Does Criminal Justice News Coverage Cause Harm?

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Reviewing news media coverage of local criminal justice, the Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics writes that some journalists worry that newsrooms, “increasingly asked to do more with less, may inadvertently harm themselves, their communities or the institution of journalism with their coverage.”

In an essay entitled “Doing No Harm: The Call for Crime Reporting That Does Justice to the Beat,” the center quotes the views of several of the country’s leading criminal justice journalists and concludes that newsrooms “need new ethical standards, deep conversations, better training and more diversity in the ranks.”

Keri Blakinger of the Houston Chronicle, where she now covers prison conditions, recalled that some of the toughest ethical decisions she wrestled with as a journalist came on her first beat: breaking crime news.

It’s a common assignment for the least experienced reporters, she says.

“I get why that happens,” Blakinger said, “but it means that the people who have to face these questions everyday don’t have the years of knowledge developed to be able to ask questions as broadly, in many cases.”

Reporters face decisions about what crimes are worth covering or whether to run a mugshot photo, Blakinger said. In the current media environment, many must make decisions on their own.

For Blakinger, these questions are personal. Having spent 21 months behind bars after a 2010 drug arrest, she remembers what it was like to see her own mugshot in the newspaper.

Blakinger believes that publishing some low-level crime stories  might do more harm than good. The Houston Chronicle might ignore a crime that would be considered newsworthy by an alt-weekly newspaper in Ithaca, N.Y., and a story in that local publication might have a big effect on a suspect.

“It’s a little bit of a different ballgame when one of the towns you’re covering has 5,000 people.”

Newsrooms need to talk about these things, Blakinger said, so individual reporters don’t have to make these choices on their own.

Janine Anderson, who spent eight years covering crime and courts for Wisconsin newspapers, said she could churn out a high volume of stories based on the day’s criminal complaints, but “they didn’t feel to me like I was actually doing anything that helped people understand what was happening in the community.”

For readers, Anderson believes, “It was the equivalent of just eating a giant bowl of M&Ms. You’ve consumed a lot of individual things, but you don’t walk away from it feeling full the way you might from a larger analysis piece.”

Pamela Colloff, who has won awards for long-form stories on blood spatter pattern analysis and wrongful convictions, favors character-driven narratives like“The Witness,” which tells the story of the death penalty through the eyes of a woman whose job required her to observe 278 executions.

“We can write all day long about the problems in the criminal justice system, but it’s not until you get people emotionally invested in a particular person’s journey or a particular case or a particular wrongful conviction or what have you that — I believe — they’re really going to care,” Colloff said.

Gary Fields, who spent more than two decades covering crime and criminal justice for the USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, said crime reporters often don’t give a story the time or attention it deserves.

Pressure to meet deadlines or be first on a story can push reporters to publish before they’ve got all the facts, and incomplete or inaccurate stories can harm multiple players. News organizations have to issue corrections or retractions or fight lawsuits. Reporters may face reprimands. Innocent people may be unjustly maligned, and readers may lose confidence in journalists’ reporting.

“That early stuff’s often not accurate because they’re still trying to figure out what’s going on. We’re out here trying to get the story, and the bullets are still flying, and the shell cases are still dropping,” Fields said.

With the move to digital and the accompanying 24-hour news cycle, the pressure has only increased, and reporters sometimes choose being first over being right, Fields said.

His advice: “Get it right first, then get it first.”

Sensational coverage can affect whether justice is served. “If you take virtually any wrongful conviction and you spool it back to the beginning, there is very often terrible media coverage at the beginning,” said Carroll Bogert of The Marshall Project.

“I just think very few people who are accused of a crime or involved in a crime come out of it feeling like the media did the right thing, and we’ve got to ask ourselves why.”

Blakinger is hopeful that journalism on criminal justice will improve. She sees journalists, including in her Houston Chronicle newsroom, engaging in “evolving discussions” on issues like what terms to use to describe people in prison or whether it’s appropriate to publish a mugshot.

She believes these conversations, which might not have been imagined five or 10 years ago, are an ethical obligation for the profession.

“While it’s not our responsibility… to do journalism that doesn’t harm people, it should be, morally, as humans, a thing we’re thinking about,” Blakinger said. “If we’re causing harm… what is the news value and how does this whole equation balance out?”

This summary was prepared by Ted Gest, president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report,whose views were also quoted in the Wisconsin report.

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