Chapter 37: Writing about crime

In the first two chapters of this four-chapter section, we looked at the practical aspects of reporting crime. Here we suggest how to write about crime effectively and also avoid some of the pitfalls of poor writing. In the final chapter we will discuss the ethics of crime reporting.

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Once you have gathered enough information, start writing the story in the usual inverted pyramid style, with the most important details in the first paragraph, backed-up by more information and ending in the least important facts or comments.

Know your limits

If someone has been charged with an offence or is about to be charged, you are limited in what you can say so that you do not prejudice the chance of a fair trial. That does not mean that you must say nothing about the crime, but it does mean that you should only report those details which will not be contested in court, keeping out personal opinions.

If no-one has been arrested and charged, you can say much more, always bearing in mind that you could be sued for defamation by anyone involved if you do not stick to the truth.

In many crime stories, once you have told the most important details in your first few paragraphs, you will want to tell the story in chronological order (the order in which things happened). You should already have gathered plenty of information, so now lead your reader or listener step-by-step through the event, explaining things in detail where necessary. Your story may look something like the following:

Thieves used a bulldozer to break into a city bank and steal almost a million dollars from the vault.
The manager and one cashier were injured in the raid on the National Bank in Hibiscus Street, but they have now been released from hospital.
Police say they are still looking for the bulldozer.
The bulldozer was stolen from a nearby building site at lunchtime yesterday and driven straight at the bank.
Staff and customers inside were horrified when the machine crashed through the front wall and into the manager's office.
Two men in black masks threatened them with knives while two others attached a heavy chain to the vault door and tore it open with the bulldozer.
"It was amazing," said customer Fred Harang. "They opened the safe like a tin of fish."
etc.

The main facts are established in the first three paragraphs, then the story is told in the order in which things happened. Right at the end you can give more details about the missing bulldozer, in case any readers spot it:         

Police say the yellow bulldozer, with the name Crushcorp on the side, was last seen being driven down Oregano Street.

The police may also ask you to give a telephone number through which people can give them information. You should get this approved by your editor. Radio stations are less likely to use such an appeal partly because their stories have to be kept shorter than a newspaper's and partly because a number read once on air is not likely to be remembered by listeners anyway. Television stations may be able to show the number on the screen during the story. However you do it, keep any appeals short and factual:

Anyone who has any information about the bulldozer or the robbers can contact the police on 652111.

Features and background stories

Crime reporting can be dull if all you do is record what has happened and when it happened - dull for you and for your readers or listeners. You can add interest for everyone with background reports and features. These can be done when you have some spare time between news stories or while awaiting further developments in continuing cases.

The simplest background stories for crime reporters are general features about crime. By these we mean features (or current affairs programs) on such things as the rise in burglaries; why psychologists think more rapes happen in hot weather; how people can protect their homes from thieves during the holidays; a new course in self-defence for women.

The work of the police often provides material for features. You could, for example, write a feature on a police dog training school; you might want to interview the new police commissioner about his attitude to crime; you could spend a day in the life of the drug squad or the harbour police. All of these will help your readers or listeners to understand crime and the police in context in society.

A word of warning here: you may also want to write a feature by spending a day with a criminal gang. Remember two things: (a) you could be in danger in their hands and (b) you could be breaking the law by accompanying them on a job. We discuss the ethics of this shortly.

You can also write background feature about specific cases. Once you have reported about the murder of a lonely widow, you may want to produce a longer, in-depth report about her, interviewing relatives, neighbours, social workers and other elderly people, to discover how she lived and why she died. This helps people to understand their society and maybe avoid similar tragedies.

If someone has been charged with a crime, you will be too limited in what you can say about the crime, the accused or the victim to produce a feature or documentary. This should not, however, stop you preparing material for a special feature or programme, to be run once the trial is over. If the accused is found guilty, your feature can explain all the background to the case and the lives of the victims and the criminal. If a not guilty verdict is reached, you may still be able to write a feature on the angle that the police must keep on looking for the person who actually committed the crime. Because people can be cleared by courts even though they actually committed the crime, you should take advice from your editor and reliable experts before using this angle in a feature.

Illustrations

Always try to think of ways of illustrating your crime stories. A good picture is worth a thousand words and a simple diagram can save readers struggling through lines of text of description. For example, if you are reporting on an armed raid on a bank, ask your artist to draw a picture of the inside of the bank, showing how the thieves entered, held up the staff, shot a guard then made their escape. If the police have retrieved the gun, get a picture of it for the page. Use a Photofit picture if the police are sure that it is a good likeness of the wanted person. (See Chapter 46: News pictures.)

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Language in writing crime stories

We cannot stress enough the need for care and accuracy when reporting anything to do with crime and the courts. Accuracy must extend all the way through your work, including the words you use when writing your stories, whether for news, features or current affairs.

You must select each word in your story carefully then, when you think you have finished, you must go back to the beginning and read it through, checking again.

The police, criminals and the courts use specialist terms, some of them technical in nature, some of them short forms and some of them slang. You should only ever use them for two reasons: (a) for precision if no alternative is available and (b) for added colour.

Legal terms

The exact wording of charges causes most problems for starting journalists. You must always use the correct terms. For example, there is a clear legal distinction between murder and manslaughter. Murder is a killing planned in advance; manslaughter is a killing done on the spur of the moment, without any planning, or by accident. To complicate matters, some legal systems divide killings into three - wilful murder, which is planned in advance to kill someone; murder, when someone plans to physically harm the victim and the victim actually dies; and manslaughter, which is an unintentional killing which arises from any unlawful activity.

You must not choose your own terms. Whatever the police or courts call the offence, that is what any accused person will be charged with and tried for. If a person is charged with manslaughter, it would be wrong to call him an alleged murderer or the killing a murder, which is a far more serious charge.

It is worth noting here too that in correct English you must say that a person is charged with murder. If you say that a person is charged for murder, that strongly implies that he has done it, something which you must not prejudge. (There is also a comical interpretation because charged for means that a person is asked to pay for something, for example "He was charged for using the tennis court.")

The following are some other common legal terms which cause problems:

Theft is simple stealing, distinct from robbery, which is theft with violence or a threat of violence.

Theft itself implies the intention to permanently deprive the owner of something. Someone who steals a car then abandons it is usually charged with taking a vehicle without the owner's consent.

Stealing from buildings is called theft when the thief has legal access, such as stealing from an open shop. When they have to break in it is called either break-and-enter or break, entry and stealing, although if it happens at night it is called burglary.

Fraud (sometimes called criminal deception) is obtaining money, goods or services by making false claims about them or yourself. There is a lesser charge of obtaining advantage by deception if there is no actual exchange of goods or money, such as lying to a bank that you cannot repay a loan.

Rape is another problem area. It usually refers to sexual intercourse obtained with force, violence or a threat of violence against a person's will. In some countries, any sexual intercourse with a girl under the legal age of consent (whether or not she was willing) is termed statutory rape, while in others it is called carnal knowledge or unlawful sexual intercourse. In some countries, rape is referred to as sexual assault. Check the exact term in your country.

Drink driving or drunk driving are not actual charges. A driver may have had more than the legal limit of alcohol, but may not be drunk. The offence is driving while under the influence of alcohol or (in modern times when police can scientifically test alcohol levels in the blood) driving with more than the permitted concentration of alcohol.

Jargon

The police, the courts and criminals also use jargon words as a short form. Jargon is specialised language concerned with a particular subject, culture or profession. It is not usually found in the everyday speech of your ordinary readers or listeners. (See Chapter 11: Language & style - words.) Your readers or listeners may not understand jargon or any words which are not in clear and everyday language.

A good example of jargon is the word deceased, which simply means a dead person. Police reports will speak of "the deceased man's wife" when you could write it more simply as "the dead man's wife" or alternatively as "the man's widow". Police jargon can often create some strange scenes, as in this example of a report:

The deceased struck his assailant a blow to the head before receiving a fatal stab wound in the chest.

The impossibility of a dead man (the deceased) hitting anyone was missed by the reporter, who should have rewritten the sentence:

The man hit his attacker on the head before being fatally stabbed in the chest.

Assailant is another jargon word liked by police but almost always better replaced by words such as attacker, robber, gunman etc. Police reports speak about an officer "proceeding to the scene" when they mean that he walked, rode or drove there.

Most modern police forces have developed a system of code words and numbers for crimes, criminals or officers. This was done to make radio messages clearer and shorter for their officers and to confuse anyone else listening in to the messages. There is no need for you to use them, they will only confuse. A "10/40", for example, may be the code for a robbery in progress. You call it "a robbery". The police may refer to a "GBH", but you should use the full term "assault causing grievous bodily harm" in the first reference, then simply "the assault".

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Write simply

Many journalists believe that they add drama and life to a story by adding adjectives and adverbs. They refer to "a brutal slaying", as if another slaying can be gentle. They say that ambulances "rushed" to the scene, as if some ambulance drivers dawdle in an emergency.

Adjectives and adverbs usually get in the way of understanding, unless they add to the accuracy of defining something, such as red car. If you choose the right noun, you will not need many adjectives. For example, all screams are high-pitched, all explosions are loud, all battles are fierce, so you do not need the adjective.

In any sentence, the verb can be the best way of adding drama, if used carefully and the same verb is not used too often. A man who falls head-over-heels from a building can be said to tumble. An attacker who cuts out someone's eye with a knife can be said to have gouged it out.

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Attribution

The sudden and brief nature of many crimes means that you cannot always rely on descriptions of what happened, from victims, witnesses or even the police. Only report as a fact what you know to be true. All the rest must be attributed. For example, if the police tell you that a man was attacked in Mananga Street last night, you can state that as a fact, without attribution. However, if they say that they think he knew his attackers, but are not sure, you should attribute that. There is no need to put "police said" throughout your story, but you should include the words whenever there is any doubt at all, as in the following:

A 60-year-old man was attacked outside his home in the city last night.

Retired carpenter Ahmed Shazi was opening the door to his home in Mananga Street when has was hit over the head from behind.

Police believe the attacker used a large stick to beat Mr Shazi several times before running off.

Mr Shazi was taken to the Royal Hospital, where doctors put six stitches into a head wound. He was detained overnight but allowed home this morning.

The police say they can find no motive for the attack.

Notice from the above that we call the event "an attack". There was little doubt that it happened, and police themselves used the word. They are still looking for the attacker (as mentioned already, never use the word assailant - it is not common in everyday English). If they charge someone with assault over it, you should insert the word "alleged" whenever you are describing any aspect of the attack which may be disputed in court. This is because the defendant will probably argue that he did not do it, it is simply an allegation. Your report after an arrest would now read as follows:

An off-duty soldier has been charged with assault after an attack on a 60-year-old man.

Police say that the soldier will appear before city magistrates later today.

The man is alleged to have attacked retired carpenter Ahmed Shazi in Mananga Street on Wednesday.

Mr Shazi was treated for head wounds after the attack.

Notice that we use alleged once, because the soldier will probably deny that he did the attack. We state as facts that the soldier has been charged, and that Mr Shazi was treated for head wounds. We attribute to the police that the soldier will appear in court because, although it is likely, it is not certain.

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TO SUMMARISE:

Write crime stories about people - the criminals, the police and the victims

Keep your writing simple and straightforward; avoid jargon

Make your reports more interesting with appropriate quotes or actuality; attribute all comments and attribute facts where necessary

This is the end of the third part of this four-part section on crime. If you now want to read on, follow this link to the fourth section, Chapter 38: Ethics of reporting crime

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Index to Chapter 37
  1. Know your limits
  2. Features and background stories
  3. Illustrations
  4. Language in writing crime stories
  5. Write simply
  6. Attribution
  7. To summarise
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