A day in the life of a female crime reporter

Leda Reynolds reveals some of the terrifying abuse she's experienced on the job, and raises crucial questions around safeguarding women

Women’s safety has become a national talking point following the murder of Sarah Everard, so this week I wanted to PassTheAux to Leda, a journalist covering crime and global affairs who must navigate unsafe environments on a weekly basis. It is truly shocking, reading Leda’s account below, to see how brazenly women are dropped into high-risk situations by male editors who have either not stopped to think, or simply do not care.

Of course, safeguarding reporters both male and female should be a priority for all newsrooms, but it is undeniable that female journalists – particularly when reporting on cases of domestic violence against women – experience gender-specific safety risks that cannot be brushed over as “just part of the job”.

It’s something for us all to think about even beyond the world of crime reporting. I know that female journalists of all disciplines, many of them at intern level, have been sent off on solo assignments by male editors who won’t have any idea where they’re going, who they’re meeting, or how they’re getting home. It’s always fine until it isn’t.

Over to Leda.

My head slammed against the wall sending a picture crashing to the floor just seconds after I stepped into the hallway of the neat-looking semi.

“You fucking bitch!” screamed the man, showering my face with spittle as he gripped my shoulders, his eyes inches from mine.

I slid my gaze to the left and saw the terror on his wife’s face as she clutched a scrunched up piece of kitchen roll to her mouth, sobbing, as she pleaded with him not to hurt me.

Ignoring her, he yelled: “You don’t know who the fuck you’re dealing with, do you?”

“I’ve just got out of prison for murder and it’d be worth going back inside just to teach you a fucking lesson, you disgusting piece of shit.”

He slammed his fist into the wall by my ear as his wife screamed his name.

Thirty minutes earlier, I’d been standing in the newsroom, powering off my computer, ready to shut up shop for the day, when the male news editor called me over to his desk.

“We’ve had a phone call about the drugs-death you covered at the inquest yesterday,” he said, still bashing away at his keyboard, narrowing his eyes, as he peered intently at the screen while slashing copy.

“Some of the family want to give their side of the story – they said he was a really nice guy and they don’t want him to be remembered as someone who took a heroin overdose. You ok to call in on your way home?”

He thrust a piece of paper towards me with an address scrawled on it in red ink.

Turning the paper over to see if there were any other details such as a phone number on the other side, all I discovered was a press release for a new fashion brand – newsroom recycling at its best.

“What’s their name?” I inquired. 

“Dunno, probably the same as the dead guy.”

Frowning, I said: “Where’s the phone number? I’d like to check they’re in before going around.”

The phone trilled on his desk: “There’s no number but they said they’d be in all evening,” he said to me, before picking the receiver up and barking “Newsroom”.

And that was that. No other details and the news editor had hardly glanced up when sending me out on a last-minute, after-dark assignment.

It was pouring with rain as I pulled up at the address on a non-descript housing estate.

It was a typically dreary, autumnal evening and light beamed out from beyond the front door which was opened before I’d even knocked.

The woman who answered was silent as I smiled, explaining who I was.

However, no sooner had I stepped beyond the bristled “welcome” mat I was grabbed by the man just as the door latch clicked shut.

Now I was trapped, my mind racing, as the man proceeded to threaten me for “writing such lies” about his relative’s death.

How dare I describe him as a drug addict (it was said at the inquest)? 

However, when he hit the wall above my head for a second time, it was I who now lost my temper.

“How could I be sent into a situation like this?!”, I raged quietly to myself. I couldn’t believe that given the anger being displayed now, that this family had calmly called the newsroom wanting to give their side of the story. Why wasn’t I warned?!

With my heart hammering, I said: “Right. Move away from me now. If you’ve just been released from prison for murder, then it obviously wasn’t for killing your wife as she’s here.

“So I don’t think you’re one of those despicable men that batters women to a pulp. I think you’re grieving, and I quite understand that, so go and make some tea and we’ll talk about this rationally and find a solution.”

Looking at me for a split second, he released me and walked into the kitchen, clicking the kettle, before strolling back into the lounge where his wife had hastily ushered me to a chair, apologising profusely for her husband’s behaviour as tears streamed down her face.

It transpired they’d called the newsroom when they’d seen the story (which had been a wholly correct report on the inquest) and as they were shouting, they’d been put through to the news editor.

“My husband told him he was furious and your boss had been really sympathetic and told us he’d send the reporter round that wrote the story to put it right.”

Over a pot of tea, we chatted for a good two hours. They vented their spleen and I took a copious amount of notes. They shook my hand when I left and the man told me he wouldn’t really have hurt me, he was just so angry.

Smiling, I assured him: “Don’t worry, I’m a tough cookie.”

And it’s true, I am. As a reporter, I’ve been to war zones, covered countless terror attacks and accompanied police on endless operations.

It was also not the first time I’ve been in a confrontational situation such as this.

At a different newspaper, a male news editor sent me off to cover a “neighbour dispute”.

Simple enough story on the surface. Again, no phone number, just an address, from someone who had called the newsroom with a whinge.

Once more, having knocked on the door, I was invited into this man’s house, and listened to his complaint about the neighbours.

Suddenly, in mid-conversation, he jumped up and dashed into the hallway from where I heard the sound of a bolt being slid into position.

 “What on earth…?” I thought to myself, about to get up off the settee.

But then he was back. And he came and sat right next to me, squeezing me up against the arm of the sofa, while taking my hand and putting his other arm around my shoulders.

“I’ve fallen in love with you and want to marry you,” he said, gazing at me.

I was horrified – and terrified – in equal measure: “What?” I stammered.

He told me he’d got plenty of food – and knives in the kitchen if anyone tried to stop us being together.

I wanted to scream but forced myself to smile as I debated whether he was a psychopath or having some sort of mental health crisis. The talk of knives had made my blood run cold.

After what felt like a lifetime but was, in essence, probably about three hours of chatting in minute details about our lives, I gushed that I was very flattered to have had a marriage proposal – my first – and that I couldn’t wait to tell my mother in person about our engagement so we could choose a dress together and start planning a party.

He believed me. After giving him a hug assuring him I’d be back later that night, I forced myself to walk slowly down his path, turning back to wave at him before I rounded the corner and sprinted back to my car.

In the office, the only comment was incredulity that I’d been away for five hours and a joke that they were thinking of sending a search party for me but didn’t know where I was.

Working in another newsroom, on a 3pm to 11pm shift, I was sent out to interview someone at 9.30pm and told that was the only time this person was available.

There was only the first name of the man I was to interview and an address in London. I walked from the Tube station along poorly lit streets to meet a man I hadn’t spoken to before with just a brief sketch of what the story was about – it turned out to be a fantastic tale.

But leaving his house at 11pm, trying to retrace my steps back to the station with no phone signal and little battery, I felt very alone when I got lost.

With a background in crime and investigations which have seen people jailed, it’s probably not too surprising that I’ve been the target of revenge.

I’ve been chased from a building site with a brick when confronting bogus builders, been stalked, harassed by conmen and received letters and calls pledging rape and death. And that’s without throwing online trolls into this delightful mix.

Journalists are often found in the midst of trouble and, like emergency crews, we run towards a conflict or crisis while others flee.

However, unlike the police, we don’t have radios with an emergency button to summons help nor are we able to call for back up.

Yet unfortunately, dangers to reporters are very real.

Swedish freelance journalist Kim Wall was murdered by Peter Madsen after accepting a ride in his home-made submarine in Copenhagen in 2017.

Her dismembered body was eventually found but the horrors she faced are known only to her killer who has remained tight-lipped about how she died.

A brilliant journalist, Kim was offered the chance of an exclusive and she took it. Who wouldn’t? I would have.

And that’s the problem. The best, most attractive and promising stories, may turn out to be a poisoned chalice.

There’s simply no way of differentiating what could be a scoop or danger and at present, the precautions newsroom editors take to protect reporters are woefully inadequate.

Every newsroom I’ve worked in there’s been an office diary where you’re supposed to log your whereabouts if you’re going out.

However, in reality it’s only given cursory attention at best and if filled in at all it might say: “Leda seeing Paul Jones at 1pm in Islington”.

In my opinion, it should be mandatory that before sending a reporter out on an assignment at night or to a private address that the news editor ensures there’s a form to fill in stating the full name of interviewee, their address and phone number.

The time of the interview should be logged together with an estimated duration.

Another person should also be assigned as the newsroom’s “buddy” while they’re out, someone who can check up on them by phone 15 minutes after they have arrived at the destination and to ensure they have either returned home safely or arrived back in the office.

At no point should a reporter go undercover without the buddy system in place where there are pre-arranged check-in times. I’ve known reporters go undercover at a national newspaper with absolutely no support of any kind.

Female crime reporters are still a rarity in the UK and although there are some women doing an amazing job covering the genre, in my 20-odd years in journalism, I've never known any on a personal level nor worked for a news organisation where a woman was the crime correspondent.

By contrast, I discovered while working for Newsweek, that there are many female crime journalists in the US – I'm not sure why there's such a disparity here.

You can walk into any newsroom in the UK and tell immediately which sections are the News and Foreign desk and which ones are the Features and Lifestyle sections – the former are made up of predominantly men and the latter women.

The shocking murder of Sarah Everard has shone a light on the violence and harassment women face. I've only known one male reporter get punched while out on a job yet I've known countless women who've been groped and three robbed while working.

They say the pen is mightier than the sword… and at the moment that’s all we’ve got. 

Leda recently collaborated on a Channel 4 crime documentary with the actress Emilia Fox and criminologist Professor David Wilson which is due out later this year, and is currently working on a podcast series about serial killers. You can find her on Twitter, @Leda__Reynolds

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Enjoyed this week’s PassTheAux? Then let me know on Twitter @eleanorhalls1 or via email, eleanorahalls@gmail.com – I always love to hear from you.

You can also check out my last post, Why Should We Care About Celebrity Journalism Anyway?

And I’d love it if you listened to my most recent episode of Straight Up, in which my co-host Kathleen and I chat to DJ Semtex all about interviewing Drake, J Cole, Skepta and other music legends, his top tips for getting the most out of people, his thoughts on cancel culture in music and the tortured genius of Kanye West.

Kathleen and I are also thinking of recording a special advice-led episode for journalists (male and female), in which we chat to each other about how we got into the profession, the highs and lows, and what we’ve learned along the way. If this is of interest, do let me know, and email over any questions for us to answer on air.