Great Ideas

3 tips for digging deeper into crime reporting

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Reprinted from GateHouse Newsroom

The tale of Zeljka Sekulic is still unnerving.

The mother of two had left her abusive husband, Dragan, but was nearly killed when he flipped her car with his truck, leaving Zeljka inside to die after ramming her vehicle through a utility pole. She survived the crash, and took a few weeks off from work, holing up in her sister's home in the northwest suburbs of Canton, Ohio.

Dragan was charged with felonious assault and domestic violence after the incident, but was set free on $100,000 bail. He appeared in court and his case was transferred to a grand jury.

Zeljka SekulicZeljka Sekulic had faith in the system, and with her bank account draining, she returned to her job as an LPN just a few weeks later. Even though her husband was ordered not to initiate contact, on the morning of Dec. 9, Zeljka was gunned down as she left work after a 12-hour shift. Dragan has since been charged in her murder.

The Canton Repository covered the story with zeal, detailing domestic abuse in this piece by reporter Kelli Young, and providing a timeline of the events in the paper and online.

But reporters and editors didn't stop there – they met with the intention of ramping up coverage, using this story as a springboard for posing a bigger question: Is there a need for reform when it comes to the traditional bond system?

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The result was a Sunday piece written by reporters Ed Balint and Shane Hoover, "Posting bond a reality of justice system," that walked through the costs that would be associated with eliminating bail and jailing those accused of committing a felony crime or misdemeanor domestic violence. The price tag was a big one – $11 million a year, and that's not including the additional jail space that would have to be built.

That proactive approach has led to other pieces, including a story on how officials are rethinking the bond system, showing the impact the series had.

GateHouseNewsroom.com asked Todd Porter, the Rep's special projects editor, and reporter Shane Hoover for tips on creating these types of enterprise reporting.

1. Plan out your stories, and be patient:

The original inclination is often to write as many stories as possible, immediately. But by discussing story angles, and thinking about the larger ramifications of the story, the Repository's news team came up with a detailed plan of attack that included putting the broad topic of posting bond in perspective.

"This is a story idea that actually was hatched just before Christmas. Getting the data, scrubbing the data and finding the story and the human side behind it takes time. I know as an editor, we want the story now. And believe me, there were plenty of times I wondered where is this story," Porter said. "I never questioned Shane or Ed's work ethic. They are two of our best. It was just a good reminder for myself that it takes time to produce these pieces."

2. Think data:

When staff members realized Zeljka had put her faith in the system only to be let down, they looked into data sets that would offer more background. Could this happen to others?

"Data was key to exploring this topic," Hoover said. "It allowed us to peer beyond the emotion of a tragic case and look at how the local criminal justice system works on a daily basis."

The Repository's staff analyzed all felony cases and misdemeanor domestic violence cases that were pending in December and found some startling numbers.

Out of about 700 defendants:

  • 166 or 24 percent were in jail.
  • 349 or 50 percent had been released on bond, including at least 253 who were referred to a pretrial release program for monitoring.
  • 173 or 25 percent were wanted by police. Many had not been arrested on the initial warrant.

"Using data collected from our four local courts, we built a database that gave us a snapshot of who was currently in jail, who was out and how bond levels corresponded to the seriousness of charges," Hoover said. "With those numbers, we did stories on jail capacity and how local officials were reviewing the bond process."

3. Keep re-evaluating. Are there more stories that can come from this?

While the original reporting was hard-hitting and the follow was engaging, the topic matter opened avenues for more story ideas.

"This is truly an example of what great teamwork can accomplish. There were several of us in a room brainstorming story ideas from this tragic shooting. This came from that meeting," Porter said. "Another takeaway, is your patience is almost always rewarded. It was a meaningful and timely story for our readers. It informed them. It told them a story on a Sunday. But it also spawned more stories we will use down the road."

Hoover echoed Porter's sentiments.

"Ed and I are exploring several other topics for future stories based on our analysis," Hoover said.

Tim Schmitt has spent decades in various newsrooms – some print, and some broadcast. He was a sports reporter, news reporter, and then managing editor of his hometown paper, the Tonawanda (N.Y.) News, where he led an award-winning editorial page. He's worked as an editor, staffer or longtime contributor with the Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff, the Mesa Tribune, the Arizona Republic, the alt-weekly Buffalo Current, and the Niagara Falls Gazette, where he was executive sports editor over four dailies – spearheading coverage of the Buffalo Bills and Sabres. He also worked as a weekend anchor and reporter at Buffalo's ABC-TV affiliate, WKBW, and was the news director of WLVL-AM in the Buffalo market, where he hosted a daily two-hour talk show covering local politics and current events. He moved to Austin to join GateHouse in early 2015. 

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