Photo: Metro Toronto Homicide media scrum via City TV
Brett Clarkson is a crime reporter. He used to work for the Toronto Sun, and now he's a reporter for the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Strombo.com asked Brett about his experiences as a journalist in Toronto and Fort Lauderdale.
What was the scariest crime scene you visited?
I can't remember being particularly scared at any crime scenes, probably because they're usually pretty controlled environments with police and other emergency personnel swarming around.
Some stick out in my mind. In 2005, I covered a 1:30 a.m. shooting homicide in a park near Dufferin and Dupont in Toronto. I took a walk down an alley and suddenly there was the body right there on the other side of the chain-link fence, completely still. Bodies are usually covered by the time we arrive. This one was not. I thought about the man's family, who didn't yet know. It wasn't scary but there was something haunting about the scene: pitch-black park, dead body lying under a street light.
Within seconds a Toronto Police officer started yelling at me and telling me to get the hell out of here, that it's a crime scene.
Have you ever been personally in danger?
I covered a rally in support of Michael Jackson around the time he was being questioned re: the child molestation allegations. I talked to a guy who looked and dressed exactly like MJ. He said to me that if anything in my article said anything bad about Michael, he wouldn't be very happy and would do something about it. I said I would be fair. Of course, the piece had quotes from people who weren't such huge fans of Michael Jackson. I was off the next day, when the piece ran. Sure enough, the MJ fanatic came to the office looking for me. Security had to turn him away.
I don't know if I was ever in danger. I've been threatened enough times though. Here in Florida, a young woman told me she would kick my ass or kill me if I didn't leave her property. I was trying to ask the family about their relative who had driven a car into the front of the house.
How is crime reporting different in the US and Canada?
From a purely reporter's perspective, there is more of an air of secrecy surrounding the criminal justice system in Canada. Not so much in the United States. I'm not referring to the overall effectiveness of the two systems, but access to information. I don't think I'm going out on a limb by saying that Canadian reporters want the Canadian justice system to be more open and transparent. Apart from that, Florida is obviously fertile ground for a crime reporter.
Photo: Reports of a gunman at Florida Atlantic University via Brett Clarkson
What happened the first time you had to get a quote from a victim's family member?
I can't remember the first time exactly, thought it was definitely early on. I worked for the Toronto Sun and the Sun is very good at focusing on the people impacted by a criminal event or car accident or otherwise. This meant that I gained a lot of experience talking to victims and their families from the very beginning of my career. Some reporters dread it, but I don't.
One of the first times was the father of a young man killed in a fatal collision in 2001. I was asking him questions about his son and he was answering. I then asked him, do you remember the last time you saw your son and what you said to him? And he started crying and said he couldn't talk anymore. As a reporter, I felt like I had done my job because I had some great quotes from the interview. But I also realized it's probably better to tread lightly and not push too hard in these kinds of interviews.
What's the most indispensable tool for a crime reporter?
Credibility. I try to build this by showing up, meeting people in person, being firm yet fair, and being consistent. And obviously, a pen and notepad. Always keep notepads, pens and business cards in your car.
How'd you decide to become a reporter?
I wanted to write books but didn't think anybody would pay me to do that. So I thought I would go to journalism school.
If you weren't doing this what would you be doing?
No idea because this is really all that I have done. Sometimes I think I could be a private investigator. Putting stopwatches under peoples' tires.
What is your advice for someone getting into the field?
Be aggressive, learn web coding, immerse yourself in social media, and remember the old school ways of the journalist: going to stories, meeting people, and following up on leads.
What's your favorite movie about journalists?
'All the President's Men'. It's just a great screenplay by William Goldman. Also: 'Zodiac'. Totally underrated.