Attorney General Eric Holder says “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” but Nieman Reports says that “despite the heavy toll that mass incarceration exacts every day and in countless ways on many American communities, families, and of course the incarcerated themselves, the topic attracts remarkably little consistent coverage in the mainstream media.” David Fathi of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project has seen only a modest increase in news coverage of criminal justice reform despite his sense that the nation is starting to turn the corner on mass incarceration.
Crime and court reporters, still a staple of newsrooms everywhere, tend to see their role as ending after conviction. The number of reporters assigned to cover prisons and criminal justice, even part time, has dwindled due to decades of cuts, beat consolidation—and lack of interest. “They don’t see this as an important beat,” says Paul Wright, a former Washington state prison inmate who founded Prison Legal News in 1990, when he was behind bars. For news organizations to cover the issue properly, Wright says, they need reporters with background, and sources. “Normally well-intentioned or hard-nosed journalists, they tend to take statements by prison officials or government officials at face value, with no type of critical disbelief,” he says.