Writing about Crime & Punishment


Transcript of 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 suspect’s name, age, birth date,

race, occupation, place of arrest and charges

● Previous criminal records – depending on state laws

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● 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


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● 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

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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.

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● 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 juvenile’s name is mentioned in open court

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

that’s 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, it’s at the discretion of police or

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

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● 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

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

double check spelling. Don’t 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.


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● 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, don’t 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….”

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

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

● Factual info doesn’t 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


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● 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 it’s 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

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● 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.

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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

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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

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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)




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● Homicide is the legal term for killing.

● Murder is the term for premeditated homicide.

● Manslaughter is homicide without premeditation.

A person can be arrested on charges of murder but is not a

murderer until convicted of a crime. Don’t say someone was

murdered unless authorities have established that the victim was

murdered – in a premeditated act of killing – or until a court

determines that. Say the person was slain or killed.

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Besides the basics, also get:

● Weapon (specific description such as.38-caliber


● Clues and motives (from police)

● Specific wounds

● Official cause of death (from coroner or police)

● Circumstances of suspect’s arrest (result of tip or

investigation, at scene?)

● Lots of details, from relatives, neighbors, friends,

officials, eyewitnesses and your own observations

at scene

● If you can’t get to the scene, use your cross-directory

to find neighbors to contact by telephone

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Although fire stories may not be crime stories (unless arson or other criminal

behavior is involved), police reporters are often responsible for fire

stories. Put fatalities in lead and use a hard news lead. Follow-up stories

and sidebars can take storytelling techniques.


● Time fire started, time fire companies responded, time fire was brought

under control

● Number of fire companies responding, number of trucks at scene

● Evacuations, if any, and where people were taken

● Injuries and fatalities (make sure to ask if any firefighters were injured)

● Cause (if arson is suspected), how and where fire started

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● Who discovered the fire, extent of damage, insurance coverage

● Description of building

● Estimated cost of damages

● Presence and condition of smoke detectors or sprinkler system

(especially in a public building or apartment building if city

requires them

● Fire inspection record, fire code violations (usually for follow-up

story, especially in public buildings)




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Writing about crime is the first step. The next step takes place in the courtroom.

You need a basic understanding of the process and terminology used.

Avoid legal terms as much as possible but explain them when you do use them.

Go by this guideline: if you don’t understand something, chances are your

reader won’t either, so make you understand the subject matter enough to write

a clear story.

Basic guidelines

● Get reactions, facial expressions and gestures of the defendant and the

accusers, attorneys, relatives and other people affected by the case,

especially in trial stories and verdict stories.

● Use descriptive detail and color – lively quotes, dramatic testimony and


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● Translate all jargon and avoid legal terminology

● State exact charges in the story

● Give the background of the crime, no matter how many stories have been published

about the case

● Include the name of the court where the trial or hearing is being held

● Get comments from defendants, prosecutors, defense attorneys, plaintiffs (the people

who brought suit or filed charges), relatives, and jurors in all verdict stories

● In verdict stories, include how long the jury deliberated, how many jurors were on the

case. In some cases, the amount of time the jury deliberated may be a major factor. In

all cases, the length of deliberation is part of the story.

● Write the next step – the next court appearance or, in verdict stories, plans for an

appeal if the defendant is found guilty

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Writing court cases

When the verdict is issued in a major trial that has garnered interest locally

or nationally, a hard-news approach is appropriate. A soft lead also may

work but make sure you put the verdict very high in the story.

● A court case is a continuing saga

● Don’t assume reader is familiar with the case, no matter how sensational

so always include background info

● Whether hard news or soft news lead, make sure nut graph explains

who is being accused of what and place it high in story

● Many court stories don’t appear balanced because on any given day,

one side may present arguments so you won’t always have a story that

seems fair to both parties

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● Explain charges and background

● Describe defendants and witnesses

● Specify court where the proceeding takes place

● Tell how long the jury deliberated in verdict stories

Criminal and Civil cases

Two basic categories of court cases:

● Criminal – violations of any laws regulating crime

● Civil – involve lawsuits between two parties

Court system functions on two levels: federal and state.

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Federal courts have jurisdiction over matters relating to:

● US Constitution (i.e., civil rights)

● Federal tax and antitrust matters

● Other federal laws

● Cases between people from different states

Lowest to highest court:

● U.S. District court – most cases involving federal issues are first

heard o 89 districts in the 50 states – IL in Southern District

o 1 each: Guam, DC, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands

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● U.S. Court of Appeals (Circuit Court) o Intermediary court federal district court cases are appealed

o 11 geographical areas plus US Court of Appeals for DC Circuit

▪ Illinois in 7th Circuit

● U.S. Supreme Court o Highest court in the nation

o Justices do not have to rule on all cases

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State courts

● Trial court

● Appeals court

● State supreme court

Cases from a state’s highest court may be appealed to the US Supreme

Court if there is a federal angle, such as a constitutional matter (a First

Amendment issue) or a civil rights violation.

Other courts:

● Municipal courts – violations of local laws, such as traffic laws or city


● Juvenile courts – cases involving people under age 18

● probate courts – disputes involving wills and estates

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Criminal Court process

Crimes are either

● Misdemeanor – minor offenses with a potential penalty of up to

a year in jail and/or a fine

● Felonies – more serious crimes punishable by more than a year

in prison

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Criminal procedures (differ by state but there are general


● Arrest

● Booking

● Arraignment

● Preliminary hearing (for felonies)

● Trial and verdict

● Sentencing in guilty verdict

● Appeal

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Civil Court process

● Suit is filed

● Motions filed by lawyers

● Trial, if not settled in

pretrial hearing

● Ruling by judge or jury

● Sentencing in guilty verdict

● Possible appeal