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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 August 2007, 10:46 GMT 11:46 UK
Profile of a crime reporter
BBC News website court reporter Chris Summers
Chris is chief court correspondent for the BBC News website

Crime is incredibly difficult to report, even for experienced journalists, as this BBC reporter explains.

Strict legal guidelines must be followed and for this reason School Reporters should steer clear of such stories, even though the subject matter might be of interest to them.

This profile may inspire students to become journalists at a later stage in life and to undertake the legal training required to report what happens in a court of law.

My job as a crime reporter
By Chris Summers
BBC News website journalist

I have been a journalist since 1990 and for the last 10 or 12 years I have specialised in crime, just as others specialise in sport, health, politics or entertainment.

In the last 10 years or so I have attended dozens of trials and inquests, police press conferences and off-the-record briefings, and each crime seems to shed new light on some aspect of human nature.

As a crime reporter you have to keep your personal feelings to yourself.

Some crimes may turn your stomach, but you must just report the facts and leave it to the readers to decide for themselves.

Revealing hearings

Old Bailey statue showing the Scales of Justice.
The Scales of Justice statue on top of the Old Bailey law court
Crime reporters come in all shapes and sizes, but they share an eye for a good story, a determination to dig that little bit deeper and an ability to smell something fishy.

While there is plenty of rivalry between reporters there is also a camaraderie and many is the time when I have been grateful for some information from a fellow journalist, and hopefully I have returned the favour.

Having said all that, court reporting is not always glamorous and exciting.

There can be hours of boredom waiting around for juries to return their verdict.

Sometimes a trial will be delayed for hours, or even days, as the lawyers argue over legal intricacies.

Rules of reporting

  • The first and most important rule of reporting trials is do not publish anything which the jury has not heard.
  • What is revealed is often fascinating, but because the jury has not been told about it there is no way it can be published or broadcast; and to do so risks serious trouble.

  • The second rule is "beware of children". You can get in all sorts of trouble for naming children involved in court cases so you need to be sure that judges have lifted orders banning their identification. When young people are on trial they usually remain anonymous until the day when they are sentenced when, in many cases, the judge will remove their right to anonymity as part of their punishment.
  • Be absolutely sure you know who is speaking, what their name and role is, and to be scrupulously accurate about what they say

    There are exceptions to this rule, for example the names of children who have died can be used.

  • The third rule is be aware of all the court orders which are in place around a trial. This can be an absolute minefield.
  • You might attend a trial and think: "This is a great story, it will be big news" only to discover that there is what is known as a "contempt of court" order banning any publication of the trial's proceedings or preventing you from mentioning certain parts of the evidence.

    This often happens when defendants go on trial separately and reports of the first trial have to be limited to prevent the jury in the second trial being prejudiced by what they have already heard or read.

  • The fourth rule is to be absolutely sure you know who is speaking, what their name and role is, and to be scrupulously accurate about what they say. It is amazing how many experienced reporters make this mistake.
  • If you are in court you have to know the name of the judge (or magistrate or coroner), the name of the prosecutor and the defence barrister (and for goodness sake do not get them mixed up). You need to know the names of the defendants and you need to know the names of the witnesses who are giving evidence.

    There is no better way of checking than to speak directly to the barristers or the court clerks and ask them for the names you need (and how to spell them).

    Witnesses will often speak very quickly or very quietly or may have a strong accent so you may have to check afterwards to make sure you noted correctly what they actually said.

    Sometimes reporters check their notes with fellow journalists but for complete accuracy they talk to the court stenographer or to one of the barristers.

  • The final rule is "get it right, get it right, get it right".
  • There is an old saying: "truth is stranger than fiction", and I am reminded of it on an almost daily basis in my job as a crime reporter.

    Because no matter how well-scripted TV dramas such as CSI, Prime Suspect and The Bill are, they cannot compare with the shocking facts which often emerge in real-life crime stories or the sheer drama of court cases.

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