So, I’ve been on a kick of posting journalism related materials because there’s a lot of animosity in the world surrounding journalists and what we do due to the rise in “fake news” perpetuated by wannabes and less than honourable institutions.
My hope here is people realize not all journalism is bad and the media isn’t this dark and evil force out to hurt the community, as many of us are quite the opposite.
In this Mytake, I’m going to tell you what it’s like for an amateur reporter going into a murder trial.
I say amateur here because I seldom cover court related stories as we have a full time crime reporter who has done this for over a decade.
However, I got to attend one of these trials a little while ago and figured I would tell you about what that experience was like.
For the sake of anonymity I will not be using any names and will be selective with the details of any mentioned cases.
The case I covered involved the death of a mother and daughter with the father being the murderer. The first thing I need to emphasize is that these cases take a long time, from two years or more for final sentencing. That’s sort of just how it works in Canada and the length of time it takes to conclude a case is often inflated when a jury and witnesses get involved.
In this case, the murderer pleaded because he took a deal with the courts to admit to the crime for a lesser sentence of second degree murder. Deals are very common in the courtroom because it not only speeds up the process, but can eliminate the need to call witnesses to the stand, which can be very stressful and traumatizing for them. It also has the added “benefit” of the accused to admit to what they did, which many families find comforting.
In Canada, second degree murder carries a life sentence (20-25 years) with a minimum parole eligibility in the case of domestic murder ranging from a 12-17 years. However, a judge can increase that parole ineligibility to about 20 years, though this rarely happens.
What you aren’t told about crime reporting though is that you don’t ever write just one story on a crime.
While I can’t give you a concrete number, you can expect to be writing about a case every time there is something new about it. As the legal process ensues, as family and friends begin speaking out, and of course when the person is sentenced. You follow cases like these until their final conclusion and possibly even afterwards as new developments come up.
The murderer won’t be present at every single court hearing and may even be tuning in through video in some cases. Otherwise, they will be escorted in and out by a guard and will sit in an enclosed, protective glass “box” if you will. During sentencing they rarely get a chance to speak, just in my experience.
Actually being in the courtroom can be traumatizing for someone who has never covered a murder, and I can definitely say that even as a tough gal, it still proves to be extremely upsetting for me. Crimes are often detailed by the judge quite graphically and it’s very typical for friends and family members in the courtroom to openly break down, cry, storm out, etc.
In one particular case I was unintentionally seated by a family member of a murdered child. I had to hold back my own tears as she began to sob uncontrollably.
But, as a journalist, you can’t lose your nerve. Unfortunately, you have to accept that the pain they’re feeling is their own grief and you can’t adopt it.
Of course, that’s easier said than done, so you have to take special care after covering something like this.
Next comes talking to the family and let me tell you, it can be some of the most difficult conversations you’ll ever have. However, luckily for most journalists the family, despite being torn up about what happened, are very eager to get the story of their family member out there as well as their personal thoughts and opinions on it.
During interviews where legal matters are involved, I urge most journalists, especially new ones, to record all conversations to avoid potential libel charges. Normally, handwritten notes alone are fine, but again, if its of a legal nature your best bet is to include a recording element.
When talking to grieving family members, it’s good to usually just let them talk and guide them through conversation with simple, to-the-point questions. You may have to encourage them a bit as they may be quick to hit you with “off the record” by telling them you want to tell the full scope of their loved one’s story so they don’t feel intimidated to speak.
In my personal experience, the family of the murderer rarely shows up at the court and they almost never want to speak to the media, but if you have the opportunity to, you can always try. Just assure them that you’re just there to get the story from their perspective.
There’s going to be a lot of high-running emotions and even more news agencies with cameras, questions and reporters, so the quicker you connect with the family, the better. Usually, they’ll actually reach out to you to get more media involved.
However, if they get swept up by other reporters, don’t panic. Just wait patiently and occupy your time by talking to other people to see if any friends or other family members may have something unique to add.
Families are often very grateful for the coverage, and while other agencies would likely deem it inappropriate, we have had cases were some of our reporters have been hugged, and for me personally I had the victim’s mother hold and squeeze my hand as we spoke.
Obviously, use your own discretion.
Another thing to note is there’s going to be tons of details you’ll need to cover, so don’t be afraid to go up to court staff and ask questions. Usually there will be printouts available at the end of every sentencing including all of the details of what was read by the judge. A lot of people will also probably want to add their two cents, but keep in mind you can’t include every single thought and opinion in your story and just aim to use the most important elements, such as witness impact statements, the crime committed, and the most immediate family’s quotes.
In the case of recovering after such a difficult story, I advise you file it immediately as soon as you’re done to not only keep it timely, but also to get it off your plate. Then, go on to the next story. When you’re done for the day, decompress, don’t watch the news for a while, and remember that as sad as these things are, they aren’t happening to you (I hope) and you’re doing your part by writing the story and informing people.
So, yeah. That’s my current experience covering murder cases. If any of you have any questions or suggestions for journalism related topics drop them down below.