Give equal attention to criminal charges, follow-up coverage
The Inlander/January 2012
Coverage of cops and courts is among the staples of community news. Though reports are vitally important to readers, the coverage by its nature is almost always done in piecemeal. Attention is typically given to the initial incident and charges, and possibly the first court appearance, yet it may be weeks or months later until a case is fully resolved.
Fairness to the parties and credibility of a news organization demand that each step of a case receives similar prominence.
There’s tremendous value in publishing the police blotter as a barometer of community activity, especially with respect to events that will generate talk on the street. For example: A dozen kids are arrested for underage drinking when police are called to a neighborhood party. Someone is arrested in connection with a rash of home burglaries. An individual is charged with DWI in connection with a serious car accident.
The challenge, however, is tracking cases with timely follow-up, especially in instances where charges are reduced or dropped. Newsrooms should work with the appropriate law enforcement and courthouse personnel to develop procedures for monitoring cases.
Here are some guidelines to help editors and reporters strive for fair and responsible coverage of cops and courts:
Seek both sides of criminal complaints: Most newsrooms deem it appropriate to publish some of the details from police reports that substantiate the charges leveled against a person. The challenge is giving attention to the “other side” of the story that may not surface for months.
Don’t always wait for court proceedings: The official rebuttal to charges will become part of the court filings, but nothing prevents reporters from taking the initiative to track the story earlier. Evaluate and identify those cases where it’s appropriate to seek comment. 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.
Monitor high-profile criminal cases: Take the time to chronicle key developments in criminal cases just as reporters keep tabs on an important project that progresses through various public hearings before reaching a full city council vote.
Provide timely reports: Police blotters can provide a valuable pulse of public safety. Develop processes to gather information from authorities on a regular basis, and then ensure a quick turnaround of publication of these records.
Address continuum of coverage: Some newspapers opt for publishing cases only after they have gone through the courts. The shortcoming of such a policy is the often lengthy processing of cases. An event might be common knowledge throughout town, and you’ll have no mention of it whatsoever for weeks or months later.
Pay attention to story placement: Equal treatment of the various steps of a case is important, especially when it is emotion-filled, such as a high-profile crime. If the initial story is on the front page, the resolution of the case should probably appear there, too.
Pursue all sides of a story: Thorough reporting is integral to fair coverage, especially in circumstances when the charges fly freely. Strive to give a voice to all perspectives.
Balance the reporting of court proceedings: Be aware of the pitfalls of chronological reports of court proceedings. When possible, summarize both sides of conflicting testimony high in a story. That’s particularly important if a story starts on the front page. Few readers will give proper attention to the response if it is reported on the jump page or is tacked on the end of the story.
Create a court log: Reporters should generate files on major criminal cases and update them regularly. At the outset, list basic information such as the names, addresses and dates of birth for defendants and victims. List attorneys and their contact information. Keep a log of key dates and actions – i.e. motions filed and acted upon, changes of venue, changes of legal representation, changes of judge or appeals. This provides an easy reference for continuing coverage for not only the reporter covering the case but for other staff who may be assisting in coverage.
Police blotters and the related stories keep readers abreast of public safety. 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 the norm. Newsrooms should continue their aggressive pursuit of news. At the same time, editors and reporters should be diligent in developing relationships with newsmakers who can be uncooperative in sharing “all the news.”
All news sources – and particularly those charged with public safety – 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.