Crime and Courts – From Roy Peter Clark and Christopher Scanlan’s ‘America’s Best Newspaper Writing’

by Dalton Cox

Peter Clark and Christopher Scanlan describe crime and court reporting to be uniquely different from other forms of journalism. Reporting on criminal justice has the power to evoke in its audience feelings of rage, satisfaction, paranoia or a plea for reform. However, if exaggerated or sensationalized, such reporting may lead to distorted views of crime that may cause irrational public fear and wasted tax dollars. Melvin Mencher urged his journalism students to write against their fears, not in over dramatic ways but with courage and resourcefulness.

Many reporters begin their careers on the police beat. A journalist in 1941 said, “The reporters who cover Police Headquarters have the steamiest work in the business. But it’s valuable work . . . In this job you cover the murders and the fires and the suicides, and it’s no place for anyone with a weak stomach.” However, according to Clark and Scanlan, reporters who play this role well are fulfilling their role as a watchdog of official power, while creating a more safe and fair society.

Infographic by Dalton Cox
Infographic by Dalton Cox

A narrative style of writing can be incorporated in reporting on criminal justice. This requires what Jon Franklin calls “Chronology with meaning,” allowing readers to better comprehend the facts as the facts are revealed. Cathy Frye’s 2003 series of articles, entitled “Caught in the Web” is an excellent example.

Cathy Frye’s work incorporated varied and comprehensive research, including a mix of interviews, observation and public and private records. These were combined to create a nonfiction narrative relating to the murder of Kacie Woody, a 13-year-old girl from Georgia who was abducted by a man she met online. Frye provides her readers with snippets of actual online conversations between the girl and her abductor, incorporating many other slight touches of authenticity and detail. Despite her nonfiction reporting, the reader is left in a state of dread and suspense at the conclusion of Frye’s first installment. Although the event was an undeniable tragedy, readers are able to benefit from reading this morality tale about the dangers of online predators.

Anne Hull is currently a national reporter for the
Anne Hull is currently a national reporter for the “Washington Post.”

Crime reporting is not only shocking, it is also depressing and disheartening. Myers won an ASNE award for government reporting in 1990 after writing “Humanity on Trial” for the Chicago Tribune. Previous to writing her article, Myers served as a beat reporter and witnessed the tragedy of Chicago’s Violence Court. As a features writer, Myers brought the court to life, illustrating the ineffectualness of many of the court’s attempts to punish criminals. Like Myers, it is important to believe that society and government can find a better way.

In a similar manner to Frye and Myers, Anne Hull attempts to humanize both victims and criminals, while also successfully incorporating a narrative writing style. She brings the mug shot to life in her 1994 article “Metal to Bone,” going well beyond the official sources to the “street level” where the action takes place. Hull examines Tampa crime through characters like police officer Lisa Bishop, a teenager named Eugene and the boy’s father, who had hoped that he would amount to more. Through Hull’s detailed narrative, readers are able to see a humanized portrait of crime, and accept important revelations about society as a whole.

Other Great Crime Reporting:

The Terror Web by Lawrence Wright

The Virus Underground by Clive Thompson

The Girls Next Door by Peter Landesman


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