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University of Wisconsin–Madison

A high stakes beat: tips for balanced and informed crime coverage

Photo of small blue house perched on edge of a cement dock.

Photo by Cindy Tang on Unsplash

1. Get trained.

Crime and courts coverage is often assigned to early-career reporters, but rookie and veteran reporters alike need specific training to tackle the complexities of these beats. 

“Most of the new reporters — and I would count myself when I started out — they don’t know anything unless they took some course in college or (have) family members in the criminal justice system working in it,” says Ted Gest, the Washington bureau chief for The Crime Report and president of Criminal Justice Journalists, the nation’s only association of criminal justice reporters.

Gest recommends reporters new to these beats dedicate several hours of their first weeks or months on job to informational meetings that aren’t about any particular story. Investing the time to sit down with police, parole officers, judges, prosecuting and defense attorneys, victims’ rights advocates and criminologists can help the reporter learn more about how the system works, enabling them to provide more context to readers or recognize new stories. 

“I think a lot of reporters probably are reluctant to do that,” Gest acknowledges. “Either they think they can just learn as they go along or they don’t have time or whatever.” But he argues that it would be worth the time they put in. 

Keri Blakinger, a reporter for the nonprofit criminal justice news outlet the Marshall Project, agrees. “The greater a reporter’s working knowledge of the broader criminal justice issues, the easier it is to … at least be cognizant of what questions you should be asking yourself,” Blakinger says. “There’s really no substitute for that. You have to do your homework.”

Other sources of information include the Criminal Justice Journalists association; fellowships from the Center for Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College; Crime and Justice News, the newsletter Ted Gest writes each weekday for The Crime Report; the Crime & Justice Research Alliance’s database of experts and research; the Justice Research and Statistics Association’s state-specific data analyses; and research from organizations such as the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, the Vera Institute of Justice, the Brennan Center and various research centers.

Still, says Gary Fields, who spent more than two decades covering crime and criminal justice for the Washington Post and USA Today, there’s no substitute for the guidance that an experienced editor can provide. “I’m not averse to having somebody relatively new get on the beat because it’s a fantastic way to actually become a better reporter, but you make sure that the people that are with them and overseeing them are really good,” Fields says. He adds that editors should assign the more complex stories — such as unexplained jailhouse deaths — to more experienced reporters or to teams combining experienced and rookie reporters. “If you’re not going to guide them, then I’ve got a problem with it,” Fields says.

2. Dive deep.

Pamela Colloff, who built her career reporting on character-driven narratives about the criminal justice system, notes that some crime and courts topics demand a deeper sort of training. She recalls covering cases where bloodstain pattern analysis — an unproven tool — was used to convict a person, but even on her longer magazine deadlines, she didn’t have the time or resources to explain to readers why they should view that specific forensic method with skepticism.

Now a senior reporter at ProPublica and a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine, Colloff recently found herself reporting on bloodstain pattern analysis again, this time with the goal of explaining how the questionable “science” has led to questionable convictions. In one case she was writing about, the expert who testified about the bloodstains had received 40 hours of training — which Colloff describes as “laughably small for something where someone’s life hinges upon it” — so Colloff decided to take the same course. “I wasn’t a police officer for 20 some odd years like he was … but I had the same training in bloodstain pattern analysis that he did, and that allowed me to look at this case in an entirely new way.”

3. Question everyone.

Without sufficient training, Gest says, reporters find themselves relying exclusively on police or district attorneys’ explanations. “They tend to learn everything from the vantage point of the police,” Gest says. That in turn shapes their stories. “I’m hesitant to give a percentage, but a large percent of stories you see are told totally, 100 percent from the police viewpoint.” 

When reporting breaking crime news, reporters may need to rely heavily on police accounts and should attribute that information. But Fields says reporters should be careful about how they use the information law enforcement provides, always asking themselves why law enforcement provided that information and what they stand to gain from sharing it. 

Reporters should be especially careful if charges have not yet been filed, Fields says. Police could be using the media to apply pressure to a suspect, and reporters may face lawsuits or credibility crises if they publish false allegations. He recalls the man who was identified in the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta but was never arrested or charged. “The first question you should have asked is, ‘So why are you guys giving me his name if you don’t have enough to actually charge? What’s in it for you? How are you trying to use me?’” Fields says. 

Fields prefers to rely on the “vetted” information that authorities publicly share on their own social media accounts. He’ll also contact the prosecutor, ATF, FBI or emergency services. Publishing additional information that law enforcement might dangle could mean beating the competition, but he says he’d rather be right than first.

4. Seek balance.

Once a suspect has been charged, the story shifts from crime reporting to courts reporting, where the importance of balance continues.

“This is very difficult reporting to do,” says Carroll Bogert, president of the Marshall Project. “Criminal justice inevitably involves people with at least two conflicting views of what happened. Think about a courtroom: One side is arguing that this happened. The other side is arguing that happened. So who’s right?”

She recommends reporters hold a “fundamental skepticism” about any press conference held by police or prosecutors. “Ask yourself, ‘Is the defense in this picture? What is the defense saying? Why aren’t they in this picture?’” Bogert advises.

But balanced courts reporting is easier said than done, Blakinger says. “You can talk to the defense and talk to the prosecution and just get such a different framings of the same thing. It can be really hard to figure out how to … present things in a way that is both fair and as close to truthful as you’re able to tell.” 

And, she says, “sometimes one side is not being straight with you,” which poses an added dilemma. “Though it’s your responsibility to give space to both sides, it’s not your responsibility to make someone who’s lying look as credible as someone who’s not,” Blakinger says.

5. Diversify your sources. 

Defense attorneys aren’t the only ones left out of crime and courts reporting: Gest notes that many other types of people employed in the criminal justice system are seldom cited. “The police chief is not necessarily the only expert on this,” Gest says, adding that including sources such as judges, drug treatment staff and probation officers could change the content of some stories.

6. Look for trends. 

There’s always room for more stories focused on trends in the criminal justice system, Gest says. Such stories can help readers make meaning out of the scattershot crime stories they see, but he acknowledges that many reporters don’t have the time or resources to uncover these stories on their own. 

To those reporters, he offers a shortcut: Look for ideas in the roughly 60 mini-stories that he distributes each week in the Crime and Justice News newsletter. Many of those stories highlight emerging trends, and reporters can explore how those trends are playing out locally. 

That said, he offers a caution to any reporter seeking to analyze trends: take the long view, looking for trends over an extended period rather than zooming in on the change from one year to the next.

7. Consider the accountability angle.

For Bogert, criminal justice stories are inherently accountability stories. “This is a huge portion of government expenditure,” Bogert says. “We’re spending billions and billions of dollars on the criminal justice system. What are we getting out of that?”

But it’s not just the fiscal side that deserves investigation. “The criminal justice system is just inextricably intertwined with issues of racism,” she says, calling for more reporting “that elucidates that pernicious and persistent connection and brings to the fore ways in which … we are systematically biased against people of color.”

8. Expose under-covered effects of the criminal justice system.

Good reporting on the criminal justice system should explore the experience of all people involved in the system — including victims, defendants, prisoners, guards and police officers — Bogert says. 

“It actually affects the lives of so many,” she says, noting that reporters should beware of oversimplifying the racial dynamics. “Lots of people who work in the criminal justice system are black, and lots of people who pass through the system are white.”

Bogert says reporters should cover the realities of criminal justice employment. “We’ve all seen the suicide and alcoholism rates, right? These are not happy professions. So I think we have to be direct in saying … the system spreads a lot of its suffering around.”

She’d like to see more reporting on the “human experience” of the various people connected to the system. There’s a reason these stories have become staples of TV and movies. “There’s an inherent drama to it. But a lot of that is kind of sloppy and categorical, like ‘Cops are good,’ or ‘Cops are bad.’ I mean, cops are neither good nor bad. They’re complicated humans,” she says, as are people who’ve been labeled as criminals.

It’s the job of reporters, Bogert says, to show this complexity in the lives of all players. “So how can reportage just help people see the humanity … where they’ve just seen categories?” Bogert asks. She cites the journalists’ directive to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. “People who are ground down by the criminal justice system are among the most afflicted in our country,” she says, noting that they often don’t feel well-served by the news media.

9. Keep reporting after the verdict. 

Blakinger, who spent 21 months behind bars following a 2010 drug arrest, points to her own incarceration as the reason she covers an aspect of criminal justice many outlets ignore: prison conditions. A combination of public records requests and conversations with inmates’ families, defense attorneys and legislators led her to uncovering, while reporting for the Houston Chronicle, how Texas inmates are being denied dentures and new efforts to address the shortage with 3D-printing. 

Too often, she says, outlets focus on how people end up in prison but ignore what happens to them once they’re there. “That is one place that I consistently see that a lot of outlets sort of draw the line there, or are not interested,” Blakinger says.

There are logistical reasons for that, she says. Prisoners are locked out of view, so “it’s very difficult to write about what goes on in a prison until it comes up in a lawsuit.” But she thinks it’s in part about editorial choices. “This can be a hard sell to editors,” Blakinger says. “I think a lot of editors don’t believe that readers are going to care about like ‘Are prisoners getting dentures? Are prisoners baking to death in 100 degree heat?’”

Blakinger notes another reason editors don’t prioritize prison coverage: “In a lot of states, it’s never a local issue to anyone,” as inmates are often sent to prisons outside of their own communities. The outlet covering the area that the prisoners are from may not prioritize covering a non-local prison, and the outlet covering the small town where the prison is located — if such an outlet exists — may not prioritize covering the conditions the non-locals confined there face.

10. Help your audience understand how the system works — or doesn’t. 

The legal system is complex, and many readers have learned about it primarily through TV and movies. Reporters can aid their readers by explaining lesser-known or commonly-misunderstood aspects of the legal system, such as specific types of forensic science. This sort of reporting is Colloff’s speciality, weaving together a single dramatic case with explanation of the practice in question. Her recent reporting has explored the ways that bloodstain pattern analysis and testimony by criminal informants might be unreliable evidence for convictions.

But Colloff isn’t the only journalist taking this approach. Colloff herself admires the way the  podcast “In the Dark” weaves key context within a compelling narrative. In Season Two, producer Madeleine Baran recounts the story of Curtis Flowers, who has been tried six times for the same crime. Throughout the story, she critically examines each step in the case, including inviting an expert to explain why the bullet comparison process used to match Flowers’ gun to bullets found at the scene of the quadruple homicide should raise doubts. 

With this approach, reporters can harness the interest-factor of a single case to educate the public about issues that extend far beyond an individual case, such as the prevalence of false confessions or the striking of black jurors.

11. Weigh what not to do.

Ethical crime and courts reporting is also about what an outlet doesn’t do. Reporters must choose which coverage will best use the limited time and resources available, and more time spent covering low-level crime may mean less time available to reveal trends. 

And Blakinger argues that more crime coverage isn’t always better. “One of the dangers of crime reporting is if you deeply report on every crime, there’s some concern that maybe that stokes fear of a crime wave or of crime increasing when it’s not,” Blakinger says, which can in turn lead to expensive or problematic policies.

And, of course, that coverage has negative repercussions for the person who’s been charged, which should be weighed against the news value of the story. Blakinger would like to see newsrooms having more conversations considering under what circumstances they’ll cover low-level crime or show mugshots, so that individual reporters don’t have to make these choices on their own

Meanwhile, Fields believes that any journalist who names someone in an arrest is responsible for tracking the story and reporting on its resolution, since an unfinished story could lead to stigma or employment consequences for the person named. “I feel like you owe them that much,” he says.


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