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Can Local TV News Go Beyond 'If It Bleeds, It Leads?'

Fairly or unfairly, local television newscasts long have been blamed for exaggerating Americans' fear of crime. In opinion polls, respondents consistently say they believe serious crime is rising, while official data show that the total intermittently rises and falls.

In an effort to improve media reporting of crime, the National Press Foundation (NPF) and the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) last month invited 80 local broadcast news directors to a "summit" in San Diego titled "Beyond 'If It Bleeds, It Leads'," the term critics use to characterize much local news coverage that features crime stories.

The session was funded by Arnold Ventures. Walter Katz, vice president of criminal justice at Arnold, said the urgency of television news coverage often results in a loss of context. “For news stations where you have competitors, you have commercial challenges, you have time pressure, you don’t have a lot of time to put out a story, and often you don’t have time to follow up in a story,” Katz told the meeting, NPF reports. "Unfortunately, the cost is that there's a ton of context in criminal justice that is getting lost, in my opinion, as a result of that need for urgency.”

Among several suggestions, Katz said journalists should focus on clearance rates, not just crime rates. The clearance rate is the percentage of cases that police solve, usually by an arrest, and a metric of police performance that news organizations should examine carefully, Katz said The national clearance rate for homicides is about 60 percent, but there is huge variation. Chicago', rate is about 30 percent.

“The reality is that only about 45 percent of all type one crimes – that means robbery, assaults, theft, homicides, sexual assault – are reported to the police ... When we talk about shootings, for example, aggravated assaults, in some jurisdictions, they fall down into the single-digit percentages” for clearances, Katz said.

He asked journalists to ask police more regularly, "How many cases are you actually solving?" He added, “The impulse is to do the story of what happened that night ... when someone got hurt or killed. There is not a lot of follow-through. But I don’t think that city council members or mayors or legislators or the media or the public is asking at all enough questions about, ‘How is money being spent, and how are you solving these crimes that occur?’”

At another "summit" session, Alain Stephens of The Trace complained that the media do not report on the root causes of crime. "We have this ability to throw away the criminal as worthless, that people commit crimes because they’re just stupid and they’re bad people,” Stephens said. But poverty, economics, location, and even weather can affect who and why people are committing crimes. “Without framing root causes, we as journalists, as the askers, cannot ask for a better society.”

Stephens cited the Columbia Journalism Review’s “How much coverage are you worth” and “How much press are you worth?” provide more information on the disparities of victim coverage.

Also at the meeting, Cheryl Phillips of the Stanford Computational Policy Lab urged journalists to do more digging into crime date. She said, for example, that reporters may find that Black drivers in your region are stopped more than white drivers relative to their share of the driving population. Phillips and her team found that drivers of color were more likely to be searched on the basis of less evidence than white drivers and that Black drivers were less likely to be stopped after sunset when a “veil of darkness” masked their race.

In one session, Insha Rahman of the Vera Institute of Justice and Josh Hinkle of KXAN in Austin, Tx., shared ways to provide context to criminal justice reporting.

“How do we get out of the individual high-profile cases, the one-off incidents that often dominate the nightly news and headlines, and actually look to the systems behind it that drive those headlines?” asked Rahman. :

Rahman suggested that when reporting on a shooting or homicide, journalists should remind people that this is a small fraction of daily police-citizen interactions. “There’s over 10.5 million arrests” annually, but violent crime accounts for only five percent of arrests.

Another suggestion: Report on the consequences of jail time on a systemic level. ,ahman said. “The research has shown definitively that even 24 hours in jail makes a person more likely to be arrested in the future.” Jail time increases the likelihood of losing your job, “which is what keeps people stable,” and could even lead to an investigation by a children's services agency.

Hinkle reported on “Mental Competency Consequences.” project. People deemed mentally incompetent were being forced to wait in jail while mental hospitals were full. “Just in this last year we have 2,500 people … waiting in jail for mental competency restoration,” he said. Sometimes, people die while they are on the waiting list. “What we’ve found is the state is not tracking this data right now,” he said.

In an opening talk to the meeting, Shimon Prokupecz, who has covered many mass shootings for CNN, asked, "Do we need to hear the gunshots of ... kids being slaughtered in the classrooms? Do we need to show the gunman or report his name? These are serious considerations that I think news leaders need to make." When covering the Uvalde, Tx., school massacre, CNN respected the wishes of family members, choosing not to air footage of the gunman in the hallway or to broadcast his name.

Prokupecz said generally, police are the first sources to give journalists information on a crime. However, police may be uncooperative with journalists. "They clearly don’t like it ...and it certainly makes our jobs tough to do," he said. It’s important for reporters to familiarize themselves with standard procedures in law enforcement and the criminal justice system so they know which questions to ask.

“I think since George Floyd, we have all been trained in some ways to think differently about what the police tell us initially,” he said.

Though resources can be limited, putting time into a story to get more details can be preferable to immediately broadcast a developing story. Prokupecz said in Uvalde, at first the public information officer was the only source communicating with journalists, and higher-ranking officials were unavailable. He said to keep pushing if the story being told doesn’t make sense. During the Uvalde shooting, “no one knew what was going on, but the little bits of information I was getting were raising all kinds of red flags for me,” Prokupecz said. “I knew something wasn’t making sense.”

He said that after a couple of days, he learned from family members of victims that police officers didn’t immediately enter the classroom. ... What was difficult for me also was the dishonesty from the police.” When the police department held a press conference, he and other reporters confronted the police on why they were giving bad information. “It was important for the families and the community who have been trying so hard for so long to get answers,” he said.

Melissa Luck, news director at KXLY in Spokane, Wa., told Emily Barr of TV News Check that the summit provided her with a gut check — crime statistics do not always match up with the coverage they provide. “Every market, large and small, is dealing with the same challenges, so it was incredibly worthwhile to have this time to reassess what we are doing,” she said.

Barr says that Luck came away from the summit determined to create a comprehensive, written crime coverage policy for her station. She feels a great deal of responsibility to understand what her crews are facing in the field, especially when covering particularly violent crimes such as school shootings because, much like the victims of crime, reporters and photographers often suffer their own form of PTSD, taking a toll on their mental health and well being.


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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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