The Way We Cover Crime Is Criminal
It was the summer of 1980, and I was just beginning my career as a news editor in Minneapolis. I vividly remember one particularly awful story involving the gruesome murder of a young woman by her husband in a rural suburb of the Twin Cities. I was assigned to edit the story and follow it along as it wound its way through the legal system. Because we had managed to secure an interview with the husband before he confessed to the crime, we had irresistible sound and video of him denying any involvement with her then “disappearance.” In those days, the news ran maybe twice to three times per day for a half hour each and I can assure you, we made sure that this story took center stage. Perhaps that is why I have never forgotten it.
What I have forgotten or never really understood was why we felt the need to cover this terrible crime with such relentlessness. In a fit of rage, a husband planned and executed the murder of his wife with his mother’s help, by the way, and then inexplicably reported her missing and sobbed on camera for all to see. Was it a story? Sure. Was it necessary that we repeat the lurid details every time we aired an update, always showing the same sobbing soundbite just in case anyone watching hadn’t seen it yet? I doubt it.
Today, most local stations air somewhere in the neighborhood of five to eight hours of news per day, often endlessly and breathlessly repeating crime stories with little to no context. The result is an overwhelming sense that crime is increasing (according to the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer, most crime is down over the past 10 years though homicides are up), we are all less safe and we are all, understandably worried to death that we may become the next victim. How does this help a community?
I was taught that one definition of news was that which is aberrant or out of the norm. But by repeatedly covering crimes of all kinds, we have turned the aberrant into the norm. Now I am not suggesting we abandon the coverage of crime and criminal behavior completely, but we need to have a serious sit down with our newsrooms about the value of these easy-to-cover stories and the way in which we confirm the facts lest we find ourselves reporting only what we are told by local law enforcement.
In a recent edition of Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver pleaded with local media to re-evaluate the amount and manner in which we cover crime. I believe he is on to something.
Local news has always had a thing for crime stories — they are easy to confirm (thanks to law enforcement) for one thing, but they also reinforce racial and ethnic stereotypes and often provide very little useful information that a viewer can digest and learn from. To make matters worse, more and more local police departments are now staffing their own video units providing their work product to understaffed news departments who sometimes air the “stories,” as one news director told me, to just “rip and roll.” No questions asked.
While all newsrooms work with law enforcement to cover their communities, their intentions and goals are not one in the same and we would be well advised to remind our local news departments to trust but verify. As a result, the incessant amount of crime coverage stokes fear and loathing and eats up time that could be devoted elsewhere. Reporters and photographers might cover more nuanced and complex issues vexing their communities if they were given the time. If only.
The truth is, crime sells and research always seems to reinforce the notion that people are worried about crime (of course they are; we constantly remind them they should be). But as our recent elections reminded us, most people are incredibly worried about the economy, jobs, food and gas prices and the growing divisiveness of our country. Are we devoting enough serious coverage and consideration to these issues presented in a manner that leaves people informed, prepared and better able to handle the inevitable challenges? I don’t think so.
Graham Media Group, my old company, has been producing a series of in-depth reports dubbed Solutionaries in an effort to shine a light on the people and institutions in their markets who are doing the complicated work of tackling inequities in creative and innovative ways. Most of these stories exist online where time is more elastic and feeding the daily news feed is a bit less demanding.
Hearst Television has been producing a terrific weekly show, Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien, that delves into political, social and economic injustice and does so without being sensational or maudlin. And since it is syndicated, it is available across the country. I know many other stations and groups are tackling their communities’ intractable problems with special reports and in-depth programs, but what we really need to do is examine the meat and potatoes of the daily newscast and determine, once and for all, that perhaps crime really doesn’t pay.
Emily Barr is the former president and CEO of Graham Media Group.