The blurring of opinion journalism and responsible reporting has given Americans “conflicting views” of reality—particularly in sensitive or polarizing issues like gun control and mass shootings.
That was one of the verdicts of a panel of prominent media observers invited by Criminal Justice Journalists (CJJ), a partner of The Crime Report, to review US justice coverage during 2017. The panel was moderated by Ted Gest, president of CJJ and TCR’s Washington bureau chief.
The conflation of opinion and reporting “makes it hard for a democracy to make wise decisions when there isn’t agreement on the facts,” said William Freivogel, a professor of journalism at Southern Illinois University and publisher of the Gateway Journalism Review.
Freivogel said cable news shows were among the biggest culprits, exemplifying a “tribalism, with hosts presenting…only information that seems to conform with their preconceived beliefs.”
Marea Mannion, a veteran broadcaster and Teaching Professor at Penn State’s Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, said “the lines are even more blurred than a decade ago“ for media consumers.
“Some (consumers) don’t understand differences between what they’re getting from a cable network talk show or panel discussion and traditional journalism,” she said.
James Alan Fox, The Lipman Family Professor of Criminology at Northeastern University, said the confusion is exacerbated when the media covers gun violence such as the recent school shooting tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
“There are actually on average about 20 mass killings a year and 300 mass shootings, if you include victims who were injured,” said Fox. “(But) there is a tendency in the media to want to go with a bigger number.
“We have a similar situation with school shootings. Everytown for Gun Safety says there have been 270 since Sandy Hook, but half of them were suicides, (and) some were accidental discharges of a gun or a shooting in which no one was injured.”
He added: “The fact is that the bigger a number that is used in a story, the more likely it is to be discussed.”
Dan Shelley, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, said that while journalists have done an “outstanding job under very difficult circumstances,” newsrooms need to put greater thought into how mass shootings are covered.
“You can’t wait until a mass shooting occurs and make those decisions on the fly,” he said. “You have to have a lot of internal debate and discussion within newsrooms of ‘how are we going to cover this, how are we going to balance the needs of the public to know what is going on with the safety of those involved in ongoing situations?’”
Turning to coverage of the controversial topic of police shootings of civilians, the panel praised media efforts to provide balanced reporting.
“The difference in the last few years has been the presence of (police) body cameras,” said Roger Goldman, Callis Family Professor of Law, emeritus, at Saint Louis University.
“The real problem is that the criminal justice system doesn’t have an effective way of dealing with police killings. Federal civil rights cases on police shootings are very difficult to win; you have to show intentional violation of civil rights. That’s why I’ve advocated the administrative approach of de-certification—revoking the officer’s certificate or license—so that he can no longer serve in law enforcement.”
But Shelley also called attention to what he called the “terrible trend” of authorities attempting to block media coverage of civil unrest by intimidation or arrest, noting there were 34 arrests of journalists last year—more than 70 percent of which occurred when journalists were covering demonstrations following police shootings.
“St. Louis was the most dangerous place in America last year to be a journalist covering civil unrest,” Shelley said, noting that police used a technique called “kettling” in which they surrounded groups of protesters, inadvertently catching journalists within the surrounded area.
“They then told people to disperse when they had no place to go, and journalists ended up being arrested and pepper-sprayed along with the protesters. In St. Louis, it took a federal injunction to stop the police department from attacking protesters and punishing journalists just for doing their jobs.
“This is a terrible trend and really has hampered the efforts of responsible journalists to cover civil unrest after police shootings.”
Turning to the opioid epidemic, the participants praised the coverage for its emphasis on the public health aspects of the crisis, while noting the contrast between how the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s was covered in national media.
“The majority of the national reporting I’ve read, watched and listened to (much of it very powerful) has focused on humanizing the addicts, first responders, (and) small communities impacted by the epidemic, and some proposed solutions,” said Brandt Williams, a board member of Criminal Justice Journalists and a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio.
“But I also hear criticism from people of color that the same type of coverage was lacking during the crack epidemic of the 80s and 90s. And that law enforcement’s newfound empathy for drug users has come about because the national face of the opioid crisis is white and rural – even though people of color are being disproportionately impacted by the drug.”
The Trump administration’s attacks on journalists and news outlets have been a prominent feature over the past year, but panelists pointed out the attacks have not prevented the media from providing groundbreaking coverage and investigative reports on issues such as sexual harassment.
“The only antidote to attacks on journalism is more and better journalism,” said Shelley.
This report is the latest in a series of annual reviews of justice media coverage, sponsored by John Jay Center on Media, Crime and Justice with support from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. Readers’ comments are welcome.