Getting started on the crime and courts beat

  • Crime reporting is a high pressure job. Local journalists who cover crime stories share their best practices for acing the crime beat.
  • Alaska’s News Source investigative reporter Daniella Rivera and Homer News’ Megan Pacer used strict daily schedules for years to stay on top of police and courts news.
  • Charging documents matter— know which you need and how to get them.
  • When reporting from official documents, reporters need to consider how to protect a victim’s identity and avoid using institutional jargon.
  • Reporters in the courtroom should be thoughtful in how they present themselves to avoid giving the impression of bias. 
  • The public’s right to know about crimes must be weighed against the potential harm a story could inflict on victims or the accused.
  • It’s easy to get overwhelmed— consider talking to a mental health professional or asking another reporter for help.
  • The Alaska Press Club, a nonprofit that provides continuing education, recognition and help to journalists across the 49th state. Become a member to support local journalism and attend the annual conference.

Crime reporting is a high pressure job, even by the standards of journalism. The knowledge required is vast and complex, and the stakes of writing about people— criminals or victims— in their most vulnerable moments are high. But the public deserves to know what’s happening in the community and whether the justice system is just.

“I wish I had known sooner just how powerful our writing on the crime and courts beat can be,” said Daniella Rivera, who was the primary crime and courts reporter for KTVA before becoming an investigative reporter at Alaska’s News Source. “And, how important it is to be critical of the information you’re receiving, even when it comes in a court document or from the police.”

Rivera and Megan Pacer, both veterans of crime and courts reporting, shared tips accumulated over years on the beat.

Daily routines for crime and courts reporting

Daniella Rivera worked as the primary crime and courts reporter for KTVA and is now an investigative reporter for Alaska’s News Source. 

To keep track of the beat, Rivera would do a daily court check, where she visits the court’s calendar page for the districts she covers. She said it helps her catch things changes in plea.

Rivera also keeps a list of cases she wants to continue covering, and checks on them regularly in Courtview, where she can see when the next court appearance is and mark it on her calendar. 

If there is an evidentiary hearing for a case you’re covering, Rivera said it can be worth attending. The court will go through evidence that may never be seen again without extensive records request. Going to the evidentiary hearing for the Palmer Grunwald case turned out to be worth it for Rivera and her news team, who had the chance to hear interviews with the defendants. Some of the interviews were never played again during the trial. 

The start of the day for reporter Megan Pacer looks similar to Rivera’s. Pacer — who was a cops and courts reporter for the Peninsula Clarion for several years, and most recently a general assignment reporter for the Homer News — would look over the latest Alaska State Trooper dispatches, Homer Police reports, the Alaska Courts website, courthouse calendars, and even a local Facebook group. 

For local cases, Pacer would email or call the area police department to get more information for her story. The next step in the process would be to go to the courthouse and request documents— most importantly charging documents.

Getting your documents

“I always look for charging documents, so you know what they’re being charged with,” Pacer said. “And, an affidavit, which is signed by a trooper or the arresting officer. It usually includes a lot more details.”

Inside the courthouse, journalists can also get access to public records, though it can be tricky to know exactly which documents are needed. Rivera said you always want the charging document with the narrative.

“Sometimes that’s where you learn the most about a case,” she said. 

Understanding how a charge is brought on someone is important too. Rivera said there are three ways someone can be charged for a crime. 

  1. By written police complaint.
  2. Through a charge by information, a Department of Law police complaint.
  3. By indictment, where a grand jury is called and decides to indict.

In a grand jury scenario, Rivera said you’ll learn the least about a case because the narrative is only included during confidential grand jury proceedings.

For felony case complaints, Rivera said a D.A.’s Office should be able to send you a copy. Up to a day before a hearing, a file you need may already be with the judge, and the clerk could say the document is unavailable. Rivera said occasionally a clerk will grab the document from the judge’s chambers for a few minutes — enough time for her to make a copy. Rivera said being very polite and reiterating the need for public safety and information helps.

“Sometimes people will work with you,” Rivera said. “It’s just all about finding the right person to ask very nicely to get a copy. But yeah, it’s just kind of a process of trial and error, like whichever area you cover, figuring out who there is going to work with you to help you get it.”

Parsing official documents

So you have your documents, but how do you know what’s important and what’s not? Rivera said the first thing she thinks about is what information needs to be left out in order to protect a victim’s identity. This is especially important in crimes with minors or sexual assault. In these cases, it’s important to protect the victim’s identity and not cause harm. Reporters need to make judgement calls on which details serve the public good, and which could humiliate the victim. 

“I’ve just read things that I can’t unsee and forget, and things that really, really weigh on you,” Rivera said. “I just think, is there a way to explain the severity of what happened without traumatizing more people.”

Experience helps— Pacer said the more documents you gather and cover, the easier it will be to differentiate what you do and don’t need. When using information from court documents, Pacer cautions reporters from using police and court terms. 

“It’s really easy to just repeat that court and police officer jargon,” Pacer said. “But the average reader either isn’t going to know what it is, or it’s just going to make your writing sound super technical and bland and boring.”

Understanding the jargon and finding synonyms and definitions that you can plug into your story will help your piece be more digestible for the public. Some terms in the court system don’t have easily replaceable words— in these cases, Pacer refers to AP Style’s advice. 

Even so, official vernacular can be confusing, even to reporters. If a journalist is unsure what a term means, they should avoid guessing— instead, ask a veteran journalist or even an attorney.

Parsing official documents isn’t just about sharpening your vocabulary— it requires analyzing the narrative these documents present. Police statements tend to share the details of incidents from the officer’s point of view. Journalists need to reframe information from police sources to make the story about the incident itself, rather than solely the responding officer’s experience of it.

Reporting from inside the courthouse

If you’re preparing to cover a hearing or trial inside the courthouse, there’s a few things to keep in mind. If you want to cover a hearing, Rivera said to get your request in as soon as possibly, ideally a day in advance.

Pacer recommends keeping a stack of ready-to-fill-out media request files at your desk to make the process of requesting photo or recording permission in court easier. When filling out the form, Pacer said she’s found it’s best to request coverage of a hearing she wants to attend, and include a statement like, “and all the hearings that come after.” She also said in a sensitive case, she’ll note on a request to take photos that the photos will not include victims or minors without permission.

Once inside a courtroom, Pacer recommends introducing yourself to the family and people involved on each side of a case and switching which side you sit on every time you cover a major hearing for a case.

“I would always try to not give the appearance of favoring the defendant side or the prosecution side,” Pacer said.

Pacer said she recommends dressing professionally, double checking the court calendar for any last minute changes to the schedule and to double check you don’t have anything on your person that will get flagged by security— once, Pacer said she had to leave the building and throw away a metal fork.

Doing no harm

Reporting on crime is a balance, Pacer said. If a crime takes place, the public deserves to know what’s going on and how safe their neighborhood is, but that has to be balanced against potential harm a story can bring to a person who has been accused or a victim and their family. One reminder Pacer gives herself is something she took away from an Alaska Press Club crime reporting seminar by Alaska Public Media reporter Casey Grove, who told members that a crime story is often a story about the worst day in at least one person’s life. 

Rivera said it’s critical to be mindful of how the crime beat can contribute to problems our country faces. Paying attention to what sides of the story you’re sharing, if you’re using dehumanizing words, or if you are playing into stereotypes.

She said it’s important to critically question everything. “Trust, but verify,” is a model Rivera learned from a former news director. 

Crime and courts reporting is important because people want to know what’s happening in their community, which can give people a sense of how safe their neighborhood is. Rivera said this outlook isn’t always a good thing, “because we’re not writing stories on the nice guy who didn’t attack someone on the street.” She said it is important to report on how the criminal justice system is working — both for people charged with crimes, as well as people who have experienced crimes happening to them. 

“I think it’s important to share a balance of both stories,” Rivera said. “I think without us watching what’s happening, the government wields a lot of power over people’s lives and their freedoms in this particular system. And, you know, if it’s our job to be a watchdog of government, it’s particularly important that we’re doing it here.”

Managing wellbeing and asking for help

It’s easy for reporters to become overwhelmed covering crime and courts— both because of the overwhelming intricacies of the legal process and the dire situations journalists must constantly read about.

“If you’re feeling yourself, getting overwhelmed too, you know, take a break,” Pacer said. “Get up, walk, go outside, get a drink of water. You don’t have to wade through it all at one time… If you’re uncomfortable, certainly talk to your editor. I would say even talking to someone professional, because there is a certain amount of secondary trauma, especially if your entire beat is crime, you’re going to be reading a lot of really difficult things.”

Understanding the legal process helps being overwhelmed. Rivera said the sooner a reporter understands how the system works and the vocabulary, the easier it will be to have a good grasp on the narrative. Asking another reporter could also help, she said. She said in Alaska, veteran reporters seem willing to help each other. 

“Everything I learned about how cases work, and the process of a case, I learned by asking attorneys and people who are in the system really dumb questions — who like explain stuff to me,” Rivera said. “I’ve spent hours and hours and hours of my life, days of my life, in courtrooms just listening. And after a while, you just kind of understand what’s being said.”

Resources for getting started:

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