Asking the Right Questions on the Crime Beat
Crime happens every day. And as crime reporters, we often spend our time running from one heartwrenching crime scene to another, scanning arrest report after arrest report, churning out well-intended stories that state the news, but that too often ignore the bigger picture of what all this crime says about who we are as a society, what we value and what we are becoming.
Back-to-back sessions at the Investigative Reporters & Editors Conference in Miami on Thursday emphasized the importance of digging deeper: of asking the right questions about crime, the government agencies we pay to investigate crime, and those we expect to deal with criminals.
Here are a few tips and ideas I took away from three sessions on criminal justice reporting sponsored by Criminal Justice Journalists and two more hour-long talks that dealt with the topic of databases -- how to get them and what to do with them. Through my crime-centric lens, the database-CJJ coupling was just the ointment I needed to help soothe my crime-scene-weary soul.
"So, Sheriff, you say crime's down?"
Crime statistics don't always mean what you think they mean. Take the time to understand how the data is collected, reported and presented. Read the law enforcement agency's data collection guidelines. Talk to the agency's data guru. Request raw data, but put those figures in perspective by reporting them in rates. (Who can forget the impact one statistic had earlier this year when it was released: "1 in 100 U.S. Adults Behind Bars.") But when digging through those numbers, keep in mind what panelist Valerie Kalfrin of The Tampa Tribune learned and reported in 2006: The data you have is only as good as how it is reported. Some crimes might not ever make the list.
- Richard Rosenfeld, criminologist, University of Missouri-St. Louis
- American Society of Criminology
- Understanding Crime Statistics: A Reporter's Guide
Getting crime data doesn't have to be expensive and it doesn't always have to be a giant tug-of-war with your local PIO. Every day as reporters we access raw data that give us a sliver of the total picture. We thumb through the day's jail log on our local sheriff's office Web site, see the charges, the offense locations, etc. We know when someone has been killed and where. Start collecting that information in your own database -- a searchable story tool for something down the line. Matt Doig of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and Jack Gillum of the Arizona Daily Star also suggest requesting any databases you know your local law enforcement chief might be collecting on a regular basis: the monthly employee overtime report, monthly homicide report, etc. Find out what they're paying attention to, and pay attention to it too.
Correctly reporting corrections
Jails and prison systems tend to get the most ink when something goes wrong: a jail suicide, a wheelchair dumped inmate, a prison riot. But the real story of corrections is an intensely human story that has tangible societal ramifications, says Mike Ward, reporter for the Austin American-Statesman. Along those lines, Adam Gelb, former crime reporter and current director of the Pew Center's Public Safety Performance Project suggests reporters break down the 1 in 100 statistic to the local level.
- Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration
- Justice Center at the Council of State Governments
We all know that crimes aren't solved in 45 minutes, like on TV. But Paul Wormeli, executive director of the Integrated Justice Information Systems Institute, says reporters could do a better job of showing exactly why.