Crime might not pay, but for the media, criminal justice is one category that consistently draws a large audience. So the cops-and-courts beat hasn't been impacted by editorial cutbacks as drastically as other areas.
“It's possible that more reporters now have to juggle both the police and courts, and historicity criminal justice has always been a beat with a lot of churn,” says Ted Gest, president of the Criminal Justice Journalists organization. “But we haven't seen any drop in the amount of criminal-justice coverage.”
Criminology experts, who often serve as sources for journalists writing police stories, are also keeping busy, adds Chris Godek, executive director of communications for the New York-based John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“It's still the police blotter stories and the first three pages of any of the [New York] tabloids [that call for comment frequently],” Godek adds. “They come to us looking for comment on everything from procedure to forensic science, and our professors are quoted in about 1,400 print stories a year.”
The biggest change to the police beat, especially on breaking crime stories, was the advent of the 24-hours news cycle, explains Judy Pal, public information officer for the Savannah Chatham (GA) Metropolitan Police Department and founder of 10-8 Communications, a consultancy for police spokespersons.
“The media has less and less time, so they're coming to us looking for a lot more,” she says.
Pal adds that the Internet is providing new challenges for both police and crime-beat reporters because anyone with a video camera or even a cell phone can provide images of either a crime or police misbehavior.
“[Before,] if something was on tape, a reporter would check the story with us before running with it. But today, videos end up hitting the Internet raw,” she says.
Pal adds that the police themselves are beginning to understand social media Web sites, like YouTube, and are using them to bypass the traditional police beat journalist with messages to the public.
“That gives us a chance to get our story out without any type of filtration,” she explains.
Whether it's O.J. Simpson or the Caylee Anthony homicide, there are criminal-justice stories that transcend the police beat to become national general interest stories. However, Charles Higginbotham, editor of The Police Chief magazine, says most cops-and-courts stories are local, so that is where police chiefs and their public information officers place most of their focus.
Godek adds that local reporters more often try to do bigger picture stories on criminal justice trends.
“Whenever there are statistics on homicides or violent crimes, or someone wants to take a look at prisons, they're going to need experts, so we make sure we make a whole range of people available to comment,” she says.
Criminal-justice reporters often cover breaking news on tight deadlines, so have a process in place to quickly get them access to official sources and experts
The CSI phenomenon is still alive and doing well, so reporters will likely be interested in any new technologies, including weapons and body armor
Outside of a few high-profile crimes, cops-and-courts remains a local beat, so that's where most PR is focused