Excellent crime reporting may be some of the most compelling journalism available. It captivates readers, keeping them on the edge of their seats. Sometimes, it just can’t be put down, like a good fiction thriller.
But it isn’t fiction. Crime reporting is a narrative that weaves together the details of human lives with the importance of the law. Because crime and court stories involve real people–not characters–it is extremely delicate. Crime may have torn people apart, ruined families, ended lives. That’s the personal sensitivity. There is also a certain legal delicacy to crime reporting. Call someone a murderer in print, and a reporter could lose his or her job. There are ethical criteria to writing a good crime or court story, but like all other stories, there are techniques to enhance the quality of writing.
In Nadya Labi’s intense story of a former Army ranger who abducts children for a living, she forces the reader to question the morality of America’s legal system. She chronicles the lives of children whose parent takes them out of the country, away from another parent–who then pays for a snatchback. This legally deplorable act, stealing a child, is given new context when explained from the point of view of a parent still in the United States. It’s still objective and unbiased, but it’s a great news story because it begs the question–is the parent really wrong? It’s a moral gray area, but there is a legal system established to deal with such situations. Is it always fair? Labi describes the trial system while still giving a face and a life to the children she describes.
Giving the characters a personality like this is invaluable in crime reporting. Those that have killed–or been killed–are more than statistics, and a good story communicates that life before the crime. It also stresses the effects of the crime or the trial. Ron Chernow’s story about financial criminal Bernie Madoff is just as much about his the life leading up to the scheme as it was about the consequences it had for all of those he ruined. It reveals the effects, because that is what makes a story. The story is not that a crime happened, it’s that it did something, made some change in someone’s life.
A reporter must immerse him or herself in the lives of the characters in a story. David Grann’s Trial By Fire makes excellent use of character development. The reader is immediately hooked because it cares about the criminal as an actual person. Good crime reporting is based on the facts, but still makes it so there’s a reason to care.
Good crime reporting, most importantly, is responsible. It cannot feed into the fear and drama that sensationalize the news. These stories, as well as those in chapter 4 of America’s Best Newspaper Reporting, fit the bill as both ethical and engaging pieces.