When crime is sensational, news coverage shouldn’t be

September 10, 2013

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riel Castro immediately became a household name after being arrested in connection with the three women held captive for years in his Cleveland, OH, home. His trial is probably months away, but it’s a safe bet that if you poll Americans today, the resounding public verdict is “guilty as charged.”

The Cleveland story became national news instantaneously. The breaking news reports and the public reaction underscore the delicate path editors and reporters must walk in their everyday crime coverage. Most community newsrooms will likely not encounter circumstances as sensational as those in this kidnapping. But the principles of balance are just as important whether covering a homicide or a home burglary.

Newspapers face a special difficulty and sensitivity in reporting crime, especially in high-profile cases. The point commands attention in all newsrooms, especially those that are aggressive in coverage of cops and court. Attention to thorough and objective reports must begin with the initial arrest and continue through a court judgment.

Criminal complaints, by law, are public records. Most newsrooms deem it appropriate to publish some of the details that substantiate the charges leveled against a person. The challenge lies in the fact that complaints rarely include a rebuttal from the accused. The other side of the circumstances may not surface until the trial or negotiations between attorneys, which could be months after the incident.

The official rebuttal, of course, will become part of the court documents. That said, nothing prevents reporters from taking the initiative to seek the accused’s version of the story. If defense attorneys decline comment, point that out. It’s not the role of newspapers to try cases in the press, but they should try their best to present all the facts.

Crime coverage, especially high-profile cases, should be viewed in a continuum. Keep regular notes as a case progresses through the system. Chronicle the key developments for readers just as you keep tabs on an important project that progresses through various public hearings before reaching a full city council vote.

Factual errors in everyday reporting are readily identified and easily corrected. A misspelling of a name or a wrong title. A misquote. A wrong statistic. A misidentified person or business. Newspapers can minimize the damage to the affected subjects if they are conscientious in publishing corrections, reporting them promptly online or in the next print edition.

Matters of fairness, however, may not be immediately identified and are not so easily resolved. Yet they can be equally damaging to the subject and the newspaper’s credibility. The issue of free press/fair trial warrants regular conversation in newsrooms.

No. 1. Be aware of story placement, especially when it is emotion-filled such as the high-profile Cleveland crime. If the initial story is on Page One, the resolution of the case should appear there, too.

No. 2. Pursue all sides of a story—especially when charges fly freely. Pay particular attention to this hazard in court stories, where witnesses present conflicting testimony. Newspapers must take care to not just present chronological reports, but rather point out the give-and-take of the testimony to help readers identify the discrepancies.

No. 3. Place the response of the accused high in a story. Few readers will give proper attention to the response if it is reported on the jump page or tacked on the end of a story.

Crime is a vital element of community news. The reports also go to the heart of fairness and credibility of the press. Police blotters and the related stories help readers keep abreast of public safety in communities. In the end, however, balanced coverage will only be as strong as the relationships that editors and reporters have developed with law enforcement. That takes work on an everyday basis.

The press and law enforcement too often are pitted as adversaries. That doesn’t have to be—and should not be—the norm. Newsrooms should continue their aggressive pursuit of news. At the same time, editors and reporters should be diligent in connecting with and developing relationships with newsmakers who can be uncooperative in sharing all the news.

News sources—particularly those in the criminal justice system—must be prepared to share the bad as well as the good news, the sensitive as well as the feel-good stories. In fact, it’s in their best interest to initiate the coverage. Such a pro-active stance can reap long-term dividends in building community trust for the newspaper and law enforcement alike. © Jim Pumarlo 2013

 

Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at jim@pumarlo.com.

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