Crime Journalist: Adrenaline In Uncovering The Truth


Author’s note

The next time you come across any crime news, try to imagine how the journalist has pieced together the bits of information to uncover the entire story. If you think they simply report what they see, you’re wrong. The job of a journalist resembles a detective in many ways.

We’re lucky to get first-hand insights from a crime journalist on his exciting experiences in the after-hours at a crime scene.

The job of a crime journalist in a nutshell

As a crime journalist, you gather facts and information through research and interviews, and tell the story to the public. Besides reporting on thefts and murders, you’ll also cover accidents such as fire mishaps and car accidents too.

Remember the recent high profile cases such as the Kovan double murder, Sheng Shiong kidnap and Little India riots? If you’re a crime journalist, you’d have covered most of these headliner news. And as shocking as it may seem, a crime reporter would’ve covered about 5 murders in a year in recent times.

Maintaining a network of sources to get tip-offs

Getting stories to write about is a vital first step to doing your job, but who would know when a crime is committed? Journalists typically get tip-offs from various sources. These sources are basically the everyday people you talk to; when they pass by crime scene, they’ll call to inform you. You’ll build your network of sources as time goes by.

At the crime scene

After the tip-off, you’ll usually rush down to the crime scene. Let’s say there was a murder in an apartment. As a journalist, you’re likely to arrive at the crime scene with no information and you’ll need to talk to the neighbours to understand what had happened. Like a detective who leaves no ground uncovered, you ask loads of questions: What did you see or hear? Was there a scuffle in the apartment? What words did you hear exactly? Thankfully, the neighbours are usually quite kaypo* and they are more than willing to share.

*Singlish term for nosey-parker or busybody

It’s important to get to the crime scene as soon as you can, as the police may cordon off the entire floor (or sometimes even the levels above and below) which makes it harder to interview the neighbours. The best scenario is when you arrive before the police, and yes, that happens when you receive a good tip-off.

One thing’s for sure: the police will never share anything with you, so you’ve got to get the information on your own.

Adrenaline of uncovering the truth

As a journalist, you often feel like you’re doing police investigation work, and it’s really exciting. Let’s take the recent Ang Mo Kio murder case as a case-in-point. At the beginning, all we knew were that there’re 3 ladies in the apartment—daughter, mum and grandma—and that two had died. When you arrive, you’ve no clue what exactly happened and the police, as usual, will not divulge any information on the spot.

You’ve a million questions in your head and you don’t even know which two of the three ladies died in the incident. And who was the girl that the neighbours heard talking during the incident? There’s always much guessing and conjecturing involved. The other journalists and onlookers were guessing that it was perhaps the mum who was talking but you can’t be sure. The only way is to ask, so you’ll start questioning the neighbours and piece all the information together to deduce what really happened. If you’re lucky, one of them could reveal to you a valuable insight that could be the missing piece of the jigsaw that everyone else (even the police) are looking for. When you get a nugget like this, you get an exclusive feature story.

That, is the feel of adrenaline as you uncover the truth bit by bit.

Covering the ground at the crime scene

For crimes and accidents, each newspaper will typically send one journalist and one photographer. Newspapers that feature such news more heavily may have 2 to 3 reporters onsite; it’s not uncommon that they talk to everyone in the block for a murder case!

Car accidents and fires

In some newspapers, crime journalists cover other accidents too, the most common ones being car crashes and fire outbreaks. Fire outbreaks are always covered in the news, and they are increasingly common especially in the past year (you may have also noticed a trend of cars catching fire in the news reports).

It’s a guessing game at accident scenes

In January, two security guards perished in the much-reported Marina Bay Suites fire. Several journalists were at the fire scene for an entire day. It’s typically harder to gain information in such cases when it involves a private corporation because you can’t enter the premises (unlike public HDB flats). As with the earlier murder scenario, you’re standing behind the police barrier without much details on how the fire occurred and who died. You can only make guesses based on observations and you’ll need to rely on your detective instincts.

As ironic as it sounds, you do need to guess a lot to get to the truth. It’s somewhat like running the maze in many different directions before finding the exit ultimately. Anyway there’s usually long periods of waiting at the incident scene, so you’ll be talking through the possibilities of what happened with your colleagues. Observation skills are critical to finding out information. For example, if you see a middle-aged woman in tears and anxiety standing outside with 2 kids, it’s likely that one of the victims is the kids’ father.

Hours as a journalist are irregular

Hours are never fixed as a journalist. You typically work in day shifts (8am-6am) or night shifts (2pm-12am), since crimes and incidents can happen anytime and the newspaper needs to have instant coverage. However, it's common for journalists on the day shift to end work only at 8-9pm. On the other hand, there's an advantage doing the night shift, as the offstone timing (time the paper goes to print) is about 11pm-12am. Once the paper goes to print, there’s really no point rushing out any work for the day.

Social life gets disrupted frequently in this job and you can’t help it. For example if you’ve an important anniversary dinner but there’s an article to rush out or that a big crime just happened, you may have to do a raincheck. The thing about this job is that a crime or accident can happen anytime, hence your plans may have to change in a flash. And if you work the day shift, you’re so tired by the end of the day that you feel like heading home to rest instead of meeting anyone else. Hence, journalists more commonly meet their friends on their day offs.

On the editorial bit

Writing is fast and easy

Interestingly, with mobile devices, it’s very common to type out articles on the phone today. There’re even journalists that have written an entire story at the crime scene on mobile.

Journalists aim to have one story in his drawer at any one time. For the entire process of research, interviews and writing, it takes a few days to work on a short story, and up to 2 weeks on a big feature. Writing is fast; the hold up is always on getting materials from respondents. For example, it could take days for an official response from an organisation or government authority.

Specialisation or multiple beats

Depending on the newspaper you work for, you may cover one or multiple beats. Beats are topics (e.g. technology, crime) that you write on. Some companies prefer their journalists to specialise in only one beat, while some have journalists working on multiple beats.

Let’s celebrate anniversaries?

There’ll be lots of projects (ie. specific topics to write on) that you’ll be researching and writing on. In fact, the anniversary of every major event is likely a project, and that adds up to a whole lot of projects! Just think of events like SG50, tsunami (10 years on) and Little India riot, and the list goes on.

What’s so good about being a journalist in Singapore?

NO administrative work and NO meetings

Yes, this is probably one of the rare jobs in the world wherein admin work and meetings are almost non-existent. Isn’t that great? You only have to focus on what you’re here for—research and writing stories. It’s an independent job with lots of freedom albeit the long hours. You’re out on the road if there’re stories to cover, else you can be home or in the gym.

Culture is not as cut throat as in the U.S. media industry

The news industry in Singapore is friendlier compared to that in States where it’s much more competitive. Journalists there are more likely not to share their stories with others as they want to protect their own scoop. It’s important to talk to others to gain fresh perspectives, as you may be too involved in a story and become unaware of blind spots at times.

If you’re curious in nature and like to talk to people, this role is for you

Journalism is very much about being your own character. You need to be inquisitive: wanting to know about people, what they do and why they’re doing it. Being a journalist is perfect for such personalities as it gives you a license to talk to strangers and find out more.

A chance to impact society with your writing

If you think that the proudest achievement of a crime journalist must be a front-page story of a gruesome murder filled with conspiracy theories, you’re being judgmental here. Journalists are essentially story tellers, and the articles they take pride in often relates to the human touch or strong morals. The journalist I spoke with revealed that his most memorable article was about a retail cashier. The cashier said that most customers don’t greet her or talk to her. She feels like a human barcode scanner at times and all she really wanted was for her customers to say hello to her. The call to being gracious goes beyond the hype of a high-profile crime. Journalists write stories because they want to create an impact on society. And if it impacts even just one person, that’s sufficient.

You’d better love being a journalist, because…

Your pay is likely to be lower than peers

On the flipside, the pay is not great. Unless you’re a senior correspondent or editor, you’re likely earning a lower income compared to most of your peers. There’re times when it feels really discouraging. If money matters a great deal to you, don’t join this profession!

You’re stereotyped as the inhumane paparazzi

Thanks to television shows stereotyping journalists as paparazzi shoving cameras in front of grieving people or intruding people’s privacy, journalism is not often seen as a respected profession in Singapore. But journalists are really just the usual folks on the streets trying to do their jobs. A journalist is a human first before a reporter. They need to be sensitive, and most of them are not that aggressive (at least not in Singapore). It’s unfortunate that the stereotype has cast journalists in a slightly negative light here.

You’ll get stonewalled by officials and PR folks from time to time

The respondents you deal with—typically public relations or communications personnel—can be very hard to deal with. They may give you cold responses or one-word answers, making your life really difficult. Sometimes, to get around the problem of delayed approved statements, you get unofficial verbal insights from them with the promise that they won’t be named as the source.

Career progression

Fresh graduates will typically start their career as a junior journalist. Journalists have basically two career progression tracks they can choose: specialist or management. The specialist track is to become a senior writer, while the management track puts you on the path of becoming an editor. Depending on your performance, you progress to a senior writer level in about 4 years and a correspondent level in about 10 years. If you exit the publishing industry, you typically end up in a corporate communication or media relations role in companies.

Concluding thoughts

If you’re inquisitive and truly want to make an impact with your writing, consider taking up journalism. Covering crimes will add jolts of adrenaline and is a good match if you’ve grown up reading Sherlock Holmes (and enjoying it). But it’s not for everyone; do it only if it’s your calling.