"The way we cover crime is intrinsically broken."
November 4, 2019 5:41 AM   Subscribe

Crime is at its lowest rate in four decades. Yet it remains the number one topic on local news. Given racist patterns in law enforcement, the Columbia Journalism Review asks what responsibility journalists have in reporting on arrests and allegations - especially given so little reporting on exoneration (related: the trailer for Out of Omaha, the film mentioned in this piece).

"Despite double-digit percentage decreases in US violent and property crime rates since 2008, most voters say crime has gotten worse." Arrests for those offenses have also decreased by double-digit percentage points - browse this and other arrest data at the Vera Institute of Justice (previously).

One of the most significant crimes out there? Wage theft, which costs American workers more than $50 billion a year and is responsible for more stolen value than all other robberies (previously).
posted by entropone (29 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
It's infuriating that wage theft is treated any differently than regular old theft. Theft is theft, I don't care if the tool was a crowbar or a spreadsheet. Start sending people in suits to jail.
posted by mhoye at 6:42 AM on November 4, 2019 [52 favorites]

I almost never watch the local news but I was at a lunch place last week that had the local CBS affiliate on and because I guess no crime happened here in Pittsburgh that day, they ran a story about a crime in Chicago.
posted by octothorpe at 6:53 AM on November 4, 2019 [10 favorites]

Will it be "people in suits," or pillars of the community who buy up local advertising spots? There was an episode of 'Citations Needed' about this where they addressed the type and tenor of crime reporting on the news - there's a certain part of this that's driven by viewer demand, but why does local news cover, for instance, shoplifting?
posted by Selena777 at 7:02 AM on November 4, 2019 [4 favorites]

Crime is reported on local news because it gets people to watch. "If it bleeds, it leads" is as true now as it was in the 1980s.
posted by SansPoint at 7:03 AM on November 4, 2019 [11 favorites]

But it's more than just "if it bleeds, it leads" --
Some journalists may feel that regardless of whether a person is guilty or not, criminal allegations should be published in order to inform communities of potential risks. But not all crimes put the public at risk, and not all reports of crimes are accurate or valid. In a viral TED Talk, Chimimanda Adichie, the award-winning author, called it, “the danger of a single story.” In the case of criminal allegations, the narrative given to reporters most often comes solely from police officers (often unattributed) or prosecutors. Defense attorneys often decline to comment, and advise their clients to do the same, to prevent difficulties later in court. So there is usually no counter-argument, unless the case is high-profile enough to merit substantive follow-up. Most are not.

After years as a breaking news reporter at a Bay Area news outlet, Sophie Haigney came to feel that the way we cover crime is intrinsically broken. The best she could hope for on deadline, she realized, was a name, age, charge, and a quote from law enforcement. “That is the job as we see it now,” she says, “but it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Bolded for emphasis -- this sounds like the easiest way to fill airtime or page space, especially when you need to keep pumping out new stories. Local news is full of pictures and video of people in orange jumpsuits in court, which makes it feel like the only big city in the state is rife with crime. It's a big city, with a lot of people, so I imagine there's always another arrest or 5 to broadcast each day, with another story of violence or neglect.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:10 AM on November 4, 2019 [11 favorites]

The white American upper middle class is ruled by enormous fear towards everything that is in their perception impure, dangerous, below, poor, (implied: brown or black). Constantly peeping through the peephole and watching their back to make sure there are no ‘suspicious activities’ in their neighborhoods. This is what rules their social lives and their politics.

Classism and racism exists in Europe, of course, but IMHO the constant climate of fear and hysteria is US specific. Crime reporting fits right in.
posted by The Toad at 7:33 AM on November 4, 2019 [25 favorites]

As reprehensible as Facebook is, I think that it's important to understand that the fundamental model - advertising supported journalism - is the culprit here, and it creates perverse and unjust structural incentives for every kind of reporting.

We really need state-supported but arms-length journalism at the regional and local levels that isn't beholden to rageclick revenue streams. There's no democracy without accountability.
posted by mhoye at 7:34 AM on November 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's not just advertiser supported journalism... Check your"friendly" neighborhood block watch group someday.

Or maybe don't. There is some stuff that I can't unsee from my neighbors. Though I found the 2 week period of "vigilantes" driving roaming in their Ford F150s to be funny. Only cause no one was hurt.
posted by jonnay at 7:38 AM on November 4, 2019 [15 favorites]

THANK you. I've thought for years that local news is a huge part of why people think society is collapsing around their ears - they make it look like terrible murders and accidents are happening everywhere, all the time, and they're simply not. I'm so glad someone is addressing this, thanks for posting.
posted by scruffy-looking nerfherder at 7:51 AM on November 4, 2019 [15 favorites]

I was recently talking with a coworker (we are both white) about which schools in our area are "better"; I was concerned about the gun-culture influences my stepson might absorb from the rural, mostly-white school (to broadly stereotype, the high school parking lot is filled with F150s "rolling coal" and not a few Confederate flags) vs. the city school, which is racially diverse.

Coworker--who is educated, an avowed Trump hater, etc.--was concerned about the city school because of its proximity to "bad" neighborhoods, and therefore, wouldn't guns be more of a problem there?

That attitude is 1000% the fault of local news reporting, which takes isolated cases of interpersonal conflict and blasts them to the public as if we are all in imminent danger of being shot/stabbed/whatever. When really, we should be more concerned about the white guys in rural suburbia who seem to have a lock on the random acts of mass shooting thing. But, especially in the Sinclair era, I doubt that perspective will show up anytime soon.
posted by witchen at 8:00 AM on November 4, 2019 [19 favorites]

I live in the "inner city" and co-workers who live in the suburbs or even in other neighborhoods are often surprised when I tell them that my neighborhood is perfectly safe and that the worst thing that's happened to us was some flower theft from the garden. They've been conditioned by decades of "shooting on the Northside" stories to think that we're dodging bullets just to go to the 7-11.
posted by octothorpe at 8:07 AM on November 4, 2019 [14 favorites]

Respectfully, witchen, I think you've allowed the media to misshape your views as much as your friend has.
posted by riruro at 8:24 AM on November 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

My neighborhood is freaking out because some 'hood' stole the empty Dollar Store $1 plastic bowl that someone had their Halloween candy in. It was on the porch while they were out trick or treating, and their Ring doorbell and extreme security system captured this horrible crime. They are posting photos online, just wanting their bowl back!

So, yeah, the local news is terrible, but more generally people have no stomach for even minor inconveniences or for transactions they didn't personally negotiate. Trick or treating I heard so many comments how 'most of the kids are good, but there is always that one jerk who takes all the candy', and everyone was literally on the lookout for some wyly teen or toddler taking more candy than the neighborhood posse decided was appropriate. They never got their man, nor did I hear of anyone mentioning the horrible crime was committed. By the vigilantes were ready, just in case.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:44 AM on November 4, 2019 [11 favorites]

Cops generate public records, and journalists feed on public records. Sunshine laws are why people think Florida is a crazier place than others in the US.

force the rich to generate more public records, otherwise you get a media system that disporportionately reports on the poor, from the mouthpiece of the police.
posted by eustatic at 8:59 AM on November 4, 2019 [21 favorites]

Bolded for emphasis -- this sounds like the easiest way to fill airtime or page space, especially when you need to keep pumping out new stories.

I wouldn't discount general racism, but I think this is also an enormous factor. Local newspapers or news shows historically got along by being the only game in town. They'd bring in some larger national stories of interest, intersperse with local color, and have something that kept viewers engaged and thus brought in the ad dollars.

Nowadays though, there's more national and world news sources than you could ever keep up with, and they're available widely. Nobody has to listen to the local news to find out about national stories. So, what can local news do? Obvious option: report on more local stuff. Problem is, there's not really enough local stuff to keep up the size of newspaper or frequency of news broadcast than historically they've done, so they have to start scraping the bottom of the barrel for filler.

Crime stories are the easiest of filler, because even when the local government is doing nothing of interest, local politicians are saying nothing of interest, local businesses are doing nothing of interest, there's probably going to be crime that you could talk about.
posted by tocts at 9:02 AM on November 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

No there is lots of interesting local and state stuff, but it takes actual time and effort (going to the council meetings, investigating corruption, challenging the police narrative) to make it happen. When a newspaper is owned by a hedge fund and the local reporters are all cut, they drop back to what is easiest- which is police blotter.
posted by rockindata at 9:39 AM on November 4, 2019 [7 favorites]

This is one of the many awful things American tv news has done to us. Scared us to death in opposition to reality.

They know storytelling, and realize that crime stories are immensely compelling. They pursue this with a keen-eyed passion. And it's easy to do, since in a nation of 325+ million people you can find *some* exciting bit of violence every day.

I don't think history will be kind in its judgement of today's tv news.
posted by doctornemo at 10:28 AM on November 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

On pretty much every local paper's home page, right near the bottom, you will see "black dude mug shot". Every goddamn day. It's so blatantly propagandistic, amoral, and unethical. It is so obviously a form of subliminal brainwashing. It makes me so fucking angry every single time I see it.
posted by sexyrobot at 11:14 AM on November 4, 2019 [9 favorites]

"Ambulance company goes on rampage, stealing $3500 from several local residents for 1/2-mile ride" (mug shot of ambulance)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:24 AM on November 4, 2019 [14 favorites]

I totally agree that crime reporting is cheap and lowest common denominator and skews people's views. For example, I live in the Raleigh, NC area and Durham (home of Duke Univ.) is nearby. Plenty of people in Raleigh talk about not wanting to live in or go to Durham due to perceived danger (and blackness ... sigh). However, there have been flareups in things like shootings in Durham this year, and our area generally has gang activity, so I think it's important to take concerns seriously. Here's a pretty good article that dives into the various shootings in Durham through June 2019.

If you live in a big city like Chicago, NY, etc. you're probably used to thinking of crime as hyper-localized to certain neighborhoods and thinking it's no big deal, but in smaller cities lots of people are not ready to accept that there might be some streets where we have revenge shootings and things of that nature, or that it's given that "Hey! We have gangs now just like big cities!"

What I want to see is reasonable, non-defensive coverage of what's really going on with crime and to see it integrated with good info about related issues such as housing costs and availability, changes in mental health treatment, drug sales, etc. Without that context, some people are going to continue to fall back on racism or just fear. It's a complex problem. (Oh - also it bears saying that "crime is generally down" is a story that various quite a bit from place to place)
posted by freecellwizard at 11:45 AM on November 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's infuriating that wage theft is treated any differently than regular old theft. Theft is theft, I don't care if the tool was a crowbar or a spreadsheet. Start sending people in suits to jail.

Or do what is often done with non-violent crime: offer them diversion programs. Let them put on a high vis-vest and clean garbage and gum off sidewalks. Given that these programs mostly seem to run in well-to-do neighborhoods they likely won't even have to travel far unlike the current participants in America's legal slavery system.
posted by srboisvert at 11:49 AM on November 4, 2019 [4 favorites]

Respectfully, witchen, I think you've allowed the media to misshape your views as much as your friend has.

If you're going to say something like that, I'd consider only polite to offer a story you think is more accurate. Assuming of course your goal is a mutually fruitful exchange of information.
posted by PMdixon at 12:52 PM on November 4, 2019 [8 favorites]

So far, the house a quarter mile down a dirt road outranks any of the others in terms of property crime. My house was probably slightly less likely to get broken into since gun ownership was pretty much the default there, but that certainly didn't stop anyone from stealing shit left in the yard.

In town, there tend to be enough eyes around to cut down on the casual theft, despite what the TV news would lead you to believe.

But yes, local news does give people bizarre impressions about the relative safety of various neighborhoods. There are many people in my city who insist I must be lying when I say my neighborhood is reasonably safe and that I have yet to have had any need to dodge bullets despite spending three years in what people apparently think is a literal war zone.
posted by wierdo at 1:20 PM on November 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Is it true that crime is lower, or just that crime reports are lower?

Are the police about as likely to take a given crime report seriously, as they used to?
(vehicle break-ins in a big city, for example)
posted by Baeria at 1:58 PM on November 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

Today's class I was introducing the data portal for Chicago to my class, with the hope that we'd examine the trend in number of reported crimes over time. Not wanting to let the data do all the talking, I kicked it all off with a simple discussion question: "Is crime going up or down?" They brought up lots of valid points trying to pin down the question a bit, but relying only on personal perceptions, students agreed that it was going up. The data for reported crimes (top left graph) show, clearly, the opposite.

I asked why they thought this to be the case, and we set into a spontaneous conversation on coverage of crime in media/online. As a group they seemed skeptical of local news, but their perceptions as formed on social media lead them to similar "crime is everywhere" conclusions.

The other striking theme was how much they struggled to uncouple the idea of crime and perpetrator. When we looked at the data, there was confusion about how to find out information about race. "I bet crime's up for black people, but down for others." We looked at the data, and it slowly dawned on them that there's no column for race. The publicly available data is for crimes reported -- nothing is said about a perpetrator beyond T/F if an arrest was made. But TV/online coverage can't mention crime without some description of a 'bad guy', and of course race (whether explicitly or not) is made a part of that.

As it was, our discussion was strong enough that ran out of time before fully diving into the data; once we did, the greatest fascination was with reading all the various crimes listed in the data and laughing about them (eg, "ritualism"), rather than thinking critically about trends over time. Teenagers!
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 2:51 PM on November 4, 2019 [6 favorites]

Facebook and NextDoor rumormongering will be the go-to if the local media outlets stopped feeding on the misfortunes of others and broadcasting it nightly as a top story. And that is probably worse.

Our local police department has a Facebook page and today posted a photo of some minor tagging that took place down on our municipal bayfront, where there is a hideously large, electricity sucking Christmas lights display that is free for people and is being assembled right now. It's a black backdrop, and a few taggers wrote their names in white spraypaint. Oh the Outrage in the Comments Below! The gnashing of teeth! The cry for 24 hours guards and security patrols and cameras to protect our Sacred Thing that Has Been Sullied! (Never mind that broadcasting the photo has done the taggers a solid, rather than just quietly painting it over, which I'm pretty sure would take about ten minutes of effort.

Facebook and NextDoor regularly erupt into mob behavior that frightens me.
posted by RedEmma at 2:58 PM on November 4, 2019 [9 favorites]

From TFA: Or to report charges without the use of names and photos, specifically in cases where the alleged aren’t a potential threat to the community.

I have said this in a previous crime thread, but I was taught in college that one reason news media report the names of persons arrested is so that we know who is in the hands of the law. So that no one is incarcerated without public knowledge. And I worked with elder editors who believed that. So I disagree with this single sentence.

A friend's home was burglarized over a series of days while he was away. As he checked local pawn and antique stores for his things, he learned that there's quite a crime wave in the antique store section of the city. It is going unreported by the local newspaper, and our best guess is that it's kept quiet so that we look like a nice, safe place to live. Not reporting crime is a problem, too.
posted by bryon at 10:14 PM on November 4, 2019 [4 favorites]

I’m a big fan of reporting the police blotter, but there’s no reason it should include names and photos. Just a simple account of everyone the police arrest with the details of why they were arrested. It’s a transparency check on the police more than anything else that way. There’s no conceivable reason to publish mugshots though. Obviously the person isn’t still a danger to others if they’ve been arrested.
posted by corb at 6:21 AM on November 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

I agree, corb. It is perfectly possible to have the desirable aspects of transparency without fucking up people's lives for what may well be an error. Publishing names, and especially mugshots, of those who haven't been convicted is itself abusive. Not to mention often encouraged by the police. (or done by them of their own free will in their website as a "name and shame" tactic)
posted by wierdo at 9:05 AM on November 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

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