Covering the unimaginable: Establishing a rapport with law-enforcement agencies facilitates gathering information
This article is part of a series from a 1999 edition of Communication: Journalism Education Today. Also in this series:
- Taking a multi-angle approach to involve and influence readers
- Policies help ensure unbiased coverage for newspaper and yearbooks
- The role of student publications depends on healing process
By Bradley Wilson, CJE
Reporters at newspapers and police department public information officers throughout the nation seem to agree on one procedure: reporters need to establish a positive working relationship with the law enforcement agencies in their coverage area if the journalists expect to produce good stories.
For high school, middle school and private school reporters, the preparation may be as simple as checking in regularly with the campus police officer or the officer who covers the school beat. Or it may mean walking down the street to the neighborhood fire station or city administration building.
“Contacts made before an incident are critical,” said Susan Rossi, public information officer for the Arvada (Colo.) Police Department. “Conduct regular beat checks with PIOs in emergency service fields. It can sometimes land the reporter an exclusive story. I know that when I have seven calls on my voice mail about the same crime, I return the calls of reporters who make regular beat checks. (I figure there should be some rewardfor taking the time to regularly call.)”
Rossi said the public information officers should be the primary contact on a scene because most law enforcement officers won’t want to comment directly, particularly about an ongoing investigation.
“The PIO ‘usually’ has the most up-to-date information,” she said. “Reporters shouldn’t expect to know a great deal at the start of an incident because the events are most likely still unfolding. At this point, the basics are probably all you are going to get.”
Todd Nelson, a reporter with the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer, agreed that establishing this relationship with officers on the street and their commanding officers is critical for getting usable information. He suggested checking in with sources regularly.
“Check in with sources every day, in investigations, in patrol particularly,” he said.“You’ll know what’s going on, and when the officers see that you’re interested and paying attention, they’ll tend to give you more information or tip you to stories you might not have found in reports.”
Further, Nelson said establishing such a relationship will make officers more comfortable in helping you cover your story by giving you details that can put a new light on the case.
“As you cover the beat, you might find that officers are willing to provide some details of a case off the record to put it into context or indicate where an investigation is going,” he said. “You’ll get a better story as the case develops with this background information. But don’t publish information an officer said was off the record. Most officers have a one-strike-and-you’re-out policy. Burn them once, and they won’t talk to you again or won’t offer confidential information for a long time. And they’ll let other officers know about the experience.”
However, Nelson said getting information directly from an officer is possible if handled right.
“Police are usually busy so if you approach an officer at an accident scene or even in the office to ask for information, identify yourself and let them know you would like to speak to them or to the person who is releasing information when they have a moment,” he said. “That works better than storming up as a stranger and demanding information immediately, as you might imagine.”
In the second edition of the Student Press Law Center’s report Covering Campus Crime (©1999), Matthew Waite, a reporter at the University of Nebraska’s Daily Nebraskan, said “Remember that cops are human beings too.… Talk with them. Get to know them. Give them an oppportunity to see that you are human, too.…”
Rossi pointed out that some information, no matter how much you want it and officers may want to give it out, may be confidential depending on state laws regarding the release of information – the names of minors, for example.
To obtain the official record of an incident, reporters can turn to the official, and public, written records. Such reports are often superficial and include information such as time, date, place and nature of the offense; victim’s name, age, address, employer, home and work phone numbers; name of officer or person initiating the report; list of property stolen, damaged or recovered, with value of that property; and a case number.
Nelson said the reports are generally readily available but noted that reporters will often have to use the case number to track down more useful information.
Some reports, particularly those of campus crime statistics, can be elusive because administrators are often less than willing to disclose this public information.
“Clearly, students who know about the dangers that exist on campus are less likely to be crime victims,” the SPLC report says. “Unfortunately, some schools continue to do everything they can to keep crime information secret.…”
The SPLC booklet specifically points out that some reports such as campus police records, annual crime statistics reports and campus court information are public information on most college campuses, public and private. Similar information is often obtainable for public school districts.
“Perhaps no information is more important to the journalist covering campus crime than the records of the law enforcement officials with jurisdiction over the school,” the SPLC report said. “The records of these agencies are the ‘meat and potatoes’ of most crime reporting.”