Special Report–February 2016
The volume and depth of news coverage about criminal justice in the United States increased in 2015.
There were at least five causes. One was a rise in violent crime in many big cities. Another was the sustained reaction nationwide to the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer in the summer of 2014. A third was a series of mass shootings that each prompted much coverage of terrorism and gun issues.
A fourth was a more-prominent discussion by political leaders in Washington, D.C., and some states about addressing the nation’s world-leading prison population. Finally, there were a variety of stories produced by online-only news outlets, one of which didn’t exist for most of the previous year.
While the quantity of news coverage was up, it wasn’t immediately clear that the volume was matched by high quality and significant impact. We’ll review those and other issues in this annual report.
It was based in part on a conference call conducted by Criminal Justice Journalists on February 4, 2016 with James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, Mike Cavender, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, William Freivogel of Southern Illinois University and the Gateway Journalism Review, and Debora Wenger, journalism professor at the University of Mississippi and Second Vice President
of Criminal Justice Journalists. [see Part Two for a transcript of the call]
- In the aftermath of Ferguson, police behavior continued to be a prime story in 2015, with racial bias a major element.
- Wash Post, Miami Herald and NY Times lead media efforts to develop new narratives on mass incarceration, officer-involved shootings and sentencing reform.
- ‘Making a Murderer,’ the John Oliver show and other nontraditional media approaches to criminal justice emerge as new platforms for public education.
CRIME SPIKES AND THE ‘FERGUSON EFFECT’
It was not apparent as 2015 began that a rise in crime would become a topic of frequent news coverage during the year. On January 4, the Washington Post published a lengthy analysis headlined, “In major cities, murder rates drop dramatically.” The story speculated that final figures for 2014 would show that crime rates had dropped nationwide, but it quoted Harold Pollack of the University of Chicago Crime Lab as saying, “Everyone is a bit nervous that things could turn around.”
When the FBI did report the 2014 data, it turned out that reported violent crime went down only .2 percent for the year, and homicides only .5 percent, hardly a dramatic change. As the year went on, there were sporadic reports of higher crime rates in some big cities.
On May 29, Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute proclaimed a “new nationwide crime wave” in a Wall Street Journal op-ed article that blamed at least some of the urban increases on a “Ferguson effect”—police reluctance to enforce the law aggressively for fear that they would be faulted for harassing local residents, as happened in Ferguson.
Mac Donald attributed the “Ferguson effect” phrase to Sam Dotson, the police chief in nearby St. Louis, who said that “the criminal element is feeling empowered.” Dotson made the comment in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in November 2014. He was referring specifically to police officer fatigue after months of protests in the region over the fatal police shooting of teenager Brown in suburban Ferguson a few months earlier.
OFFICER-INVOLVED SHOOTINGS PROD CRITICAL POLICE COVERAGE
The fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014 prompted a national discussion of policing, race and justice. In last year’s survey we reviewed the coverage of the episode and its immediate aftermath, including a grand jury’s decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson.
The big question was whether this event and a series of other shootings and alleged abuses of black suspects by white police officers would continue to get the same level of attention from the public and from the news media in 2015.
In short, the answer is yes.
Unfortunately, there were plenty of new shootings to cover. They included the two fatal shootings in the same week in April 2015. The victims were Walter Scott, who was killed after a traffic stop in North Charleston, S.C., and Eric Harris, who was shot and killed in Tulsa, Ok., by a reserve sheriff’s deputy who said he had meant to subdue the suspect with a Taser. At the same time, coverage of responses to and investigations of earlier incidents, such as the November 2014 killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, continued.
Perhaps the incident with the most dramatic consequences to date outside of Ferguson was the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was armed with a knife when he was shot 16 times in 13 seconds by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke.
Although this happened on Oct. 20, 2014, it did not become a national story until video of the shooting that had been captured on a police cruiser’s dashboard camera was made public by a judge’s order in November 2015. Van Dyke was soon charged with murder, and the public reaction was so intense that Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy was fired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Another police shooting that prompted major local protests involved Jamar Clark, 24, of Minneapolis, who was killed on Nov. 15 after police responded to a domestic violence call. He died the next day. Officers said he interfered with responders but some witnesses say he was handcuffed when he was shot in the head.
These and other episodes throughout the year produced a steady stream of coverage by national and local media, both of the incidents themselves and of the wider issue of police abuse.
One common theme was discussed by the New York Times on July 31 in a story headlined, “Glare of Video is Shifting Public’s View of Police.” The story made clear that questionable police shootings were only a “tiny fraction of police behavior,” and that they had been happening for a long time, but that they were becoming widely publicized episodes as a result of the proliferation of instant video recordings, which were dubbed “the C-Span of the streets” by Georgetown University law Prof. Paul Butler.
On Dec. 9, the Times followed up by detailing how two prominent police officials, Chicago’s McCarthy and Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, had lost their jobs after video footage of police abuse was released. “It’s almost analogous to a struggling football team – you can’t fire the whole team so you fire the coach,” said Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum.
The most notable efforts have been ongoing databases of police shootings compiled separately by The Guardian US and the Washington Post.
In a front-page story on May 31, the Post explained that it was attempting “to track every fatal shooting by law enforcement nationwide.” The newspaper noted that the FBI and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “log fatal police shootings, but the data the two federal agencies gather is incomplete.”
The Post said it was basing its accounts on interviews, police reports, local news accounts and other sources.
A lengthy Post follow-up story on Aug. 9, the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, reported that 24 unarmed black men had been shot and killed by police to that point in the year and that unarmed black men were seven times more likely than whites to die by police gunfire.
One of the major issues in police use of force has been whether officers should more often use “less-lethal” weapons such as stun guns. On Nov. 27, the Post reported on that tactic, saying that 48 of the deaths nationwide at officers’ hands at that point in 2015 had been in incidents in which Tasers had been used.
The article acknowledged that Tasers are generally safe, but it said that when the devices are “used excessively or if officers don’t follow department policy or product guidelines, the risk of injury or death can increase.”
On Dec. 11, the Post featured what it called a new style of training for police recruits in Washington State that emphasizes techniques to de-escalate conflict situations. The story said that police training is at the heart of the national debate over police use of force, an issue that most of the media have not focused on but which deserves more local coverage.
Continuing its detailed coverage on Dec. 23, the Post reported that more than 50 police officers involved in fatal shootings during the year had fired their guns in previous deadly shootings, and an additional 45 had been involved in non-fatal shootings.
The last major story of the year by the Post counting the police fatalities appeared on Dec. 27, reporting that the newspaper had found 965 fatal police shootings in 2015, more than twice the number routinely counted by the FBI in previous years. Only 4 percent of the cases were white officers killing unarmed black men—the type of case typified by the Ferguson shooting of Brown. In most cases, the newspaper reported, those shot either were wielding weapons, were suicidal or mentally troubled, or ran when officers ordered them to halt.
The Guardian US did its own count of fatal police killings, titled “The Counted,” which came up with a total of 1,134 for the year, well above the Post‘s.
Editor’s Note: “The Counted” was a runner-up for this year’s John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Prize for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting in the series category.
The newspaper concluded that young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers last year. Despite making up only 2 percent of the U.S. population, African-American males between 15 and 34 comprised more than 15 percent of the deaths found by the Guardian US. The newspaper said about one in every 65 deaths of a young African-American man was a killing by police.
It didn’t require a death to trigger national news coverage of a damaging white-on-black police encounter with a citizen. All it took was a seemingly excessive act going viral on social media, followed by news media accounts and criticism of the police action.
In June, a white police officer slammed a black girl to the ground and pulled his gun out after he responded to a disturbance report at a swimming pool party in McKinney, Tx. In October, a white school officer wrestled a black student to the floor in Richland County, S.C. Both incidents were captured on video and soon went viral.
Another non-shooting that commanded a large amount of media coverage was the death of Sandra Bland, 28, a black woman who was found dead in July in a jail cell in Waller County, Tx., She had been arrested three days earlier on a minor traffic violation. Family members and friends questioned the finding that she had committed suicide and alleged that she was a victim of racism.
In all of these incidents and others, it was clear that the news media were devoting much more attention to police abuse with a racial element than they generally had done before Ferguson.
The availability of video showing what the officers had done was an essential element of the extensive news coverage, along with protests by groups like Black Lives Matter.
The extensive coverage prompted widespread concern among public officials, advocacy groups and the general public about police excesses, a story that still is being told in 2016.
Each case was different, and reporters looked into the history of the officers involved and whether they would be charged criminally or disciplined internally for what they did.
It often was less clear if any systemic reform was warranted, but there was considerable coverage of efforts by police departments to improve training and discipline.
The Washington Post devoted a large part of its front page and two full inside pages on Oct. 10 to a story headlined, “Police Withhold Videos Despite Vows Of Transparency,” detailing how police agencies around the U.S. were “routinely blocking the use of body camera videos while giving officers accused of wrongdoing special access to the footage.”
Also getting much play were outside reviews of policing, especially by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
The New York Times anticipated DOJ’s investigative report on the Ferguson incident with a front-page story on March 4 declaring in a headline that Ferguson police “routinely violate rights of blacks.” The story said that Ferguson’s population is one-third white, but blacks accounted for 93 percent of the city’s arrests. The article was based partly on an interview with a “law enforcement official who has seen the report.”
The next day, the Times devoted the two lead columns on its front page of March 5 to the actual report and its criticism of the racially biased criminal justice system in Ferguson at the same time as the newspaper reported on the decision of federal prosecutors not to file criminal charges against Ferguson officer Wilson for killing unarmed teenager Brown.
An important addition to public knowledge of police reform came from the Washington Post on Nov. 15, when it assessed many years of U.S. Justice Department reviews of police department practices. The story, headlined “Forced Reforms, Mixed Results,” reported that DOJ over two decades had intervened in 16 police departments with patterns of deadly or excessive force.
Although the reforms generally have led to new equipment, modernized policies and better training, there have been mixed results based on the important metric of use of force by officers, which increased in five of the 10 DOJ-reviewed cities on which the Post was able to obtain data. Also, the costs to local taxpayers had totaled $600 million in 13 cities—a major issue in Ferguson.
A follow-up story by the Post on Dec. 14, “Momentum builds in U.S. for reform of policing,” attempted to summarize the overall picture, at least concerning police and racial issues. The newspaper said that “activists and criminal-justice experts say the national ethos regarding race and policing has changed dramatically” since Ferguson.
The article reviewed polling results showing public confidence in police dropping, as well as the intense reaction to questionable police shootings caught on video. The story, told largely from the point of view of police critics, said that activists welcomed a “subtle shift in the public reaction” to police shootings that has focused on the “bigger picture” rather than “minute physical details” of the case or the shooting victim’s criminal record.
After a grand jury in Cleveland declined in late December to charge two police officers in the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice back in 2014, the New York Times documented the fact that even though many more police officers were facing criminal charges over shootings and other abuses of citizens, very few were being convicted or were spending any time behind bars.
There was less coverage of the more challenging subject of whether the ongoing protests of police killings, often spearheaded by Black Lives Matter would continue around the nation. In one good exploration of the subject, the Washington Post did a front-page review on February 20 headlined “A Movement Or A Moment?, which questioned whether reformers could sustain a consistent level of high activity or would fall victim to “the shortened attention spans of a society that expresses its political passions in Likes and tweets.”
MASS SHOOTINGS AND GUN POLICIES
A series of mass shootings prompted a predictable flurry of media coverage and renewed discussion of whether anything could have been done to keep guns from these shooters and future ones. In June, a man identified as Dylann Roof killed nine worshipers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
In July, a gunman named Mohammod Abdulazeez opened fire at two military facilities in Chattanooga, Tn., killing five service members. Later the same month, a drifter named John Russell Houser, who had a history of mental illness, entered a movie theater in Lafayette, La., shot two people dead, injured nine, and took his own life.
That was followed in October by a shooting in Roseburg, Or., in which nine people were killed by a gunman at Umpqua Community College. A team of New York Times reporters tackled the issue of whether it’s possible to draw a profile of shooters in such incidents. Although most of the shooters are single, separated or divorced men, millions of other people fit the same description. The Times also reported that at least seven of the 10 people who committed recent mass shootings obtained their guns despite documented criminal history or mental problems.
The shooters in the year’s most dramatic mass killing did not fit the common profile. On Dec. 2, 14 people were killed and 21 others wounded at a county-agency holiday party in San Bernardino, Ca., by a couple, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who seemingly planned it as a terrorist act. They were killed by police on the same day. Malik was soon found to have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in a Facebook post.
A neighbor was later accused of buying the four weapons used in the shooting more than three years earlier, allegedly because Farook feared that he would fail a background check. The weapons were illegal under California law because they were modified in violation of the state’s ban on assault weapons.
The episode prompted the New York Times to publish an unusual front-page editorial three days after the massacre, headlined “The Gun Epidemic.” The newspaper declared it a “moral outrage and a national disgrace that people can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill with brutal speed and efficiency.”
The editorial had little impact. There was no serious move in Congress to reinstate a federal ban on assault-style weapons that expired in 2004.
While mass shootings attract a huge amount of coverage because they are so dramatic, they actually account for only a small fraction of the gun violence around the nation. The New York Times explored this issue on Oct. 9, in a story that, perhaps predictably, did not appear on the front page but rather in an inconspicuous spot on page A17.
The article said that, including suicides, 33,636 people were killed by firearms in the U.S. in 2013. It quoted Dr. Garen Wintemute of the University of California at Davis Violence Prevention Research Program as saying that “we lose on the order of 90 people a day to firearms. We need to keep our eyes focused on the larger picture.”
Outside of local coverage of individual shootings, there was little mainstream media attention to that larger picture.
The media did pick up on a determination by major Democratic presidential candidates to embrace the gun-control issue that had been a political loser for the party since the early 1990s. In a lead story on Oct. 15 headlined “Democrats Push Gun issue to Fore,” the Washington Post said candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley (who later dropped out) were “determined and eager to lead the push for gun control into next year’s general election and effectively declared war on the National Rifle Association.”
Grover Norquist, a conservative on the board of the National Rifle Association (NRA), predicted that the Democrats would lose the presidential election over the issue, as arguably occurred when Al Gore lost to George W. Bush in 2000 after Gore was defeated in his pro-gun home state of Tennessee. Matt Bennett, a Democratic strategist, was quoted as saying that gun control had shifted in much of the public mind, as had the gay marriage issue, and that the NRA had become a “pariah” for much of the country.
Much of the “gun safety” movement concentrated on filling gaps in the widely criticized background check system for gun purchases, but there was not much detailed media reporting on the subject. One welcome exception was a July 28 lead story in the New York Times headlined “Problems Riddle System to Check Buyers of Guns.”
In it, the newspaper analyzed the Roof and Houser shootings in Charleston, S.C., and Louisiana, as cases in which shooters should have been prevented from acquiring weapons. The story reported the National Rifle Association as having urged a fix in the database of prohibited gun buyers and quoted critics as saying the NRA was ignoring the fact that 40 percent of gun sales are exempt from background checks because they are done privately, often online or at gun shows.
It wasn’t a massacre, but one incident that understandably got saturation media coverage was the on-air fatal shooting on Aug. 26 of WDBJ-TV reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward as they were doing a live interview near Roanoke, Va.
Because the shooter had been fired by the television station, the New York Times pursued the angle of workplace safety, reporting on Aug. 28 that there had been 8,666 homicides in workplaces between 1997 and 2010—one in 10 of them committed by co-workers or former co-workers.
A few weeks later, the Washington Post published a feature story on the fact that local television stations still do much early-morning coverage of crime scenes and other news that occurred the day before. “The old-school practice of a real person in a real place for the sake of a ‘live shot’ is still the gospel of broadcast journalism,” the newspaper said.
The notoriety of mass shooters in 2015 again raised the issue of whether the news media helped perpetuate such events by focusing coverage on the gunman.
In a story after the October Roseburg, Or., shooting, the New York Times quoted Dr. Deborah Weisbrot, a psychiatrist at Stony Brook University, as saying, “If you blast the names and faces of shooters on news stations and constantly repeat their names, there may be an inadvertent process of creating a blueprint.”
Pete Blair of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University has started a campaign called “Don’t Name Them,” which has been backed by the FBI and other law enforcement officials.
News executives contend that it is important for the public to know the backgrounds of people who commit mass shootings, in part in the hope that some incidents can be prevented when extreme views are recognized.
News stories continued to name shooters and explore their backgrounds.
It was a sad fact by the end of 2015 that mass shootings had become so common that for the news media, their coverage had “devolved into a grim routine,” as Washington Post media writer Paul Farhi wrote on Dec. 4.
As Farhi described it, the playbook was this: “Deploy reporters to the scene quickly. Interview eyewitnesses and families of the victims and the shooters. Check social media for clues to the attackers’ identity. Bring on the law enforcement experts for comment.”
Differences in the coverage routine may revolve “around motive rather than body count,” Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the Associated Press, told Farhi. “We tend to [minimize the story] if it only involves a disgruntled employee or ex-boyfriend. As a society, that’s an explanation that’s simple to us and we feel we can move on.”
The Post also produced a notable full-page graphic on Dec. 13 headlined “50 years of mass shootings in the U.S.,” which detailed 124 events with 814 victims, starting with the killing of 16 people by ex-Marine sniper Charles Whitman at the University of Texas. (The newspaper excluded crimes that began as other offenses such as robberies and events that involved only the shooter’s family.)
ASSESSING MASS INCARCERATION
The rise in incarceration around the U.S. has built up over three decades. Last year marked an increase in the public discussion of the subject both in the media and in political forums. The increased media coverage was welcome, because prisons and sentencing long have been under-covered stories, especially in the modern age of news organizations operating on reduced budgets.
One line of coverage involved federal prisons, the nation’s largest incarceration system, whose population had steadily grown for many years, reaching more than 219,000 in 2013. Critics in and out of government gradually concluded that the overcrowded facilities were consuming too much of the U.S. Justice Department’s budget (more than 25 percent of it) and that many federal drug offenders behind bars far longer than was warranted.
The stage for at least reform was set back in mid-2014, when the U.S. Sentencing Commission decided to apply reduced drug penalties retroactively to 46,000 prisoners.
At the same time, the Obama administration announced a program offering clemency to 35,000 non-violent offenders. The Washington Post and a few other media chronicled last year the difficulties the effort had in making much headway in identifying inmates who were suitable for release.
More than 1,000 non-government lawyers volunteered to assist, but by year’s end, only a few applications had been granted and the main Justice Department lawyer handling pardon requests had resigned.
In Congress, small groups of Senators and House members from both parties drafted bills that would reduce some of the mandatory minimum penalties that had led to the high inmate population. Their measures resembled changes that had been made by a number of states in recent years.
Although the volume of coverage increased, the news media collectively did less well in following the important nuances of this issue than they did in following a number of other criminal justice topics last year.
Relatively little media attention was paid to sentencing reform until mid-year last year, and even then, the coverage was superficial and not reflective of political realities.
A good example was a lead story in the New York Times July 29, “Bipartisan Push Builds To Relax Sentencing Laws.” The article proclaimed that with support from President Obama, then-House Speaker John Boehner, and key Senate Republicans, a bill was due imminently to reform federal mandatory minimum sentences. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) was quoted as saying the measure would be ready within about 10 days—presumably the main reason for the story’s prominent play.
Grassley was wrong, and there was no sign that the Times had sought out anyone who might be opposed to the bill, which wasn’t introduced until October and was stalled as of Feb. 2016, as were parallel efforts in the House.
The Washington Post offered a more realistic view, in a major story on Aug. 16, about the interest of conservative Koch Industries in supporting the effort. The story quoted critics as charging that Koch’s interest in the issue stemmed from federal environmental crime charges against the company and the firm’s efforts to change federal law on white-collar crime in a way favorable to defendants.
It took the New York Times until Nov. 25 to catch up with this news in an article headlined, “Rare Alliance on Sentencing Begins to Fray.” There, it became clear that the insistence of many conservatives on inserting a legal concept called “mens rea” into any package of bills on criminal justice reform–the notion that a prosecutor must prove that white-collar defendants knew their conduct was unlawful—might derail the overall measure from passing in the current session of Congress.
Later, other opponents emerged in the Senate who charged that the sentencing sections of the measure would result in the premature release of too many violent conflicts.
Overall, the media repeatedly heralded the idea pushed by advocacy groups that “criminal justice reform” was likely to be approved fairly easily because it had bipartisan support and backing from the Koch firm and a few other conservatives, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
For one thing, “criminal justice reform” was too broad a label because the many measures being considered in Congress didn’t deal with a large part of the criminal justice system. In addition, the media were not very persistent in looking for opposition among members of Congress, police and prosecutors. Rather, reporters repeatedly made the point that criminal justice reform was supposedly one of the few issues that leaders in a mostly gridlocked Washington, D.C., could agree on.
Outside of Washington, California’s efforts to rein in its historically large prison population deserve more attention from the media. One notable effort appeared in the New York Times on Feb. 27, when the newspaper published on its front page “Out of Prison, and Staying Out, After Third Strike in California.” The story told of 2,000 inmates serving terms under the state’s notoriously stringent three-strikes-and-you’re-out penalties who were released after a ballot proposition eased the law in 2012.
The Times said the recidivism rate of the group was low, partly because prisoners had “aged out” of their high-crime period but also because the state had provided re-entry services.
Prison conditions in the states had received only spotty media coverage over the years, partly because many states made it difficult for journalists to gain access to prison facilities. While access wasn’t necessary to write and broadcast stories about sentence lengths, it helped to dramatize the lives of many people living behind bars for lengthy periods.
The Miami Herald has run a series of excellent stories on abuse of prisoners in Florida’s corrections system, which is one of the nation’s largest. Starting in 2014, the Herald said it had “investigated claims, interviewed witnesses and reviewed hundreds of records from current and former inmates and staff “ The Herald said that, “Alleged abuses included sexual assaults by officers against inmates, racially motivated beatings and the withholding of food from inmates in one wing of the mental health ward.”
On Dec.13, the newspaper began a three-part series on the state’s Lowell prison for
women, the nation’s largest lockup for female prisoners. The series, tagged “Beyond Punishment,” detailed health care deficiencies, rodents and poor sanitation, and “how a healthy 26-year-old died 34 days after arrival.”
In New York State, The Marshall Project focused on March 1 on an unusual pending trial of three state corrections officers for the 2011 severe beating of an inmate in the state prison at Attica. The story was featured on the front page of the New York Times. The three quit and pled guilty to a misdemeanor, to avoid prison time themselves.
New York’s prisons got much higher than usual media scrutiny after two murderers escaped in June from the high-security Clinton Correctional Facility. After a long manhunt that was heavily covered by both broadcast and print media, one of the escapees was killed and the other was captured, but the case caused unusually intense media interest in the state prison system.
The New York Times reported, on Aug. 12, that after the prison break, corrections officers had “carried out what seemed like a campaign of retribution against dozens of Clinton inmates, beating them if they could not provide information about the escapees. Later, the Times, citing increased interest in state prisons because of the escape, recounted on Dec. 14 the case of Leonard Strickland, an inmate with schizophrenia who died after a fight with guards in 2010. The newspaper reported in detail on evidence emerging from pending litigation by Strickland’s family.
The Times, along with other media, also reported extensively about alleged brutality by guards at New York City’s large Rikers Island jail complex. In 2014, the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan reported a “deep-seated culture of violence” at Rikers, and a Feb. 22 story told of 62 inmates who had been seriously injured by guards the previous year.
In its June 29-July 12 issue, headlined “Rikers, By the People Who Live It,” New York magazine, in collaboration with The Marshall Project, published a 14-page cover story vividly telling what life is like in the facility of nearly 10,000 inmates. “Jail has a smell,” one corrections officer said. “…Worse than a sewer. The island is its own island that people on the outside could never understand.”
Also getting more media attention last year was the widespread practice of solitary confinement in the nation’s prisons. On Sept. 3, the New York Times reported on its front page that the Association of State Correctional Administrators, the trade association of state corrections directors, had called for sharply limiting or even ending the use of solitary. California and other states had announced curbs on solitary as a long-term punishment for some inmates.
On an issue related to incarceration trends, the Washington Post should be commended for a periodic series under the label “Unwinding the Drug War.” Among its many entries were front-page stories both on July 16 and Dec. 6 on the role of clemency in shortening drug offender sentences, and on Oct. 11 analyzing California’s Proposition 47 reducing punishments for nonviolent offenses.
Another prison issue is worthy of mention: The 13-year campaign to reduce rapes behind prison bars under a federal law known as the Prison Rape Elimination Act. In 2014, there was media attention to then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s refusal to accept all of the federal mandates in the statute.
Last year, the New York Times on May 31 declared in a front-page headline, “Push to End Prison Rapes Loses Momentum.” The story said members of a federal commission that drafted standards for states under the law reported that the “plodding pace of change had disheartened them despite pockets of progress.”
THE EMERGING ROLE OF ONLINE NEWS & NON-TRADITIONAL COVERAGE
In years past, most of the coverage of crime and justice has been driven by daily newspapers, supplemented by many local television newscasts. In 2015, it was more evident than ever that online coverage has taken hold.
On any given day, it is not surprising to find a major original story on a criminal justice issue on sites that include the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, Vox.com, Vice.com, Slate.com, and many others that do not specialize in justice reporting.
Criminal justice itself is considered a “niche” issue in the media, and there are niche issues within that.
An example is The Trace (thetrace.org), a website that was launched last year to report on gun-policy issues. It apparently gets much of its support from gun-control advocate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his group Everytown For Gun Safety.
Last year, we discussed the launch in November 2014 of The Marshall Project, a website devoted to criminal justice reform issues. After more than a full year of operation, The Marshall Project produced a number of notable stories, several of which on prison issues have been mentioned in this report. Last summer, The Marshall Project hosted a session with President Obama discussing criminal justice issues.
Criminal justice was a major topic in other media formats in 2015 that didn’t qualify as traditional news coverage. One is “Serial,” a widely downloaded podcast from the creators of “This American Life” that explores the case of Adnan Syed, who was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend in Baltimore County, Md. Another was “Making a Murderer,” a 10-part web television series on Netflix that told the story of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who served 18 years in prison for a sexual assault and attempted murder before he was exonerated; he was then convicted, along with a nephew, of another murder—in a case his lawyers claimed was trumped up by local police who faced a hefty civil claim filed by Avery based on his earlier wrongful conviction.
Then there is John Oliver, the HBO talk-show host nominated by readers of TheCrimeReport.org as Criminal Justice “Person of the Year” for 2015. John Oliver has “done more to bring attention to crime and justice issues than any other journalist,” wrote one reader. In 2016, A&E will air “60 Days In,” described by the network as a docu-series following seven innocent participants who enter the dangerous world of incarceration” in an Indiana jail.
Even if they are not examples of mainstream journalism, all of these media productions help educate Americans on the criminal justice system, and they have been the subject matter of traditional reporters’ coverage. At the same time, many viewers and listeners may not distinguish these efforts from journalism that does not take a point of view.
While it is a hopeful sign that criminal justice has risen again as a more prominent issue of media coverage, it is not clear that the level will be as intense as it was in the early 1990s, when the nation’s crime rate was at its highest in modern history.
It is difficult to measure from day to day, but the number of journalists nationally who specialize in criminal justice probably is less in 2016 than it was two decades earlier. Even if the raw number was about the same this year, they are more dispersed among many newspapers, broadcast outlets and independent websites than they were in the past, meaning that their individual audiences are smaller.
The most critical shortage may be at the local level. In December, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan noted that the bulk of investigative reporting over the years has been done by regional newspapers like the Boston Globe, which was featured in the recent movie “Spotlight” for its work on sexual abuse by priests.
Now, Sullivan writes, “With newspaper profits hit hard by the sharp decline in print
advertising, and with newsroom staffs withered after endless rounds of cost-cutting layoffs, local investigative journalism is threatened.”
To be sure, many local newspapers as well as network-affiliated television stations continue to do high-quality investigative work, and criminal justice is a frequent topic. Last year’s annual convention of the organization Investigative Reporters & Editors attracted 1,800 participants, many of whom attended sessions on covering criminal justice.
Still, the reduction in newsroom staffs means that on a daily basis, there is less hard-hitting journalism in many cities on basic topics involving policing, court operations, and corrections agencies than there used to be. This may be one reason, for example, that the
number of police-shooting incidents seemed so surprising to many in the general public, because they did not appear in media reports in recent years.
Many criminal justice stories these days are originated by advocacy groups, which do play a big role in educating the public on major problems but which are not a substitute for independent reporting by professional journalists.
It remains to be seen whether the higher volume of media coverage in the crime and justice field will produce more in-depth stories of important problems on the local level, where the vast majority of the nation’s criminal cases play out.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists, and a co-founder and Washington bureau Chief of The Crime Report.
The Center on Media, Crime and Justice gratefully acknowledges the support of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation for our annual surveys.