Thursday, December 01, 2016

Crappy criminal-justice reporting demonstrates journalism flaws exploited on national stage

“A lie ain’t a side of a story. It’s just a lie.”

                                                                  - Terry Hanning, The Wire

Since the presidential election, the national press has been struggling with the question of what to do when a politician is willing to tell outright lies and make assertions completely contrary to all available evidence. But the truth is, this was a problem long before Donald Trump threw his hat in the presidential ring. And the problem is perhaps worst in local coverage of criminal-justice topics.

Take, for example, this missive from the Bryan-College Station Eagle,  informing us that "the Brazos County Commissioners Court voted this week to approve hiring an additional state prosecutor to study how an extra attorney could help push cases through the criminal justice system."  The justification for the extra expense?
As the population of Brazos County continues to increase, law enforcement will have to continue to respond to an increase in local crime. Space will be set aside in the Brazos County Courthouse after renovations are complete for a fourth district court, to be used when needed. But [District Attorney Jarvis] Parsons said it's important not to go too big, too fast. Hiring more prosecutors could be an intermediary step, he said, one that leaves a much lighter financial footprint. 
"With an increase in populations comes an increase in crime," he said. "The last thing you want is be understaffed to deal with the massive amounts of people who have moved to this area and are going to move to this area."
Here's the problem with that analysis: Crime in Brazos County has gone down, not up, as the population increased. See crime stats for Brazos County for the last decade or so. Not only are rates (crimes per capita) down but also raw numbers for most crimes, and certainly the high-volume ones which occupy prosecutors' workaday duties. Brazos saw 549 burglaries in 2014 compared to a recent high of 1,207 in 2005. Thefts in 2014 were at 1,865, down from a high of 3,140 in 2004. There were 207 assaults in Bryan in 2014 compared to 550 in 2004.

So it's just false for Brazos County officials to pretend that a) crime is rising or b) that the amount of crime inherently rises with population. Neither are true. But the DA can make those claims confident that the reporter will merely quote what was said and not fact check it or hold him accountable.

This example helps explain why Americans believe crime is increasing when really it's falling. Reporters all over the country repeat this pattern every single day, quoting tuff-on-crime goverment voices from local police departments and DA's offices without fact checking their statements or seeking out contrary views. Local TV news, in particular, is rife with examples, but as with the Eagle reporter, print media are culpable, too.

This deferential methodology is precisely the flaw in American reporting that Donald Trump exploited to lie his way into the presidency. He'd make some ridiculous claim that 30 seconds of fact checking on Google would have refuted. But instead of evaluating the lie and either calling it out or declining to report it, reporters would avidly promote false statements as valid discourse. At most, they'd seek to "balance" lies with "the other side," almost always represented by a partisan voice whose motives could be discounted.

But a lie isn't "the other side" of the truth, it's just a lie. And reporters have become too habituated to letting them slide, allowing the he-said, she-said journalistic form to mask self-interested agendas. That defect in American journalism was made more glaring during the presidential election, but it by no means originated during this election cycle.

For an alternative approach, see here.


Anonymous said...

Lie his way to the presidency? Say it ain't so, Joe!

KK said...

Commissioner seems to be lying to boost budget. And that courthouse renovation? Does it have the required "separate, safe and secure waiting area promised in victim rights. Interesting to explore.

Bill Kleiber said...

Crime has been decreasing for years.

Personally I believe that crime has an increased marginal propensity to decrease directly attributable to the increase in cell phones.

We don't have to run to a pay phone (Pay phones are almost obsolete) to dial 911. Furthermore, individuals activate use their smartphones to record the crime!

Technology has activated our community to take responsibility and police ourselves.

Let's take the next step and vote, attend community meetings, contact your legislators and give them permission to vote for smart justice issues. It is ridiculous to let the District Attorneys continue to create laws to over criminalize human behavior and push through felony convictions to ruin the lives of individuals and families.

When a teenager is convicted for some low level drug offense they will never be able to procure a sustainable job with a major corporation, they will never have health benefits, decent education etc.

I encourage us to legislate expunge felony convictions for non-violent offenders 5 years after their conviction.

It's ridiculous to destroy a life for smoking marijuana or some other non-violent offense. They can't get a job, no health insurance, no decent housing, no future and become a burden to society.

He's Innocent said...

Mr Kleiber,

What an interesting concept to expunge after 5 years! I like it!

You are so right about life is ruined with a felony. Their families lives are ruined as well. Nothing like being guilty by association, even for the former offender's children born years later.

My only question to you is this: What is your position on expungement for sexually natured crimes? Our society is so vicious in their lifelong punishment, its hard to see that they would be included in any such law. Much of the current criminal justice reform proposals out there are all well and good; I support many of them. UNTIL that one sentence that says "except sex offenders". Even those who have no direct known victim, such as for those who pee on a tree.

Until this assbackwards country can learn some empathy for ALL former felons, we will continue to be an unjust country. I have zero hope for any of this happening in the next 5 years. Sad.

Unknown said...

I would include sex offenders --- and I am a survivor of sexual abuse by my father. The way sex offenders are treated today makes a mockery of REAL sex offenders. Pee on a tree in Texas and you're classified the same as a rapist who crawled through a window or messed with a child.

I think felonies should be forgiven after a period of time. Of course I'm on of those flaming liberals who believes everyone deserves a SECOND chance . . . I didn't say third.

It's about time that the general public realizs what the FACTS are about felons, including sex offenders. Research exists. The more we cripple a person and his/her family from having a second chance, the more the taxpayer absorbs in welfare benefits.

There is something wrong when DAs are immune to accountability for their wrong doings. It's wrong when police killing unarmed people is not addressed. Capital punishment must stop because we execute innocent people. America has the highest incarceration rate in world! And the list goes on . . .

Anonymous said...

Really? How can you be surprised by todays corporate owned press corps? There is no more "free" press with competent reporters that held government officials as well as all other's feet to the fire. Both retired with the last real news men like Cronkite, Brinkley, Reynolds and Jennings. Real men all. Personally I don't count today's reporters as news men of this caliber. They fit more with the gossip mungerers on TMZ and similar channels. Real reporting is, in my opinion, is dead, dead, dead.