The media need to take greater care in reporting mass shootings to avoid misleading the public, according to members of a panel of journalists and educators reviewing U.S. criminal justice coverage.
One example is the “obsession” with labeling horrific incidents as a record, said James Alan Fox of Northeastern University.
“The media often say that a shooting is the biggest since last year or something like that, which I find unfortunate,” Fox said in the conference call convened by Criminal Justice Journalists.
“Such coverage may challenge others to try to break the record.”
Marea Mannion of Pennsylvania State University criticized what she said was a tendency to blur descriptions of events when they “interchangeably refer to a ‘mass shooting;’ or a ‘mass killing’ without explaining that shootings may include those injured.”
“Early this year, the report of a ‘mass shooting’ in Central Pennsylvania received a few days of regional and national coverage, in part because it happened…in a college town ranked among the safest to live.”
Mannion noted that the media failed to follow up when the real facts became available, including that just “four people died of gunshot wounds, including the gunman, who committed suicide.”
Mannion and Fox were joined on the panel by William Freivogel of Southern Illinois University and Gateway Journalism Review; Roger Goldman of Saint Louis University School of Law;, Dan Shelley of the Radio Television Digital News Association; and Brandt Williams of Minnesota Public Radio for the second part of The Crime Report’s annual review of justice coverage in 2018.
The session, moderated by TCR’s Washington Bureau Chief Ted Gest, also analyzed coverage of other issues in a year when criminal justice stories occupied five of the six top news stories last year, according to an Associated Press survey of editors.
One increasingly noteworthy feature of U.S. justice journalism was joint reporting projects, the panelists noted.
Opioid Crisis Coverage
Mannion pointed to an effort last summer in Pennsylvania involving more than 40 print and broadcast newsrooms which contributed stories, photos and videos from over 50 counties on the opioid crisis.
“The coverage, from all parts of the Commonwealth, received a ton of positive public feedback,” she said. “These types of joint efforts in small, medium and larger markets, have educated a lot of people to a problem that is now pervasive in every type of community, including rural areas.”
Shelley said closer media monitoring of police misconduct in many communities coincided with greater transparency and accountability by police departments.
But he said some of the evidence-based reporting was undercut by the rise of reality TV shows such as “Live PD”, which follows eight law enforcement agencies across the country, mostly in rural areas.
“It turned out to be not only the most popular cable program, but Dan Abrams on his Law and Crime Network has turned that into a pro-police show. Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with that, but people who are predisposed toward police watch it and see their pro-police views reinforced. I’m not sure they get a really good sense of police misconduct when it occurs.”
Williams reserved special praise for the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s investigative piece on reported rapes that went un-investigated by police.
“It has led to some reforms in Minnesota, particularly updated training and policy recommendations from the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training board on handling rape cases,” he said.
“Obviously, there’s been no shortage of reporting on sexual assaults in the national news.”
Competition for Scoops
All the panelists noted that the fierce competition for scoops on dominant media stories like Robert Mueller’s probe into Trump campaign connections with Russia, and the accusations of sexual assault against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sometimes led to misreporting.
“The website FiveThirty Eight reported that there was only one day during 2018 that MSNBC didn’t mention the investigation,” said Freivogel. “Some people might think there has been too much coverage, but I am hooked on it.”
Nevertheless, he pointed to examples where the media was “trying too hard” to beat the competition.
“One major New York Times story on connections between Russia and the president turned out to be not very well sourced,” he said.
Similarly, he noted, New Yorker stories quoting the accusations of Kavanaugh’s Yale classmate Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick represented “a case of a journalistic desire to break a big important national story taking precedence over sufficient fact-checking.”
“In the end, Ramirez said she didn’t have a clear memory of what Kavanaugh did in college, and Swetnick wasn’t able to say that she saw Kavanaugh do anything illegal,” he said.
One trend spotlighted by the panelists concerned the continuing decline in newspaper staffers.
“Our RTDNA research showed that for the first time in 25 years, in 2017 there were more people working in local television and radio newsrooms than in newspapers’ newsrooms,” said Shelley.
“While no one is celebrating the demise of newspapers, particularly in medium and smaller markets, our research is showing that local broadcast newsrooms are taking the mantle, doing a better job of investigative reporting and doing a lot more explanatory journalism on local issues in communities across the country.”
Goldman praised the press for paying attention to the growing number of “progressive” prosecutors taking office around the country and their impact on justice reform, but he said more coverage of other aspects of the court system needed attention.
“There should be more coverage of the pressure on public defenders, federal and state,” he said. “The New York Times did a terrific story on a Louisiana defender who was handling 194 cases at one time.
Calling Out Trump Misinformation
Other panelists welcomed the close scrutiny the media was devoting to misinformation promoted by President Donald Trump about the immigration “crisis” facing the country.
“I’m pleased to see that many in the print media are paying attention to academic researchers who conclude that there is no real link between immigration and crime rates, and reporting that Trump is wrong on this issue,” said Fox.
That didn’t mean reporters should avoid stories about individual cases of undocumented immigrants who committed crimes, he added.
“When the president says if a wall is built on the Mexican border, crime will go down, that is when the media should cite the overall research, but individual cases still are news,” said Fox.
“You should not say it’s an epidemic or trend. You don’t have to bring up the research in every story, but you should when policy issues are raised.”
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. TCR and its publisher, the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, are grateful for the support of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation for our annual reviews of justice media coverage. Readers’ comments are welcome.