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How Are News Media Doing in Coverage of Policing, Drugs?

The news media overall have not done a good job of explaining the debate over "defunding the police" to the public, journalists and an academic who follows the media said in an annual evaluation of media coverage of criminal justice.


"Some news consumers may be making their own assumptions that crime is up because of the “defund the police” movement, even when police weren’t defunded where they live," said Marea Mannion, a professor in the communications department of Pennsylvania State University.


The media should stop using the term “defunding,” said criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University, suggesting it may be more accurate to describe reductions in police forces and a redistribution of resources.


Journalist Bill Freivogel of the Gateway Journalism Review and Southern Illinois University observed that "it is not the media's fault" to use the term "defunding," rather that news reports are reflecting a word used by advocates.


The annual discussion is organized by Criminal Justice Journalists, the sponsor of this news digest. Other participants were Ted Gest, president of the group (moderator), Dan Shelley of the Radio Television Digital News Association and Brandt Williams of Minnesota Public Radio, who discussed subjects including media coverage of COVID-19 in prisons and of drug overdoses.


A full transcript can be seen below.


TED GEST: Homicides have been on the rise in many big cities, along with other kinds of violent crime. Many in the news media have reported incorrectly that all forms of crime are going up, and crime has become more of a political issue than perhaps it should be.


JAMES ALAN FOX: Yes, the media have conflated homicides with all violent crimes and shootings. They are continuing to focus on places with spikes, like Chicago, Philadelphia and New York City it’s true that in 2020, the majority of cities did have increases. In 2021, the numbers inched up very slightly People are still saying that murders are out of control, but in most places crime is not out of control and nationally, it is not.

Keep in mind that 2020 was an aberration. Like many aberrations, what goes up must come down. An old expression is no news is good news. In this case, it’s bad news is good news, and the media focus on bad news.


MAREA MANNION: I agree. In addition, a lot of people rely on social media for those brief news feeds on their phones that do not give them detail or context. They might then believe many communities are out of control, but they are not getting the whole picture. Meanwhile In many communities of all sizes, the crime totals are not much different from two years ago.


Some news consumers may be making their own assumptions that crime is up because of the “defund the police” movement, even when police weren’t defunded where they live. Even if crime is not out of control everywhere, it may appear that way from the images they see in certain cities which briefly make the news and attract attention because there’s video. The sole news source for a great many people may be limited to those brief phone images and tiny snippets of information, not the in-depth coverage and balanced reporting that some of the local and national media are doing very well.


GEST: How are the media doing in covering policing issues in general?


SHELLEY: They generally are doing a good job. There is lots of coverage of high-profile officer-involved shootings, including the recent deaths of two New York City police officers that dominated the local news cycle and, more recently, a mass shooting on a subway car.


Reports on network news often say that violent crime is spiking, which is too broad a term. The reports should specify if they are referring to homicides or shootings, which are rising in many places while other types of crime are level or perhaps even declining.


FREIVOGEL: Slate.com did a good story on defunding. It was a nice long take pointing out that defunding and abolition were really not getting any traction and were poison pills for Democratic candidates in the 2020 election. The ideas of defunding and abolition didn’t have a great deal of support in either the black community or the white community.


The Daily Show did a special on defunding.