Posted by: lcowie | October 6, 2008

Keren Rivas

Times-News reporter Keren Rivas gives Elon’s journalism students tips about crime reporting

by Lesley Cowie

Keren Rivas discusses her handout about how to avoid "cop-speak."

Keren Rivas discusses her handout about how to avoid "cop-speak."

Keren Rivas has had her share of criminal experiences. As a beat reporter for the Burlington Times-News, Rivas’ primary duty is to immerse herself in the life of crime.

This means listening to police scanners, visiting crime scenes, talking to police officers and sitting in a courtroom. Rivas visited the Elon campus Monday to give advice about crime reporting to a group of up-and-coming journalists.

Her first bit of advice was to listen to always ask questions and to not be shy. Sometimes, Rivas said, there will be terms that you think you know, but they will actually mean something different in terms of law.

Generally, prosecutors are happy to speak with journalists. According to Rivas, prosecutors would prefer to explain various aspects of a crime to a journalist before incorrect information gets published.

“Say, ‘I’m not going to quote you. It’s for my own understanding,'” Rivas said. “Then they’ll talk to you for hours.”

Scanning the area for crime

Rivas suggested that crime reporters use police scanners to find stories. Scanners are great for keeping up with the latest criminal activity, Rivas said, but they are misleading. Rivas cited an incident where the Times-News staff heard about a kidnapping via the scanner only to find out that it was a miscommunication.

“Things can sound completely crazy [over the scanner] but be nothing in the end,” Rivas said.

According to Rivas, the police scanner is the first tool she uses when covering crimes. She tunes to alamancelivescanner.com and keeps the scanner turned on all day.

Attitude gets you nowhere

When describing the importance of going to a crime scene, Rivas was sure to warn students about attitude, from the police and from themselves.

“You have to be careful when you are at the scene of a serious crime, or any crime, really,” Rivas said. “The police are going to look at you – you are interfering with what they’re doing. You have to be very careful of not having an attitude; it’s not going to help you.”

Rivas mentioned instances where she faced police officers who gave her attitude. Although she was trying to understand his job responsibilities, Rivas felt the attitude was not necessary. She handled the situation by calling the officer’s supervisor.

“You don’t want to rub them the wrong way,” she said. According to Rivas, sometimes a journalist must pick his or her own battles. It is important, she said, to have a lot of people skills when interacting with police officers and lawyers.

Know police rankings

An important tip for interacting with officers is to learn their symbols and ranks, Rivas said. By doing little things like this, she said, journalists may address these officers properly and get speak to the right people.

“These are probably just minor things that you’ve never heard of,” Rivas said, “but it’s really important. I’ve learned to spot sergeants, lieutenants, and captains….Those little things really help you.”

With all the people running around at the crime scene, Rivas said, sometimes reporters need to step back, be polite, and just give their cards to the important people at the scene.

Learn the clerks

Rivas mentioned how court clerks are often shown in movies and how people rely heavily on them to do favors. Rivas, however, makes an effort to know who the clerks are, yet tries to do all the research herself. Her calls to the clerks are often last resorts.

“Those are the people who have access to the information you want,” Rivas said. However, she added, if reporters call the clerks every time they need information, the clerks will not help. The clerks, she said, like to see reporters doing some of the research themselves.

In the event of having to call a clerk, Rivas feels comfortable doing so because she has taken the time to get to know the clerks for who they are. Rivas said that she has visited the clerks to talk about their lives outside of work so that she can establish trust and friendship.

Keren Rivas explains how she got into beat reporting with the Times-News and the challenges she faced in the beginning.

Introduce yourself to the judges

No matter how many times she sits in a courtroom, Rivas believes it is always polite to introduce herself to the judge. This way, she said, the judge will know who you are and what you are trying to accomplish. This alleviates the tension and apprehension that often occurs in this kind of setting.

Ask permission to videotape

In addition to introducing herself to the judges, Rivas always asks the judge’s permission to videotape inside the courtroom. Ask every time, every judge and every case, she said.

Even when Rivas has sat in the courtroom alongside one judge multiple times, she still asks for permission to tape because the terms depend on the case. Sometimes, she said, the judge will allow you to video tape, just be sure not to tape the victim. Reporters must adhere to the judge’s guidelines, Rivas said.

“Some judges don’t like cameras,” she added. “It’s their terms.”

According to Rivas, a polite demeanor can help reporters at the crime scene and in the courtroom.

Do not convict suspects in your stories

Elon's JCM 300 Reporting for the Public Good class listens attentively to Riva's advice.

Elon's JCM 300 Reporting for the Public Good class listens attentively to Rivas' suggestions.

One common mistake in crime reporting is that some journalists refer to a suspect as having committed the crime. Rivas used an example of a man robbing a bank, when the article should have inserted the word “allegedly.”

In addition, she said, the victim is not a victim until the suspect is found guilty. Reporters should refer to the victim as the prosecuting witness or the accusing party.

Rivas admitted to having made these mistakes but said that she has learned through these mess-ups. In order to avoid these mistakes, Rivas consults documents from the Poynter Institute about “cop-speak.” She also carries a North Carolina Public Access handbook to guide her questions.

Be thick-skinned, yet compassionate

Crime reporting elicits a great deal of criticism. Rivas’ advice is to get used to it. She said a reporter in this field must be thick-skinned and compassionate. There is a lot of emotion and tension on this side of reporting, Rivas said.

“Be compassionate to both sides,” she added. “People will think you’re on someone’s side. Don’t take it personally.” It is a matter of who presents their case in court on the day that you are reporting, Rivas said.

Rivas explained that she has had many emotional families contact her. She receives emails and phone calls criticizing her work. Sometimes she does not answer the messages. Other times, she will answer a message and explain what was going on in her head at the time.

When it comes to crime reporting, Rivas believes personality has a lot to do with success. She cited courtesy, deference, and compassion as a few desirable traits for her occupation. Without these characteristics, it will be more difficult for crime reporters to obtain the information they need.

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