News Media and Crime, Can they ever get it Right?


Read more of Mark's work at his blog D.A. Confidential

As a former newspaper reporter and now a prosecutor, it’s hardly surprising that I devour news stories on the criminal justice system. I am very interested in policy issues but also fascinated by the worm’s eye view of our system, the way people as individuals are affected.

So, no surprise that I eagerly read an article in the New York Times entitled:
Final Family Night Before a Father Is Locked Up
Pretty dramatic, eh? Looks good, eh? And after all I’m a father, and while not much of an embezzler (so bad at numbers!), I’m interested in the psychology of inmates and those headed to the Big House. And I assume that the guy going away has some redeeming features, perhaps an unfairly heavy sentence, or a devotion to making some good out of his crime.

So I read the story (credit where it’s due, I saw it first at The Crime Report).

And it made me mad. First, I was willing to put aside my initial reaction to stories like these, which is “Why are we giving newspaper column inches to crooks and not their victims?” This story, after all, seemed like another perspective and just because it wasn’t about the victims, maybe I could learn something. As I said, I expected some sense of redemption to come through.

But no. And here’s why the story sucked:

1. The poor father going to prison stole millions from old people and the disabled. Any writer will tell you their story is a failure if there is no sympathy to be had for the main character, especially given the sympathy-fishing headline. A bad crime but maybe he’s sorry….

2. He did not seem even slightly sorry. Rather, he offered excuses for stealing from these people (and disputed the amount, of course): he had ADD and was depressed. Seriously?? He managed to get a law degree, to focus on getting through three years of that, but he couldn’t focus on NOT stealing from disabled people.

3. He’s not afraid for his safety and hopes to lose weight while in jail. That’s what I’m learning? About this time I check the top of the screen to make sure it’s the NYT I’m reading and not The Onion.

4. The story just ends with him not bothering to take in the Bible he’d just told us was so important. And, more oddly, the reporter ends the article after telling us the sentencing was postponed. Did he get five years? Ten? Fifteen? No idea, because apparently this puff piece was too important to be held up until the most important element could be included.

5. I would like seven minutes of my life back please, NYT. That was the least insightful, most disappointing article I could imagine. I think part of my frustration stems from the possibilities such an article presents. It could have been fascinating, educational, even emotional. It wasn’t. It was like sinking into a bubble bath that turns out to be luke warm, and the tub has grit in it.

6. I wonder if the execs at the NYT are sitting around wondering why people are turning to new and electronic, but real, news sources, like The Crime Report and Texas’s own font of wisdom and knowledge, Grits for Breakfast?

I’ll help the NYT, how about that? Let’s start with a new headline for their article: “Unrepentant thief goes to jail.” Not very exciting, but then it matches the story perfectly. And I use small letters because this story, if published at all, should be on page 143, lower right corner.

And then, nearer the front pages, perhaps a story about the man with cerebral palsy that this guy stole from. I’ll even give you the headline: “Victim Relieved as Thieving J&$#&ss Goes to Prison.” Like it? Wanna borrow it…?!

Oh, I don’t mean to sound bitter or even appear to be constantly clanging the gong for stories about victims or other pro-enforcement matters. I just think that when you consciously decide to ignore the plight of a criminal’s victims and focus on the plight of the criminal, there better be something worthwhile in the story. Does that seem like too much to ask of a responsible news organization?

Mark Pryor is an Assistant District Attorney in Travis County, Texas. Read his blog D.A. Confidential.

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