Feast, Famine As U.S. Media Investigate Crime


In a time of turmoil for American journalism, investigative reporting on criminal justice is alive and well, but it appears unevenly across the nation That was a central message last week from the annual convention of the largest group of news reporters in the U.S., Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE).

Meeting in the unlikely location of a Las Vegas casino, IRE staged at least half a dozen panel discussions on hot criminal justice topics, four of which were organized by Criminal Justice Journalists, the co-operator of this website. The subjects included police fudging crime statistics, a new way of “justice mapping,” bail reform, and covering prisons during a budget crunch.

The leadoff speakers were Tanya Eiserer and Steve Thompson of the Dallas Morning News, which did a series of stories on Dallas’ underrreporting crimes to the FBI. “Dallas police had gone to a system where many car burglaries and thefts start out unfounded and stayed that way until proven otherwise,” said the reporters. After their story, the police department made major changes in their system, and the police chief retired.

Jeremy Kohler of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Detroit tv reporter Steve Wilson, now organizing a Michigan Center for Investigative Reporting, told similar tales from their cities. Wilson illustrates another journalism trend: the sprouting of local non-profit journalism websites. They are now active in cities as diverse as San Diego, St. Louis, and Minneapolis.

The justice mapping concept was discussed by Eric Cadora of the New York City-based Justice Mapping Center. With support from the Pew Center on the States, Cadora is planning to issue this month an “atlas” with data showing the locations of probationers and parolees in more than 20 states. Not surprisingly, they typically are concentrated in a few neighborhoods, raising questions about the often inadequate level of local social services.

Two other non-journalists spoke to the group later: Tim Murray of the national Pretrial Justice Institute said that journalists often miss the story that many jail inmates are incarcerated solely because of a lack of funds to pay for bail; Mike Donovan of the American Bail Coalition, representing the commercial bail bond industry, argued that Murray’s organization fosters a “tax-funded criminal-release program.” Ben Holden, a journalist who has become director of the National Center for Courts and Media at the University of Nevada Reno, urged a closer look at how online social media are affecting court proceedings.

Among other tips, John Diedrich of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which carries extensive crime and justice coverage, noted that “criminal justice is a web of agencies, people and paperwork. All are supposed to work together but sometimes don’t.” Reporters should probe the “rivalries and jealousies” in the system, he said. Ryan Gabrielson, an investigative reporting fellow at the University of California Berkeley pointed out many of the gaps in police data on clearance rates and response times, and the problems with conviction rates. Journalists should request logs of all cases police send to prosecutors and look for types of crimes that don’t result in charges, he said.

A report on the session on prisons can be seen at this site: http://www.ire.org/IREConference2010/police/covering-prisons-and-corrections

This was just a sampling of the rich material discussed by journalists at the convention.

Several of IRE’s key awards went to stories on criminal justice issues. San Diego Magazine won a medal for an inside look at Mexico’s drug cartels that found a justice system “at least partially populated by honest officers risking — and losing — their lives.” The Kansas City Star won an award for reporting on the U.S.government’s unfulfilled promises to stop human trafficking. The Lake Oswego (Or.) Review spent a year investigating the local police department; the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found flaws in the Wisconsin DNA evidence database that allowed a serial killer to stay in business; and students at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism showed that the New York State system for compensating those who are wrongly convicted is broken.

While the these and other journalistic efforts cited at the IRE convention were impressive, they represented only a small fraction of U.S. localities. Reporters from many big city newspapers and broadcast outlets weren’t present, some because their employers wouldn’t pay their travel expenses, others because they had taken buyouts or were otherwise out of work.

As many newspapers and television stations lay off staff members, the question now is who will fill the gap, if anyone. Several of the new news-reporting websites have expressed interest in criminal justice issues, but it remains to be seen whether the news media will be performing their watchdog roles so aggressively in the years ahead.

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