Police beat reporter for The Alligator offers tips for covering the police beat

What’s involved in writing a police story?

That’s what my students in Multimedia Writing are asking because now they have to write a police story — for a grade.

Most students in the class have never written news stories before and most don’t read police stories. So we spend time discussing how reporters obtain information from the police and how police beat stories are written. One activity I use is having the students read police stories in The Independent Florida Alligator (the student-operated newspaper at the University of Florida) and then analyzing the stories in class.

Kathryn Varn transcribes notes for a story at the office of The Alligator. Varn is the police beat reporter this semester.

Kathryn Varn transcribes notes for a story at the office of The Alligator. Varn is the police beat reporter this semester. Photo by Kelcee Griffis

I’m especially enjoying that activity this semester, as many of the police stories have Kathryn Varn’s byline. Kathryn was a student in class with me last spring. She started stringing for The Alligator that semester. Last October, she was hired as a staff writer and had the university beat. She started covering the police beat this semester.

I asked Kathryn some questions about her work as the police beat reporter and the decisions she makes in reporting and writing police stories.

Q: How do you find out about stories — police scanner, police website, etc.?

Kathryn Varn: Every morning around 7:30, I get the Alachua County Jail log. It basically lists name, date, crime and who arrested the person (Gainesville Police Department, Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, University Police Department, and sometimes Waldo). I request reports via email from the booking person, and they fax the reports a few hours later. The fax machine is linked to our editor Sarah Kinonen’s email address, so she gets them and forwards them to me.

If there is any confusion in the reports, I call the public information officers. They usually have additional information.

Also the GPD public information officer, Ben Tobias, sends out snapshots every morning, which list some key arrests in the last 24 hours. He also sends out releases  about a crime where the suspect wasn’t caught, which wouldn’t show up in the jail log. For example, in the first story I wrote about the shooting at the movie theater parking lot, GPD was still looking for the suspect, so Tobias sent out an email with the description and the summary of what happened.

The other police departments typically update their Facebooks and Twitters with big news. GPD does too.

Q: How do you decide which stories you cover and which you don’t?

crime_toothKathryn Varn: Usually I pick stories that seem interesting or are big crimes, like
homicide. I go through and pick the armed robberies, the aggravated assaults, the attempted homicides, the homicides, the felony batteries, the drug possessions in large quantities, etc.

The other day, I wrote a story about this guy who knocked his girlfriend’s front tooth out in a fight. It turned out to be interesting after reading the report and talking to the victim. Also, if crimes happen to interesting people, we write about those, especially if it’s a football player/student/professor/administrator. And obviously if crimes directly impact students, I write about those.

Q: When do you decide to do reporting beyond the police department’s news release about the incident?

crime_mobileKathryn Varn: I try to get in contact with all of the witnesses and/or victims of a crime. A lot of the time, they’ll be in the hospital or just won’t answer their phones. However, with the movie theater and tooth stories, I got some interesting details and quotes from the victims. That’s what makes the job interesting. Because to be honest, crime reporting can be really boring if you just go through the routine, especially if you’re just transcribing police reports. And transcribing isn’t even journalism; it’s telling a story already told.

Like I said before, I contact PIOs to clear up any confusion or get additional information. With a recent campus crime story, the UPD PIO, Brad Barber, sent me a whole list of safety tips for students to follow.

Also, if the police story is not about crime I treat it like the university or metro stories I wrote last semester. I talk to multiple experts and students, if applicable. Like with the text alerts story, I talked to Tobias, the CEO of the company that created the software, someone from UF about how people responded to UF Alerts when they first came out and a student – Amelia Butler – who founded an organization called Lady Gators are R.A.D., which advertises UPD rape prevention courses to female students.

Q: What do you like about covering the police beat?

police_story_arrestKathryn Varn: Really weird stuff happens in Gainesville (and all other cities)
sometimes, like the woman huffing aerosol cans in the Kmart bathroom.

Talking to witnesses can be pretty cool. They give interesting accounts of stories and colorful quotes. It can also be very touching because it really humanizes the crime.

I like building relationships with the PIOs. I learn a lot from them, and they learn a lot from me and the other journalists.

I enjoy writing stories that aren’t necessarily about crimes. I.e. When GPD and ASO put officers in elementary schools when students returned from winter break. This story took a national issue – the Sandy Hook shootings – and localized it into a relatable story for Gainesville citizens.

Big crimes/breaking news can be really stressful, but really fun. There’s a definite adrenaline rush that happens after something major happens. You want to be there first or talk to that one special source or write the story in a way that other publications aren’t doing. It’s very exciting.

*********

Part of what I enjoy about teaching is seeing the progress students make — both through their classes and through their other media experiences, such as Kathryn’s experience working at The Alligator. By talking with students, like Kathryn, I can see what kinds of assignments and duties they have in those non-class experiences and can appreciate the learning opportunities they have developed for themselves.

You can contact Kathryn at The Alligator — kvarn (at) alligator (dot) org — and can read her blog — kathrynvarn (dot) com.

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