Why Do Thai Crime News Sound Like Police Reports?

In a recent panel discussion on Thai media at the Foreign Correspondent Club of Thailand (FCCT), a Western journalist turned to me and asked, "why do Thai crime news sound like police reports anyway?"

It′s a good question. For those unfamiliar with Thai newspapers, a typical news article – especially one about crime – begins by stating which police officer at which police station received what news, followed by which officers (complete with lengthy police titles) went to inspect the site and what their initial conclusions were.

Here′s an example of a crime news piece from a page of Khaosod newspaper:

เมื่อเวลา 02.00 น. วันที่ 10 เม.ย. ผู้สื่อข่าว ข่าวสด รายงานว่า ร.ต.ท.สมจิต บุญตาม ร้อยเวรสถานีตำรวจภูธรสามกระทาย ได้รับแจ้งอุบัติเหตุบนถนนเพชรเกษม ขาล่องใต้ หลักกิโลเมตรที่ 289-290 ต.สามกระทาย อ.กุยบุรี จ.ประจวบคีรีขันธ์ มีผู้ได้รับบาดเจ็บและเสียชีวิต จึงรุดไปที่เกิดเหตุ

(On 02.00 am. of 10th April, a Khaosod correspondent reported that Pol. Lt. Somjit Boontaam, officer in charge of Saam Kratai Provincial Police Station, had received a report about accident on the southbound Petkasem Road, km. mark 289-290, Saam Kratai Subdistrict, Gui Buri District, Prachuabkirikan Province, killing and wounding a number of victims. [The police] then hurried to investigate the scene.)

Some readers would have thought they were reading a memo in a police station. Well, in a way, that′s an accurate description because crime news in Thai newspapers pages are police reports.

Unlike many Western media outlets, mainstream Thai newspapers normally do not have regional "bureaus." Instead, they rely on "regional reporters" contracted to provide news in the areas they are assigned to.

Regional reporters are highly independent. They seek out news (crimes, accidents, and other happenings), race to the crime scene, and file reports back to the news rooms in Bangkok on their own. They also keep close contacts with local police to get timely information and access to the scenes of the incidents.

This is where the line starts to blur. A senior editor at Khaosod said that sometimes regional reporters simply kick back and copy information from the local police without doing extensive field work like interviewing the witnesses or victims.

Another journalist at Khaosod said regional reporters prefer copying police reports to save money and time; many of these reporters are paid per piece and write several news items per day, often for a range of different news outlets. 

"Of course, the ideal method is inspecting the site yourself, talking to the victims, to the witnesses, to the rescue teams, before checking with police reports to fill in important information later," the journalist said. "But would you do all that for [a small amount of money]?"

Some journalists familiar with the process also said that some police officers like to see their names printed in the media, which is why they provide their names and ranks along with necessary details of the incident.

Hence, the dizzying arrays of names like this news:

ผู้สื่อข่าว "ข่าวสด" รายงานว่า ที่สำนักงานกองบัญชาการตำรวจภูธรภาค 4 พล.ต.ท.กวี สุภานันท์ ผบช.ภ.4  พบ.ต.ต.ศักดา เตชะเกรียงไกร รอง ผบช.ภ.4 พล.ต.ต.จตุพล ปานรักษา รอง ผบช.ภ.4 พล.ต.ต.ชำนาญ เครือบัว ผบก.สส.ภ.4 พ.ต.อ.เนติพงศ์ ธาตุทำเล รอง ผบก.สส.ภ.4  พ.ต.อ.ยรรยง เวชโอสถ รอง ผบก.ภ.จว.หนองคาย พ.ต.อ.อนุวัฒน์ สุวรรณภูมิ ผกก.สส.ภ.จว.นครพนม พ.ต.อ.สมนึก มิควาฬ ผกก.สภ.เมืองนครพนม เจ้าหน้าที่ตำรวจสืบสวน บก.น.2 เจ้าหน้าที่ตำรวจ ภ.จว.นครพนม 

และ นายรังสรรค์ อยู่สุข ผู้จัดการสำนักงานเขตสกลนคร ธนาคารกรุงไทย และ นายสุทธิพงษ์ บุญปรก ผู้จัดการธนาคารกรุงไทย จำกัด (มหาชน) สาขานครพนม ร่วมกันแถลงข่าวจับกุมผู้ต้องหาร่วมกันลักเงินธนาคารกรุงไทย สาขา นครพนม มากกว่า 10 ล้านบาท

("Khaosod" correspondent reported that at the Command Center of Province 4 Police, Pol.Lt.Gen. Kawee Supanan, along with Pol.Sen.Maj Sakda Techakriangkrai, Pol.Maj.Gen. Jatopol Parnraksa, Pol.Maj.Gen. Chamnarn Kruebua, Pol.Col. Netipong Tarttumle, Pol.Gen. Yanyong Veccha-osod, Pol.Gen.Anuwat Suphannabhumi, Pol.Gen. Somneuk Mikwan,

And Mr. Rangsan Yoosuk, manager of Krung Thai Bank′s Sakol Nakorn branch, with Mr. Sutthipong Boonprok, manager of Krung Thai Bank′s Nakonpanom branch, attend the press conference to announce arrest of suspects who stole 10 million baht in cash from Krung Thai Bank′s Nakonpanom branch)

Are these habits hard to change? Yes, according to many Thai journalists who say the practice has been in place for decades.

The reliance on police reports does have its benefits, however.

In the intial hours after a crime has been reported, details can be murky. It is therefore sometimes beneficial for journalists to limit the scope of their articles to what police have reported, rather than reporting speculations that later turn out to be unsubstantiated. 

Nonetheless, one cannot be too careful. Relying solely on police narratives can transform newspapers into de facto mouthpieces for the police, who are known to make mistakes.

Take this example: in February this year a Scottish woman reported she had been raped in Nakorn Srithammarart, but a senior police official insisted the crime did not happen and threatened to sue her for false complaint.

A major Thai newspaper ran the story on frontpage with a headline sympathetic to the police′s version of the event. Khaosod refrained from doing so, which paid off. On the next day, a suspect was arrested and confessed to raping the woman.

"At the end of the day, it all comes down to basic journalist principles," a senior editor at Khaosod said. "You have to be aware what is fact and what is police speculation."