Although newspapers have been struggling to maintain reporting muscle, crime and criminal justice content continues to be a staple of local coverage, according to a study commissioned by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice (CMCJ) at John Jay College.
But the study, which examined six representative dailies around the U.S. over a four-week period in March 2014, also found that despite efforts to get beyond a “just-the-facts” account of crime news, in-depth or enterprise reporting was rare.
The limitations of coverage were acknowledged by several of the editors and journalism educators who participated in the study.
Michigan journalist and educator Bonnie Bucqueroux told the researchers that in-depth reporting has been rare in crime and justice coverage, even when more newsrooms had more resources.
“We have never done a good job of putting crime in broader context,” said Bucqueroux, who teaches journalism at Michigan State University and runs a local news website. “What we typically get is the police version of an event. I think it's a box that the traditional media have always been in; it's difficult and time-consuming to dig out alternative sources.”
The study was conducted by Debora Wenger, Director of Undergraduate Journalism at the University of Mississippi, and Dr. Rocky Dailey, Assistant Professor at South Dakota State University, for Criminal Justice Journalists, which collaborates with CMCJ in producing The Crime Report. It was supported with a grant from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.
Both study authors are former journalists. Wenger worked in local television and newspapers for two decades and has served on the board of Criminal Justice Journalists. Dailey worked in local television and newspapers as a visual journalist and online reporter over the course of 17 years and currently teaches in the graduate and honors programs in journalism and mass communication.
The six papers reviewed were the Detroit Free Press, the El Paso Times, The Indianapolis Star (which covers Fishers, In.), The Camden (N.J.) Courier-Post, Naperville (Ill.) Sun and The Flint (Mi.) Journal.
They averaged about 78 crime-related stories for the period studied, with the most stories appearing in The Camden Courier-Post (165) and the fewest in the Naperville Sun (26).
But most of the stories reported on discrete incidents, without significant context added—and tended to focus on violent crime versus property crime.
What may be more surprising is how often stories rely on a single source. About 65 percent of the crime and justice stories overall referenced just one source of information.
At the Camden paper, for example, 84 percent of stories had one reported source, as did 55 percent of those published in The Indianapolis Star.
At every publication in the study, law enforcement officers were the most commonly cited sources by a wide margin, with court representatives, including judges and prosecutors, coming in a distant second. Fox agrees this heavy reliance on the official point of view is one of long standing.
“News media tends to take the official side, the prosecution side – this doesn't surprise me – when a case emerges in the news, that's often the only side available to the reporter,” said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.
Eric Dick, breaking news editor at the Star, told researchers the newspaper likes to add more points of view to stories whenever possible; but for every enterprise story, there are undoubtedly many more briefs.
“I think there are three factors involved. One is the amount of crime: information is readily available that rises to the threshold you need to do a story, but you wouldn't be able to develop all of them,” Dick said.
The authors of the study said more research could further “quantify whether there is more or less crime coverage occurring in today's daily metropolitan newspapers than in the past.”
Pointing out that, according to a 2011 survey by the Pew Research Journalism Project, 66 percent of U.S. adults say they follow crime news—with only weather, breaking news and politics garnering more interest—they said such research was “a critical tool for editors, journalists and policymakers” at a time when the criminal justice system was the focus of intense national debate.
“It is imperative that the audience gets the most contextualized and well-sourced coverage possible,” Wenger and Dailey wrote.
To read the full study please click HERE.
NOTE: for individual content analyses of each newspaper studied, please see attached sidebars.
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