My name is Hannah Shirley, and I’m the crime reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. I’ve also been a barista, a receptionist, a video store clerk, a knives salesperson, a host in a swanky sports bar, and a pizza maker. I’m originally from Idaho and I’ve heard all your potato jokes.
Q. Describe an average day in the life of a crime reporter?
A. My day usually starts by catching up on police call logs, jail rosters, daily court schedules and any press releases local law enforcement sent out overnight. If anything big happened, I’ll type that up to have online right away. The rest of my day’s schedule is usually built somewhat around court hearings -- I’ll usually listen in on any case that involves any kind of large-scale or violent crime. Some days that takes up a few hours, some days I don’t go to court at all. The rest of the day I’ll usually spend following up on incidents that are important to our readers, working on other projects, and monitoring my inbox for more press releases from law enforcement and writing them up as they come in.
Q. Have you ever had to report on someone you know?
A. Once as a reporter in college, I covered a plea hearing for a mass shooter who had killed a campus doctor I knew. It was a small enough town that it was an everybody-knew-somebody situation.
Q. How do you decompress after covering a challenging case?
A. I just finished covering a challenging case! I asked my editor for a Friday off and have big plans to bring a book to the beach and not check my phone. Other than that, the most important thing I can do for myself during and after a tough case is making sure I’m leaning on friends and loved ones whenever I need to, whether I want to talk about the case or anything but the case.
Q. What is the hardest part or most frustrating part of your job?
A. There’s a lot of emotional labor involved in crime reporting -- every morning I clock into work and have to write about the worst day of someone’s life. It can get pretty heavy, and if I’m ever having an off day and make a mistake it has the potential to cause someone a lot of grief.
Q. What are the limits when it comes to reporting autopsy and crime scene information?
A. If autopsy or crime scene photos and information are an important part of what I’m writing about, there’s a good chance the story is sensational all by itself, and doesn’t need any help from me or my writing. Sometimes I can’t really avoid graphic details, but generally I won’t include any details that are especially lurid or compromising for victims or survivors, especially if our readers don’t need to know those details to understand the story.
Q. In an emotionally charged case, how do you remain impartial and objective in reporting the case? Do you struggle with suppressing or overcoming your own emotions and instincts at such times?
A. Very, very rarely is there a case that feels black and white. Normally, it’s all shades of gray, and I'll usually focus on that -- if not in my writing, then in my own headspace. No reporter is a robot, and we all have opinions and emotional responses. But even if I privately have an opinion about someone’s guilt or innocence, it’s not my job to lead a reader to that opinion, and I work hard to take both sides of a case seriously and report each side fairly and thoroughly. If I ever feel I’m too emotionally involved in a case to report on it to my own standards, I’ll ask my editor to take me off the story. That happens extremely rarely, but it has happened before.
Q. How did you become a crime reporter at the Grand Forks Herald? Was it something you evolved into?
A. Before working at the Herald, I was a general assignment reporter for a small paper in Massachusetts, where I covered local businesses, arts, city government, a school district and a district court. My Friday visits to the courthouse to go through that week’s court documents was one of the highlights of my week, and eventually I began to think it was something I’d like to learn more about. When I saw the cops and courts job posting at the Herald, I didn’t think twice about applying.
Q. When you arrive at a crime scene, what’s generally happening? How do you go about reporting?
A. Generally, by the time I get there, police have set up a perimeter and are busy processing the scene, so it can involve quite a bit of waiting across the street or somewhere nearby. The first thing I do is let one of the officers know I’m there and ask to talk to whoever’s in charge of the scene. Then while I wait, I’ll generally start taking photos, jotting down observations, and chatting with neighbors and witnesses to start piecing together what’s going on.
Q. How do you go about getting witnesses, detectives, family members to talk to you?
A. I’m generally in the camp that no exclusive scoop is worth re-traumatizing a family for. If a family member doesn’t want to deal with media, I think it’s important to respect that. That said, when I am approaching someone, I usually try to be as open as possible about my process and the story I’m writing no matter who I’m talking to. This is especially important with witnesses and family members, who might never have spoken to a reporter before. I like to take time to let them ask me questions or tell me what they’re concerned about before we begin any interview. Many people who I might want to speak to could be grieving. If they’re not ready to talk, a lot of the time I’ll leave them with my name and phone number, and an invitation to call me any time they have something they want to share. A lot of those people never reach out, but sometimes they do -- a lot of people find it cathartic to tell their story.