The framework of the police story is somewhat set. The story should be specific about what was done and said. At the same time couching is often necessary in separating the event from the person charged. The story should not make specific, unattributed allegations. For instance, if merchandise has been stolen and a suspect arrested, the two events should be kept separate and not interwoven to tie the accused directly to the merchandise.
Couching is not the same as crutches and evasions. For example, words such as “allegedly” may connect the accused to the crime even though the writer by using the word is attempting to avoid that connection. Wording such as “Joe Doakes allegedly stole the merchandise” is not couching. The purpose of couching is to provide the source of accusatory information. The challenge is to write such stories smoothly. That’s not impossible, just difficult.
Perhaps the best example is the accident story. A skillful writer will be careful not to place blame carelessly. The account of an accident should not say that Car A hit Car B unless some compelling reason to do so exists. When a story says Car A was in collision with Car B it says that Car A hit Car B. One vehicle may hit another and still not be at fault. When the intent is to avoid fixing blame, the best wording is, Car A and Car B collided. Sometimes, though, you will want to say one of the cars was at fault. Just be sure you’re right.
Beginning reporters learning to write police news have as much trouble with attribution as anything else. They tend to make statements on their own. The police story must be properly attributed. Over attribution is almost impossible in the police story. Unless the story is set in a framework such as, “Police gave this version of what happened:” Every statement should be attributed appropriately, as “police said,” “witnesses said” or “witnesses told police.” However, attribution does not absolve the news medium from responsibility. Those involved in publishing must stand behind every statement, attributed or unattributed.
Be especially careful of details, such as names and addresses. A person does not necessarily live at the address he or she gives police. And someone else with the same name may live in the same town or city. Checking is absolutely necessary. For obvious reasons, giving addresses of victims may present problems. Most news organizations have guidelines dealing with such circumstances.
Editing is a key function in the handling of police stories. The effective editor will check out what needs to be checked, question what is questionable and provide the necessary couching and attribution when possible. This doesn’t mean that editors should tone down the story. The story can still be strong. The point is that it be presented properly. The effective editor will be sure that the story goes as far as it should but not farther.