Crime and Justice Introduction
Every day, broadcast and print reporters are assigned to stories
involving crime and the justice system with little or no preparation.
Criminal Justice Journalists has produced this guide to help make
coverage better. Here you will find the basics on topics like police
beat coverage, drugs, and juvenile crime, including resource lists,
tips from veterans in the field and information on new challenges
for journalists, such as the increasing tendency of police agencies
to "bullpen" reporters.
This is a guide written by and for journalists. Special interest
groups of all stripes have ideas about how you should write stories,
but this publication represents the consensus of some of the best
in the journalism business. We are posting it on the Web so that
you can search for topics of interest and so that we can update
Crime and justice are dominant subjects of American news media
Newspapers, radio and television broadcasts, and web sites are filled
with reports on violence that range from the sensational to the
routine, as well as stories on crime trends and the administration
of criminal justice in the United States.
Most of this reporting is informative and perceptive, but some
of it is not. A lack of detailed knowledge may be acceptable for
a writer doing a single feature interview or a short "police
blotter"-type item. But learning on the job is not the best
way to produce a good nuanced story about a complex investigation,
law enforcement initiative, or trial.
For crime reporters, the opportunities for compelling coverage
are abundant and the consumer interest in reading, viewing, or listening
to it is high. In 2001, the Readership Institute of the Media Management
Center at Northwestern University issued the results of an extensive
survey of American newspapers and their readers – 37,000 in
all. The report showed that police and crime news ranked third in
the amount of space newspapers devote to it, behind only politics/government
and sports, and ahead of business. Police and crime ranked second
in front-page stories, behind politics/government. The rankings
were the same across all categories of circulation size. (see http://readership.org
for more detail)
When readers were asked about various coverage areas, however,
they were not necessarily satisfied with what they get. On police
and crime, they wanted more locally generated stories and fewer
from other places, fewer photos, and fewer stories generally. This
seemed to indicate less reader interest in a police-blotter approach
to covering crime, although many small town readers still may expect
Crime is even more predominant on local TV news. It has consistently
been the number one subject of news coverage in five years of surveys
by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, accounting for about
one fourth of stories aired. The next highest category, "human
interest," comprises only 10 percent. The project also found
that crime and courts ranked behind only health and medicine in
the prevalence of beat reporting; 38 percent of news directors surveyed
said they had reporters assigned to the subject full-time.
Unlike the newspaper study, however, most television viewers seem
happy about crime's dominance on local newscasts. A Florida State
University survey of more than 2,000 viewers in the Orlando area
found a vast majority satisfied with television crime coverage.
Indeed, consultants advise local TV news directors to stress crime
news, especially if it lends itself to live, daily reports. The
theory is that viewers regard their personal safety as a prime concern
when they are watching local news reports.
The demand for crime and justice news in all forms of media presents
opportunities for journalists to produce stories on subjects like
crime trends and successful crime prevention strategies that may
be more meaningful to viewers, listeners, and readers than is a
string of reports on the latest incidents.
High quality news reporting on crime and justice issues is vital
both to inform citizens about life in their communities and to encourage
rational public policymaking. This requires thorough reporting on
individual cases as well as on trends. Our guide seeks to help reporters
and editors do both.
Four decades of high crime
The backdrop for much crime reporting is the dramatic rise in crime
rates in the U.S. that started in the 1960s. The rate of reported
serious crime in the United States peaked in 1993 and may be heading
back up, based on the Uniform Crime Reports compiled by the FBI
from state and local law enforcement agencies. (Another federal
survey that asks Americans about incidents whether or not they were
reported to law enforcement indicates that victimization still was
declining in 2001.)
In either case, crime remains a serious problem, with 500 violent
cases reported per 100,000 residents in 2001 using the FBI figures,
and 2,600 per 100,000 households under the second survey, which
includes the unreported incidents. Even if the chances of falling
victim to crime in any given year are low for most Americans, the
cumulative totals and frequent random nature of some crimes are
enough to keep fear levels high.
Journalists have the responsibility to give readers, viewers and
listeners an accurate picture: report individual crime incidents,
including extensive coverage to the most serious ones, but also
offer context. That context can come in the form of information
on the volume and location of offenses in a community, which can
be done via crime mapping, among other techniques. It also can feature
commentary by experts, including law enforcement officials, criminologists,
Coverage of the health aspects of crime, including the role of
alcohol and illegal drugs in criminal acts and the health care expenses
borne by taxpayers as a result of lawbreaking, is another approach
worth considering. The Berkeley Media Studies Group is a leading
proponent of this emphasis; more information is available on its
web site, http://www.bmsg.org.
Accurate portrayal of crime, its causes and effects not only is
the ethical duty of journalists but it also can have an impact on
public policy. While elected and appointed officials must bear ultimate
responsibility for whatever policies and practices they adopt, history
has shown that the way crime news is reported or not reported can
affect the actions of legislators and executive branch officials.
For example, when juvenile crime increased sharply during the
late 1980s, it was common for politicians to call for trying more
juveniles in adult courts, which were presumed to be tougher. These
pronouncements were widely reported, but research showed that trying
kids as adults was not accomplishing that goal in some jurisdictions
that adopted it. At least one study found that young defendants
sent to adult court had a higher repeat crime rate than did those
retained in juvenile court. Better checking by journalists might
have informed the public and its elected lawmakers that what sounded
like a quick fix was not one.
News reports also have been influential in bringing to light a
long list of failures in the justice system, including low police
rates of solving crimes, officer abuse of suspects, prosecutorial
misconduct, and poor conditions in correctional institutions. Of
course, exemplary reporting is not limited to exposes. Explanatory
stories can be very worthwhile, even if they explore basic questions
like what a probation officer does during a typical week, why one
city's police officer staffing level is very high compared to others,
or how a prosecutor arrives at plea bargains. There are a few outside
organizations that play a watchdog role over the justice system,
but in many instances it is initiative by news reporters that uncovers
the information that sparks reforms.
Our guide treats the subject matter in two basic ways: by beat
and by subject matter. After
this introduction, fifteen chapters cover these subjects:
Future chapters will include how to cover the the corrections system, capital
punishment and other subjects.
Criminal Justice Journalists encourages readers of this guide
to check our Web site, crimjj.wordpress.com for up-to-date information on conferences for journalists on crime
and justice issues as well as for sources on a wide range of subjects.
We also run a discussion list called Cops and Court Reporters, where
journalists post queries and comments on sourcing, stories, ethics,
and other issues related to their beats. See information on our Web site on how to join the list.
We welcome suggestions on improvements in this guide, including
additional subjects that should be covered. These may be sent to
We thank the Ford Foundation for support that made this guide
possible. The National Center for Courts and Media of the National
Judicial College, Reno, NV, provided support for the three chapters
on court coverage. Thanks are due to the chapter authors and editors:
Mark Curriden, Suzette
Hackney, Sarah Huntley, David Krajicek,
Jack Kresnak, Melissa
Moore, Maurice Possley, Bill
Wallace, Jenifer Warren and Steve Weinberg.
Assistance in designing the Web site was provided by the Institute
for Justice and Journalism at the Annenberg
School for Communication at the University
of Southern California, including director Steve Montiel
and Susannah Gardner of Hop
Studios, Vancouver, B.C., Canada.
Continue to the next page
in "Chapter 1: The Crime Beat" >>>