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November 5, 2009

Crime and access to information

Catching some rest after my overnight flight, I woke up to the sound of police sirens and a constant pop-pop-popping outside the Kentish Town apartment where I'm staying. Gunfire? Nope. It's Guy Fawkes Night in the UK, marking the downfall of a plot to destroy the House of Parliament in 1605. The fireworks celebrations will last all weekend.

Anyway, I'm working to get my feet set and haven't hit the streets yet, but in chatting with reporters here at the Independent, I'm already hearing some pretty significant differences in how reporters cover crime here.

In Baltimore, and the U.S. generally, an arrest in a criminal case marks a big moment in the reporting process. Authorities have to file charging documents with the court, requiring certain evidence to be laid out. With the suspect formally identified and charged, the digging then begins on trying to find out more about the case and the suspect.

Here, it is the opposite. Once an arrest is made, there is essentially a blackout on information. Reporters are prohibited by the government from publishing information about the case, particularly anything about the defendant, out of concern that it will influence potential jurors. Doing so runs the risks of fines and contempt of court charges. If a reporter gets major information on a case, but an arrest is made while they're putting their article together, they will have to sit on that info until the case has been adjudicated.

Of course, in America, our courts will call hundreds of people if necessary to find 12 who have not heard about the case, and they are instructed by the judge not to seek out information in newspapers or on TV during the proceedings. Reporters here couldn't believe what I was telling them about our access to court records and our ability to write about a case after arrest, and leading up to and during a trial. One expressed reservations that the media accounts would indeed sway a jury unfairly.

Another big difference is that police scanners, a fixture in U.S. newsrooms, aren't a factor here. They wait to hear from police about major crimes, and alerts can sometimes take days, reporters said. And remember, because of the contempt of court issues, if they find out about a crime after an arrest is made, they're essentially powerless to do any meaningful reporting because of the jury bias issues. I'm curious whether I'll be held to that standard as a visiting journalist attending courts next week, and I have no idea how I would get to a crime scene without the ridealongs I have scheduled in the coming days.

Posted by Justin Fenton at 2:06 PM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Justin Fenton


How do daily papers in the UK fill a crime section each issue?

From your analysis, it seems like there's so much waiting involved to ever really get any word out until the case is all wrapped up and in the past.

It's a good thing, here in the U.S., the court system is willing to protect free press rights and bend their backs to find 12 impartial people to sit in a jury while we report on whatever we can get our hands on.

The big crime stories in the British papers are during the trials. All evidence presented in court that day is recounted in the papers.

Maybe that's because we in the United States have the freedom of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment and applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment? I fail to see any newsworthiness to your report/story/editorial.

Ah, a comment so important that he tried posting it twice. If you don't like posts like these I guess this experiment of ours just isn't your cup of tea. -Justin

Just to let you know, the header with the map grossly dislocates Baltimore. That star makes Baltimore appear as if it's in Virginia or North Carolina. Crikey!

So if someone shoots a famous person and the police grab the suspect as soon as it happens, then there is no reporting of that crime? A hypothetical, an MP is murdered, the killer is apprehended at the scene of the crime...there is no news about the loss of the MP? He/she just vanishes until a trial is over?

Independent news editor Oliver Wright tells me the answer essentially is yes. They can give the who, what, when, where - and the rest of the story would basically be filler, such as background on the victim. They can't get into the allegations of the case or the background of the killer

'A hypothetical, an MP is murdered, the killer is apprehended at the scene of the crime'

Hypothetically yes, but more typically in high profile murder cases there's saturation media coverage while the police are searching for suspects (which generally involves briefing the media), things go quiet after the arrest is made, then there is another round of reporting to accompany the trial. See, for instance, the coverage of the murder of Jill Dando (a TV presenter), Alexander Litvinenko (assassinated Russian dissident) or Ian Huntley (the Soham child-killer).

With regards to reporting in the Brit papers, there isn't the same tendency towards having a dedicated crime section, news is just news and crime may be reported throughout a paper.
Very often the laws restraining what is reported are circumnavigated with clever use of words such as 'allegedly'.
Of course crimes are reported as they occur; were an MP to be offed by means of foul play (although many may debate whether this really counts as a crime) this would be all over the national news in real time. Specific details relevant to the case may be withheld with the argument being that it is more in the public interest for the courts to run efficiently than it is in the public interest to know intimate details of a case (such as the alleged killers sexuality).
Regional crime is reported regionally and where there is the scenario of a crime commited and the subject (of her maj. Liz II) collard there and then and up in front of the magistrate (a low level part time judge) the following morning, all the details of the case are available pretty instantly and are thus reported on pretty instantly and forgotten the same way.

And yes, I have the pleasure of living in south Manchester and no, I really don't believe it's all that bad at all. Compared to the days when football hooligans would close a town down on a Saturday afternoon, it's all peace and quiet. But that's another story....!

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About 'Crime: A Tale of Two Cities'
When "The Wire" gained popularity in Great Britain, we were contacted by a London-based journalist who proposed a job swap. Mark Hughes, a crime reporter with The Independent, a national newspaper in the United Kingdom, wanted to come to Baltimore to see if the city’s police officers, drug dealers, prosecutors and politicians bore any resemblance to those on show. We agreed to complete the exchange by sending our police reporter, Justin Fenton, to London to compare crime trends. We’ll publish some of their work in the print edition of The Sun, and more observations will be available here.

Local media coverage
• 105.7-FM The Fan: The Ed Norris Show
• WBFF Fox45: London Reporter Greeted with Crime - John Rydell
• WAMU 88.5-FM: "The Wire" Inspires Trans-Atlantic Reporter Exchange

An American in London
Justin Fenton has covered crime for the Baltimore Sun for five years, in suburban counties and Baltimore City. His award-winning work has included coverage of the Amish schoolhouse slayings in Lancaster, Penn.; a 16-year-old boy who executed his parents and two brothers in their sleep; a three-part series about the odyssey of a female serial con artist; and a small town’s crippling baseball stadium deal with a hometown athlete.

Justin's articles from The Baltimore Sun
• Crime and race: A different world (November 27)
• Britons reject likening crime levels to Baltimore's (December 7)

A Brit in Baltimore
Mark Hughes is the crime correspondent for The Independent newspaper in Britain, a national daily based in London. He has covered the goings on at Scotland Yard, and further afield, since 2008. Previous to that he was the paper’s north of England reporter, working from Manchester. He joined The Independent in 2007 after three years working on a regional newspaper in Carlisle.

Mark's articles from The Independent
• Just minutes after I arrived, I was at the scene of a shooting ... (November 7)
• 189 homicides this year – this is The Wire, only real (November 9)
• The trials of 'Baltimore's Boris' (November 10)
• 'Wire' star joins real fight against crime (November 11)

Baltimore Sun crime coverage
Articles by Justin Fenton
Crime headlines
Blog: Baltimore Crime Beat
A roundup of crimes reported in Baltimore City and Baltimore County
Baltimore City homicide map
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