stories that feature law enforcement as the sole source of information
July 21, 2021 5:44 AM   Subscribe

Chappell and Rispoli, writing for Neimanlab, argue that we should defund the [journalism] crime beat. (With some secondary links to questionable sources and or paywalled stuff.)
posted by eotvos (16 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
This will likely never happen due to one fundamental truism about journalism as an industry: "If it bleeds, it leads." Crime stories get attention, they get clicks, they get social media shares, and they get ad impressions, which is where the money is in journalism. Unless we find a way to keep journalism funded in a way that doesn't prioritize advertising, the crime beat will continue to lead.
posted by SansPoint at 6:59 AM on July 21 [11 favorites]

This happens all the time with the DA's office. Reporting done by our local tv/newspaper consists almost exclusively of press releases by the DA's office.

I often represent people who make the news when they are initially charged with a crime. Three weeks later and that same charge gets dismissed? Nothing. No coverage. I have called the tv/newspaper to tell them that my client would appreciate it if the story that was so headline-worthy when they were charged might get some sort of follow-up about it being dismissed. Nothing.

When I try a case, it occasionally makes the news. The story will be a brief summary of the facts, the verdict with how much time the person got (this is almost always inaccurate), and a quote from the prosecutor. I have literally never had a reporter call me up and say, "Hey, we are doing a story on that trial you just had. Do you have anything you would like to say about it?" They just print what the DA tells them to print. There is literally no journalism being done at all. They don't take the time to understand what various offenses or sentences even mean.

With few exceptions, the only reason they even know what is being tried in the courthouse is because the DA's office calls them and tells them. Reporter shows up for day one of a trial (usually just the beginning of jury selection). Then they show up several days later for the verdict. They don't actually watch the trial. How do they even know when the trial starts or when closing arguments/verdict will be? The DA tells them.

Reporters need sources. They have the DA's office. It would take minimal effort on their part to form a relationship with a single defense attorney to get a different perspective on any criminal or legal story that they do. They don't bother for two reasons: 1- they are lazy; and 2- they are afraid that if they print anything that angers the DA, they might not get all those tips about what to print and those quotes from the DA.
posted by flarbuse at 7:01 AM on July 21 [55 favorites]

A seminal moment in my personal understanding of the world came when I read a true crime book, Murder at the Met, the story of the case of an opera singer killed backstage at the New York Metropolitan Opera.

The woman was thrown from the roof down an open trapdoor? (vent?) and landed several stories below. About page five the book notes that the police found a full visible hand print in the grime. They chose to not pursue the lead because you never get that lucky. (I believe I left a visible mark with my face palm)

Two hundred pages later, all fawning the investigators, they have the killer, and then find that his hand matched the print.

I realized that to get behind the scenes, the author had to suck up to the police. Now I read other stories that way. In recent years we can compare the police narratives to the cell grabs. Otherwise, we have only the self-serving tales.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:02 AM on July 21 [16 favorites]

Drunk. Keys. Lamppost.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 7:36 AM on July 21 [2 favorites]

Sanspoint is on point. There is actually a lot of evidence that the media has been pushing a narrative that crime is increasing during a period when crime has been dropping steadily. All in the name of profit, all because we respond more quickly to bad news than good news.
"Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws." -Douglas Adams
posted by deadaluspark at 7:54 AM on July 21 [8 favorites]

One of the seasons of the Serial podcast from a couple years back saw a reporter covering the Cleveland OH county courthouse for a year. That was pretty good, as listeners got insight into how the court system works, how the DAs decide whom to charge, and what severity of charges, and it also spent time with defense attorneys. If you like this kind of thing, I recommend it.
posted by nushustu at 7:57 AM on July 21 [3 favorites]

deadaluspark, I think the narrative that crime is increasing is racism, even more than profit.

Look at that awful Chicago [or insert urban area here] has been a standard narrative for Fox for going on decades.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:02 AM on July 21 [6 favorites]

The Serial series on Cleveland was (as they acknowledged) inspired by Courtroom 302, a brilliant book about a year in a Chicago courtroom.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:13 AM on July 21 [2 favorites]

flarbuse is correct, and their answer points at another principle at work in addition to "if it bleeds, it leads": newspapers simply don't have the staff to cover most, let alone every, crime in depth or detail or even the defense's side. They'll do the big marquee cases, usually murders, in some detail, but for the most part it's straight off the local police blotter, copied and pasted by someone who may refer to themselves as a "police reporter," but never really reports on the police--on the rare occasions when that happens, it gets done by one of the few remaining staff who can actually investigate and write. Posting the blotter along with some mug shots fills up column inches and is counted as local news, with the rest taken up by ads and wire articles.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:15 AM on July 21 [7 favorites]

This is especially true of tv news, which delights in gore. This is the main reason so many Americans are terrified of crime.

Seriously, tv news is a major producer of Gothic content.
posted by doctornemo at 10:44 AM on July 21 [3 favorites]

This will likely never happen due to one fundamental truism about journalism as an industry: "If it bleeds, it leads."

There is truth in this but I also have to say that I enjoy reading crime stories for some reason, not entirely clear to me, but I block or blacklist sources that repeatedly give me the bare bones police story because they simply are not at all interesting. Good crime reporting is rare but almost always interesting and entertaining for me because it is like a different world than the one I live in despite the geographical overlap. There is almost always more to the story...
posted by srboisvert at 11:20 AM on July 21 [2 favorites]

There is actually a lot of evidence that the media has been pushing a narrative that crime is increasing during a period when crime has been dropping steadily

It’s a little more complicated than that, isn’t it? That homicides are up sharply in the last year and a half all over the country is gonna alarm people, though there is some degree of the “percentage increase from a 30-year low will look big” effect. But it is probably not true that other kinds of crime are up.
posted by atoxyl at 11:45 AM on July 21 [2 favorites]

At least in DC, the homicide rate went up pretty sharply from 2019 to 2020, even while violent crime overall went down slightly. This year, the numbers are basically consistent with 2020—but without the pandemic to occupy the 24-hour news cycle, there's been a lot more attention directed to it than I recall seeing last year.

As the Washingtonian concludes, "it’s hardly good news that we’re still essentially at pandemic-level-high homicides. But contrary to current conventional wisdom, violent crime is not spiraling higher and higher", either.

That said, I think there's something going on beyond just racism in how the media presents crime narratives, because DC had its numbers going in a much better direction when I first moved to the area (c. 2005) up until around 2012—a banner year with only 88 homicides—and they are now creeping back up towards around 200/year. And this was during a time when, despite the overall US Gini Coefficient becoming more unequal, the District's went in the opposite direction.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:30 PM on July 21 [1 favorite]

An overview from Vox: Murders are up. Crime is not. What’s going on? ("Crime" meaning overall crime.)

"The stakes are very high. Nearly 21,000 people were murdered in America in 2020, based on preliminary data. Another increase of 10 percent or more could mean thousands more dead in 2021. ...

Three plausible explanations, none of which exclude the others, have come up repeatedly:...

1) The Covid-19 pandemic ...
2) The US protests over police brutality...
3) America’s gun problem...

Perhaps the best explanation: All of these factors played a role. ...

The best research for controlling crime and violence quickly indicates the police must play a role. This doesn’t have to mean punitive practices like stop-and-frisk and arrests over low-level offenses ... But there’s strong evidence that more police lead to fewer homicides, and solid research backs strategies like hot spot policing and problem-oriented policing.

Some alternatives to policing ... haven’t panned out well. ... Other alternatives have fared better. ... The problem, experts told me, is that even the effective non-police strategies tend to take time to work."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:47 AM on July 22

Another key difference is that most gun crimes and murders are between people who know each other, at least in passing. A conflict occurs, and escalates into gun violence because at least one person involved is packing a weapon and is not afraid to use it.

I honestly think the rise in one-on-one gun violence can be traced, at least in part, to a shift in how people view guns in this country. It used to be that a gun was an object that commanded respect of it. But over time, since roughly the 1980s, guns have become objects that are seen to confer respect upon the owner. You don't, say, open carry a gun to a Chipotle, if you don't want people to see it and think something about you.

People who carry guns now think that their gun means they deserve respect and deference, and if they don't get it, they're often not afraid to use it, and are willing to kill someone, to get that respect.
posted by SansPoint at 12:34 PM on July 22 [1 favorite]

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