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Crime Reporting in America

Crime Reporting in America

DC Public Safety

Link to radio show;

LEONARD SIPES: From the Nation’s Capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentleman, we have a heck of a show for you today; Crime Reporting in America is the name of the show. We have Deb Wenger, she is the Associate Professor at the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi, I’ll give out that address several times throughout the show. And we have Ted Gest, he is President of Criminal Justice Journalists. He is also the Washington Bureau Chief of the Crime,, to talk about the quality of crime reporting in the United States. A report came out a little while ago that was put out by Deb and Dr. Rocky Dailey from John J. Center on Media Crime and Justice; A Special Report, the Crime Beat; Does Quality Matter? And the report went over a content analysis of six newspapers and they find a significant amount of crime reporting but it raises questions about the quality of the reporting. To Debora and to Ted, welcome to DC Public Safety.


TED GEST: Thanks.

LEONARD SIPES: All right, Debora, give me a sense of that report; The Crime Beat; Does Quality Matter? Because I got the sense from the report that the majority of the reports were single source. They didn’t go beyond that one particular source and you expressed a concern within the report that too many reporters were taking the word of the government spokesperson or the criminal justice spokesperson and that was the story. Am I right or wrong?

DEBORA WENGER: You are correct. As many as 65% of the stories that we coded for a one-month period in six metropolitan daily newspapers indicated that, take that back, so about 65% of the stories in these newspapers essentially relied on one source. And about a third of the time that one source was an official. So it was someone from law enforcement primarily. And because of that our concern, which we raised in our study is that law enforcement or officials often have an agenda. And their, you know, agenda then is reported in an unfiltered way to the wider audience in stories that only rely on one source.

LEONARD SIPES: And if truth be told I am one of those people because I represent a federal criminal justice agency, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, a federal probation agency and so I’m one of those people that provide that information. What you did was take a look at a variety of cities and you took a look at all those articles and you figured out how many people were talking to crime reporters, how many people were doing crime stories, how many were single source. And then you went and talked to both people within the criminal justice system and reporters themselves, correct?

DEBORA WENGER: Yes, so we talked to editors but obviously the editors are also sometimes doing crime reporting themselves and what we found is a willingness to confess, I would say, that it is common to only rely on an official law enforcement source. And even to go so far as to express a concern that they wish they could do more reporting that was more comprehensive and included more points of view. But that often constraints just on resources and time and to some extent, you know, kind of standard practice has been to say it’s okay to talk to a PIO, a Public Information Officer and use that as a source for a brief. A brief being, you know, a story of maybe 100, 150 words or so.


DEBORA WENGER: And so when you look at kind of the way newspapers have operated for decades, you know, that has been a standard practice. So part of it is not – it could come from not thinking about exactly how the nature of reporting and the nature of journalism needs to change in a world where most people can access those news releases themselves online. So, you know, to some extent I think that the editors that we talked to, if I use the word admitted, that not all prime coverage was as comprehensive as it could be and should be.

LEONARD SIPES: I talked to a variety of my peers within government about this and I want to bring their points of view into this discussion. But first I want to reintroduce Ted Gest. He’s President of Criminal Justice Journalists, Washington Bureau Chief of the Crime,, which is unquestionably the best news summation that comes out every single day of crime and criminal justice coverage throughout the United States. Ted, every day I devour your report. And if I take a look at that report my sense is you couldn’t possibly have better crime and justice coverage because the reports that you cover, you provide a synopsis of newspaper reports from throughout the country. And they’re extraordinary, they’re good hard-hitting journalism. If you read your report every day you get the sense that the quality of criminal justice journalism in this country is wonderful, but is that the case?

TED GEST: Well it’s wonderful in some cases and on some days. To put this in perspective we put out what we consider are the most significant 12 stories. We use a dozen stories a day from the entire country, occasionally from other countries, but, and some of these are newspaper stories, some of them are accounts of government reports and reports by academics and interest groups and that kind of thing. But you’re right, these are the 12 best stories and they’re based on going through a lot of websites of newspapers and other media. And what you don’t see in that report is the fact that on a lot of newspaper websites every day, at least on the home pages, you don’t see very much about crime and justice as very significant. You may see an account of an individual crime, someone was shot, someone was killed, but you don’t often see on most newspaper websites, and I think I can include television station websites in this too, stories that really examine serious problems in the criminal justice system. It may be a police shooting. It may be a court that is not functioning well or a prison that has a high recidivism rate. When we see those stories we use them but for the most part you’re not going to see them on an average newspaper on an average day. That doesn’t mean journalism is bad. It may just mean it’s not there.

LEONARD SIPES: But I did want to talk about the state of journalism in a couple minutes. There’s so many things I do want to talk about. But, again, President of Criminal Justice Journalists, you have an organization, I think you mentioned one time of 600 or 700 journalists who are interested in the crime issue. So they’re constantly networking with each other to assist each other.

TED GEST: Yes, the number and the individuals are constantly varying. And one challenge is that because of economic issues in the news business these days, no one really knows this, but there probably are fewer reporters than there were ten or 20 years ago who are really covering this beat either on a full time basis. Or most of the time some of them are only covering it occasionally when there’s some big problem that comes up that requires their attention. But, so yeah, that’s basically it. We try to network with the reports all over the country. I think one thing that is clear from Deb’s study is there still is a lot of quantity of crime coverage. We don’t worry about the quantity, I mean, there are some other subjects in the world that don’t get any coverage, but that’s not true of crime. There’s plenty of quantity out there but, again –

LEONARD SIPES: The quality.

TED GEST: What we’ll get into here is the quality.

LEONARD SIPES: There was a piece of research and mentioned in your report, Debora, talking about PIO basically saying that the crime issue is one of the most popular topics and that the majority of the American Public pays pretty close attention to the issue of crime within this country. Is that correct?

TED GEST: Yeah, absolutely. I believe the last time PIO actually did this particular type of survey was 2011. But at that point they found that 36% of people get their crime from newspapers specifically, 29% from television, which, you know, I think a lot of folks who pay attention to crime have a sense of that all television news is, is crime.


TED GEST: But most people, at least in this particular survey, were getting most of their crime news from newspapers and 12% from web. Now I would guess that those numbers, those percentages would be shifting as mobile delivery and other forms of digital news content become more and more popular. That’s actually an issue that would be of interest for further study is just where are people getting crime news from –


TED GEST: To determine how important each particular medium is to accurately reporting the crime realities in this country.

LEONARD SIPES: Taking a look at other PIO research and research from other organizations, tell me if I’m right either one of you, that the numbers within newsrooms, the individual number of reporters within newsrooms has declined up to a third in the last ten years. I know of newsrooms where it’s declined close to half. So you have far fewer reporters out there and far, and I’m going to guess and other people have told me this, not necessarily my guess but the guess of others, is that the people specializing in terms of particular beats whether it be education, the environment or crime and justice. Those numbers have declined as well, am I right or the people making these observations, are we right or wrong?

TED GEST: Well I think we’re right on that. But I think one key word you just used was newsrooms and by newsrooms I think you’re implying newspapers and broadcast outlets. And I think that’s true of newsrooms but one thing we have to keep in mind is that there has been a proliferation of websites of all sorts of descriptions. Some of them call themselves news websites, others are just blogs, people with their opinion. But I think, I hope Deb would agree with me, there are still lots of sources of crime information out there beyond news – you’re correct on newsrooms, but it’s possible that the amount of raw information out there available to the public on crime and justice issues from all of these various sources really is about the same. What is different, as you say, is people specializing in them so we get a nuanced analysis of trends and meanings of developments rather than just sort of basic raw information.

LEONARD SIPES: Deb, did you want to chime in on that?

DEBORA WENGER: Yeah, and just one point of clarification. I think it is actually true of newspaper newsrooms. Television really hasn’t seen that much of a reduction in staff. But I will agree that in terms of beats in general, whether that is a crime beat or, you know, a city hall beat, have suffered with the new environment as Ted is describing where there’s so much information coming in at all of us all the time from a myriad of sources that you would think we would need more beat reporters.


DEBORA WENGER: Regardless of medium to help make sense of it all, but my sense is that the trend has actually gone the other way, that there are fewer people specializing in particular topics.

LEONARD SIPES: And that’s the third point that I wanted to get to, that there are more generalists. One day you’re covering a fire, one day you’re covering a sinkhole and the next day you’re covering a series of homicides in a particular city. So you have generalists covering crime and criminal justice issues where in past decades you had knowledgeable individuals who knew the criminal justice system up one side and down the other covering the same issue. Am I right or wrong or the people giving me that observation, are they right or wrong?

TED GEST: Yeah, I think that is right. But it varies greatly from city to city and from time to time. But as I indicated earlier there’s some newspapers that you could look at almost every day and find some pretty good analysis. I’ll just pick one out, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.


TED GEST: Which is not one of those papers that is familiar I think to a lot of people around the country, they do a particularly good job of being a watch dog on the police department and the courts and the correction system in their area and that’s been true for some time and there are several other newspapers that fall into that category but then this varies. A newspaper that might have done this to a great extent a few years ago might not be doing it today and that might be because of layoffs. It might be because a particular person who was doing that has gotten another job or gone off and done something else. So I want to emphasize that it varies. It’s pretty hard to make a generalization that everything has gotten worse or has gotten less. I mean, some newspapers and TV stations are doing more and some doing less, but it just varies depending on where you are.

LEONARD SIPES: Debora, I think you mentioned in your report that certain cities did a much better job than others. In fact, some newspapers picked up the lion’s share of reports. I think you mentioned Detroit as putting out a lot of good crime news.

DEBORA WENGER: Yeah, you know, and we didn’t actually make an assessment of whether or not the reporting was of high quality or low quality. I mean, we were really just trying to set a baseline for how much crime is being reported and what types of sources are being used, what categories of crime are being covered. The Detroit Free Press stood out in the study because of its coverage of corrections issues in particular. And, you know, they talked, the group of six, with more than 10% of their coverage devoted to corrections issues. And they tended to have a pretty wide range of topics that they covered. So, you know, I do think that that’s kudos to folks there. The Indianapolis Star did some excellent reporting during the time period that we studied in this one month, March 2014, you know, they were probably the best in the study at putting crime in context. So not relying on a single source and not only –

LEONARD SIPES: When we come –


LEONARD SIPES: Well I just wanted to break, so go ahead and finish your thought.

DEBORA WENGER: So they were – the Indianapolis Star was very cognizant of the need to provide context to bring meaning as Ted referenced to the crime reporting that they do.

LEONARD SIPES: What I do want to do in the second half of the program is to go into where do we go from here, if there are any other observations that I have not covered. Where do we go to from here and to bring in the observations of other government spokespeople as to the change that they’ve seen occurred and I think I’ve seen occurred over the course of the last 10-15 years. But before going any further with the program, ladies and gentlemen, we’re doing a report – we’re doing our program today on crime reporting in America. Deb Wenger is Associate Professor at Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi, is her website. And Ted Gest, he is the President of Criminal Justice Journalists and the Washington Bureau Chief of Crime The best news summation we have in the United States, Focusing on a piece of research from John J. College of Criminal Justice by Debora and by Dr. Rocky Dailey, the Crime Beat does quality matter content analysis of six United States newspapers. My counterparts Ted and Debora, they’re basically saying, wow, where have all the reporters gone. Our jobs used to be morning, noon and night endless hardnosed, hard-hitting questions by people who knew our beats up one side and down the other, evenings, weekends. As David Simon who has written Homicide and the Coroner in Baltimore, in the Baltimore Sun just barging his way into my office with Bill Zorzie, playing with the papers on my desk and this was sort of a friendly attack, because there were smiles throughout the room. But they’ve made it known that they’re aggressive reporters doing aggressive reporting, no holds barred reporting. They didn’t give any breaks to those of us who were considered government flacks. A lot of us who are in public affairs don’t see that level of aggressiveness anymore. Did anybody want to opine on that?

TED GEST: Well I still there are quite a few reporters out there who do an aggressive job. We have a contest every year at John J. College and I’m one of the judges of it. And there certainly are a lot of high quality entries this year and every year that embody aggressive reporting on criminal justice topics. The thing is, as I said earlier, it’s erratic, that in some cities it’s very good, in other cities it’s not very good. So I think what the impact of what you’re saying is that there is in many areas we end up having crisis driven reporting. That let’s say a city like Chicago that occasionally in recent years has had a spate of homicides on a particular weekend or particular season. You see – you do see a lot of reporting about the homicides going on and concern by city officials, what are we going to do about this and that’s repeated in various other cities. And then taking the other parts of the criminal justice system, there are reports let’s say in the corrections area, a crises, when a court says that a prisoner jail is below standards and prisoners have to be released or transferred, that’s perceived correctly as a crisis and there is reporting there. But what the public doesn’t see is things that just, either officials don’t want to talk about or is not perceived as a crisis, just to give you one example, and Deb and I can give many. But we read about homicides but a lot of time we don’t ever find out what happened to the investigation of these homicides. And what we just ran in our news digest this week, a report that a reporter from Scripps Howard newspapers did about the fact that there’s a huge number of unsolved homicides in this country. I think it was several hundred thousand every since 1980 and this is replicated in a lot of local police departments. Police departments don’t want to talk generally about, oh, it turns out that 65% of the homicides last year we didn’t solve. That’s something that you don’t see talked about unless a reporter really wants to go out and get that story. And they are, in some areas, but that’s just one of many examples of the kinds of things you probably aren’t seeing in your local community.

LEONARD SIPES: Debora, did you want to opine on my question?

DEBORA WENGER: Well, and I guess I more so wanted to follow-up with a question to you is, are you still getting requests for information, is it the quality of the requests that have changed or the sheer number?

LEONARD SIPES: I can’t – I didn’t do a scientific survey.


LEONARD SIPES: And it was just an informal conversation with people who are in my business. I think the number remains but I think the quality of the questions and the aggressiveness of the questions and the comprehensiveness of the questions doesn’t. I think too many spokespeople are defining stories for too many reporters and that’s just what I hear from my contemporaries. That’s one of the things that they suggest to me, which was unheard of or unthinkable 15 years ago.

DEBORA WENGER: Sure. Well and, you know, not to invalidate anybody’s sense of how things have changed from their perspective, but I do think Ted is absolutely right that, you know, it is very difficult to generalize because there does continue to be excellent crime and justice reporting. But on the other hand there, you know, I talked to my friends who are journalists and still in the business and the sheer number of stories that an individual journalist is now being asked to produce on a daily basis, and I know more about television from that standpoint than any other medium, but it’s not unusual for a single broadcast journalist to be producing more than two stories in one day.


DEBORA WENGER: And if that’s your workload you’re just not going to have the time to sink your teeth into doing the hard hitting kind of journalism that you might like to. And so you might be temped to take the word of the PIO or the spokesperson and attribute it properly and move on to your next story. So if that’s what you and folks you talk to have seen happen I might – I would think that that might be one of the reasons why it does.

LEONARD SIPES: Well it just seems to be a consensus from the people that I’ve talked to, that there seems to be a difference and in some cases a stark difference. And I think you’re correct because TV reporters, electronic reporters are not only reporting on stories but now they’re doing their own filming, now they’re doing their own editing. Newspaper reporters are now out there taking their own photographs and getting their own video, so reporters not only have the decline in number, they’ve got to do much more than what they did, again, just ten years ago when they could focus on the story. They have so many other responsibilities. So it just strikes me that that’s a valid question as to whether or not – cause the crime issue is explosive and can be explosive, take a look at Ferguson, take a look at all the other issues that we’ve been discussing over the course of the last six months. I mean, these are heavy-duty really complicated issues that require context and require insight and require research. And my question is do reporters nowadays have that context, have that insight, do they have that research background to place things in the context and put them in their proper perspective?

TED GEST: Well a lot of them don’t. A lot of reporters, I would like to say most reporters maybe, are pretty smart and resourceful and can get the information if they put their mind to it. Len, you made an allusion a minute ago to the Ferguson episode, which has clearly been the biggest single story in criminal justice in the last six months.


TED GEST: After that episode, of course, that, as I said, to use my own phrasing of earlier, was perceived as a crisis, white police officer shoots unarmed black man, and produces all sorts of public protests. There’s been a huge amount of reporting on this issue, not only that case but reporters all over the country have examined similar cases in their area and how they’re handled and that kind of thing. And I think the media have done a pretty good job there, but again, that was provoked by this extreme case. And I think it’s pretty clear that on a lot of other cases that are almost as serious as Ferguson but didn’t get that much of attention initially. I’m not sure those kinds of cases or the problems that are raised by them about police practices that happened in other areas of the country would give that much attention. I’m not sure necessarily a matter of lack of expertise, it’s just that, as Deb has indicated, reporters are busy with multiple stories per day. And if that particular story that we’re talking about doesn’t seem to rise to that level of attention, it doesn’t get attention. But expertise is part of the problem, just looking for trends, looking for significant things and knowing, seeing one that hey, that looks interesting, I’m thinking of how a reporter would think, and I’m going to see if that kind of thing is happening in my area and if it’s getting the proper attention from authorities or whatever. I don’t know, Deb, do you have any elaboration on that?

DEBORA WENGER: Yeah, I mean, I think you’ve hit it that I don’t believe it’s a lack of expertise, I think it’s a lack of time. And also I do believe that the pressures on newsrooms in terms of how they interact with audience have never been greater. And to some extent audience interests and desires drive coverage. We certainly saw that in Ferguson with I think, again, it was PIO talked about 180,000 or so tweets on the actual night that the incident occurred, by the following Thursday there were 3.5 million tweets. And so it became, the audience was pushing journalists to do more coverage because they were raising more questions and demanding more information. So part of all of this, within all of this we have to also consider that, you know, journalists are operating in an environment where they’re trying to grow and engage audience.

LEONARD SIPES: We have a minute left in the program. To both of you, what do we do to improve the quality of criminal justice journalism, crime journalism in the United States?

TED GEST: I don’t know if we can deal with that in a minute but I’ll defer to Deb in a second here about what might be happening in journalism schools, which train journalists. But I think it’s basically a matter, I mean, our group and other groups like it try to educate editors and people who watch the news on what are the trends, what they should be looking for in their areas and that this comes from people who do have expertise, not only journalists but academics and think tanks and other practitioners. So just keeping them aware of things, that’s the best we can do right now. Deb –

LEONARD SIPES: Debora, do you have a thought on this?

DEBORA WENGER: Yeah, I mean, from a journalism, education perspective, you know, I think that pushing the idea that more context is always more valuable in any kind of reporting, whether it’s crime or not and from a newsroom perspective, I would just ask editors and reporters to consider whether you need the ten briefs on the dry cleaner robbery and the vandalism at the high school. Or, you know, would it be better to not write those ten briefs and get a really rich, well sourced contextualized piece on, you know, your local prison system.

LEONARD SIPES: Well it’s been a fascinating conversation with both of you. I really do think that this is an extraordinarily important topic for anybody interested in crime and justice in the United States. Ladies and gentleman, my Gests today have been Deb Wenger. She’s Associate Professor at the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at University of Mississippi, is her website. Ted Gest, he is President of Criminal Justice Journalists, a long-term journalist himself. Somebody extraordinarily well respected within the journalism community. Washington Bureau Chief of the Crime, What Deb and Rocky Dailey did was to put out a report called The Crime Beat; Does Quality Matter where they analyzed a variety of newspapers, six newspapers talking about significant crime reporting, but raising questions as to the quality of coverage. I’ll put the link in the show notes. Ladies and gentleman, this is DC Public Safety. We appreciate your comments. We even appreciate your criticisms. And we want everybody to have themselves a very pleasant day.