Murder in Your Living Room: Rethinking TV Crime News

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Photo by Matt Biddulph via Flickr

Even in the Internet era, the broadcast media –especially local TV stations—are the major source of news about crime and justice issues. And they remain a huge influence on public perceptions of crime. How do they handle that responsibility?

That’s one of the central questions Emmy Award-winning TV newsman Robert Jordan Jr. tries to answer in his new book, Murder in the News, published by Prometheus Books. Jordan, currently a weekend anchor for WGN-TV’s News in Chicago, applies the lessons learned during his 47-year career in broadcasting to an examination of the role reporters play in advancing (or hampering) understanding of the criminal justice system in his book.

murderIn a chat with TCR’s Megan Hadley, Jordan discusses the contrast between media coverage of today’s opioid epidemic and the crack cocaine crisis of the 1980s; how TV audiences have more influence than they think they do on what local stations decide to cover; and the constant conflict in broadcast newsrooms between “beauty and substance.”

The Crime Report: To me, the main issue of your book is summed up when you write that in connection with gang homicides, it’s “bad guys killing bad guys… who cares?” How do you get the public to care?

Robert Jordan: The answer to that, is we really don’t (care). There’s a feeling that “they” deserve it, whenever it’s bad guys dealing with bad guys, we in the media are no different. We have wives and children and husbands, and we too are victims of crime. Our own prejudices creep into our thinking, even though we try not to, you can’t help it.

But that is not what our jobs ought to be. We are here to tell stories and not to be judgmental. Over the years, I’ve had to slap myself in the face and go “wait a minute—that’s not the way I want to phrase this.” Let me go back and talk to this guy’s mother. We have to make the effort to overcome our prejudices and inclinations to think bad guys getting bad guys is OK. There are great stories hidden there that need to be told. For example, gang-related violence stories are not pretty stories, until you dig into them and they are incredibly interesting stories about survival and determination.

If you ask someone “is the life of one person more important than the life of another?” they would say everyone is equal. But we truly don’t believe that, and the coverage of murders is proof. The murder of a doctor, lawyer, newsman or child is given much more attention than (the murder of) a homeless person or a gang member.

TCR: Early in your book, you describe how gang violence received very little media attention in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and still even today. Could gang violence have been reduced if it was covered in the media earlier on?

Jordan: It probably would. (In the book), I talk about how during years when we do cover a lot of gang violence in the media, politicians to feel the heat and will either enact laws, or flood communities with more police, or do reactive things that make a difference. So to answer your question, I think there would have been a different outcome, based on the reaction that our coverage causes.

This is likewise the case when there are high-profile cases. Gang members feel it because the police are out there. And the police will tell you “oh no we do this for every case, we were out there with eager and equal intensity,” but that really isn’t true. In a high-profile case, they flood the neighborhoods. They put extra cops and detectives on, and they get into the neighborhoods and there is more pressure applied.

TCR: Should there be an entire news channel dedicated to gang-related homicides?

Jordan: I don’t think so. I think that if you had a diet of nothing but murder, you would get a few people to watch but you would not get a large audience. You would get a few eyeballs, but not enough viewers to sell advertisements and support it.

Does that mean what we are doing now has to change? I think it does. In the book, I write about the need to get producers and assignment editors out of the office and onto the streets more often so that they are plugged into the realities of the neighborhoods. Let them sit in a truck; let them go knock on the door when someone’s been murdered. If you haven’t done that before, you’re in for a surprise.

Robert Jordan

Robert Jordan Jr

You talk about tense: Walk up to someone’s house when there’s been a shooting. Folks are standing on the front porch, they are waiting for people to come by any moment with guns, and you’re standing there with a camera crew wanting to do some interviews. That will pucker your lips up.

It’s a different life in the streets. But for the most part, you are dealing with human beings who are 90 percent good, wonderful people. We forget that. We allow ourselves to be jaded by that five to ten percent of gang members, and forget about the grandmas, grandpas, brothers, sisters, and kids who are good people.

TCR: You write in the book “sooner or later, the thug life will inch its way into middle and upper class neighborhoods.” Please explain.

Jordan: We didn’t see this in the 1970s and 1980s, when crack was explosive in black neighborhoods. Now that drugs are hitting middle-class America and suburban teens with epidemic proportions, we see a different attitude about trying to get these kids help. It’s not “let’s lock them up;” it’s “let’s get them treatment.” Addiction has moved into every neighborhood and every family. So there is a realization that we all have to do something. The shame of it is that it took so long for us to come together and realize this was a social issue that we had to work across races and social status to combat. That lapse of time has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and the shattering of millions of lives.

(The media) kind of slept through that story. Now we understand the depths of the epidemic for the first time. We’re talking about it because it is so widespread in Middle America; but it should’ve been something that we talked about years ago. There are unintended consequences when the media sleeps through stories. Heroin never went away. Crack has been given over to opioids. But the epidemic remains.

TCR: You write about the need for producers and assignment editors to cover a balanced mixture of stories, while also acknowledging the role of the audience as well. In your opinion, who is in charge of changing the types of stories we see in the media: the newsroom or the audience?

Jordan: Ultimately, the consumer. The reader, the viewer, the listener. But in the short term, it’s the assignment editor or the producers. They decide what the viewers will see because they make the initial decision. They decide whether or not to send out a crew on a story. They have the gut feeling which allows them to decide the hierarchy for the day. They decide what stories to put in the first segment, how to stack them.

Those are the media filters, but viewers and listeners are also determinate factors. They can text the stations and say “hey I didn’t see anything about this story,” and they can apply pressure and become a force in determining what the media covers. Because if viewers, readers and listeners say they want more of ”this or that,” then I guarantee you the media will give them more of that. That is what we do, that is our job. But for consumers, you don’t know what you don’t know. So if a murder happened in a neighborhood and we didn’t cover it, but another station did, how would viewers know? They wouldn’t. It makes pressuring the media tough.

TCR: Why is it that most television stations are using the same yardstick for deciding which murders to air, as well as which stories? Your book notes that most news channels air the same kinds of stories in the same order.

Jordan: We all go to the same journalism schools, we do the same internships, we follow the same websites, we are trained similarly and we have a manner of thinking which is very similar. We all have this understanding about what is big and what isn’t. We know the elements that cause a story. Like Harvey Weinstein, I’m sure he walks out the door and the paparazzi are all around him.

There’s a tacit feeling among us when there is a big story. We sense it. We have an understanding of our industries and we sense that a story is going to be a grabber and the audience will like it.

TCR: You discuss protest symbols, such as the hoodie Trayvon Martin was wearing and the skittles he was carrying when he was killed. The skittles and hoodie became symbols for protesting his death. Are symbols important ways for the media to spotlight social change?

Jordan: We are always looking to the unusual; that’s news. And when there is something unusual that attaches itself to a story, the reporter sees that and will run with it, because it gives it a nice hook. It’s something to hang that story on, as opposed to the usual mundane murder we cover time after time.

Sometimes it might not be just a symbol, but an element of the story. For example, a (Chicago) girl was shot in her neighborhood after performing in Obama’s second inauguration. She was an honor student. It might not always be a symbol like a skittles, but it’s an element. An element the reporter can seize upon and help drive that story differently.

TCR: As we have seen over the past few weeks, movie director Harvey Weinstein, actor Kevin Spacey and many other powerful men have suffered accusations of sexual assault. It began with media attention focused on the allegations. But others wonder why it took so long for the media to catch up with systematic harassment of women in the workplaceor other forms of misbehavior.

Jordan: In the book I give an example of John Burge, a police officer in Chicago, who was torturing innocent men into confessions. I remember when that was going on and it’s one of the most embarrassing times of my career because I had heard about it, but we all tended to believe the authorities. So if the police said that’s not true, we believed it. Consequently, so many things slipped through.

See also: Cracking the Stonewall on a Nun’s Murder: A Reporter’s Story

In the case of many of these alleged predators, there were mumblings about their lifestyles that we, in the media, tended to overlook. Well, all it takes is a crack; and then, as you have seen, the dam breaks and there is a flood. There isn’t a day of the week that goes by now that there aren’t new revelations about sexual impropriety. I was just talking with some friends and saying we hope this continues. Inevitably, we move on after a while to something else.

We allow stories to remain hot, headline issues, but then at some point, something else comes along and we move on to it. But the consequences will be enormous, and as a result there will be change.

I think women now are no longer afraid to speak up and that is a huge breakthrough. I’m not critical of the fact we move on from these stories; I’m pleased that there is a causal change because we were giving a topic so much attention.

TCR: You write that the more viewers you have, the more you can charge for advertising and this has caused some stations to come up with the dumbest, wackiest, ill- conceived ideas a TV station could think of. Is this a problem of today’s broadcast media?

Jordan: Broadcast television is fighting over the bones of the audience, because most of the audience is gone. People have gone to cable, viewing (news) on computers, cell phones, tablets. They record news shows and fast-forward through commercials. The paradigm has shifted away from broadcast journalism and stations are fighting for the scraps of the audience. They are trying to figure out ways to gain viewers through promotions or goofy commercials.

There is an emphasis on beauty over substance. A “weather girl” is placed on the air as opposed to a meteorologist. They are going for more of a beauty queen look rather than someone who has substance in an effort to attract viewers. But stations are starting to realize you better have a trained meteorologist on the screen.

It goes back and forth, but it doesn’t mean stations aren’t always searching for a way to gather viewers by any means necessary. And over the years, there have been dumb and inappropriate things done.

TCR: Americans of color are not well represented in newsrooms today. How has that affected coverage of crime and justice issues?

Jordan: A  multicultural newsroom adds to the richness of ideas, and expands the thought process in editorial meetings and discussions. The debates can sometimes become heated—especially if they become personal—but they allow journalists to examine a subject from many different angles, including some we may not have considered before.

As an African American I found it difficult to cover a rally of the Ku Klux Klan in Nashville, Tennessee; and, years later, a rally by Nazis in Skokie, Illinois. I remember wondering to myself if I could be fair and honest in telling the story. I couldn’t just let the words flow from my pen as I would normally do. I had to scrutinize each word and ask myself, was this the most appropriate way to tell the story? When I turned in the Nazi story, my editor said I had done a good job. I didn’t know quite how to take that compliment. I still don’t.

TCR: You are critical of  today’s news coverage of crime.  How can TV do a better job?   

Jordan: I am not critical of television stations that focus on crime. These are necessary and important stories that should be covered and dissected and explored from many different angles. What does bother me is the use of crime stories as a tool for gaining ratings points: having blaring banners and agitated news anchors, taking viewers to a reporter standing in front of yellow police tape with nothing to report other than, “Our News Chopper 7 is overhead in this neighborhood where a suspect is on the loose.”

I think newsroom gatekeepers, assignment editors and producers, are too quick to “poo poo” a story—especially a murder in minority neighborhood—without looking deeper into the case to see if there might be a good story that was about to be overlooked. We miss some really good stories because we let our old perceptions about “who is important and who is not” blind us. (Those perceptions) keep us searching for the same types of victims and perpetrators instead of breaking the mold, and going after potentially good stories that are right in front of our faces.

TCR: The accusations of sexual harassment we discussed earlier also include some powerful media figures, both on and off  TV. What’s your take?

Jordan: I’m old enough to remember the days of the “Good Ol’ Boys Network.” If you were a CEO or powerful politician or respected civic leader, what you did behind closed doors was your business. Many times, the private lives of these individuals were whispered about in private conversations, but their scandalous activities were seldom reported. I can remember hearing men say outrageous, salacious things to women. I also remember admonishing men for making filthy remarks or telling off-color jokes around women. I was not alone in standing up for women and gays at a time when it was not popular to do so. But still, lamentably there weren’t many men who did stand up for women’s rights: Neither did the press.

Fortunately, these (sexual harassment charges) are more than a “trending” story that will drop off the news radar any time soon. This is a watershed moment, a turning point, in how men will be allowed to treat women and “get away with it.” Women are determining what is and what is not acceptable in a relationship. The new adjustment in sexual protocol will make some people uncomfortable. That’s too bad. There needs to be a sexual etiquette that men and women (mostly men) clearly understand, and when it is breached there should be grave consequences. But this will take time. An entire older generation, maybe two, of wrong-thinking male chauvinists will have to die out, so their way of thinking becomes extinct along with them.

This interview was condensed and slightly edited. Megan Hadley is a news intern with The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

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