Not-So-Smooth Criminal Reporting

I doubled my number of bylines in the Kent News this week. By that, I mean I had two stories in the newspaper, one of which ended up above the fold on the front page, so I’m moving my way up in the newspaper world, pica by pica.

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This is how I imagined working on the crime beat should be.

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And this is how I felt.

My front page story was unavoidably fluffy. I swooned into the two-day Tea Party celebration this weekend, hypnotized by the fifes and drums and mesmerized by the dramatic re-enactment of Chestertown’s patriot forebearers.

But there aren’t too many exciting ways to rehash an article about a small town’s annual Memorial Day celebrations. I tried to spice up my retelling of the event as much as possible, interviewing vendors and re-enactors and painting colonial Chestertown scenes with descriptive prose (which turned out to be overkill considering how many accompanying photos we ran with the story). The results of my efforts were passable, but despite my sweat and tears (the former is literal: It was steaming hot last weekend) my article felt like just another event coverage blurb, soon to be stacked up among the reams of archived books and forgotten.

My other story is deceptively dull. Unlike the Tea Party, my 425-word article about six people who were charged with trying to smuggle drugs into the county jail looks like any other bland, small-town crime story, crammed onto the A7 page under the police blotter and next to an article about some guy who stabbed his friend with a stick.

I doubt any of my readers (provided anyone read that article, which I wouldn’t bet on) had any idea how much sweat and tears (the former isn’t literal this time. The latter isn’t either, but it’s close; I didn’t cry, but I got pretty frazzled working on this one) went into the behind-the-scenes reporting.

It started with a press release. My editor told me to read over the two-page police report listing the charges and a basic summary of the sequence of events. As amused as I was by the alleged smugglers’ stupidity (mailing heroin to your boyfriend in a greeting card is pretty careless way to commit a felony) I wasn’t looking forward to researching and writing the story myself.

My only experience with crime reporting up until last week was shadowing the court reporter at the Herald-Mail and writing a follow-up on drug charges for my school newspaper.

There’s a reason I’ve avoided crime reporting. It doesn’t have to do with any discomfort with court rooms or a fear of talking to criminals. I don’t mind having to pass through a metal detector or ask for official documents in order to get the facts for a story, as bothersome as it may be. I’m just terrified of getting something wrong.

I’ve made mistakes before. I’ve misspelled names and had some serious face-palm moments when I notice typos I missed when I pick up a printed Elm.┬áBut my tiny slip-ups thusfar pale in comparison to the potential heap of trouble I could wind up in if I made a factual error on a crime beat.

Maybe my editor recognized my discomfort. Maybe she noticed some expression of sheer panic on my face as I read that first press release, or maybe she remembers what it was like as a rookie herself. Regardless, she took pity on me. She eased me into the story, talking me through how to read court documents, going to the courthouse with me, giving me phone numbers for the warden and sheriff, and, of course, reading my final product over with me aloud, word for word.

It’s not an exciting article. There’s nothing enticing about my word choice and I didn’t snag any memorable quotes from the detectives I called. My first crime beat story isn’t vibrant or front-page worthy, but I’m much prouder of it than I am my photo-laden Tea Party article. For the first time in a while, I reported outside of my comfort zone.

I’m sure that if I keep up with this, writing articles, big and small, for a community newspaper, the thrill of publishing crime stories will wear off. But now, I’m still reeling from my police report coverage. Hopefully, years from now, when the buzz of crime journalism has gone stale, I can look back at my third Kent County News byline and get a little bit of that fear and excitement back.