Crime and Justice: Does the Press Get it Right?

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Ferguson, Day 6. Photo by Loaves of Bread, via Wikkimedia


Criminal justice issues are increasingly making headlines, but how well is the press covering the complex and sensitive challenges facing the nation? Four leading press commentators assessed last year’s coverage of topics ranging from rising urban crime rates to officer use-of-force and mass shootings in a conference call moderated by Ted Gest, president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report.

Their verdict: encouraging, but mixed.

The participants were:  Mike Cavender, Emmy-award-winning executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association; James Alan Fox, The Lipman Family Professor of Criminology at Northeastern University;  Debora Wenger, a 17-year broadcast news veteran, board member of Criminal Justice Journalists, and director of undergraduate journalism at the University of Mississippi; and William Freivogel, a professor of journalism at Southern Illinois University, and  publisher of the Gateway Journalism Review.

Below is an abridged transcript of their Feb 4, 2016 conversation.

Ted Gest: There have been reports that in many big cities, crime totals increased last year, particularly homicides. Have the media covered this appropriately? Are they exaggerating the trends?

James Alan Fox

James Alan Fox

James Alan Fox: This began with Heather Mac Donald’s column in the Wall Street Journal on the so-called “Ferguson effect”—claiming that, based on a very short window of data in a select group of cities, cops were changing their behavior. The media ran with it, and that was unfortunate.

As for the trends themselves, there is a tendency to look at the numbers from one year to the next and consider it a trend.  Some cities have seen increases in their homicide numbers, but several of them have been victims of their own success, because the numbers went up after decreases for many years.

Some cities did see increases. Unfortunately, the tendency of the media is that bad news is big news, and good news is no news. Stories highlight the short-term blips in data as if they represent real trends. I don’t get the sense that the media folks are treating this with the necessary grain of salt.

Mike Cavender: I agree that from the media standpoint, a homicide increase in a city like Chicago is much more likely to make news than is a decline, should that occur. That certainly has disadvantages relative to providing good perspective, but that is not a new phenomenon.

Fox: Several years ago, the Christian Science Monitor ran a story around Memorial Day saying that the homicide total in Chicago had gone up 50 percent, that there was a crime wave going on. It had been a warm winter, and by the end of the year, the increase was only about 14 percent. The wider the window, the better the data. Also, the number went down the following year. What goes up must come down. We shouldn’t seize on these short-term increases; it could be just a short-term spike.

Gest: Are we agreeing the media should report the numbers? It would be notable if crime totals went up in half the big cities.

Fox: Yes, report the numbers but be careful about declaring the reason why. It may all be speculation by police chiefs or criminologists. Report the data but be very careful about attributing the cause.

William Freivogel

William Freivogel

William Freivogel: Journalists often don’t handle statistics well. We don’t put them in a large enough context or time period. This also comes up with terror incidents like San Bernardino. We don’t do a very good job putting them into context, for example that the chances of being killed in a terrorist attack are less than dying by falling down in a bathtub.

Gest: It’s more than a year since Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. We’ve had a lot of reporting on police shootings, local and federal investigations. How well have the media covered this?

Cavender: Events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere have given rise to significant changes in a lot of police departments to monitor activities of their own people. I’m talking about the advent of police body cameras. That has created a new set of conundrums of the media. I have been deeply involved in this, spending my time trying to kill legislation in various states to make camera video or 911 call transcripts secret.

It’s created a lot of ancillary issues for the public and media because the cameras were supposed to bring more transparency to the activities of police departments. It’s good that we have more recognition of the need for body cams. It’s bad if cities and states want to hide it and not make the video available after it’s shot.

Gest: Where do we stand on this?

Mike Cavender

Cavender: Across the country, from Arizona to New Jersey, bills have been introduced to try to place significant limits on what can be made public. In some cases, legislators want to make nothing public. It has created a whole set of issues on access to public information.

Debora Wenger: The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is tracking what is happening on its website:

Freivogel:  I agree that the overall press attention has been very much a positive development. It has made a lot of Americans realize there is a serious issue on the way the police handle minority groups, and that is all to the good. That doesn’t mean that all media coverage has been good.

Since our call last year, the U.S. Justice Department has put out two reports on Ferguson, one of which basically cleared the police officer, Darren Wilson. The report described the way social media and unreliable witnesses misreported the “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative that captured the nation.

“Some media outlets still have online some inaccurate (Ferguson) coverage.”

Unfortunately some media outlets such as CNN still have online some of the inaccurate coverage. You never would know it was inaccurate if you hadn’t read the Justice Department report. On the other hand, the other Justice Department report on the unconstitutional policing in Ferguson has been followed by some good media work. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has done good stories on the need for reform, and the “debtors’ prison” situation in some small municipalities near St.  Louis.

St. Louis Public Radio, with which I’m affiliated, had an interesting interactive piece that allowed citizens in St. Louis to react to the report of the state’s Ferguson Commission report— what reforms they thought were most important and which ones were not.

At the national level, I’d commend the Washington Post reporting that concluded in December, (which [documented] more than 900 people who had been shot and killed by police in the U.S. during the year. There have been a lot of stories that about the lack of good statistics on the issue, and journalists have gone out and gotten them. That has been a good piece of down-the-middle journalism. The data could be interpreted by different people to come to different conclusions. The reporting didn’t force a conclusion down your throat.

Fox: It’s true that we don’t have great statistics on police use of deadly force but we do have some. There are hundreds of cases of year. We have data in the FBI’s Supplemental Homicide Reports going back to the mid-1970s. We don’t have every case; but for example, if you look at the breakdown by race, you see that the increase in the number of white people being shot by police has been steeper than the increase for blacks, of course.  There is a higher rate among black victims per 100,000 population. The data are not complete because some departments do not report.

Freivogel: The Washington Post’s data are much more comprehensive.

Fox: But it doesn’t give us the trends.

Gest: The Guardian/US has done a good job on this, too, with a series called “The Counted.”

“The focus on white officers shooting blacks has overlooked a lot of evidence of police misbehavior that involves women.”

Freivogel: The focus on white officers shooting blacks has overlooked a lot of evidence of police misbehavior that involves women. The case of the Oklahoma City officer convicted of assaulting women highlighted this. There may a lot more police misbehavior involving female suspects

Gest: The Associated Press has done good reporting on it. See this story, for example.

Freivogel: The media have also done good reports on police training on de-escalating incidents, licensing of police, POST (peace officer standards and training) commissions in states, and troubled officers who move to different departments.

Gest: Have the police shooting incidents been covered accurately?

Freivogel: One issue is laws on police use of force. Missouri has an antiquated law. The press has done a terrible job of trying to explain this very complicated situation. Missouri’s law says police can use deadly force to capture a fleeing felon, but that conflicts with a Supreme Court decision.

Officer (Darren) Wilson had the right to do what he did even if Michael Brown had not turned around and threatened him. That suggests that the Missouri law should be brought up to date.  I’ve done stories about this, and it’s really hard to explain. It has been messed up by MSNBC and others. The press has not done a good job on this.

Gest: Has the media coverage suggested that police have not been punished for much of their misbehavior?

Freivogel: That has been a slant to the coverage. Another area to look at is when it is appropriate to bring mitigating evidence to a grand jury. Does that give special treatment for police? Also, should police shooting cases be handled by regular prosecutors or special prosecutors?  The coverage has not been good.

Cavender:  I disagree. I don’t think the coverage I have seen by the national media of Ferguson and Baltimore has had a demonstrative point of view one way or another.

“There’s a lot of confusion on what a mass shooting is”

Gest: Let’s move to the subject of mass shootings and domestic terrorism, which continued in the U.S. last year. How have the media done in covering these and issues of gun control?

Fox: There is a lot of confusion on what a mass shooting is. Historically, it’s when four or more people have been killed. Then, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, a group called the Gun Violence Archive started a shooting-tracker website that counted  mass shooting incidents in which four or more were shot. They have said there has been one incident per day on average, 372 last year and 1001 since Sandy Hook in December, 2012.

The problem is that the American public hears about this and thinks about the San Bernardino, Ca. and Charleston, S.C., shootings, because these numbers always are rolled out in the aftermath of a mass killing. So when people hear the numbers they assume they are all like Charleston or San Bernardino when they obviously are not. When you combine mass killings with mass shootings, in many of which no one gets killed, it trivializes the whole category. The problem comes in mixing two things: how many people are killed and what happened to them.

If three people are killed in one incident, it will not be counted, but if four people are injured and no one goes to the hospital, it will be included. It’s a flawed measure, and there is a lot of confusion surrounding it.

As far as media reporting is concerned, when you see a calendar of mass shootings (for example, online in the Washington Post), it scares the public into thinking that they are at a significant risk of being gunned down and killed as people were in San Bernardino and Charleston.

Another big problem of the shooting tracker website is that is has data going back only to 2013. Without an historical context, it is easy to promote hysteria.

Now, we do have long-term data on mass killings that show there has not been an increase.

That is the biggest point here. The Congressional Research Service did a report saying there has been no increase in mass killings in which four or more people were shot to death. Even after that, the press got it wrong.

There seems to be a desire to create an impression than things are getting worse. The fact of the matter is that they are not.

Freivogel: In one presidential debate after San Bernardino, CNN’s introduction made it sound like it was World War III and that you should be looking out your front window to see if a terrorist was coming up the walk.

Fox: About 42  people have been killed in the U.S. in terrorist attacks since 9/11—not very many. Most of them were in San Bernardino and Ft. Hood.

Deb Wenger

Wenger: Does that mean we shouldn’t be reporting on mass shooting or terrorism? That’s where the rubber meets the road for journalists. We have to provide information to the public on how they should live their lives, but not overblow it, either.

Fox: Media coverage often declares that a mass shooting is the largest in such a state ever or in the last ten years. Reports want to suggest that the latest case is the worst, instead of just reporting that eight people were killed.

“Some reporting on the mentally ill stigmatizes them by suggesting that they all are mass shooters-in-waiting”

Another problem is that many supposed warning signs are not reliable predictors. Some reporting on the mentally ill stigmatizes them by suggesting that they all are mass shooters-in-waiting. If we want to help the mentally ill, that’s terrific. But we always want to talk about them in the wake of mass shootings.

We are doing the right thing but for the wrong reason. Do we want to help the mentally ill, or are we concerned about the well- being of the people they might shoot? I think it’s the latter. The focus on the mentally ill is good but it shouldn’t be tied to mass shootings.

Cavender: Are you saying that the media shouldn’t examine the issue?

Fox: Not by suggesting that we can solve the problem by treating the mentally ill—which probably is not the case. Are we concerned about the people who are suffering, or is it that we don’t want them to kill people?

Wenger: Do the people who are suffering care what the reason is?

Fox: They do if they are being stigmatized by the suggestion that they all are would-be mass killers. There is stigma associated with mental illness. When we juxtapose it with these high-profile cases, we certainly increase the stigma.

Cavender: That can be an unfortunate by-product, but we shouldn’t ignore the issue of mental health just because a person was involved in a shooting.

Freivogel: It’s a proper, required avenue of journalistic inquiry. Trying to find solutions is very difficult, but it’s still a proper function.

Fox: One problem is that people who end up killing people may be the least likely to take up the availability of treatment.

Gest: On the issue of guns, I think the media have done a decent job of reporting that more gun control wouldn’t have affected most of these mass-shooting situations.

Cavender: I agree as well, but whenever you get into the issue, it’s difficult to keep the focus on the underlying issue of guns, because of all the emotion attached to the pros and cons of possible regulations. That’s not going to change.

Freivogel: On the Second Amendment, the media have not been good at saying that the Second Amendment doesn’t mean you can’t have fairly strong gun regulations. The Supreme Court hasn’t gone that far. The press has made it sound like gun possession is an absolute right, that we can carry guns to the supermarket.

Cavender: I agree that media haven’t done so good a job of examining the issue as they should. You probably have heard that a South Carolina legislator has introduced a bill that would register journalists. He said the primary reason for the bill is that he didn’t like the news coverage of the gun control issues. This touches a nerve no matter what you do.

Gest: The U.S. has the largest per capita prison population in the world but this has not been a huge issue of media coverage. Why?

Wenger: It does seem like the coverage has a different tone from 1980s, when “tough on crime” was a badge of honor. Now, stories are framed about what was the true benefit of the sentencing laws of decades ago. The narratives have changed.

Cavender: Part of the problem is that it’s a very big topic, hard for the average reporter to get his or her arms around. Access to prison facilities is difficult if not impossible to get. It’s a tough story to cover. As a result, there has not been a great deal of coverage.

With better access, there would be one fewer hindrance to deal with. Mostly the issue is the lack of time to prepare stories. Prison conditions and sentencing reform are not an easy kind of story. The red tape and difficulties of getting access combine to bring frustrating experiences.

Ted Gest

Ted Gest

Gest: Advocates on the reform side say that we in the media spend too much time reporting cases of failure in the corrections system. For example, Washington State mistakenly released 3,200 inmates too early, and there were media reports on a few of them who committed new crimes.

“We could do a better job of reporting the successes (in the Corrections system).”

Wenger: That’s the argument always made about negative news. But we don’t cover the airplanes that flew safely. There are times we could do a better job of reporting the successes.

But news is what is unusual. It’s news that people are being inadvertently let out of prison.

Freivogel: If 3,000 were released and we weren’t trying to answer that question, we wouldn’t be doing our jobs.

Gest: On a broader issue, we’ve heard about cutbacks in local newspapers and broadcast outlets, in some cases staff and publication reductions. But there’s also a proliferation of new online news outlets. Is crime and news coverage news coverage suffering?

Cavender: In the broadcast and online world, there have been moderate increases in staffing, tempered by the growing number of online publications, and additional airtime, because it’s profitable. The net amount hasn’t changed that much. The problem in the broadcast industry continues to be that it’s easy to go cover a shooting or a DUI accident. It’s easy to do spot news. When you have a lot of air time to fill, you get sent out on those stories.

“Management (should provide) the time it takes to do in-depth stories.”

We should have management that provides the time it takes to do in-depth stories, whether it’s crime and justice, or education, or any topic for that matter. While there are a lot of examples of broadcast groups that do commit resources to coverage, the majority of crime news coverage is of the spot news variety and it always will be.

Wenger: That’s a fairly standard knock on all forums. A study of New York Times headlines by the Brennan Center of Justice found 129 mentions of “homicide” or “murder” in 1990, when the murder total was at an historic high, and 135 in 2013. The public gets more crime news now, but probably less contextual crime coverage.

Freivogel: Some cutbacks are real in the newspaper business. At the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where Ted and I used to work, the number in the newsroom has dropped from 300 to 100 in about 10 years. That’s a huge cutback, but they still do a lot of law and justice reporting. It hasn’t declined that much. What’s too bad is that the “if it bleeds, it leads” kind of coverage by the local TV news scares people.

Cavender: When you turn on the local news at 4:00 or 4:30 p.m., which is when many programs start now, the first 10 or 15 minutes of each half-hour block, is comprised of a litany of spot news crime stories; you’re giving the viewer a skewed picture of what life in their community really is all about. That is what is one of the more unfortunate aspects of crime coverage.

Wenger: A recent Gallup poll found that seven in 10 Americans think there is more crime than a year ago. That is not the reality for most people.

Freivogel: We should take note of all the media coverage of the podcast “Serial,” the spin-off of the radio program This American Life.  “Serial” is one of the most downloaded podcasts. [It is the story of Adnan Syed and whether he as wrongly convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend in Baltimore County.]

Wenger: That may the number-one source of education of most Americans on criminal justice.

For more in-depth analysis of 2015 crime coverage—including the growing impact of “nontraditional media,” please see the John Jay Center on Media, Crime and Justice (CMCJ) 2015 Annual Survey, prepared by Ted Gest of Criminal Justice Journalists. The Crime Report and the CMCJ gratefully acknowledge the support of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation for these annual reviews of crime coverage in the U.S. Readers’ comments are welcome.


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