How Well Does the US Media Cover Criminal Justice?

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Even as crime news—from mass shootings to the continued fallout from the #MeToo movement—dominate national media coverage, the continued drop in coverage of local justice issues threatens to leave millions of Americans in the dark about the practices and problems of the U.S. justice system, according to The Crime Report’s annual survey of criminal justice coverage.

Layoffs or closures in many mid-market or small outlets across the U.S., and the recent bloodletting in online news sites like BuzzFeed News and Huffpost, have affected the news media’s ability to fulfill their crucial watchdog role over courts, police and justice agencies in many communities, the survey concluded.

The U.S. justice system overwhelmingly comprises players who operate in state, county and municipal jurisdictions, where policies and practices directly affect millions of people.

“Budget and staffing pressures have forced  many outlets to combine traditional justice beats with others and to reduce deep-dive reporting on local justice issues,”said  the survey, prepared by Ted Gest, president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.

The number of employees in newspaper newsrooms fell 45 percent between 2008 and 2017, from about 71,000 to 39,000, a Pew Research Center study reported last summer.

Commenting on the Pew findings, media critic Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post wrote, “One problem with losing local coverage is that we never know what we don’t know. Corruption can flourish, taxes can rise, public officials can indulge their worst impulses.”

The survey was based in part on a a conference call conducted by Criminal Justice Journalists with criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University; William Freivogel of Southern Illinois University and the Gateway Journalism Review; Roger Goldman of Saint Louis University School of Law; and Dan Shelley of the Radio Television Digital News Association, with contributions by Marea Mannion of Pennsylvania State University and Brandt Williams of Minnesota Public Radio.

The survey was produced with the support of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

Although it focused on coverage during 2018, the survey noted that “the workforce problem shows every signs of continuing this year.”

Despite the grim outlook, the report noted some “bright spots.”

Several local news outlets produced fine coverage of important subjects in their areas, such as the prize-winning Cincinnati Enquirer’s reporting on the opioid overdose crisis in that hard-hit area, the Miami Herald’s investigations of abuse of inmates in Florida prisons, and the Houston Chronicle’s stories on similar problems in the sprawling Texas prison system.

“Some of the smallest outlets, mostly in rural areas, have demonstrated enthusiasm for reporting on the rural jail crisis and opioid overdose deaths,” the survey added, citing for example the “impressive collection of stories” produced following a training program for rural media on covering justice issues, particularly the jail crisis, in the “heartland,” organized by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice (CMCJ), publisher of The Crime Report, at John Jay College.

Those stories can be read here.

Turning to the national landscape, the survey cited an Associated Press survey of editors, which found that criminal justice issues were involved in five of the six top news stories of 2018, topped by the Parkland, Fl., school shooting on Valentine’s Day 2018 that led to a national student movement for gun control.

‘Progressive Prosecutors’

The one other story in the leading half-dozen was the 2018 midterm elections, which was marked by special media attention to the emergence of a new wave of “progressive” prosecutors from both parties, whose actions will come under increased attention over the next several years.

The survey noted that the quality of reporting is generally high.

“The CMCJ continues to receive dozens of high-quality entries in its annual competition for prizes for the best coverage during the previous year, so it should be clear that there is plenty of good reporting going on in this important area,” it said.

Editor’s Note: Winners of the 2018 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Awards for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting will be recognized at a prize dinner next week. Their stories can be found here.

But, citing the analysis by the Post’s Margaret Sullivan, the survey said much of the local coverage revolves around “scandals” in a particular city or region; nevertheless readers still have little information about the day-to-day problems and issues related to “basic operations of the criminal justice system,” which arguably have a larger impact on their lives and the lives of their families.

“On a broader scale, it is fairly rare to see the news media produce serious stories about what causes the high level of violence that continues around the nation, even while rates of reported crime clearly are lower than they were in the 1990s,” the report said.

The survey noted a forthcoming book by Thomas Abt of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a former U.S. Justice Department anti-crime official, entitled “Bleeding Out,”  which faults the media for not paying enough attention to the underlying issues of violence.

According to Abt, “In [today’s] sensationalized, polarized environment, evenhanded stories about everyday violence often find it hard to compete for attention. And it is these stories that can celebrate the successes of treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy and explore the science supporting them.

“The media—mainstream, new, and social—must do a better job of getting the word out on such stories.”

While some local newspapers and television stations do run occasional feature stories on projects aimed at the violence problem, the fact that overall crime rates around the U.S. are not so high as they have been in past decades means that the media typically do not focus on the issue unless there is clear increase in law-breaking in their circulation areas, the survey said.

Read the full survey here.

Readers’ comments welcome.

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