How to cover your university’s annual campus crime report: A guide for college media

It’s October, and for student reporters, that means it’s time to delve into the annual Clery Act campus crime report, which discloses crime statistics for universities that receive federal money. Start by checking out the Student Press Law Center’s step-by-step guide to auditing your school’s Clery Act compliance, as well as our Frequently Asked Questions about covering campus crime.

Next, it’s time to break into your newspaper’s archives. How have reporters covered crime on your campus in the past? Look for any notable crimes or public safety issues from previous years and analyze how they were covered. What worked? What could be improved?

The Department of Education also has a useful tool where you can check your school’s crime data online for the past few years. (The most recent Clery stats, for 2014, aren’t yet available on this database but your own institution must make them available on request.) See if any of the numbers seem notably low or high, or if any have changed drastically over time.

Make sure to see if your school has been audited (by the U.S. Department of Education, or sometimes also by state authorities) for Clery Act compliance, and if so, what the consequences were and how the school has addressed any problems.

The most important step: accessing the crime report. Sometimes, the reports are posted on university websites, but you may need to make a public records request to obtain it. You should also make a separate request for local (off-campus) police data. If you have difficulty obtaining the report, call our legal hotline, (202) 822-5045.

Keep an eye out for discrepancies between the police data and the Clery Annual Security Report. Did your university report all crimes to the Department of Education? In an investigative series, “Campus Insecurity,” the SPLC and the Columbus Dispatch found that many colleges drastically misrepresent sexual assault on campus, either by mistake or to protect their image.

Good Clery reporting is detailed, contextualized and visually organized, like this piece in the Daily Orange, Syracuse University’s student newspaper, which notes a decrease in alcohol violations on campus. The story includes a visually striking infographic, national context on college alcohol use, insightful quotes from administrators and hard data, including information about peer institutions.

Another story in the Lantern, Ohio State University’s student newspaper, provides excellent context for the university’s rise in sex offense reports and investigates the discrepancy between Clery numbers and data from a national survey on sexual assault. It also contains a detailed but clear infographic.

While it’s great to include lots of numbers in your Clery coverage, reporters can also explore creative ways of covering campus crime statistics, such as this story from The Daily Cougar at the University of Houston, a Q&A with the university’s campus police chief. It provides context in a meaningful way without inundating the reader with numbers.