Crime doesn’t pay, and Thursday night a pair of experts debated whether the current style of reporting on crime doesn’t either.
As part of Dwight Hall’s Intersections Series in Criminal Justice, former U.S. News & World Report national news editor Ted Gest and Yale political science professor Bruce Shapiro spoke Thursday night on the criticisms and problems encountered in the field of crime coverage. The talk focused on common criticisms aimed at media crime coverage, with the two speakers responding to the various criticisms and sometimes engaging in lively debate.
The speakers entertained and evaluated some standard modern criticisms of crime coverage, from claims that news media violate privacy of victims only to titillate the readership, to the accusation that heavy crime coverage actually encourages people to commit crime.
Both Shapiro and Gest, who is senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Jerry Lee Center of Criminology, stressed the dual importance for reporters to exercise respect for victims when covering crime while simultaneously painting an accurate picture of newsworthy events.
“We do violate people’s privacy — but I hope we show some restraint,” Gest said. “[But] I believe it is in the public interest to report on crime.”
“I think we need to recognize that crimes — are big disruptions in the lives of people who are involved,” said Shapiro, who is a contributing editor of The Nation and an expert on death penalty policy. “[Yet], as citizens in a democracy, we do rely on the news media to give us an idea of what the shape of crime is.”
Another issue raised in the discussion was whether the news is saturated with crime coverage, and if this might actually contribute to crime. Both speakers said the media has a penchant for covering crimes that are not necessarily newsworthy, and many newspapers follow the mantra “bleeds as leads,” referring to the excess of crime stories on front pages.
“The question is not ‘Should there be crime reporting?’, but ‘What counts as news?’,” Shapiro said.
Gest said little research has been done that analyzes the correlation between increased news media coverage of crime and increased crime, yet conceded that such reporting has facilitated copy-cat crimes. It was for this reason that the Chicago Sun-Times decided not to publish on its front page stories involving mass shootings at schools, Gest said.
Another aspersion cast on crime coverage is the harmful influence the media can exercise on crime policy, such as legislation and legal decisions, the two experts said. On this issue, Gest and Shapiro were at odds.
“I think the criticism is overdone,” Gest said. “I would contend it’s not our [the media's] fault. When you get right down to it, it’s the politicians’ fault.”
He discussed how various policies, such as those that allow minors to be prosecuted as adults and thus be eligible for more stringent punishments, could be improved by journalists’ work. Gest said such research shows this policy in fact allows juvenile offenders to end up with lower sentences than they otherwise would have received.
“What was happening is, these teens were on the lower scale of adult court — so they weren’t really getting tougher sentences,” Gest said. “Their repeat crime rate was actually higher.”
Shapiro disagreed with Gest and said the manner in which the news media cover crime deserves blame for affecting inappropriate policy choices.
“That’s an area where I think the news media has a lot to answer for.” Shapiro said.
Shapiro, who has advocated the abolition of the death penalty, discussed how criminal justice policy has been influenced by the media’s portrayal of victims’ needs for closure which promotes a type of “vengeance rights,” possibly leading up to the death penalty.
Shapiro said he holds the news media accountable “for being taken in by victims’ rights and vengeance being the same thing.”
Both Shapiro and Gest agreed that crime coverage could be helped by the development of a “crime reporters’ curriculum,” noting that many crime reporters are relatively inexperienced journalists.
“They’re [crime reporters] sent out there completely green to report on some of the most important stories in our society,” Shapiro said. “But, I think we can make things a little better.”