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Uncritical News Reports on Police Helps Dodge Accountability: Oliver


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Television host John Oliver took a at how crime is covered by the news, particularly on the local level in the U.S. “TV news leans hard on ‘this could happen to you’ type of crime stories, which are designed to pull you in,” the Last Week Tonight host explained, which can stoke unfounded fear of crime, lead to misperceptions in the crime rate, and exacerbate inequities in the criminal justice system, reports The Guardian.


Oliver cited the example of rainbow fentanyl. According to many news outlets, the candy-colored narcotics have been designed to appeal to children around Halloween.


“While the idea of rainbow fentanyl being made to target kids sounds very scary, experts on narcotics have pointed out that those pills are almost certainly colored just to differentiate products and it has nothing to do with marketing to kids at all, period, whatsoever,” said Oliver. “Which does make sense, doesn’t it? Because kids ... are not an ideal customer base for expensive street drugs.”


Some outlets noted that no examples of kids taking rainbow fentanyl have been reported, but “that instinct to run an eye-catching crime story without being skeptical of its sourcing is unfortunately incredibly common,” said Oliver.

Oliver discussed the local crime beat – the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality that took root in the 1970s, when two Philadelphia stations started the “eyewitness” and “action news” formats focused on crime news.


Local news started publishing mugshots; the New York Daily News still maintains online mugshot galleries such as “criminally bad hair day” and “babes behind bars” – “It’s fun because it’s their worst day,” Oliver deadpanned.


“The faces that get shown can compound existing inequities in our justice system,” Oliver said, noting a study in New York reporting that while a quarter of the city’s population was Black, Black people made up over half of all arrests and 75 percent of criminals shown on the news.


News organizations frequently don’t report follow-ups or developments in cases, and stories often rely on a single source: police. “Police say” is a phrase “you constantly hear from the mouths of news reporters,” said Oliver. “It’s right up there with ‘this just in’ or ‘back to you’ or ‘I apologize for the accent I did on Cinco de Mayo.’


“There is obviously nothing wrong with calling the police to ask questions,” said Oliver. “When you’re working on a deadline, you can’t always reach arrested civilians or their attorneys who sometimes don’t even want to talk with you anyway.” But there can often be huge discrepancies between law enforcement’s version of events and the real story."

Oliver cited the police jargon “officer-involved shooting”, which is “a weird term for reporters to repeat because it deliberately omits crucial information about how the officer was involved. If you went to someone’s house for dinner and they said ‘tonight there is a rat-involved dinner,’ you’d justifiably have some follow-up questions.”


“By presenting police uncritically, you’re not just helping them dodge accountability. You’re giving them a huge lobbying platform,” he said. There’s a lot of great crime reporting, he added, “but the daily crime beat, whether from lack of resources, lack of scrutiny, or lack of follow-through, far too often takes police at their word and not as an interest group who should be treated as such”.


Oliver advocated for smaller changes undertaken by some news organizations: replacing “police say” with “police claim”, doing away with mugshot galleries, reporting on cases to their conclusions. Je pushed for a larger cultural shift: asking if the crimes covered by local news are actually newsworthy, “because the truth is, not all crimes are."

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