Crime Scene: A lesson in reporting & interviewing (w/ fake blood!)

A gruesome murder has occurred on the SAU campus – the fifth on an area campus in as many weeks. But for the first time, the killer has slipped, leaving clues behind…

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Crime Scene is a collaborative project between the Theatre and Mass Communication students within the department. Students in my Reporting and Writing course attempt to uncover details of the apparent murder and develop a news story capturing the facts of the case so far.

It’s their favorite day of the semester. Mine, too.

The class is not given advance notice about the assignment, just that they will not be meeting in the regular classroom. The morning of the project, they arrive at the backstage door of the theatre to find it covered in crime scene tape. There, they are presented some basic facts of the case and directions for the assignment.

When they are allowed onto the stage, they see the victim’s body bloodied and lifeless. If our actress is on her game, the victim will remain dead for the entire scene. It doesn’t always happen.

There are four characters to be interviewed by the reporters – two police detectives, the victim’s husband, and their next-door neighbor.

The goal for the students, as reporters, is to obtain facts about the case, in order to produce a hard news story. As they ask questions, they uncover those facts, but they also learn that the husband and neighbor are mighty suspicious-acting folks.

The goal for the students, as television detectives, becomes to pin the crime on one of these two people. This particular year, the husband and neighbor were asked to reveal the soles of their shoes and write left-handed, while twice being accused of having an affair.

To further agitate the class of reporters-turned-David Caruso-wannabes, the husband is belligerent and the neighbor is nervous and confused. As the students get more involved in the scene, the more emotionally-charged their questions and answers become.

Finally, before we have a real murder, I end the scene, thank the actors for waking up early to perform for us, and dismiss the class with orders to type up these notes in an organized manner and try to make some sense out of the whole thing.

In the days that follow, I am asked a number of times who the killer was. I am presented with equally convincing cases that it was the husband or the neighbor. At the end of the discussion, my answer is always the same:

“I’m sorry. I can’t tell you who did it.”

I’m telling them the truth, but not for the reasons they think. I can’t tell them who did it because I don’t know who did it. Nobody knows. And there is no way for anyone asking questions at the crime scene to find out. No matter how many questions are answered, the facts don’t point definitively at anyone.

There simply isn’t an answer.

The student reporters enter the scene at the same time most real reporters would – very early in the investigation. The exercise is to teach them how to obtain facts through observation and interviewing, but just as importantly, it is to teach them to show restraint in reporting conjecture and speculation. Yes, you think the husband and neighbor are having an affair and one of them killed the victim. No, you don’t get to report that.

Crime Scene was the brainchild of Dr. Tim Nicholas, my journalism professor at Mississippi College. When I received this job, he was kind enough to grant me the scripts and notes. I’ve made a few revisions in my two years of teaching it, but the crux of the design is his, and I remain extremely grateful to be able to use it.

It took three professors, two student workers, and five actors to pull off crime scene this year and bring you the photographs above. It made for a hectic Monday morning, but it was our best murder yet.

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