By Chris Adams

It’s the kind of beat that forms the backbone of nearly every news organization: covering crime.

Criminal justice can be as simple as coverage of the local sheriff, or as complex as investigating police practices nationwide or bail reform. But it’s the kind of beat that resonates with viewers and readers alike and is rife with change and stories.

In a panel discussion for National Press Foundation fellows, four criminal justice reporters talked about the beat and how best to mine it for stories.

Ted Gest (bio, The Crime Report Twitter) is Washington bureau chief for The Crime Report, a news organization dedicated solely to coverage of criminal justice issues. Gest is also president of Criminal Justice Journalists, the nation’s only association of criminal justice reporters, and he gave an overview of the criminal justice system, as illustrated by some pretty big numbers: more than 6 million violent crimes were reported in the U.S., and more than half a million arrests were made.

From The Marshall Project, a news organization dedicated to coverage of criminal justice issues, Christie Thompson (bio, Twitter) talked about her prize-winning work on solitary confinement, “The Deadly Consequences of Solitary With a Cellmate.” She also talked through methods reporters can use to get access to prisoners and information about them, including strategies for using the Freedom of Information Act to get records that document what’s going on inside prisons.

From The Guardian, Lois Beckett (bio, Twitter) talked about her work on “Guns and lies in America” and one specific story on the drop in gun deaths in the San Francisco Bay Area. While the drop has received wide attention, Beckett detailed for reporters some of the reasons behind it, as well as the caution that needs to be shown in interpreting such sudden changes. While part of it may be due to policing strategies – something politicians are quick to take credit for – other factors are also at work.

Finally, Marisa Lagos (bio, Twitter) of KQED public radio and TV in the Bay Area, talked about criminal justice as an ongoing political story. She has been covering criminal justice through a political lens during the past decade as California has become a laboratory for widespread changes in policing, prosecuting and imprisoning criminals. She shared her tips for separating the noise from the news.