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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: 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.

Coverage of the Justice Department’s anticrime efforts was not done well. I haven’t seen anything on Project LeGend. Did it accomplish everything former Attorney General William Barr claimed? There were more than 6,000 people arrested. Most of those who pled guilty or were found guilty were sent to incarceration facilities far from their homes, but there never was any critical news coverage.

WILLIAMS: We had an effort to get rid of the Minneapolis Police Department and replace it with another agency. People had very different views. Minneapolis is a liberal city but liberal politicians opposed the idea of abolishing the police department. Progressives favored things like providing housing. Many people just didn’t go along with the idea of getting rid of the police department to keep officers from killing African Americans.

The local news media didn’t do a good job of covering the nuances of the debate – it’s a challenge.

FOX: Another subject not getting good coverage is the killings of police officers. There were 43 in 2020 and 73 last year, but the total had been in the 40s for many years. At one time in the 1990s, there were 120.

It is true that recently there has been more animosity toward the police, butt the numbers’ spiking for one year does not establish a reliable trend.

In 2012, The New York Times did a big story on the subject of a “open season on police officers” at a time when the numbers of officer deaths had gone up for three years in a row. The next year, the number of officers killed went back down.

Another story line concerns the fact that the police shoot three times as many blacks as whites, but police have much more contact with minorities, so that shouldn’t be surprising.

MANNION: CBS News aired a wonderful Steve Hartman feature story that wove in some of the defunding protests and issues. It began with a focus on negative police contact with minorities, but ended in a great story that humanized one officer and one African American male whose lives intersected when the officer was pulled to safety from a burning police car by the other.

The latter had just spent a year in jail over a false accusation, and had developed a deep resentment toward police after repeated pull-over contacts with local police for questionable reasons.

The story happened in Uniontown, Pa., and was particularly excellent in the way Hartman took the viewer back to the protests against police, and the distrust by minorities, post George Floyd. But this story ended with the officer and his citizen rescuer finally meeting, embracing and forming an amazing bond and mutual understanding of the many issues. It is often hard for local media to have the luxury of time or personnel to put together a follow-up story like this even if they want to.

But this aired nationally as one of Steve Hartman’s On the Road weekly features. The entire story of police and minority interaction was artfully woven together and a great example of how some of the national media are doing balanced stories that put things in better context and sometimes illustrate positive outcomes.

GEST: Back to the subject of defunding the police, many stories are one-dimensional: do we either need to defund the police or do we need more social services?

FOX: There can be reductions in force and a redistribution of resources. The media should stop using the term “defunding.”

FREIVOGEL: It’s not the media’s fault (using the term “defunding.”) It is a term used by the advocates of defunding.

GEST: Some aspects of the topic have had decent coverage. There have been many stories, for example, about experiments with sending mental health experts on calls with police officers.

SHELLEY: There has been good coverage but it is sparse or isolated. Good stories on some of these subjects are anomalies.

Bail reform should get more coverage as an aspect of criminal justice reform. Judges are losing their ability to use their discretion on bail decisions, and some people released on bail have committed serious crimes, including homicide. The media should cover how officials in state capitals are making the rules on this.

MANNION: Have the media been covering decisions on defunding the police and those decisions later being reversed?

WILLIAMS: There has been some coverage in Minneapolis, where the mayor proposed an increase in the police budget and it was passed.

FREIVOGEL: I have seen some good stories on this. The Gateway Journalism Review did stories on police accountability that said 35 percent of people killed by police have had emotional problems. I was surprised at how large the number was.

SHELLEY: Some police departments have a large number of staff vacancies as many people don’t go to work during the pandemic. The stigma attached to working for police departments hasn’t had as much attention from the media as it deserves.

Some departments are trying to upgrade their screening to prevent hiring “bad apples.” Others are lowering their standards during the pandemic.

Some media are doing stories that raise concerns about some of these issues, beyond the binary concerns of whether police department should have more or fewer officers.

GEST: How about coverage of “progressive prosecutors,” some of whom say they are charging fewer people with low-level offenses.

FOX: In Boston, the Globe kept quoting the police union making outrageous statements about prosecutors’ policies, fanning fears that crime would be out of control. Crime rates did not increase, however.

FREIVOGEL: Philadelphia police also made exaggerated claims about the prosecutor there. The story is that there are more progressive prosecutors have been increasing. It’s an incredibly significant development.

SHELLEY: Manhattan’s newly elected district attorney has been under pressure to re-evaluate his announcement of not prosecuting many “quality of life” crimes. The media have covered it well.

FOX: I’d like to discuss another subject, mass shootings.

On May 10, 2021, for example, The New York Times published what was described as a “partial list” of the 13 mass shootings that had occurred up to that point in the year, adding that there were “many more” not included. However, the “partial list” of mass shootings was the entire list of mass killings (with 4+ victim fatalities). The incidents not listed were the nearly 200 of lesser severity, half with no deaths. In effect, the “partial list” characterization misleadingly implied that the omitted incidents were like the 13 deadliest.

Death is different from injuries. Many so-called mass shootings involve people having a gun but no one is injured.

In terms of schools, it’s true that many some K-12 students are killed by gunfire, averaging just over a half-dozen annually. Of course, many others are scared, traumatized, and even injured, but still alive.

It’s the media’s fault not to make these distinctions when reporting on mass and school shootings.

There is an average of only two “active shooter” incidents involving schools each year. And that is out of more than 100,000 schools in the United States. The fear is way out of proportion with the risk.

GEST: Have the media largely ignored the hundreds of thousands of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. each year?

WILLIAMS: Some have covered it, but many news organizations don’t have the resources to do it. This often falls in to the beats of reporters covering health care, and the COVID-19 pandemic has taken up all of their time since early 2020.

The coverage of overdose deaths has fallen by the wayside.

SHELLEY: It has become a prominent part of popular culture. There have been a few highly sensational stories that have got lots of play, such as many deaths in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District.

There has been lots of coverage in the first self-injection center in New York City, where people can shoot up opioids with trained social workers nearby who prevented a number of deaths. The concept is highly controversial.

MANNION. Pre-pandemic, it seemed like tons of news organizations were focusing a lot of resources on the opioid crisis and overdose deaths and on all platforms. At least here in Pennsylvania, many organizations were producing in-depth reports, documentaries and all sorts of special editions or public affairs programs on these topics. A lot were then entered in statewide or national news competitions.

In fact, some of us who serve as board members with statewide news associations helped judge an unusually large number of entries on these topics. But in many cases that has really slowed down despite the fact that drug overdose deaths have surged during the pandemic.

WILLIAMS: Back to coverage of crime generally, there has been an increase In certain crimes, but it doesn’t apply to everyone. Much of it involves a very small group, mostly male African Americans. We should keep the context in mind.

Most people aren’t going to be carjacked. News coverage reports things that are unusual, and social media amplifies it.

Minneapolis still is a relatively safe place for most people.

SHELLEY: On the subject of incarceration, there has been outstanding reporting in New York City of increased violence, illness and death at the city’s Rikers Island jail complex.

There was also good coverage in Fayetteville, Ar., of the forced use of the deworming drug ivermectin in a local jail during COVID-19.

There has been outstanding coverage in communities large and small that the criminal justice system has largely failed inmates.

Coverage of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has been inconsistent.

GEST: Any final comments on the state of news media criminal justice coverage?

SHELLEY: There has been increased personal risk among many journalists who are working as “one man bands.” Many are burned out from working in a 24/7 news cycle, having to deal locally with issues of national importance.

There never has been a more important time to provide robust national coverage, but it has never been tougher.


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