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Is it a crime wave? A reporting surge? Or both?Posted Monday, December 7, 2009, at 9:21 AM
In the last year or so, The Marshall Democrat-News has published more stories than it used to about crime in the city of Marshall and throughout Saline County.
The newspaper has always covered court news. Even if we don't do a longer story on a specific case, we report the disposition of cases in the Circuit Court and the Associate Court in our weekly "At the Courthouse" feature.
We don't cover municipal court or traffic court for the very simple reason that we just don't have enough staff to do it.
What's changed about our coverage is that since late 2008, we don't wait for law enforcement to send us a report. One of our reporters, usually me, goes to the courthouse every morning and picks up probable cause statements. These are the formal court documents that charge specific individuals with specific crimes. They include detailed incident reports from law enforcement agencies across the county about those crimes.
After reviewing the documents, we select cases for front or back page stories. We pick cases for longer stories for several reasons. One obvious reason is that the crime is very serious -- one in which the charges are felonies. Another, less-obvious reason is that we sometimes select a misdemeanor for more thorough coverage because it's an example of one individual being charged repeatedly with the same crime.
Statements the accused make during their arrests are also fodder for more extensive treatment. It's hard to pass up the chance to report that someone being arrested claimed mistaken identity, saying a twin brother was the guilty party, but was then unable to give the twin's birth date, for example.
Crimes against children always make the front page. And crimes against animals are often there, too.
Every case gets a second chance at publication on page one or the back page when the case is resolved by conviction or a guilty plea.
Every Wednesday morning (for Associate Court) and every other Monday morning (for Circuit Court), I sit in the courtroom, listening to the dispositions of the various cases on the docket for that day. Based on the information gathered, we select stories for the front or back page of the newspaper, giving special attention to those we've already covered at the time charges were brought.
Here again, it's the more serious crimes, the unusual plea agreements or the comments of the judge, the defendant or anyone else in the courtroom that cause a story to be written. If we wrote a story at the time of the arrest, we almost always print a follow-up story with the resolution.
From time to time, we get angry comments in the Comments section of our crime and court stories, or on the Speak Out blog, that we "never" publish any good news. Or we have quoted to us, over and over, the old maxim "if it leads, it bleeds," suggesting we look eagerly for reasons to publish the bad news rather than the good.
Because of those comments, several months ago we did one of our highly unscientific polls, asking our readers to select what types of stories they'd like to see more of.
Crime "won," hands down.
It may be that there are a number of readers who think we cover too much of it, but there are many, many more who just can't get enough.
No matter what side of the fence you're on, though, the one question that's popped up with some frequency is whether the increase in the number of stories is driven more by an increasing number of crimes or by our increased attention to it.
And the answer is -- both. And for more on that story, see page one today.
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Kathy Fairchild received a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration in 1986 from Marycrest College, Davenport, Iowa. She is also a 2003 graduate of the paralegal program at New York University. She moved to Marshall in 2006, following a career of more than 30 years with the world's largest farm equipment manufacturer. She is an Air Force brat and grandmother of four.