A new guide for journalists on how to cover “crime, cops and courts” was published this week by the University of Mississippi School of Journalism & New Media’s NewsLab program.
Good reporting on crime and justice, the guide says, “means looking for more than an entry on a police blotter — rather, it takes digging deeper, following cases through sentencing and looking for trends in a community.”
The guide quotes reporter Stephen Quinn of ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, Al., as saying that, “Developing sources and trust with police especially is difficult, but it’s rewarding when you get that interaction and get those stories that are meaningful.
“There’s an inherent friction between what we do and what police do. We’re there to cover a story. They’re there to do a job. Sometimes those don’t align. Often, they do.”
Making good use of social media can be a key to nuanced reporting on crime, the guide says.
“If you have something that’s big like a shooting in a neighborhood or a chase, you can use the maps on SnapChat to see what people are posting and sometimes you may get lucky and you’ll find somebody who posted something on there,” Quinn says.
Finding additional sources can be crucial to reporting on trends in crime and the broader meaning for local communities.
“If you’re going to do a real story about this in your locality, don’t just base it on one talk with the police chief,” Ted Gest, Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report and president of Criminal Justice Journalists, advises reporters in the guide.
“Talk to other people like academic criminologists or a probation and parole officer. Get other views if you’re going to be reporting that something is a trend. Do a little more digging.”
The guide recommends that journalists go beyond individual crime cases and trends and cover the whole criminal justice system, including prisons.
Alabama reporter Quinn says that people “are in prison for a reason — but they still have rights and often have very few people to speak up for them and to make sure that those rights aren’t abused. Prisons are taxpayer-funded institutions, so we have a right to know how those are being administered.”
Debora Wenger, interim journalism dean at the University of Mississippi and a board member of Criminal Justice Journalists, said her school rewrote an old version of a guide on crime reporting because “one of the most popular topics in recent years has been our primer on crime and criminal justice reporting.
“This topic is a staple of newsrooms and when it’s done well, it can have a significant positive impact in the communities that news organizations cover.”