Posted by: lcowie | October 6, 2008

America’s Best Newspaper Writing, part 5

Crime and Courts

by Lesley Cowie

Reporters often use crime to sensationalize their stories, in an attempt to gather more readers. The proper way to report crime is to instill emotions in readers and to fulfill a civic duty.

An important tip to remember about crime reporting is to face fears. By facing one’s fears of crime and safety, he or she is actually showing courage and persistence.

Some of the best examples of this style of writing come from Cathy Frye, Linnet Myers, and Anne Hull. These reporters have been able to explain a crime in an artful, narrative way.

These kinds of descriptive tales are very difficult to find in many newspapers. Therefore, it is important to cherish these rare commodities when they come along.

Crime reporting appears to come in three forms: newsworthy, creative, and narrative. Some reporters strictly deliver the facts, some insert creative details, and others create a vivid portrayal of the facts.

The following articles appear to fall in the second category. These writers devoted half their stories to creativity and half to facts.

“On bail, Simpson is freed from jail” by William Booth

An example of this is William Booth’s article, “On bail, Simpson is freed from jail.” This Washington Post reporter uses grim details to attract the reader.

Booth presents a wealth of information and facts regarding O.J. Simpson’s past and current trial issues. Interestingly, Booth makes references to many media outlets as he delivers his information. This could be Booth’s way of illustrating the severity and notoriety of Simpson’s troubles.

Another reason for utilizing other media outlets is to show how criminals often become celebrities as a result of their troubles. Although some suspected defendants are already celebrities, like Robert Blake and Michael Jackson, others acquire celebrity status through the media’s coverage of the trial.

This is an important article for evaluating the extent to which Americans, and the media, idolize (celebrity) criminals. As Booth alludes, is it really necessary that the American people know such intricate details about these celebrity criminals? It is not pertinent to the trial to know that Simpson lives in a Miami suburb, spends his days golfing, and enjoys eating at Hooters.

While the main point of the article was to explain Simpson’s movements post-jail, Booth was also able to convey that fact that crime and court trials often become media spectacles.

“San Quentin is Scott Peterson’s new home” by Kim Curtis

In a similar light, Kim Curtis’ article for the San Diego Union-Tribune discusses the shift in Scott Peterson’s lifestyle since being convicted of murder in 2005. Like Simpson, Peterson used to enjoy playing golf, but now Peterson stays locked up in San Quentin State Prison.

This is an interesting article because it goes inside the prison, describing the crude conditions that Peterson will be living in until his execution. Curtis kindly uses layman’s terms to describe the cells, showers, and processing procedure.

Curtis does not describe the controversial positives of being locked up in a prison; she strictly discusses the negatives and limitations. This is necessary to show how Peterson is being punished, compared to lifestyle he used to live.

To further convey the severity of Peterson’s punishment, Curtis wisely includes an important fact at the end of the article. She says that California moves the slowest towards executions and that it is likely that Peterson will sit in prison for at least five years. This allows the reader to think back over the prison’s description and let those details sink in. Even though Peterson received the death penalty, he will be facing these crude conditions for a while.

In a sense, this article allows the reader to consider the effectiveness of the capital punishment. Often times, people assume that the death penalty means immediate execution. Clearly this is not the case.

By explaining the prison’s harsh conditions, one might assume that Curtis is promoting capital punishment. It may be that Curtis is okay with the delay and believes the harsh prison conditions are suitable for a convicted murder while he or she waits. The theory is up for interpretation.

“School ties link alleged plotters” by Doug Struck

Doug Struck, of the Washington Post, wrote an interesting article about school friends who became alleged terrorists. This theme strikes a nerve with Americans because we are very afraid of terrorists and do not want to believe that our children can grow up to become terrorists.

The underlying importance of this article is for parents to pay close attention to who their children are spending time with. Under close supervision, it is expected that terrorist plots will not have a chance to develop.

One example that Struck gave was of Saad Khalid, whose mother died in an accident in 2003. Although Khalid showed signs typical for cult-like behavior, he had no parental influence observing his detrimental actions.

Struck also ties religion into his theme of terror. Following Sept. 11, Americans have become increasingly aware of bonds between religion and terrorism. Struck uses Khalid’s Muslim beliefs as ammunition for the terrorist plot. It appears that Struck wants others to be aware of when religious beliefs go too far.

“Pahokee plays for ‘Pooh'” by Antonio Gonzalez

Sometimes sporting beliefs can go too far, according to Antonio Gonzalez’s article for the San Francisco Chronicle. In this report, the captain of a Florida high school football team was shot to death. Some believe it was because of a town football rivalry.

Gonzalez weaves football throughout each paragraph of the article, detailing how important the sport is in the town, as well as some believe the murder was connected to the sport.

Football is so important in Pahokee, Fla., that Norman Griffith’s family postponed the boy’s funeral so that the week’s football game could go on.

By describing the important role of football in the town, Gonzalez is demonstrating how particular hobbies and beliefs can go too far. He presents his information in an unbiased format, yet it is clear that there are questions left at the end of the article.

Did football play a role in Norman’s death? If so, the town must consider a way to remedy the situation so that it does not happen again. Norman’s death is one of seven deaths that have recently occurred in the area. While football is a hobby, it is becoming a deadly one.

This article makes the reader worry about the world, such that someone could murder a student over a football game. There is much to say about the world we now live in and what inspires criminals to act the way they do.

“Wedding of Mary Kay Letourneau and former student shrouded in secrecy” by Melanthia Mitchell

Melanthia Mitchell wrote an article, published in The Seattle Times, about Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau. Letourneau spent approximately seven years in prison for raping Fualaau in 1997. To continue the serious themes of crime, government, and jail, Mitchell creatively wrote about Letourneau and Fualaau’s wedding in a serious, top-secret government format.

Rather than writing about a joyous occasion, Mitchell described the wedding in a very serious tone. She described all the secrecy that went into planning, and carrying out, the wedding.

By doing this, Mitchell almost conveys the idea that Letourneau is breaking the law again. It seems quite mysterious that the wedding was kept so secretive. Mitchell described the various ways that Letourneau and Fualaau tried to make the wedding secret, from phone calls and emails to predetermined locations and buses.

The format of this article may be interpreted as such: once a criminal, always a criminal. This theory may be untrue, but Mitchell’s serious format might convey this thought.

Crime reporting should, of course, detail the events of a crime. It is interesting how reporters can creatively find an underlying theme about criminals, crimes, and society in writing these kinds of articles.


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