Guns, Bombs and Cybersnoops


The Boston Marathon bombing, the politics of guns and the leaks about NSA surveillance dominated much of the crime news coverage in 2013. But how well did the media cover these stories?

In its annual roundtable of press coverage, Criminal Justice Journalists (CJJ) brought together five of the country's senior journalists and media observers for a freewheeling discussion under the auspices of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Ted Gest, president of CJJ, moderated the conference call. Joining him were Debora Wenger a broadcast journalist who teaches at the University of Mississippi; James Alan Fox, a prominent blogger on criminal justice from Northeastern University; Mike Cavender of the Radio Television Digital News Association; and Matthew Robinson, of Appalachian State University.

The participants gave mixed reviews to the media's coverage of the April 2013 Boston bombing. While most agreed the reporting was accurate, they noted how “unethical and cutthroat competition” distorted news values and occasionally led to misreporting. But they reserved some of their harshest judgments for the way the media has characterized the gun issue in the year since the Newtown, CT.

“Some of the media were awful,” said Fox, singling out Piers Morgan of CNN (whose program is being cancelled) and noting that even serious reporters incorrectly said mass shootings were on the rise, and left the impression that all schools were unsafe. “Very little context was provided,” added Robinson.

The media's perennial problem with overdramatizing or simplifying crime statistics was in evidence in reporting about homicides and even the deaths of on-duty cops last year. “The media should look at least at five years data when reporting on trends,” suggested Fox.

The media did a better job of covering the angles following Edward Snowden's headline-capturing leak of National Security Agency documents purporting to show widespread government surveillance. “It's a good example of the need for reporters to have in-depth knowledge of the areas they're covering,” observed Wenger.

But what the media failed to cover also drew the attention of the participants. Cavender noted that local TV continued to focus on spot news crime stories. “I'm not suggesting that we stop coverage of that—it's an easy story to cover,” he said. But he worried that it “crowds out coverage of more significant community issues.”

Gest noted that there were fewer stories last year devoted to “salacious, sensational” crimes, but Fox noted that such stories continue to serve as “entertainment for a segment of the population—its daily soap opera.” He wondered what impact the many shows on serial killers would have on viewers' psyches.

“There are times when journalism covers what is interesting,” concluded Wenger. “(But) what doesn't get covered is more important and more relevant.”

To read the entire discussion, please click HERE.

For Part 1 of the 2013 Year-End Survey, please click HERE.

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