Has the Media ‘Helped Create’ Mass Incarceration—or Exposed Its Bias?

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Just before the highest volume of media coverage of U.S. criminal justice in a quarter-century, a group of academics launched an attack on a Pulitzer Prize awarded for the media’s treatment of one justice subject.

A few days before the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis ignited protests and a widespread examination of police practices by politicians and the news media, more than two dozen law professors criticized the award to the Louisville Courier-Journal last month for what the academics called a “narrow approach” in reporting on some of the more than 650 commutations and pardons issued by departing Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin.

The academics’ letter shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the news media’s role and is unlikely to have much impact, but is worth examining for its implications for ongoing news coverage.

What did the newspaper do to win recognition?

Between last Dec. 10 and 31, it published ten articles detailing, among various clemency actions, how Bevin had pardoned a murderer who had hosted a campaign fund raiser for the governor, the son of a legislative supporter who gave him money, and others who had political connections.

The paper also published articles on how the pardon power operates in Kentucky, a list of everyone who was freed by Bevin, and criticism of his actions by crime victims.

This was enough for the Courier-Journal to win a prize, but it was not very commendable to the academics, who alleged that the paper had “cherry-picked” cases to report and thus “carried water for the empirically unfounded but all-too-common narrative that pardons and commutations on a broad scale make communities less safe.”

The professors also issued a broad charge that “the media’s portrayal of crime and public safety has helped create our mass incarceration crisis.”

One key point that the academics ignored is that the Pulitzer was given in the category of “breaking news,” not in a category like “explanatory reporting,” where the criticism might have been more relevant.

Republican Bevin conceded defeat to Democrat Andy Beshear in the November election on Nov. 14. It was less than a month later that the Courier-Journal began publishing stories on his pardons.

The reporting was set off by a tweet on Dec. 9 from Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes four hours before Bevin would leave office showing a stack of his clemency orders.

Asked for a comment on the academics’ letter, Courier-Journal editor Rick Green told The Crime Report that, “Our stories revealed [the pardons] were moves influenced by political and personal connections that have drawn the attention of federal investigators. 

“This project was neither an indictment of pardons and commutations in general, nor a glorification of incarceration. Far from it. It was about the injustice that comes into the process when pardons are issued as political favors, when they are based on skin color and when they are haphazardly assembled, without proper vetting, at the last minute of a governor’s term in office.”

(One story reported that all but 16 of the 336 drug offenders whose sentences were commuted are white).

Green said that the newspaper’s reporting explained why Bevin’s actions “ignited a firestorm of protest from victims’ families, lawmakers and law enforcement.”

One of Bevin’s pardons criticized by his successor Beshear involved a case Beshear had prosecuted as state attorney general. Dayton Ross Jones pleaded guilty to the 2014 sexual assault of a 15-year-old boy, an act was captured on video and shared on social media. Jones was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2016.

“A young man was attacked, was violated, it was filmed, it was sent out to different people at his school,” Beshear said. “It was one of the worst crimes that we have seen.”

The Courier-Journal published a long story on May 9 recounting how it went about its prize-winning reporting. The story said Bevin’s actions have been assailed both by Democrats and Republicans and that federal prosecutors are examining whether they still can bring new charges against some of those cleared by Bevin, as occurred in April in the Jones case.

There was some sympathy for the academics’ criticism.

John Tilley, a former prosecutor and legislator who served as Bevin’s Secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, told The Crime Report that, “public perceptions about clemency – and all issues – can be greatly influenced by a lack of context. For example, in this case little was made of the nearly 400 low-level, non-violent individuals—including over 330 serving prison time for drug possession only—granted clemency. These individuals were thoroughly vetted and recommended by our team at Justice and the Department of Corrections.”

Tilley said the academics correctly observed that, “the clemency tool is a necessary check on the criminal justice system and can serve to alleviate mass incarceration and prison overcrowding.”

Kentucky had more than 23,000 prisoners at the end of 2018, making its incarceration rate seventh among all states and far above the national average, says the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The law professors were right to call for “thoughtful and thorough investigation” by the news media on issues such as the “portrayal of crime, the accused, system actors, and the appropriateness of punishment.”

The Center on Media, Crime and Justice and Criminal Justice Journalists encourage this kind of coverage in publications like this guide for journalists in covering corrections issues, issued in February with the support of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

In fact, the news media have published extensive and continuing stories about the release of prisoners across the nation to limit spread of COVID-19 behind bars, a major topic cited by the law professors who criticized the Courier-Journal’s Pulitzer.

In the coming weeks and months, we expect to see similarly detailed coverage of policing issues amid the furor over George Floyd’s death and the criminal justice system’s abuse of minorities.

The last time criminal justice was the subject of such extensive news media attention was in the early 1990s, when the nation’s crime rate was at its highest in memory and Congress enacted a wide-ranging anti-crime law.

Ted Gest

Ted Gest

It is clear that the law professors’ blast will not deter journalists from reporting on questionable criminal justice actions by politicians like Bevin, whose criminal justice work also got favorable coverage, including when, shortly before he was defeated, he was a featured speaker at the national Council on Criminal Justice.

It also will not discourage journalists who decide on Pulitzer Prize awards from commending reporting that shines light on policymakers’ criminal justice foibles.

When asked to comment on the academics’ letter to the Pulitzer Prize board, prize administrator Dana Canedy told The Crime Report, “We are incredibly proud of the stellar journalism the Courier-Journal produced to earn a Pulitzer Prize.”

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report

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