Posted by: rcieri | October 10, 2008

Top tips on crime and court reporting from Keren Rivas

“Burlington Times-News” court and crime reporter shares advice with Elon journalism students

By Rachel Cieri

Oct. 9, 2008

Reporter Keren Rivas shared tips that she said she learned from her own mistakes.

Reporter Keren Rivas shared tips that she said she learned from her own mistakes.

From four years of experience in crime and court reporting for the “Burlington Times-News,” Keren Rivas knows her way around a court room and crime scene. Elon University journalism students learned some of her best tips from a lecture Monday, Oct. 6.

Tip #1 – Don’t let the scanner mislead you.

For much of the “Times-News”’s crime stories, reporters rely on a tool they call “the scanner.”  The scanner is a live online streaming of emergency personnel’s radio broadcasts on which listeners can hear exactly what police and firefighters are saying to one another.

Rivas typically turns on the scanner every time she sits down at her computer, and it is easy for her to tell when there is something important going on.  She warns students not to publish any information from the scanner without confirming it, though.

“There are two things about the scanners; they are great for information, but they can also mislead you completely,” Rivas said. She told students of one such incident.

“We heard that they were looking for a van that probably kidnapped a child. The story went that a car was broken down on the side of the road, this woman had a child and she needed gas. Another car stopped, and gave her a ride to the gas station. When she came out of the car, the other driver just took off. The kid was in the car, so was her purse.”

“The communications that we heard was, ‘We have a kidnapper.’ So we went ahead and put it on our website. During this time, we called the police and public information officer and left them a message. Eventually, the communications stopped. The PL calls us back, and he said, It was our mistake, it was our miscommunication, she forgot the kid was in the car. So it was all for nothing.”

Rivas warns not to call police while the incident is happening, too.  They will be frantic and unhappy that a reporter is distracting them from a crisis.

Tip #2 – Always go to the scene.

Even if the crime is well over, a good reporter will always go to the scene. It could still be full of information, including witnesses and police officers that may have been at the scene and could provide valuable information.

“One story that we did about bank robbery, the reporter went [to the scene], and her lead was the sign that they put at the door. That’s something that she would not have gotten if she had not gone to the scene,” Rivas said.

Tip #3 – Be polite to the cops.

Try to understand where police are coming from if they do not want to cooperate with you. They are under pressure to get their job done right, and they are accountable to the public.

“The police are going to look at you [like] you are interfering with what they’re doing. Having an attitude is not going to help you with dealing with cops,” said Rivas.

If an officer is especially impolite and uncooperative, a reporter can always go to the superior, but Rivas advises students to pick their battles. Some things may not be worth the hassle, but if you are being denied important information, your persistence could pay off in the future.

Tip #4 – Use people’s perceptions to your advantage.

Rivas told students that sometimes attorneys and judges assume she is unintelligent simply because she is a woman. Although it irritated her, she took the advice of her editors and used it to her advantage.

“A lot of attorneys and judges are going to think you are stupid. Because they think you’re not going to get it, they’re going to tell you more than they would tell someone else. So just play the dumb role sometimes, and you’re going to get the stuff you need,” she said.

Tip #5 – Avoid “cop speak.”

A crime reporter can get all too used to the way police officers talk to one another. They have their own official terms that a reporter will learn to understand, but most readers are not familiar with this exclusive dialect.

The rule to remember is that simple language is always best.

“It’s amazing how they describe things – ‘the male subject left on foot.’ Instead of male subject, it’s a man. There’s no ‘subject’ here,” said Rivas.

Tip #6 – Learn to handle criticism.

In crimes and court cases, there are always at least two sides. Crimes have perpetrators and victims, and court cases have plaintiffs and defendants. If something unfavorable is written about either side, a reporter is bound to get negative reactions.

“You have to have a thick skin, and you have to be compassionate, too,” said Rivas.

The parents of an underage perpetrator may be upset because their child’s name was published, or a murder victim’s family may be upset with a reporter for writing that the verdict was not guilty.

“Everything you do with crime and courts involves people. Somebody was wronged. Somebody was accused of something, and it could be that the person is innocent. There’s going to be a lot of tension and emotion because you’re dealing with people, and somebody’s life is going to be changed forever,” Rivas said.

It is important to pick the emails to answer carefully because there are some arguments a reporter can never win.

“Sometimes you can see that ones that are never going to change their minds, so sometimes I let it go,” she said.

Tip #7 – Don’t convict someone with language.

The famous “allegedly” is key when describing a suspected criminal. One of the key principles of the American court system is that a suspect is innocent until proven guilty, and until he has been convicted, he should not be called a murderer, rapist or robber.

“As far as you know, he is as innocent as you,” Rivas said.

Similarly, there is no “victim” until a suspect has been convicted.  Some terms to remember are “accusing party” or “prosecuting witness” instead of “victim.”

Tip #8 – Build relationships.

This can come in handy in any type of reporting, but in court and crime reporting, it is especially important to build trust with police, lawyers, judges and clerks. These people will feel more comfortable giving information to a reporter they have worked with, or at least talked to, before.

“I spend the mornings sometimes just going to the clerks’ office sometimes and talking with them. Those are the people who have access to the information you need,” Rivas said.

Rivas also introduces herself to and exchanges cell phone numbers with high-ranking police officers. Establishing a connection with the officials makes them more willing to give out information.


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