Monday, November 11, 2013

Telling stories vs. telling the truth: A critique of American crime coverage

Grits has increasingly grown to despise the media trend of treating crime coverage as entertainment. This misbegotten tactic arguably dates back to the era of Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, or perhaps even in some respects to the Hatfields and McCoys. But what in past eras was an occasional dalliance by the media in spectacle-driven reporting has in recent years become the primary focus of crime coverage that now follows an ugly, predictable pattern, hyping dangers beyond reality and in some cases arguably promoting crime more than documenting it.

An excellent Wall Street Journal column last week by Ari Schulman ("What mass killers want - and how to stop them," Nov. 8) honed in on how hype-driven media coverage of mass shootings likely encourages more angry young men to engage in them. He argued that, "There is a growing consensus among researchers that, whether or not the perpetrators are fully aware of it, they are following what has become a ready-made, free-floating template for young men to resolve their rage and express their sense of personal grandiosity." To reduce their number, he asked, "How might journalists and police change their practices to discourage mass shootings? First, they need to do more to deprive the killer of an audience." Among his advice to that end:
  • Never publish a shooter's propaganda
  • Hide their names and faces
  • Don't report on biography or speculate on motive
  • Minimize specific and gory details
  • No photos or videos of the event
  • Talk about the victims but minimize images of grieving families
  • Decrease the saturation
  • Tell a different story
The truth is, American journalism would greatly improve by applying the same advice to crime reporting generally, perhaps limiting pre-adjudication coverage along the lines of U.K. reportage. Failures of journalism along just these lines help explain why the public thinks crime has increased in recent years even though all available data shows it's at its lowest rates since the 1950s in most parts of the country. The reason: Media today tend to glorify and hype crime for its entertainment value instead of placing it in context and providing useful information. The goal of American crime coverage has become manipulating readers' and viewers' emotions as opposed to increasing their understanding.

Back in June, your correspondent was invited to speak at a national Investigative Reporters and Editors conference at which I addressed this subject, offering similar observations: Back when I was coming up in the journalism field a quarter-century ago, I told them, reporters were taught to write articles along what was described as a reverse pyramid model, with the lede expressing the most important take-away from the story and anecdotes and personal details of individuals involved buried deeper down in the article.

That all changed, though, when the Wall Street Journal famously began publishing stories on their front page, left-hand column, that all followed the same format: They began by telling the story of a single individual in a compelling, dramatic fashion that had more in common with fiction writing than how journalism schools taught their students. Then the articles would draw broader conclusions from the anecdote, with contextualizing information buried deeper in the article, often after the jump to an interior page. These articles were powerful for the same reason fiction writing can sometimes tell more truth than non-fiction - we all identify with personal stories and the format encouraged readers to put themselves in the shoes of the person in the featured anecdote.

Today, though, that method has become ubiquitous and virtually every story about crime follows that format, with institutional, cultural and other big-picture analyses relegated to the back end of stories if they're emphasized at all. Start looking for the phenomenon and you'll notice it everywhere. This practice, I told the conference-goers, has limits that most news outlets have come to ignore. Telling stories of individuals may promote a truth but seldom the truth. There are too many other people out there whose truths are ignored by the model and too many institutional dynamics that just don't fit into the framework. The approach encourages the media to pick and choose which stories to tell based on which ones are most likely to push their readers' buttons. The tragic deaths of black girls in Chicago or Houston may not merit a blip on the media radar screen, while the death of a cute white girl from Florida can dominate national media coverage for months.

The rise of this brand of coverage also changed how lawmakers govern in relation to crime and punishment, spurring the creation of countless laws named after dead children or high-profile victims ("Jessica's Law," etc.) that boosted punishments or minimized civil liberties. After this went on for many years, reformers got into the act, too, which is why it took the "Tim Cole Act" to compensate Texas' DNA exonerees or the "Michael Morton Act" to require Texas prosecutors to open up their files. If the media insists on covering crime this way, I told the conferees, then reform advocates can and will manipulate their coverage just like the tuff-on-crime crowd. But really, the journalistic approach does everyone a disservice and distorts the process, no matter which "side" benefits in any given instance.

Mr. Schulman's right that media coverage of mass shootings has become counterproductive and harmful. I just wish more journalists could see that the same is true even of workaday crime reporting. In its rush to tell us compelling stories, journalism is losing its ability to tell us the truth.


John David Galt said...

All excellent ideas, but the credit belongs to SF author Dean Ing (Soft Targets, 1972).

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Don't know the reference, JDG, I'll have to take a look.

Chasing Justice said...

The American media, such a strange concoction of truth and fiction converging together to form the opinion of an investigative "story." What the media shows in my case is that the media can, with a mixture of police and prosecutorial misconduct, put you on death row (as the yellow journalism of the media in Tyler, Texas did me in 1977-78) and ten also set you free (as the reporting of The Dallas Morning News' investigative reporting did for me). Now days the truth in media is just as much of a lottery as who gets death and who doesn't in our American legal system: it's all based on who you are and how much money you have.

Gadfly said...

As a journalist myself, albeit almost entirely at non-daily "community newspapers," I largely agree.

Except for the pre-trial coverage issue.

That would never fly, constitutionally, in the U.S. "Advance restraint." And, I'd have to agree.

Anonymous said...

The media can't accept all the blame, an ample amount must be reserved for law enforcement as it is they who provide the "facts" to reporters. You all know that no group of people in the world love over dramatizing more than do those who work in law enforcement. It provides them an opportunity to fear monger the public, cast themselves as heroes, and extract further funding for more officers:

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Gadfly, in my youth I was a First Amendment absolutist on the pretrial coverage issue. Today, I see more wisdom in the U.K. approach than in our own. But even granting the FA would keep the government from imposing U.K-style restrictions from the top down, that doesn't prevent the US media from making more responsible choices. E.g., most media don't publish names of sex-crime victims though the First Amendment means it can't be prohibited. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

@1:51, I agree with that. But LE's role also doesn't absolve the media of their responsibility. Both entities are enablers of the other's bad habits.

And @ CJ/Kerry, you're totally right, the media can do good with the individualized stories, too, though often it's a lone journalist serving as a corrective to widespread media memes that were false and damaging, as was certainly the case in your situation.

Anonymous said...

I must say I have a problem when the media reports on a story where someone is accused of a child sex crime because if the accusation is later disproven there is no way for the accused to ever clear his name and he is forever suspect when it comes to kids. Here's just one of thousands of examples:

OTOH, withholding information regarding other crimes doesn't have the same impact or stigma attached to the accused once they are cleared. There are a fairly large number of countries where the accused name is withheld until and if they are convicted. But in many of these same countries the accused are never heard from again.

Lastly, asking the media to self-censor and voluntarily not publish information regarding crimes, criminals, etc., isn't going to work out well. After all, the idiom "If it bleeds, it leads" is as true today as it ever was. Indeed the only topic that garners more viewers during the four quarterly sweeps periods is sex.

Anonymous said...

4:03, I think you underestimate the stigma associated with non-sex crimes.

Gadfly said...

Oh, agreed that newspapers could show more self-restraint. And should. Beyond seeing crime as entertainment, the whole "scoop" mentality, when mixed with cybertime and cyberspace, is an additional problem.

Anonymous said...

If state can withhold a rape victims name from the media ,as it should until trail . Why not the same for the accused that that should not violate the first Amendment , giving out the accused s name and any real or made up .That goes on all to often a lot of lies abut the accused will be in the media ask those who endured it . might violate the 6th .When rights com into conflict, the courts are supposed to try to find a balance why not say a suspect has been taken into custody and being held pend bail or bond her and . and wait until they are convicted before giving out the name/s . That seems fair to all sides and balances the right of the press with the right s of the accrued to a fair trail . Change of venue might have worked 100 years ago today it is a k impossibly with the the many forms of media that are real item and often social media .Which can easily have any one convicted of anything . with out a shred of evidence . In my experience and many others from arrest , kangaroo rubber stamp that Stalin would have been jealous of trail to endless sold killing appeals to finally leaving prison most pre trail post convictions appeals leaks to the media only befits the state . it does not hurt any one to wait the public knows some one is in custody and the media can wait instead of of the 24 / 7 parade of so called exderts and host ready to convot the acccuedd anmd send a petty felonythat wasprably not evn though ofas acrmne 40 years ago to deathrowand ofcorusete acuse wil be "profled" a gi ne TCvDaginsiois of psychopaty infaling te public more .
Thet ha sot be a way to ba;lncetge right ot own with the right toa fair trail . we certainly od nothave that rigt any mre.
I see Kerry is posting here . Good Luck I was On Polunsky and saw many men go to the the Walls in the death coach never to return that haunts me and always will . . I have a very good friend who Bingham and Skeen with help from Dobbs sent to TDC based on a snitch who got a secrete deal If what they do in Smoth Coiunty can besheopn as a rpoitne poply maybe myfrein can come hoe . I haveanother who is onHobby she ws treid in the meoa andconvored b no one herd what realy went on only te copsandprections version which was not rek,otelyclosto reality often it isThemida is faling us as the 5 easte . it is notsupseotbe heping secure convtins but being a objective spourceto keep the ste fro over stepijng I t is faiolng in that badly .

I hope you are finding success in your search for justice . Please keep us updated . I for one would love to see those crooks not only admit to what they did to you sir but go to prison for all they have done and the lives ruined , families torn apart by those men .If the media want to dig I know of a case . or two .

Be Fair said...

Surprised that a class action discrimination lawsuit has not been filed for "selectively" sending names and selectively withholding names to the press. I am not opposed to sending the information to the press, just as long as it is applied equitably to everyone arrested.

JJ said...

Have you seen Mexican journalism? That's the shock value American journalist and their employers crave.