Thursday, August 03, 2006

Writing, and blogging, a crime story

I was reminded this week of the care I must take whenever reporting on crime, especially those that include allegations of sexual assault. The story concerns a Stowe man who's accused of beating and molesting a 12-year-old girl.

My primary source for reporting on these allegations are court documents. Every week I drive down to the Hyde Park Court House and review recent arraignments and dispositions. In this case, the man was arraigned on charges of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child and first-degree aggravated domestic assault, both felonies. The man pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The case has a docket that includes information on the arraignment, conditions of release, and a police affidavit outlining the allegations. The latter document is my main source for reporting; it contains a police account of what allegedly happened, and it goes into great detail. Thus arises the question: how much detail do I include? There are descriptions in the affidavit everybody can agree are inappropriate for publication and there are others that people may disagree on.

When it comes allegations of sexual assault, and in this case a minor under 18, protecting the victim's identity is paramount. At the same time, there's a balance I need to strike between giving readers fair picture of the allegations and preserving anonymity for the victim.

As a starting point, I'll take detailed notes on the police affidavit — in many cases, much more detailed than I anticipate printing. That's because, in my mind, the process of reporting involves two general steps: gathering all the information I can, and then disseminating that information.

The finished story is hopefully one that informs the public, yet treats the people involved fairly. Not everyone agrees on those standards. It is a continual conversation among our news staff.

What I find interesting is the question of how weblogs will fit into this equation. Many blogs contain original reporting, and many bloggers are not "trained" journalists — that is, they don't get paid for the work. But bloggers, too, are disseminators of information, and they, too, must decide what information gets published for public viewing.

When it comes to crime, I wonder whether bloggers will test the waters. A police affidavit filed with the court, for example, is a public document, presumably available for viewing for anyone who asks. In an age of web publishing, the issues of privacy vs. public magnify with a larger audience. Some blogs, such as The Safe City, a self-described "criminal justice system watchdog," contain links to crime stories across the nation and compile crime-related statistics. Others, such as The Blotter at the Spokesman-Review, post mainly about calls that come in on the police scanner. Here's an interesting one: Baltimore Crime, a "digest of crime in Baltimore City, Maryland." The blogger doesn't appear to be a reporter (his poll says "If I ran the papers...", and he basically links and summarizes crime stories. Here, the The Boston Police Department has its own blog with updates on incidents. Wow. I doubt you'd see something like that locally. Stowe Police would need to put up their own Web site first; now, all that's available is this general emergency services page.

*UPDATE*


I posted a couple of questions over at the Baltimore Crime blog and just got an interesting response:

Me:


Taotechuck,
I just started a crime blog in my area and so I'm interested in this one. A couple questions: How did you create the poll on the right? Do you have any experience in journalism, or are you just interested in crime and public-safety? Have you run into any problems in blogging about crime? Thanks very much.

- Scott Monroe

taotechuck said...


Scott,

I cover the site when the main person is away, so unfortunately I'm limited in offering advice on things like the poll.

I grew up around journalists and studied journalism but I've never worked as a journalist. I became interested in crime and public safety after five people were shot in front of my house (three fatally) in the first year that I owned it.

I haven't run into any problems, but I assume it's inevitable. I'm still working to find an effective way to write about murder on one of my other sites (www.murderland.org), and what I've found in Baltimore is that most people are genuinely appreciative when someone bothers to take the time to write about their dead father / brother / son / nephew / uncle. The newspapers and TV here aren't always diligent (that's me being nice) in covering murders in our fair city.

2 Comments:

Blogger aaronpon said...

Aaron,


I wrote 2 crime stories with one completed. Could you give me some ideas cause I am not a very good author

8/06/2006 04:51:00 AM  
Blogger Scott Monroe said...

Aaron,

I'd be glad to offer advice, but you'll have to be a little more specific.

8/07/2006 09:28:00 AM  

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