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News Media And Crime: More Context Is Needed

The nation's news media should do a better job putting crime rate changes in context and asking political candidates for their specific proposals on crime and justice.

So agreed participants in an annual discussion of media coverage over the past year.

The session was sponsored by the national organization Criminal Justice Journalists. It included criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University, William Freivogel of Southern Illinois University and the Gateway Journalism Review, Marea Mannion of Pennsylvania State University, Dan Shelley of the Radio Television Digital News Association, Brandt Williams of Minnesota Public Radio, and the group's president, Ted Gest.

The nation's homicide increase in 2020 "was real, but there has been a tendency for the media to say it was the beginning of an awful trend that is going to continue," Fox said. "The first rule of crime statistics is that what goes up usually comes down. The second rule is that the more it goes up, the more likely that it will go down.

"In 2020, the homicide total was outrageously high. It has declined since, and the decline probably will continue to some extent. There is a tendency to look at data just from one year to the next, and when crime goes up, to see things from a doomsday perspective."

Shelley said that in reporting crime trends, "The media have done well, with qualifications. Journalists are doing a generally good job of placing violent crime coverage into some context. Still, too many news organizations practice 'if it bleeds, it leads.' That is unfortunate."

In January, Shelley's organization and the National Press Foundation co-sponsored a conference with the title, “Beyond ‘if it bleeds it leads.’ " He said, "We discussed the idea that journalists must do a better job, collectively, of providing context, meaning, and other information that helps the community understand why the violent crime story is important.”

Mannion observed, "Context is an important word here. People, as we know, often focus on high profile incidents they read or see in media reports rather than the actual numbers. Take the stabbing murders of four

University of Idaho students. Around some college campuses, including mine, people immediately concluded that “This could happen here. This is horrible. Students here are vulnerable.” Then the story fades away.

"It’s also easy to say we need more context and follow-up reports, but It’s sometimes challenging for busy news organizations and smaller staffs. But again, some of the public concern about violence seems to focus on these high-profile homicides despite the fact that they are a small part of overall violent crime. People don’t understand the reality, versus one or two stories in the news cycle that make them say, “Oh my god, what is

happening in my world?”

Speaking about the media's coverage of last year's midterm elections, Shelley said, "We can ask people who are running what would they do differently, be specific. The supposed lack of time and space in broadcasting and newspapers is increasingly irrelevant. Anyone can use their bandwidth on issues like crime.

"One problem with coverage is that some visual images are too good to ignore, like the videos of people shoplifting – wantonly walking into drug stores and putting things into bags. Nobody called the police because they thought that police and prosecutor wouldn’t do anything and they were handcuffed, no pun intended, by bail reform."

Shelley believes that journalists "must go beyond salacious videos and clickbait and cover stories with context and meaning, not just what will attract the most eyeballs. Any story, no matter how complicated, can be told in a way that resonates with the audience. Consumers will care about the issue if the story is done in a way that will resonate. Broadcast stations must make a commitment to cover crime with depth."

Fox referred to a tendency of broadcast news reporters to talk to crime victims, "who may not have a special insight just because they are victims. It is fine to talk to victims about their experience, but they don’t know what to do about crime. Many news stories talk only about one particular case, which may create an emotional response. The story may not get into the nuts and bolts about the hard facts of a case. We may get only the emotional story of one victim."

On the subject of covering mass shootings, Shelley mentioned the debate over whether to name the shooter. He said, "Victims and families have repeatedly told news organizations that they are glorifying shooters and creating the possibility of copycats. When the gunman who killed people at a Walmart in El Paso was sentenced, most stories did not show his picture."

Fox said, "Lots of white supremacists applauded what the El Paso shooter did but they don’t know his name and wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a lineup. What is important to them is the act, not the actor. The act is what should be covered."

The reason many newsrooms have decided to stop naming shooters unless it is absolutely necessary "is to heed requests of victims who say they are traumatized when the shooter is named, not for fear of creating copycats," Shelley said.

Freivogel commented that, "People want to know the names and the motive, but there is no reason to mention the name in all subsequent stories. The shooter doesn’t need to have the notoriety of Lee Harvey Oswald or Jack Ruby."

Shelley lamented the trend of "law enforcement agencies trying to shroud themselves in secrecy and protect themselves from public scrutiny. Many agencies are using leftover COVID relief aid to encrypt their police dispatch radios. That is a terrible phenomenon.

"It leads to a further lack of transparency and erodes public trust in law enforcement. The trend denies the public the vital information they need to know about what is happening in their neighborhoods.

"In a few situations, people can get information from police radios that may help them commit crimes or avoid capture, but police can protect their officers from that kind of thing. There is no problem with encrypting information about ongoing standoffs or health information protected by HIPPA. Overall, we do have a problem with a lack of transparency on the part of law enforcement, which is getting worse and worse."

There is a growing lack of information from police public information officers. One Florida department said its PIOs would work only Monday through Friday 9 to 5 absent a mass event. A severe crime might happen on the Friday night of a long weekend, and you wouldn’t find out until Tuesday. That is wrong.

Freivogel noted that about 32 states keep records of police misconduct secret. Several states do provide access to police records, but a majority have closed them. There was more trust in police when reporters worked in police departments. We get way less information from police departments than we used to, despite freedom of information and sunshine laws, which have many exceptions."

Shelley described the January conference in San Diego, when 80 local TV news directors "heard about crime statistics, mass shootings, various kinds of violent crimes. They heard from victims and people involved in racial inequities. We had a session solely on the impact of mental health issues on journalists, such as PTSD. It was one of the best sessions I’ve ever heard – very relevant and helpful.

News director left with a "commitment to follow criminal cases from beginning to end, so there are no more crime stories that lead the 6 p.m. news and then disappear forever," Shelley said.

He said the news directors "agreed to devote more resources to the context and meaning of perpetrators, victims, the effect of crimes on communities, poverty, and the socio-economic status of alleged criminals and victims. It was a deep dive into virtually every area of crime coverage. I’ve been in this business for 40 years, and I learned a lot."

Asked if the sessions would produce much more crime coverage on local television, Shelley said, "No. It means we’ll cover the context, meaning, and community impact of crime and not just let it drop. If it’s important enough to cover a crime, it’s important to cover the adjudication process and sentencing. We hope San Diego was the start of changing the trend."

Six RTDNA-NPF posts on programs in the conference can be seen here.

The full transcript of the discussion can be seen here on the Criminal Justice Journalists website.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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