Enterprise Crime Reporting–A Vanishing Practice?

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We’re only two months into 2011, and there’s no shortage of crime news —-from the shooting of a congresswoman in Tucson that shocked the nation to a supposedly “polite” armed robber in Seattle who also got wide notice. Yet few stories on individual crimes, large and small, enlighten Americans much on how to reduce crime generally or to protect themselves specifically.

One of the only measures of the volume of coverage, a survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, found that crime remains one of the top eight coverage issues, but its share of the total was down slightly last year. That makes sense, because crime rates continued to stabilize and there was no single dramatic crime event. (This year may prove to be statistically different to the extent that the Tucson shootings and the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks are defined as crime.)

What these numbers don’t measure is the quality of coverage. In my view, there is somewhat less “enterprise” reporting by journalists on crime and justice issues than there used to be.

My conclusion is backed by the results of the latest in the series of annual surveys of crime coverage conducted by Criminal Justice Journalists (CJJ).

Our survey, presented at the 6th annual Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America at John Jay College this month, shows that there still is terrific coverage.

One example is the Philadelphia Inquirer series on major problems in local courts that won this year’s John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Award for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting, one of the journalism awards given at the Guggenheim conference. After two years of painstaking work, the Inquirer’s five-person investigative team found that Philadelphia had the highest violent crime rate among America’s 10 largest cities and among the lowest conviction rates for big cities. Full disclosure: I was one of the jurors for this year’s prize.

For a more detailed account of the series, please see the case study prepared by CJJ Board Member Deb Wenger.

Overall, however, if you check the pages of your local newspaper—the kind of outlet most likely to be doing reporting that takes a critical look at how police, courts, and correctional agencies are operating—and you will see less of it.

I believe there are two major reasons for this.

One is that crime is somewhat less of a public issue than it was in the early 1990s, when the reported rates of crime were at their highest in modern U.S. history. Another is that there simply are fewer journalists to do it. Many daily newspapers around the nation have been hit by budget cutbacks and resulting staff layoffs and attrition.

As Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism points out in the conference call we conducted to discuss the survey, investigative reporting remains alive and well in many places.

Only some fraction of those efforts deal with crime and justice, however. The Washington Post and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel , for example, have provided major, ongoing coverage of gun violence and government failures to regulate illegal gun transactions, but most media haven’t dealt with the subject extensively.

There’s also the issue of media literacy on crime issues. One speaker at the H.F. Guggenheim symposium, researcher David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health, often is interviewed on gun issues. He complained that many journalists take a “simplistic view of the world,” seemingly assuming that anyone they interview on the subject must be either pro-gun or anti-gun, and not realizing that the United States is an “outlier” among civilized nations in its high volume of firearms crime.

Will things change in 2011? It depends. The Arizona case has prompted more coverage of gun issues than had been the case recently, and there’s a chance at at least some media outlets will take a close look at a key issue arising from Tucson: is it possible to keep guns from more people who have shown signs of serious mental illness but have not been hospitalized?

On the homeland security front, the months leading up to the 9/11 anniversary will be the occasion for some detailed media examinations of what is being done to prevent new terrorist attacks. The issue has a clear connection to the amount of public resources devoted to law enforcement because many of the same agencies handle key functions of both, and tax-dollar support for policing is eroding in many places.

A trickier issue is public fear of crime, which may or may not be related to actual crime rates. In a particular community, it may depend on the extent of “stranger” crimes—those seemingly random events that don’t involve criminals’ offenses against each other, which are typical in the drug trade. The media can be key to public perceptions, because broadcast outlets and newspapers often report violent “stranger” crimes more prominently than other offenses, and rarely put them into perspective.

The annual Gallup Survey shows that as of last fall, a fairly high percentage of the nation—37 percent of those surveyed—are afraid to walk within a mile of their residences. (This figure has been stable for years, although it was somewhat higher in the high-crime era of the 1980s and early 1990s.)

Some media are doing better at gathering and displaying online data showing crime “hot spots.” A better effort at this might inform the public that at least some of the areas near their homes are safer than they think. The pressure on journalists to produce stories constantly both for the Web and for regularly published newspapers and radio or television newscasts suggests that the mainstream news media aren’t rushing to produce these analyses in the competition to report on the daily crime blotter.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and editor of TCR’s Crime and Justice News

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