So you wanna be a crime reporter. But do you know what goes into being a crime reporter?
For this reporter, 16 years have shown that it’s a field of ever-evolving incidents and sometimes tougher circumstances to get to the truth in the story.
The first thing you need is, of course, a nose for news. And if you’re a crime reporter, the news isn’t often the best. When it comes to the rough stuff, it often helps moor to the knowledge it’ll often be the most read work you write. It adds to the weight of getting it right with each step in a story with the available facts and sources you have at that time.
Tenacity is another aspect. Unlike a TV crime procedural, few things happen and are solved in an immediate time period. You find ways to gather information and squeeze every last detail you can.
Reporters learn about what’s going on by listening to the emergency radio scanner, poring over police and sheriff’s reports, visiting the courthouse and, eventually, in court filings. Often, by the time of a trial in court, barring a plea settlement, many cases have had at least of handful of stories written over the course of things.
And when you get into the courtroom, you throw all of that out the window as you hear and see evidence presented by the prosecution and defense. Having seen as many not guilty verdicts as guilty, you learn to understand the strengths or uncertainties to cases.
Over the course of following a story, you often find yourself weighing the case in one direction. But the key is to continue to report and remain open for more information.
On the breaking crime beat aspect of things, you’ll often see and hear things that will stick with you. Yes, memories will blend after so many times visiting the site of a person’s last moment of life before violence arrives. But those same memories can haunt. There remains a sad shock felt the 60th time you arrive moments before or after a person’s last breath.
You have to remember your humanity while keeping your senses and stomach in sometimes squeamish circumstances. It can be hard to hold back in sharing the true extent of the horror you’ve seen. You have to balance that everyone involved has family, they hurt, and they are horrified.
But keep continuing to go to those scenes and report to share with readers the full spectrum to the incident, from the bare facts to the details of what you find. Often, a strong stomach and sense of composure are your best tools. But a good pen and a trusty notebook are most essential to your job. You are there to bear witness.
As that witness, you do your best to avoid becoming part of the story. That means getting your facts right, correcting information when the facts change and, at the core, always remembering that a person is considered innocent until proven guilty.
There are pressures that come with the gig. Every word you write is scrutinized almost microscopically. Legal jeopardy is found with every paragraph. Someone will always have another side.
Then, there are those stories you find that truly hurt your soul. Murder, child sex abuse, rape and domestic violence details in incidents turn into knowledge you contain and retain for too long. There are reasons why old school stereotypical “cop reporters” are heavy drinkers with world weary eyes.
You’re a witness. But you’re a witness with a purpose, a liaison between investigators and facts as you know them and the public. You are putting the spotlight onto the facts to allow transparency. It’s a key enough role it’s part of the U.S. Constitution.
Your role is the storyteller who keeps the record. Criminality offers a beat that allows you to tell stories you’d never imagine writing, for better or worse. Many you could never imagine writing. It will ruin you for fiction writing.
But there are those stories that will outlast your byline. The podcast has tackled five of these types of cases in its early episodes. You can find them archived at swoknews.com.
The three-weeks following the abduction of 7-year-old Aja Johnson by her stepfather who had murdered her mother is one that leaves scars, both, for the investigators and the reporters. All lived and breathed determined efforts in hopes the girl could be found unharmed. Disappointment from a darker ending resonates louder sometimes almost a decade later.
You never forget.
In the case of Rev. Carol Daniels who was killed 13-years-ago at her Anadarko church, the lack of closure in its remaining mystery is belied by knowledge of who the most likely suspects are. But one is dead and the other is free at this point with little prospect of jail for this crime in the future.
You realize justice isn’t always found.
The senseless murder of Australian college student and baseball player Chris Lane as he jogged a Duncan roadway carries heavy feelings. Four young lives were ruined that day, effectively ending for at least two: Lane and his convicted shooter, Chancey Luna. Another, Michael Johnson, will be in his 50s before he has opportunity to leave jail.
You find moments where you’re depressed about the fading of young lights too quickly.
But a sense of justice prevailing can lead to small satisfaction.
When Alan Hruby pleaded guilty to killing his parents and sister for inheritance money, his remaining family’s final statement asking for his life to be spared but with their absence felt just. With his plea, he received life in prison with no hope for parole and the waiver of filing an appeal. He’s also not allowed to have contact with the media means he is relegated to memory.
You sometimes see karma happen in real time, and with it a return to a sense that the law worked. And you’ve seen the process from start to end and ensure others know the process works sometimes.
In the end, it’s about the story.
If you’re going to tell that story, be a storyteller, but first find the facts. Use those components and tell the story factually. But never hesitate to tell the story in the best and most interesting way you can.
Remember: true crime comes from stories. Somebody’s gotta tell them.
Because, in the end, you’re a storyteller. Tell those tales and do it well.