Once again, the news media find themselves blamed for poor criminal justice policy. The latest blast comes from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, which studied three cities and delivered a familiar conclusion to a congressional committee this month: the news media exaggerate juvenile crime, so politicians make bad decisions.
One example offered is the supposedly sophisticated capital city of Washington, where a police chief declared “crime emergencies” based on “short-term spikes in certain crimes,” and “punitive policy changes” were enacted, largely because the villain of the story, the Washington Post, publicized juvenile crime out of context and supposedly told elected officials what to do.
Like many theories, there's a grain of truth to this one. Certainly the media could do better at covering juvenile crime, and politicians do pay some attention to news reports.
The crime council failed to talk to media representatives and based its conclusions on interviews with unidentified “stakeholders” (criminal justice practitioners) and delinquent youth. “What I find unfortunate and lacking is that the authors undertook a study about media coverage yet apparently never saw fit to interview editors or reporters in any of the three papers cited,” says Gena Fitzgerald of the Journalism Center on Children and Families, based at the University of Maryland. “If they had, perhaps they might have a better understanding of how editorial choices and decisions are made on a daily and sometimes hourly basis.”
It is true that the media tend to report “bad news” such as crime increases more than they do “good news.” This is not done to distort reality but is based on long experience in what interests the news audience. A simple example is that when we report on a plane crash, news consumers know it is an unusual event and don't expect accounts of the 99.99 percent of planes that landed safely that day.
Still, such reports scare some people out of flying, just as reports of juvenile crime increases can give readers and viewers an exaggerated idea of the problem. Such reports shouldn't justify bad policy decisions, such as mandatory trials of many juveniles in adult courts. Legislators should be held accountable for their choices; it's not accurate that “the media made them do it.”
The report includes some good suggestions about how the media and politicians can get a more nuanced view of crime. Despite what the crime council says, most journalists and elected office holders know that teens who have committed violent crimes are not “heartless monsters.” Even if the council's report does not assess well why the media do what they do, perhaps it can help by providing some ways to make news coverage–and government policy decisions–better.