Wednesday, March 23, 2011

How to Write a Crime Story

What to cover?

Obviously, the big crimes make big news; the more people affected - or the more prominent the people involved - the more newsworthy the crime. Violent crimes like murder, rape and robbery tend to get more coverage, but fraud and thefts can sometimes have great consequences for huge numbers of readers or viewers (a Ponzi scheme, a string of identity thefts, etc.).

Otherwise, look for interesting crimes or criminal methods or situations that pose potential threats or provide a glimpse into the behavior of those around you.

What's your lead?

Every incident is different, so focus on what makes it uniquely interesting. Crime happens every day. That's not news, so lead with what's fascinating about the story you're chasing. Lead with something that readers will remember for the rest of the day or even longer.

An Arizona tourist was charged today with shooting a nearby camper who complained about the noise and smoke coming from his campsite.

Include essential details.

Trust your common sense. If it's a robbery you're covering, what was taken? Describe the robber's method. Describe the robber. If it's a murder, who was killed? How did it happen? What clues are there to why it happened?

If suspects are arrested, give readers names, ages, addresses, descriptive details. Have they been charged? With what? What are the potential penalties? What do they have to say for themselves? What are others saying on their behalf? Is there a history here?

Include telling details.

Your skill in describing details that paint pictures in readers' minds can separate you from mediocre reporters. Did the robbers escape in a baby blue Mercedes? Did the assailant use a silver candlestick, in the conservatory?

You'll get some of that from police, but it also comes from talking to witnesses, victims and even suspects. You're willingness to go beyond the police repots will separate you from the herd.

Show readers and viewers where you got this stuff.

Journalists call that attribution. It's crucial in crime stories. It shows that you're not making this up. It tells readers and viewers who is talking and who isn't. It lets them weigh the truth of what they hear. Accurately attributing information to court records can protect you from libel judgments, too.

Keep your opinions to yourself.

Suspects aren't guilty until a judge or jury says so. Even then, the system sometimes makes mistakes. Be careful. Tell readers what you know, but be humble about what you may not know. You're not the judge or the jury.

What happens next?

Don't overburden readers with process, but it is part of the story. Has the accused entered a plea? Will this go to court?

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