believe the

    suspect will soon be charged with the crime

    o Controversial though because it casts suspicion on someone who may be

    innocent (i.e., Richard Jewell, Olympic Park bomber)

    Some media outlets withhold names of victims to protect privacy

    Harm vs. Good

  • When names are used, always use full name, including middle initial and

    double check spelling. Dont rely on police reports; check the phone book or

    other directory.

    If there is a discrepancy, call the officer or go with the police report.


  • ALL people are innocent until proved guilty in court or until they plead guilty.

    Only DA office can charge someone with a crime most media wait until formal

    charges except in sensational cases when the arrest is important.

    Be careful of calling someone a victim of a crime, unless they are dead or visibly

    injured. Otherwise, suspect has to be proven guilty before you can say the other

    person is a victim.

    Alleged victim or the accuser alleged is dangerous to use because it means

    to declare or assert without proof.

    So, dont say, Smith allegedly robbed the bank you are then the source of

    the allegation. Say, Police allege Smith robbed the bank.

    The term is accused of, NOT accused with

    Not accused bank robber Sally Smith (this convicts her) but ok to say Sally

    Smith, accused of the robbery.

  • Make sure you attribute all accusatory info and much of the info you

    receive second hand (that is, not by direct observation).

    Factual info doesnt need attribution, for example the location of a

    crime. If someone is charged, you can state that as a fact.

    Overview attribution Police described the incident this way

    Bail amount of money, set by a judge, that the suspect has to deposit

    with the court to be released from jail pending a hearing or trial. If the

    suspect flees, the bail money goes to the court.

    Before writing a story, check clips, but be sure to also check to see if

    charges were dropped or if the person is awaiting trial or has been


  • Victims get full names, ages, addresses and occupations, if available

    and use if relevant

    Suspects get full names, ages, addresses if available. If not, get a

    description. Check with editors about whether to include race or ethnic

    background. A general rule is to avoid mentioning them unless its crucial

    to the story or description of a suspect

    Cause of fatalities or injuries, description of the injuries, where injured

    people were taken and current condition if available. If property is

    involved, specify causes and extent of damage

    Location and time of incident

  • What happened make sure you understand the sequence of

    events; always ask about any unusual circumstances.

    Arrests and charges filed if arrested, where people are

    being held, when they will be arraigned or when the next

    court procedure will be. If already arraigned, amount of bail.

    Eyewitness accounts comment from neighbors may be

    relevant. Be careful about using accusation against named

    individuals; if in doubt, leave it out.

  • Specific crime stories

    For the first day of a major crime story, use a hard news approach. For follow-

    up stories and sidebars, you can use some of the storytelling techniques.

    Motor vehicle accidents Usually take a hard news lead. It is customary to

    lead with fatalities and injuries.

    Speed, destination, direction of vehicles and exact locations at time of


    Cause of accident, arrests, citations and damages

    Victims use of required equipment, such as seat belts and helmets

    Weather-related information if relevant

    Alcohol- or drug-related information

    Rescue attempts or acts of heroism

  • Mention in lead any injuries or deaths and use serious

    tone (obviously). Otherwise, use your judgment, and

    lead with any unusual angles or with what was

    taken or how burglars got in.

    Burglary entry into a building with intent to

    commit any type of crime

    Robbery stealing with violence or a threat

    against people

    Robbery = burglary + violence

  • Whether you take a hard or soft lead depends on how serious the crime

    was (always hard lead if death or injury) whether it is the first story on the

    crime and whether you have enough interesting/unusual information to

    warrant a soft approach.

    Ask the basics (who, what, when, where, why, how)

    What was taken and the value of the goods

    Types of weapons used (in robberies)

    How entry was made

    Similar circumstances (frequency of crime or any odd conditions)