Informing the public of crime, the courts and abuses of power: Reaction to Chapter 4 of ‘America’s Best Newspaper Writing’

Chapter 4: Crime and Courts

MARCH 4, 2011

The fourth chapter of “America’s Best Newspaper Writing” offers an understanding of how to report on crime and court proceedings. Crime, the cop beat and court cases are very important to inform the public about.

The great writers in this chapter told powerful stories with moral messages. The reporters had a civic purpose for writing. This raises the level of the writing and the impact. Reporting becomes more important when there is a civic purpose for writing.

Stories about crime and the courts need to report on breaches in the social contract. Reporters are watching and reporting on behalf of citizens, according to Clark and Scanlan. Reporters must alert the public to any misuse of the public’s resources, abuse and corruption. These stories should “reveal effects of crimes on victims, families and keepers of peace,” the editors said.

Clark and Scanlan encourage reporters to practice immersion journalism. This is when reporters immerse themselves in the lives of their sources, interview them in-person, try to follow them and see how they live instead of merely interviewing them once or over e-mail or the phone. This type of journalism allows the reporter to delve deeper into the story and into the complex social issues that the story may be about. It is not just covering the events and putting out the stories, to keep up with deadline — immersion journalism is about writing the big picture and informing the public about misuses of power or corruption.

The writers in this chapter use details to help illustrate characters, instead of sources. They describe “flesh-and-blood characters,” as Clark and Scanlan said. Details help to show what a person looks like, does, speaks like and they show the sum of a person, as the editors said. The editors said good writers should have a novelist’s eye for detail, looking for and reporting the specific details. Good writing gives a sense of people, place, drama and tone, according to Clark and Scanlan. Good writers pay close attention to detail and work to include authentic dialogue. These details and techniques help to show the reader what a person is like and the events of a story. These techniques help the reader understand.

When reporters write against their fears, with courage and persistence, they write more effectively and powerfully. These stories often require reporters to write with courage, to not be afraid to write what they mean. Reporters must be persistent when they are interviewing and contacting sources. But there is also a level of understanding and patience that is needed. Reporters have to know when to push and ask tough questions and when to tread more carefully, but still determinedly. When reporters show empathy and are understanding with their sources, the sources are more likely to share more and feel more comfortable with the reporter — which all leads to more storytelling quotes, more details and more descriptive, better writing.

The structure a reporter chooses to write his or her story is also extremely important. The way a story is structured can vary greatly and can help the reader understand. Writers have to take the reader through a journey and arrange events in a way that can be understood, according to Clark and Scanlan. Where the reader is placed at first, the lede, the beginning of the story, is also very important. It starts the reader off in a particular place.

Clark and Scanlan describe the structure of a story almost like how a video is filmed and put together. In making a video, there must be wide shots and tighter or closer ones. The wide shots set up the scene, show where the video is going to take place and who it will be about. Then the close ups follow and offer the details, the facial expressions, the actions of people, a specific cup sitting on a table. Stories include these wide and close up shots, as well, and produce the same effect of setting a story up and then giving more details that help inform readers. The way a writer moves the readers through the story, from wide shots to close ups, bigger picture to details, helps the flow and way a reader understands.

Good writers should also go beyond the official sources of information and vary their documentation. This offers more credibility and brings more voices into the story. Reporters should get down to the street level, according to Clark and Scanlan. The sources of information should be varied, such as interviews, observation and public and private records. Cathy Frye, one of the great writers in this chapter, included transcripts of the instant messages her sources and subjects sent back and forth. This offers another way to understand the story.

The take-home message of this chapter is that covering the courts and crime is a very important and valuable beat. These beats also require experience to cover them completely and effectively. They also require that reporters be strong, persistent and patient. There will be gruesome crimes that a reporter will have to write about and possibly examine for the story. There will be people in the court system who have murdered children and mothers and there will be some who the justice system punishes wrongly — if they have actually not committed the crime but are charged for it. These stories must be covered and require a patient and determined writer.

Top 5 list of crime and court reporting articles:

1. Guilty verdict for man accused of painting swastikas on Olney synagogue, The Gazette

Nesa Nourmohammadi

This is a follow-up story on a crime that took place in a Md. suburb. A resident, Ian Baron, painted a synagogue and two houses with graffiti and swastikas.

Nourmohammadi uses specific details throughout the story. She describes the specific details of the crime and actions that Baron took. She includes the specific amount of time the jury deliberated and came to a decision.

It took the jury less than 30 minutes Feb. 23 to find him guilty of four counts of malicious destruction of property and one count of destruction of religious property.”

It is details like these that truly help the readers understand and make a story more interesting and important.

She also includes details about the vandalism and graffiti. She describes the anti-Semitic phrases that were used: “‘Sieg Heil’ and ‘Death 2 Zionists’ painted on the synagogue.”

Nourmohammadi doesn’t shy away from the complex social issues and nature of the crime. She explains that Baron was Jewish and vandalized the synagogue.

Baron was adopted from Honduras as a baby by white, Jewish parents and attended synagogue. Baron studied the Holocaust, visited Israel and had a Bar Mitzvah.

Nourmohammadi wasn’t afraid to talk to everyone involved and in the court room. She tried to speak to Baron’s father, though he declined to comment. But she still attempted and this speaks to the courage, persistence and determination that Clark and Scanlan were talking about.

She also structures the story in a way that helps readers understand. It is a form of reverse chronological order, with the most recent court proceeding first in the article and then further down the vandalism, crime itself is described in greater detail. This is almost a form of the close up and wide shots that Clark and Scanlan described in the chapter.

2. Crime Scene Beyond the Statistics, A Druggist Confronts the Reality of Robbery, The Wall Street Journal

Angelo B. Henderson

This Pulitzer Prize winning article is written very story-like, with flow and details and expert pacing.

Henderson positions the reader directly in the climax of the story, the gunman’s directions.

“Get on the ground,” a man holding a gun screamed. “I’ll blow your heads off if you move.”

This lede is extremely effective and powerful. It creates a sense of doom, dread and suspense.

Henderson also uses key details. He describes exactly how the store employee, Dennis Grehl, was lying on the floor and how he felt “a chump on the floor.” His description is clear and helps the reader understand the situation. Henderson describes the crime and moment where Grehl had the pistol on the back of his head as “the paralyzing weight of helplessness.”

Henderson seems to use the wide shots to close-up shots method of storytelling. He sets up the scene, the pharmacy where the crime took place, then gives the details of how Grehl felt. He then moves to a wide shot, explaining how after the crime Grehl brought a loaded gun to work and vowed to use it if he had to.

Henderson exhibits expert timing and pacing in his storytelling. “Then he crossed paths with Anthony Williams,” he writes, effectively foreshadowing and showing the reader that Grehl’s loaded gun would be used.

He moves from character to character, offering a bigger picture then more and more details about the person. This helps the reader get a better image of the source and understand him or her before he is put into the actual crime. It is like reading a short biography on the people involved before learning about the crime.

Henderson mentions a complex social issue when he writes about the store installing security measures. These measures “allowed Grehl to arm himself — a step that some consider extreme and others think is just common sense.” He is referring to gun laws, safety, security and the right to bare arms.

Henderson seems to go through a sort of chronology of the neighborhood of Old Redford and the crime that became more prevalent. “Soon, iron grates appeared across storefronts. Strangers, once welcomed, were treated with a new wariness,” he writes, effectively showing the details of how the crime affected the neighborhood and stores.

Henderson writes the story from several angles, several perspectives. The store employee, the gunman, the gunman’s mother and brother and shoppers who agreed with Grehl’s self-defense. This is a form of varying documentation, varying sources and the voices of the story. It offers more insight into the story and allows the reader to understand the story from varying perspectives.

The ending also leaves the readers with a different perspective sinking into them.

A teenager Mr. Grehl didn’t know entered the pharmacy alone. She asked: “Is this the place where the shooting was?”

Mr. Grehl replied: “Yes.”

The girl said: “I just wanted to see who killed my baby’s daddy.”

She was out of the store before her words could sink in.

Henderson also enters a bit of psychological territory in this story, by describing Grehl’s thoughts after the first armed robbery, the second when he and the gunman held their guns to each other and after he shot and killed the gunman. This is an example of immersion journalism, where Henderson didn’t stay at one level but instead kept digging for more and reported it.

3. District teen sentenced to 25 years in slaying of off-duty officer, The Washington Post

Keith L. Alexander

It’s not a happy story or ending and Alexander doesn’t shy away from addressing the complexity of the issue. He includes storytelling and powerful quotes, making sure to keep the authentic voice of the sources.

The shot police officer’s brother asks at the end of the article how his brother could be killed over taking a picture and the teenager could only get 25 years. This emotion comes out in Alexander’s writing, quote selection and attention to the complex social issues — for one, the relationship between cops and residents or delinquents.

One important quote is from Lavander Javon Williams, the teenager who shot the police officer. “I am not this terrible teen the prosecutors tried to make me out to be,” Williams said.

4. Man shot in ’92 dies, becomes latest city homicide, The Baltimore Sun

Peter Hermann

Hermann uses a bit of chronology to help readers understand the story and the time involved. James Fields was shot in 1992 and died this year due to complications related to the shooting.

Hermann describes the crime rate of the city more in this story than he goes into specific details about Fields and his shooting and death. This offers a different story, one more related about the patterns of crime in Baltimore and how homicide victims are updated on a count.

There are typically several so-called time-delayed deaths in Baltimore each year in which people die of complications from bullets fired long ago. Their deaths are added to the city’s homicide count in the year when they’re ruled homicides, partly to avoid updating statistics from previous years.

Hermann did digging, reporting — he worked to find the statistics and number of people who died and the year they were shot. He worked to find and report specific cases of people who were shot and the diverse medical effects years later. These numbers and descriptions add understanding and a broader level to the story, it shows how more people are affected and a pattern of crime n Baltimore.

He also describes the law in Md.

The law has only recently caught up to medical advances that can keep injured people alive for years. Maryland used to have the “year and a day” law, which stated that a death must occur within 366 days of the original injury for murder charges to be filed. It was designed to ensure that suspects were charged only in crimes that directly resulted from an assault, rather than from prolonged medical problems.

This description of the law helps readers understand the justice system, how crimes are dealt and the numbers more clearly.

This interactive graphic by The Baltimore Sun is not from Hermann’s story specifically, but it shows patterns of different crimes, such as rape, theft or suspicious vehicles. The reader can choose different dates and crimes to look into.

5. Study Finds Criminal Pasts of Nursing Home Workers, The New York Times

Robert Pear

This story uses statistics as its backbone, as its main detail. More than 90 percent of nursing homes employ one or more people who have been convicted of a crime, Pear writes. Five percent of all nursing home employees have at least one criminal conviction.

This is the lede Pear chooses to write, the place he chooses to situation and start off his readers. They come into the story being informed of the big picture, of the potential wrong and number of people who are convicted of crimes who work in nursing homes. Readers are alerted to the conflict and social issue right away — criminals taking care of the elderly.

Pear seems to use the wide shot to close-up shot in his writing, as well. For a while he remains higher up with the statistics and numbers and laws. But further down in the story, he addresses people and, more specifically, the elderly who are affected by employees slipping through the cracks and finding ways to be employed even if they have committed a crime.

He suddenly calls the criminals “predators,” casting them in a negative, shady light and alerting readers to their danger.

Predators can easily evade detection during the hiring process, securing jobs that allow them to assault, abuse and steal from defenseless elders. The most common types of conviction were for crimes against property, like burglary, and drug-related offenses. But some nursing home employees had been convicted of crimes against persons, like assault.

Pear writes that no federal law or regulation requires nursing homes to check federal or state criminal history records for prospective employees. He goes on to describe the law in other states, showing that he conducted deep reporting.

Ten states require a check of F.B.I. and state records, while 33 require a check of state records and the remainder do not have explicit requirements.

The use of these numbers show the reader there is a bigger story, that this could be opening up to a bigger investigation.

Pear alludes to this when he writes, due to “the patchwork of requirements, people convicted of crimes in one state have been able to obtain jobs at nursing homes in other states.” He is alerting the public to miscommunication, to abuses of power or laws, abuse of people and the elderly, faulty laws and regulations and the lack of the same laws across the board, across the nation, which allows people to slip through the laws.

This story is informing people of the faulty hiring process of nursing home employees, the oversight of the F.B.I. to include criminal records to all employers for background checks and the problem nursing homes are experiencing in retaining employees.

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About Marlena Chertock

Marlena Chertock's first collection of poetry, On that one-way trip to Mars, is available from Bottlecap Press. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Marketplace, and WTOP. Her poems and fiction has appeared in The Deaf Poets Society, Moonsick Magazine, and Paper Darts.

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