Posted by: rcieri | October 6, 2008

Crime and Courts Reporting: An analysis

Crime and court reporting can produce some of the most gripping stories ever written. The recreation of the unfolding events can often read like a mystery novel, leaving readers on the edges of their seats. These stories can also be in-depth reports, investigating all angles to find the true story. Techniques vary, but stories like these are best told in the way that they unfold in real life – keeping everyone wanting to know more.

Caught in the Web: Evil at the Door
By Cathy Frye

Rather than taking this story from a preachy angle, Frye delves into the life of a thirteen-year-old who was abducted by an online predator. Her lead reads like a thriller novel, but it represents something much more real. It is written from the perspective of the killer, who is stationed somewhere in the front yard, looking through the window. Immediately, the description leads the reader to wonder, “What happens next?”

Typically, a story like this will focus on the perspective of adults, namely the parents of the victim. Frye took a different angle by turning her focus to the perspective of the victim, Kacie Woody, and her peers. She quotes them to demonstrate the language they use regularly and show their mindsets about the matter. She chronicles the thoughts of a skeptical friend especially closely, showing that they sensed the danger. This makes the story even more suspenseful for the reader, who expects disaster.

Frye uses revealing snippets of an instant messenger conversation the night of the murder to show the victims attitudes about life and online friendship. In this case, these are better than quotes because the victim was speaking informally rather than talking to a reporter. It gives the reader a genuine sense of what the girl’s personality was like.

The story also details the first few hours of uncertainty and investigation after the crime. Step by step, interviews with those close to Woody reveal the clues that something terrible has happened. Frye even provides an account of what investigators believed to have happened. A multitude of detail in the story helps readers to see the story unfold as if it were playing on a movie screen rather than in a newspaper article.

The great success of this article lies in its ability to tell the story from the inside out, rather than the outside in, like a typical story. It also leaves readers hanging, prompting them to read on.

Before a Deadly Rage, A Life Consumed by a Troubling Silence
By N. R. Kleinfield

This account of 2007’s massacre at Virginia Tech is unusual in that it explores the life of the killer rather than those of his victims. It attempts to find out the reasoning behind the crimes he committed, a question central to this story. While it has no overwhelming success at answering the question, it does bring the reader a step closer to understanding what was running through the mind of the killer.

The lead, as well as the rest of the story, takes a chronological approach, starting from the beginning of the killer’s life. It also encompasses the most startling oddity about the killer – the fact that he hardly ever speaks. The story moves on to explore the worries of his family from the time of his childhood, using telling quotes to explain how they felt about him.

The sheer number of interviews in this story is impressive, and it is because reporting was contributed by seven people other than the writer. This volume of interviews gives the story much more depth than the average report. It allows readers to see the killer through the eyes of family members, roommates, classmates, teachers, victims and police.

The story also uses explicit anecdotes to help explain what the killer’s daily life and typical actions were like. Kleinfield includes that the killer once told his roommate he had an imaginary girlfriend, and the writer quotes from Choe’s videotapes. Kleinfield utilized the contrast between Choe’s calm, silent daily activities and the atrocities he committed on the last day of his life.

Humanity on Trial
By Linnet Myers
Chicago Tribune, Feb. 12, 1989

Myers’s portrait of the Cook County Circuit Court shows it as a sort of grotesque circus, and she invites readers to sit down and watch the show. The story is written from an interesting angle, focusing on the daily routine of a particular court rather than a crime.

The lead of the story is not particularly powerful because it is not striking in any way. It uses the word “murderer,” which is sure to draw some attention, but the phrase “walk these halls,” is nearly cliché. Myers makes up for it, however, with the details she uses.

To demonstrate what life in this court is like, Myers uses the “slice of life” approach. She pinpoints specific incidents before she explains it in broader terms, giving both a close-up and wide-angle shot. She capitalizes on contrast, showing how normal and routine crimes as grisly as murder and rape become in the place.

Myers demonstrates the grief she sees in the court as well, weaving interviews with victims’ families with those of the alleged killers. Through quotes from lawyers, court employees and grieving families, the reader gets a sense of how this, too, becomes routine. Myers’ main point seems to be that excess crime and suffering leads to numbness in those connected to the cases, and she emphasizes the problem it becomes.

Crime and court reporting can certainly become monotonous if reporters and writers don’t find a way to keep it fresh. Readers can become desensitized to crime, so new angles are always needed to keep them interested. Frye, Kleinfield and Myers each found a different approach to their reporting that made their stories successful.


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