Any journalist that aspires to work closely with the police and victims of crime needs to know the rules of the game they are getting into. From finding your first story to landing an interview with the key players, here’s everything you need to know as a journalist.
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Before you actually approach anyone, whether they are police or the victims of crime, it is important that you do your homework. If you go in all guns blazing without any sense of strategy, then not only are you going to struggle to get any momentum going, but you are also going to end up alienating the very people that you need to be building a rapport with.
On the other hand, a slower and more considered approach will reduce the risk of any nasty surprises and maximise your chances of getting the kind of hot scoop that can kickstart a journalist’s career. Here’s what you need to know about covering cops and crime as a journalist before you begin.
Get Some Practice Beforehand
Any experience that you can get under your belt before you start approaching police and victims of crime for interviews and quotes can prove invaluable. Everyone has to start somewhere, so don’t give up just because you don’t have past experience to draw upon. However, many journalists recommend that anyone who aspires to work in the profession, studies for a relevant college degree. Note that this doesn’t necessarily need to be a journalism degree.
For example, Wilfrid Laurier University offers degrees in criminology and policing that will provide students with a solid grounding in both subjects. For anyone who aspires to cover cops and crime, an understanding of criminology will equip you with invaluable insights into the behaviour of the people that you are covering.
Learn the Sunshine Laws
Sunshine laws are the laws that determine the level of transparency that law enforcement agencies are required to operate with. For journalists who are covering local crime stories, understanding these laws is essential. If you feel that law enforcement is not being forthcoming with you where they are required to do so, sometimes pointing to the sunshine laws in your state will be enough to get them to reconsider.
Visit Your Local Precinct
It is always good to introduce yourself to the local police force if you want to cover them as a journalist. Fostering good rapport between you and your subjects is very important as a journalist, regardless of what kind of journalism you are doing. The scene of a crime is not an ideal place to introduce yourself to the local police. A phone call is also far too easy to blow off, so visiting the precinct in person is usually the best option.
Be Polite, Respectful – But Persistent
As a journalist, you will soon come to learn that persistence pays. If you aren’t willing to go the extra mile and push for the sake of your story, you will never be able to achieve your full potential.
However, while persistence is a virtue, it is also important that you remain polite and respectful in all your dealings with the police. Not only will this ensure the health of your long-term relationship, but you will also find that you are able to get a lot further by taking this approach.
Ask to See the Arrest Log
Unless you have a specific crime or story in mind, the arrest log is your best bet for generating new leads. Every arrest that the police make is recorded in the arrest log, usually in 12 or 24-hour cycles. It is worth looking through it every now and then to see if anything grabs your attention.
Ask for Quotes
Arrest reports are a great source of information about crimes that have taken place, but you should also ask people involved to give you quotes that you can use to supplement your reporting. It is always best to speak to everyone that you can, even for a minor story. You don’t have to include everything that they tell you in your report, but if you don’t speak to them,you will never know if they have anything worthwhile to say or not.
How to Break a Story
When a major story finally passes in front of you, it is essential that you seize upon it in the right way. It isn’t just the police that likes to complain about journalist; there are plenty of insensitive journalists out there who are only concerned with their payday. These journalists can easily end up trampling over the emotions of traumatised victims of crime.
Learn About PTSD
Not everyone who is the victim of a crime will develop PTSD. However, if you are planning on speaking to people who have been the victims of crime on a regular basis, it is a good idea to read up on PTSD, what it entails, and how it might manifest in the people that you talk to. If you detect that the person you are speaking to is suffering from PTSD, you can adjust your approach to speaking to them accordingly.
Landing the Interview
If you are able to land an interview with the right person in a case, they can make or break your scoop. But whether you are interviewing a police officer or a victim of crime, you need to approach it in the right way. If you are working on a deadline, you will have to contend with the pressures of time. However, even if you have to move things along quickly, you need to do so sensitively.
Here’s what you need to do to keep things ethical and above board:
Identify Yourself as a Reporter
This is the most important rule to observe when you are approaching other people for an interview. You cannot ethically conduct an interview with someone who doesn’t know your true identity. The only exceptions to this rule are where there is an overwhelming public interest in finding out the answer to a question and the only way to get it is to misrepresent yourself. This is something that you should always consult with your employer about first.
Be Sensitive of the Victim’s Experience
Crime affects different people in different ways. Some people are able to shrug off the experience and move on with their lives, but some people are deeply affected by their experience and can find it hard to communicate with people about it. Make sure you are sensitive to your interviewee’s needs.
Give the Victim a Reason to Speak to You
It is important that you are speaking to people for a reason. It isn’t fair to ask someone to relive a traumatic event purely for the purposes of voyeurism or for the vicarious enjoyment of others. Be clear with your interviewee about why you are speaking to them and what they can get out of it.
Accept ‘No’ as an Answer
If your interviewee is uncomfortable and says “no”, don’t push them. You can put forward whatever questions and other suggestions for the interview you like, but it is important that the interviewee retains control of the situation.
Preparing for Interview
Once you have secured the agreement of your interviewee, you can then begin preparing for the interview proper.
Make Sure the Interviewee is Comfortable
The more comfortable your subject is, the more open they will be with you. Putting someone at ease can produce a completely different interview than you would get in an unfamiliar setting.
Ask Permission to Record an Interview
In some states, there is a legal obligation to gain consent from anyone else that you want to record. That means that if you want to record the audio of your interview, you need to explicitly ask for permission.
Conducting the Interview
Establish the Ground Rules
Before you begin your interview, make sure that the subject understands the process. Let them know that they can request to speak off the record and can pause or stop the interview whenever they like.
Remember That Trauma Can Affect Recall
Traumatic events are often recalled in vivid detail. However, human memories are notoriously unreliable and severe trauma can just as easily cause distortions in the victims’ perception and recall of time and specific details. Be patient with your subject when they are recounting these events and allow them room to make mistakes.
Be Careful with the Phrasing of Your Questions
Most people are familiar with the concept of a leading question from watching cop shows on TV. A leading question is one that strongly implies an answer, or which is designed to elicit a specific response. As an objective and responsible journalist, you should ask open-ended questions and let the subject answer them in their own way.
If you want to have a long and successful career in journalism, you will need to take your professional ethics seriously. Journalists without ethics rarely make it past the tabloids and will never earn the respect of their peers. When you are dealing with victims of crime, it is even more important that you are sensitive about how you handle them.