News Staff Decline Threatens US Justice Coverage: Study

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The continued decline in staffing in news outlets throughout the nation has reduced the media resources available to cover crime and justice, according to the latest annual review of crime journalism in the US.

“Over the last 15 years, the workforce of U.S. newspapers shrunk from 412,000 employees to 174,000 (and) the number of reporters covering statehouses—where much criminal justice policy is made—has declined even further,” said the report by Criminal Justice Journalists (CJJ), citing figures quoted by Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan.

The annual CJJ review released Wednesday notes that immigration issues, the opioid crisis, sexual abuse scandals, and the continued spate of mass shootings received the most intense attention from the media during 2017.

But public interest in these topics has not helped the print media overcome the decline in readership spurred by competition from online sources.

“Newspapers are not the only source of local reporting, of course,” the review said. “Television and radio stations, and community newspapers, continue to thrive in many areas; (and) websites have filled some of the gap left by the erosion of daily newspapers.”

In one of the starkest examples of the trend, the CJJ Review pointed to the Charleston, W. Va., Gazette-Mail, which earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for its reporting on the prescription drug epidemic. Last month, the family-owned, 37,000-circulation paper filed for bankruptcy. (The Gazette-Mail said it was seeking bids from new owners.)

“Crime and justice always have been staples of local reporting, and that hasn’t changed,” the CJJ said. But it warned, “There is bound to be less of that reporting as the number of people doing it on a regular basis is much diminished in many U.S. cities.”

The annual review by CJJ, the only national organization of crime and justice reporters, is sponsored by the John Jay Center on Media, Crime and Justice (publisher of The Crime Report) and supported with a grant from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

Rubén Rosario

Rubén Rosario

The review was prepared by Ted Gest, president of CJJ and the Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report; and Rubén Rosario, Metro columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and a CJJ board member.

The review noted key findings from an analysis by Andrew Tyndall of news coverage by the nightly news programs of the three major networks:

  • The most-covered crime stories were mass shootings: the killing of 58 concertgoers in Las Vegas by Stephen Paddock, followed by the attack on members of Congress at a baseball practice in northern Virginia, and the massacre at a Texas church in which 26 people were killed.
  • Seven of the top 20 stories on all subjects had some criminal justice element, leading with the investigation into possible Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections and including President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, the White House ban on travel from Muslim-majority nations, and the immigration crackdown generally.

One subject that received less national media coverage last year than it had in previous years was crime in Chicago, where homicides in recent years had hit the highest levels in two decades. That is because the total dropped in 2017. This Chicago Tribune summary said that the year’s murder count was down 15 percent, or more than 100.

Ted Gest

Ted Gest

Even later than the FBI report was the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ annual victimization survey, which on Dec. 7 estimated 5.7 million “violent victimizations” in the nation in 2016 but said that because of a redesign of the survey, there could not be a precise comparison between 2015 and 2016.

Newsweek magazine reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had misrepresented his own agency’s statistics by saying in a speech, alluding to that report, that there had been a 13 percent spike in the violent crime rate.

“The report he was citing clearly said there had been no measurable change,” Newsweek said.

The fallout from pledges by President Trump and Attorney General Sessions to take a tougher line than the Obama administration on crime and punishment, which shifted Department of Justice policies and raised concerns among reformers and advocates, received noteworthy attention from major national media, including the Washington Post and the New York Times.

“Return of the war on drugs” was the front page headline in the Washington Post on Sunday, April 9. The story featured Sessions’ hiring of federal prosecutor Steven Cook of Knoxville, Tn., an advocate of tougher federal sentencing. The Post reported that Sessions and Cook “are eager to bring back the national crime strategy of the 1980s and ‘90s from the peak of the drug war.”

The following day, in “The Rise and Fall of Federal Efforts to Curb Police Abuse,” the New York Times described another Obama-era policy likely to fall under Trump, the use of consent decrees to impose reforms on policing in cities across the nation. Then in June, the administration replaced the National Commission on Forensic Science with an in-house task force. The Washington Post reported on this, as well as on the suspension of an effort to set uniform standards for forensic testimony and to widen a review of FBI testimony on several controversial techniques.

Another notable example of Trump policy coverage was published by the New York Times on Nov. 22 under the headline, “Dept. of Justice Eases Scrutiny of Local Police.” The newspaper said that many police chiefs lamented the demise of the Justice Department’s “collaborative reform” program in which police departments got Justice Department advice on best practices. The article attributed the conversion of the program to “technical assistance” in large part to the Fraternal Order of Police, which believes that the previous effort was too burdensome on rank-and-file officers.

Immigration Coverage: “A New Standard of Negativity”?

Turning to immigration, the CJJ review observed that the Trump administration’s vow to crack down on undocumented residents made the issue 16th on the top 20 story subjects covered during the year in the annual analysis compiled by analyst Andrew Tyndall of stories covered by the three major broadcast networks in their nightly news programs.

Moreover, a study by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy of media coverage of President Trump’s first 100 days in office found that immigration was the single most covered subject during the period, commanding 17 percent of coverage by the major media (health care was second, with 12 percent).

The study assessed the tone of coverage, finding that overall coverage of Trump “set a new standard for negativity,” with 80 percent of it judged to be negative. Notably, immigration received far the most negative coverage of any topic, by the Shorenstein Center’s assessment, with a full 96 percent of stories judged as negative.

One reason that so much of the coverage is deemed negative may be that news stories often point out misstatements by President Trump and his associates.

For example, on Aug. 10, reported on Trump’s repeated references to the 2015 killing of Kate Steinle in San Francisco by a man who had been deported from the US five times and who then re-entered the country illegally. (The man was recently acquitted.) Early in his presidential campaign, Trump said, “Public reports routinely state great amounts of crime are being committed by illegal immigrants.”

Slate countered: “This is not true. Study after study shows undocumented immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than the general population, and crime rates in cities with large immigrant populations have fallen disproportionately. Regardless, the lie that undocumented immigrants are likely to be violent criminals would help propel Trump to the GOP nomination and ultimately the presidency.”

Much of the local coverage has dealt with aspects of the “sanctuary city” question, with many stories about the administration’s threats to withhold federal aid from jurisdictions that don’t cooperate with federal authorities on detaining undocumented immigrants. Many big city mayors and police chiefs have not complied, arguing that many citizens, both legal residents and others, will not cooperate with law enforcement on any issue if they could be threatened with deportation.

Police shootings and misconduct were another set of issues that drew national attention again last year. The CJJ Review singled out the Washington Post as one of the few national media outlets that have closely following the problem of police misconduct since the 2014 Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO.

On Sunday, Aug. 6, the newspaper published results of a major investigation headlined “Fired/Rehired,” concluding that since 2006 at least 1,881 officers had been fired by 37 large police departments. Some 451 of them appealed and won their jobs back through rulings of arbitrators.

Opioids: Deaths (and Media Coverage) Increase

Media attention to the opioid crisis has tracked the rising overdose death totals especially in the Rust Belt states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. CJJ singled out CBS’ “60 Minutes” and the Washington Post for an investigation broadcast and published on Oct.15, which reported that Congress in the spring of 2016 stripped the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from its strongest weapon against drug companies that are suspected of providing large quantities of prescription narcotics to the public. The law made it virtually impossible for DEA to freeze suspicious drug shipments from the companies.

The reporting had at least one significant result: It highlighted the fact that the legislation had been spearheaded by Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA), who had been nominated by President Trump as the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (popularly known as the “drug czar.”) After all the publicity, Marino withdrew his candidacy.

Another notable example of coverage came from The Cincinnati Enquirer, located in the heart of the area most affected by the opioid epidemic, which published a special report on Sept. 10 headlined “Seven Days of Heroin: This Is What An Epidemic Looks Like.”

As described by Nieman Storyboard, during one week in July, the newspaper sent more than 60 reporters, photographers and videographers to document the impact of heroin in the Cincinnati area. They went to jails, courts, methadone clinics and psychiatric hospitals. The reporting included witnessing overdoses, listening to 911 calls, attending recovery meetings and riding with police officers who were looking for users and dealers. They tallied 18 deaths and 180 overdoses during the week.

Nieman Storyboard called the paper’s effort “a riveting portrait of the human face of heroin. Instead of a traditional narrative, the project was presented largely as a series of chronological vignettes, interspersed with photos, social media posts, 911 recordings and rap lyrics. The mixed-media collage effectively showed that virtually no local geography or institution was left untouched by heroin.”

These and other stories are indications that the media have covered the opioid crisis both as a public health emergency and as a criminal justice challenge. This contrasts with the treatment of the crack cocaine surge of the 1980s, which was mostly reported on as a law enforcement issue.

Sexual Harassment’s Media Moment

Sexual abuse in the U.S. may not have increased, but news media coverage of it  intensified, the CJJ said, noting that “it seemed that hardly a week went by in late 2017 before another celebrity was accused of harassment, some of it dating from decades earlier.”

The issue exploded onto the front pages in early October, when the New York Times published an extensive report that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein had quietly settled at least eight sexual harassment complaints over three decades. It was not clear in early 2018 that any of the numerous accusations against Weinstein would lead to a criminal case, but the Weinstein story set the backdrop for a number of other prominent charges against entertainment and media figures as well as politicians, such as U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), who was pressured to resign after he was accused of abuse in several cases.

The news media themselves were hit by a barrage of major departures over sexual harassment charges, including Matt Lauer of NBC, Charlie Rose of CBS, Michael Oreskes of NPR, and Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker.

“The news media is supposed to be a surrogate for the public, and most Americans don’t like the thought that our surrogates are living in and endorsing workplace environments in which sexual harassment now seems to be too common,” Jeffrey McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University, told The Hill.

“Further complicating the media’s image in all of this is the sanctimonious manner in which the media has covered sexual harassment in other corners of society,” McCall said. “It is difficult for the news media to parade around as haughty overseers of right and wrong in broader contexts of society when they clearly have in-house confusion about first principles of decency.”

Kelly McBride of the Florida-based Poynter Institute, a longtime writer on media ethics, says that many media policies on reporting sexual harassment are behind the times, limited to rules such as “Because of the stigma associated with sexual assault, we do not publish the names of victims.”

McBride issued a challenge to news organizations:

Rather than starting with a policy that tells us what to avoid, what if our policies encouraged us to tell the story of sexual assault more completely, so that the public might understand how it happens and how to prevent it? Today’s policies presume that our journalistic motive for telling a sexual assault story is rooted in our urge to improve public safety. But sexual assault isn’t really a public safety problem; it’s a public health problem

This is a condensed version of the CJJ report. The full copy can be downloaded here. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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