Building the Story
Inexperienced reporters too often treat the police story as routine, often missing angles and points of interest. The cause of this may be the routine required in covering police. Reporters can lift a story out of the ordinary by following a routine pattern in covering the story and by developing additional unusual and interesting information.
The tip on a story may come from one of several sources. The most common are the police radio, the offense report, what policemen, witnesses or tipsters tell reporters. In any case, the story originates as a rumor and must be checked out.
None of the ways the story originates is privileged. Privilege means that state law grants immunity from libel suits when information presented by the media originates from certain sources. Since the original sources of information listed here are not privileged, reporters and the news organizations for which they work are responsible if they mishandle that information.
The best case in point is the offense report, which most law enforcement agencies in Texas keep primarily for administrative and records purposes. The report is not privileged. Because of the methods used in making these reports, the reports may not be written with as much care as a reporter would like. Names may be spelled incorrectly, addresses may be incorrect and even incorrect notations as to the dispensation of complaints may slip in.
Once a story breaks, the major consideration of reporters is how to build or construct the facts and information on which the final story will be based. Generalization is obviously hazardous in this regard.
With that disclaimer in mind, here are some suggestions on how to build the story:
1.What reporters see. Being at the scene and seeing the situation first hand is invaluable. The quicker reporters get on a story the more solid information they will have. Nothing is quite as frustrating as trying to work a major police story after it is cold. What would have taken minutes at the scene could take hours later. Accurate facts are more difficult to acquire after time has elapsed. Principals become unavailable or uncommunicative. When the story is cold reporters tend to get pieces and parts of information as opposed to the total picture.
2.What officers of the law say. What they say to reporters is not privileged. Therefore reporters must evaluate what police and other law enforcement officers say. All kinds of possibilities exist here. Policemen may be hesitant to talk with reporters they don’t know. Other policemen may tend to bolster their case by emphasizing certain information and excluding other information. As a rule policemen cooperate better with reporters who know how to handle themselves. Most law enforcement officers deal with people politely and reasonable and they expect reporters to deal with them in the same way. Each is a professional with a job to do, although the jobs are different. Exacting interviewing will help to bring out the facts. Law officers may be hesitant to volunteer important details. A suspicious mind helps. Gullibility is a hindrance.
3.What witnesses tell reporters. This information is not privileged either, but if a witness has important observations he or she may be of great help in piecing the story together. Reporters should try to obtain specific identification of witnesses in case they need to be found later to verify what they have to say. The full name, address, telephone numbers and occupation or place of employment are basic. Reporters should remember that witnesses who are not trained to observe details may see them inaccurately. And later witnesses may change their minds for one reason or another.
4.What witnesses tell police. This may be useful to the extent that the oral or written statements of witnesses will be admissible at the time of trial. The solid story is built on what will hold up at the time of trial and admissibility is the key. Of course, knowing what is admissible requires knowledge of court procedure. Good police reporters have this knowledge and beginners must acquire it. A witness is someone who saw an event first hand, not someone who heard the event discussed by a person who claimed to have been a witness. Second-hand information can be helpful in tracking down witnesses. But, as a general rule, second-hand information will not be admissible.
5.What police officers do. Again, reporters on the scene have an advantage. Otherwise, reporters have only the officers’ word for what they did. Later those actions can become questionable. Details surrounding recovery of weapons and other fruits of crime may be in dispute at the time of trial. At some point as the events surrounding the crime unfold, the police officers may file an official complaint against a suspect. The procedure under which a complaint is filed in Texas is an official judicial act protected by privilege to report. Reporters should be careful about taking the police officers’ word that a complaint has been filed. That needs to be checked out. Complaints are written in legal terminology that must be translated. Reporters should not stray from the basic details in the account they write. Sometimes mistakes are made by incorporating into the account of the complaint details that are not specifically alleged in the complaint or are otherwise inappropriate to the story. Reporters should consider the complaint an allegation, which it is, and not a statement of conviction, which it isn’t. The story should be couched accordingly.
6.Background, including previous records. Good police stories are stories about the people involved and how their lives are affected by the crime. Therefore, the more information on people the better. Sometimes for this reason information about the accused person’s record becomes significant to the story. This information should not be routinely avoided, neither should it be presented carelessly or pointlessly. Be careful of previous news clippings in this regard. They may contain factual errors. Reporters should be careful about using information on arrests without knowing the disposition of those situations. Another warning: be careful in confirming information about previous convictions. Be especially careful when confirming information by telephone. Information should be attributed to a court official. But it is best to confirm information by having court documents sent to you.
7.Attribution is the key. Say “police said” and say it over and over. You might set up longer passages like this: “Police gave this account of ....” Say that witnesses said such and such. Be extremely careful of any statement that stands alone without attribution. Almost everything in the police story needs to be attributed.
8.Remember that a crime occurred. It didn’t allegedly occur. When someone dies, they didn’t apparently die. Somebody didn’t allegedly kill someone. Something happened or someone said something happened. It didn’t reportedly happen. The mark of a craftsman is the ability to say that someone died and someone else was charged and to separate those two events. Base accounts on what people say, not on what allegedly or reportedly happened.
Be careful about relying exclusively on the police report in building stories. The police report originates and is used for purposes greatly different from the purpose of the news account. The police report is essentially an internal, investigative and record-keeping document. The news media publish or broadcast police stories for an entirely different reason: to inform the public of what’s going on in their community.
The offense report is not privileged. That is, the information in it is not legally protected in any way. Should reporters use erroneous material from the police report, they must be prepared to assume the responsibility. Reliance on the police report and it alone in handling the police story may be risky. Good reporting is what makes the police story sound.
As important as concern about libel is, considerations about fairness and ethics are equally important. Reputations are not easily made, but can be damaged quickly.