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Writing Stories on Crime and Punishment

Make Sure You Don't Get Sued

By

A picture of a guy in handcuffs

Attention to detail is required when reporting crime stories.

Photo © Doug Menuez / Getty Images
For media professionals, writing crime stories and the justice that follows requires careful attention. Forget a detail and you could be faced with making a correction or retraction. Or worse, you could find yourself in court. Make sure your writing is clear, easy to understand and fair to everyone involved.

Writing Crime Stories Without Convicting the Suspect

When a crime is committed, police search for the person who did it. Officers search for murderers, rapists and robbers. Once someone is named, that person is a suspect. The person isn't a killer, even if police say he is. It takes a court of law to make that determination.

In your stories, you can say that "Bob Smith is suspected of the murder," "Bob Smith allegedly committed the murder," or "Police say Bob Smith is the killer." All would be accurate. What's important is that you personally aren't calling him a criminal.

Writing Crime Stories When the Suspect Goes to Court

When Bob Smith goes to court, he stands trial "for murder" or "on a murder charge," but he still isn't a murderer until the judge or jury reaches a verdict. Make sure you attribute testimony to either Smith's side (the defense) or the prosecution's side (the state).

Just because a witness testifies that she saw him commit murder doesn't make it true. Be wary of prosecutors who try to lead you into thinking their legal arguments are fact. You still need both sides of the case to have a fair story.

How to Change Your Writing Upon a Suspect's Conviction

Bob Smith has just been convicted, though his attorneys vow an appeal. It might be too strong for you to say "Smith is a killer." But it is true to say "Smith has been convicted of murder" or "the jury found Smith to be the murderer."

Once a guilty verdict has been reached, Smith is no longer a suspect. He is a convict. If he is put to death, it's not for a "murder charge," but a murder conviction.

It's easy to confuse simple police and judicial language when writing stories, especially on tight deadlines. Take time to check the legal aspects of your writing to make sure you don't end up in your boss's office explaining why a moment of carelessness has caused needless embarrassment and potential litigation.

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