Q&A with crime and courts reporter April Baumgarten
What's it like to be a real-life crime reporter?
My name is April Baumgarten. I’m a crime and courts reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. I also have an interest in investigative and data reporting. I’ve been a journalist for 10 years. I grew up on a ranch in western North Dakota. My hobbies include Texas Hold 'Em and playing darts.
Q. Describe an average day in the life of a crime reporter?
A. Throughout the day, I check court records to see if there are criminal and civil complaints filed that we feel would be of public interest. I visit the local courthouses, sometimes on a daily basis to watch and report on hearings. If I find a case that is of interest, I request the documents, reach out to the parties involved and write my story.
I also spend time looking at larger pieces that show trends or greater impact to the general public. That includes doing a lot of research, cold-calling, meeting with people and piecing together facts that most wouldn’t.
Q. Have you ever had to report on someone you know?
A. I have reported on people I know of, but when I know them, I have to consider how well I know them, if my bias will give them or others a fair story, and if I can keep my feelings out of it. If I know the person well, I ask if someone else can take the story.
Q. How do you decompress after covering a challenging case?
A. A lot of Great British Baking Show and other Netflix shows. LOL. But seriously, there are times that I have to step back and acknowledge what I’m feeling about a case. One thing I try to do is ask myself why I feel this way, work through those feelings to see which ones are rational and which ones are exaggerated. Typically, I am able to move past those emotions in a few hours or so. I think it also helps that I’m writing the stories. That way I can leave my feelings behind once I finish the article.
Painting my nails is also a form of therapy that helps.
Q. What is the hardest part or most frustrating part of your job?
A. I tend to be empathetic for people when I speak with them. In a sense, talking to a journalist can be its own type of therapy. As much as I may want to, I can’t offer them advice, as I’m not a counselor, and I don’t want to influence their feelings in a way that could change the story unintentionally. All I can do is listen to their stories and be honest about my reporting.
Q. What are the limits when it comes to reporting autopsy and crime scene information?
A. Typically, autopsy reports are not available to the public, so you can’t report on them until they come up in court or a family shares the information, if they choose to do so. Reporters have as much access to open records as the general public, which I think is a misconception many readers have. While we may be given more access to officials, we still can’t get more information than what they would share with the general public. So getting crime scene information can be a bit frustrating.
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. I think I have been able to remain impartial due to my education in history, political science and communications. I also have experience in the journalism field to make sure people get a fair shot. I do have my own biases, but I am told that I don’t let them get in the way of my reporting, or at least it doesn’t show. I try to think about what questions the public wants to know, what facts have the most impact and make sure all sides get a chance to tell their side of the story.
How did you become a crime reporter at InForum? Was it something you evolved into?
A. I was always interested in crime stories, particularly the court side of the topic. I would find opportunities to write about crime before I became the crime and courts reporter at my newspapers. As soon as those positions were open at my publications, I asked to be in that position.
Q. When you arrive at a crime scene, what’s generally happening? How do you go about reporting?
A. Typically, we want to get the official report as soon as possible, but we also want to paint a picture of what is happening at the scene. For me, there really is no set order to the tasks we do at a crime scene. We have to evolve quickly to what is happening. I try to talk with police, witnesses and neighbors. I also observe what is happening at the scene for readers.
Q. How do you go about getting witnesses, detectives, family members to talk to you?
A. The best ways to get someone to do an interview are to build rapport and to explain why you feel it is important for readers to hear their side. Explain to them what the story is going to be about, and be honest. Sometimes what I do is ask what they can say off the record, listen to their story and then ask what they would feel comfortable sharing on the record.
Q. In your role as a crime reporter, as a necessity, you focus on the negative side of Fargo. What are some positive aspects that you’d like to talk about or report on?
A. I can see where there are people who feel that all crime reporting is negative. One thing I tell those people is, I try to cover an important process that many people go through everyday. Anyone could end up in a situation where they may be the victim or suspect in a crime. My job is to show readers what process they could face, to hold those involved in a case accountable and to shed light on a system to make sure the rights of those involved are being respected.
There are times that people contact me and say that my reporting was very informative to show how the justice system works, so for me, that is a positive.
Q. Thinking back to when you started as a crime reporter, what’s the one or two things you wish you knew then?
A. I wish I would have known how to handle some of the more emotionally traumatic aspects of certain crimes, such as a brutal murder or sex abuse stories involving children. That’s not something I learned in college. As reporters, we often tell ourselves that we shouldn’t let our emotions influence our stories. I think we sometimes try to bury those feelings as reporters, though I think mental health awareness among journalists has grown. We have started to learn that we need to take care of ourselves, especially when it comes to mental health. As I went through my career, I was able to develop skills to process those traumatic events. Even if I have to deal with a gruesome case, I feel that I have the tools to handle those tough stories.
Q. Where do you find stories? How important are court records and documents to your work?
A. Tips for stories come from everywhere, it seems. Court records play a huge role in the stories I write, but I also get tips from readers. I am sometimes assigned stories. Then there are times I see trends or ask myself whether I should write a story about questions I have about a topic.
Q. In your opinion, what makes for a well-written crime story?
A. A well-written crime story is one that looks at all sides of what happened and that gives everyone that is involved an opportunity to have a voice. Getting the official version from authorities is important. However, as we learned in the death of George Floyd, we need to go beyond the official account in every situation to make sure we are finding the truth from as many sides and angles as possible. Readers want thorough reporting, and good journalists do everything they can to present the fullest picture they can.