Crime reporters are learning how to navigate new forms of technology as information gathered through traditional methods becomes harder to get, a panel of experienced journalists has said.
Use of encrypted messaging apps, GPS and social media platforms now plays a greater role than one-on-one meetings with police and criminal contacts.
“The whole nature of crime reporting has changed,” The Daily Telegraph‘s veteran crime editor Mark Morri told UTS journalism students.
“I’ve got new people via modern technology that are contacting me at three o’clock in the morning, and giving me information that way.
“The cops are scared to talk to you… they’re more worried about their phones being tapped then the crooks I speak to.”
The event hosted by UTS Journalism lab and Central News at the Abercrombie Hotel on Broadway on Thursday, also heard from crime reporters Jenny Noyes from The Sydney Morning Herald and Stephen Gibbs of The Daily Mail.
By the time you get there it’s sanitised and the truth is lost.
Morri, who co-hosts the popular TikTok account CrimCity, which has garnered millions of views, said the new world of crime reporting involves disseminating stories on apps and emerging platforms, and cultivating relationships over cyber space.
“And modern day crooks changed,” he added. “All the crooks they drank, the cops drank… we used to meet those characters… and have a few beers.
“Its really hard to be a crime reporter (now).
“When we used to have those police scanners we would hear everything that went on. Sometimes we would beat the cops to a crime scene… now we don’t hear about it.
“By the time you get there it’s sanitised and the truth is lost.”
He said nowadays journalists were more likely to hear about a crime when the police press release pinged in their inbox.
— The Daily Telegraph (@dailytelegraph) September 6, 2019
“Its all very controlled,” he said. “That’s why court is a really valuable way [to get information] because you can meet these guys in corridors… they don’t have to go into official channels.
Noyes said it was easier to access people through social media than in person.
“There are ways you can access people [through social media], you don’t need to meet them by chance,” she aid. “You can contact people through social media, [but] here are other ways social media can help you like identifying a person that you are looking for.
“There might be clues in their photos. I found someone recently on social media who was charged with a crime… she had a photo with her Christmas lights at her home and I was able to look on Google maps and say that matches the address in the court documents.”
When asked what student journalists could take away from the event Gibbs said: “Turn up on time.
“It pisses people off and changes the structure of the day.”
He added: “You should be reading everyday. If you are not reading everyday then you are not doing your job.”
However, Noyes disagreed saying it was also important to switch off, or risk burning out.
“Sometimes if you don’t know something, it’s OK,” she said. “You don’t have to pretend to know something if you don’t know it.
“Find your own rhythm.”
All three spoke about interviewing victims of trauma and next of kin, with Morri saying it created awareness that could be valuable for society,
“I reported on a six-year-year old kid who got knocked off a bike and it was a third in about two weeks,” he said. “Within a month or two there was a big discussion about wearing helmets on bicycles… that’s probably saving lives.
“Sometimes you will find people they want good to come out of a death. Don’t think you are intruding.”
There was a phrase the ‘grass knock’ – which literally means knocking on the grass, which means you are not going to do it.
Noyes said the best way to approach the situation was to look at it from the perspective of: “I’m giving this person an opportunity to say something if they want to and to feel heard if they want that to happen.”
But Gibbs added there were times a reporting team needed to make its own call and push back.
“If a boss kept telling someone to go back and back and back, and you are dealing with someone who is going through the worst first stages of grieving… there was a phrase the ‘grass knock’ – which literally means knocking on the grass, which means you are not going to do it,” he told the group.
Noyes also spoke about the risk of losing empathy as a journalist.
“There is a danger that the job can take that away from you,” she said. “It’s something that I think you need to be aware of and kind of prioritise that empathy, because it’s not going to be good for anyone if you lose it.
“You will have pressures from editors who want things [and] sometimes you do need to be able to push back on demands that might not be reasonable.”
She added journalists needed to look after sources and not take them for granted.
“They might not be media savvy, you have got to be aware of their interests,” she said “It’s a difficult juggle because you need to have a story at the end of the day [and] you can’t always please everyone.”
She said you need to project that you are genuine and don’t over promise anything, adding: “You kind of [have] got to be clear of what you are doing, so you don’t feel like you have burnt them at the end of the day.”
But, while not getting too involved with sources, Gibbs said you still needed to check in with them every so often or risk losing them as confidantes.
“Rather than always being on the ask,” he said. “That’s the thing you find a trap with someone you don’t speak to for six months and you need something and you call up and you feel like a grub [for asking].
“The useful ones that aren’t in the criminal industries are the ones you probably want to monitor.”
Main image (l-r) The Daily Mail’s Steve Gibbs, The Sydney Morning Herald’s Jenny Noyes and Mark Morri of The Daily Telegraph. Photos by Rodger Liang.