Crime Coverage: What Journalists Get Wrong About Race And Crime


By Hope Kahn
National Press Foundation

Race – and racism – is a factor not only in the criminal justice system but in criminal justice coverage. Alain Stephens and Cheryl Phillips spoke to news directors from across the country about how they think journalists could improve.

“Half the time we just need to stop and think,” The Trace’s reporter Alain Stephens said. “As a Black person, if I turn on and see constant depictions of police in a light that does not match what I experienced, you are discredited. So, this is why we have to get this right.”

As a journalist and former police officer and military veteran, Stephens sees a number of problems with the news media:

  • “We don’t report root causes,” Stephens said. When we don’t report on root causes, we have this ability to throw away the criminal as worthless, that people commit crimes because they’re just stupid and they’re bad people,” Stephens said. But poverty, economics, location and even weather can affect who and why people are committing crimes. “Without framing root causes, we as journalists, as the askers, cannot ask for a better society.”
  • “We still value cis white victims more than others,” he said. Journalists must work on diversifying their coverage of victims as well as diversifying their newsrooms, Stephens advised. Columbia Journalism Review’s “How much coverage are you worth” and “How much press are you worth?” provide more information on the disparities of victim coverage.
  • Journalists view the police as experts, Stephens said. “Everyone out here is portraying the police as if it’s ‘SVU.’ Stop writing for Dick Wolf; that’s not what we do.” Journalists should talk to sociologists and other criminal justice researchers, he said.
  • “We don’t focus on the effect.” Stephens suggests following up on police initiatives and measuring their impact.

Do more digging into crime data, Cheryl Phillips suggests. You may find that Black drivers in your region are stopped more than white drivers relative to their share of the driving population. But Phillips and her team at the Stanford Computational Policy Lab went beyond that and found that drivers of color were more likely to be searched on the basis of less evidence than white drivers and that Black drivers were less likely to be stopped after sunset when a “veil of darkness” masked their race. “That is another evidence of discrimination test. Pretty easy to explain and pretty easy to run,” Phillips said.

Check for disparities when writing about policing efforts. A study found that the Nashville Police Department was searching the cars of minority drivers more than white drivers, Phillips said. The police had a policy about stopping drivers with equipment problems, like broken tail lights. “They were following a faulty policing model that they thought was good,” but it didn’t reduce crime. They have since ended equipment violation stops and “it’s much more equitable now across the race and ethnicities.” This, she said, is an example of disparate impact without “actively” discriminating.

Crime Coverage Summit 2023: Beyond ‘If It Bleeds, It Leads’ was sponsored by Arnold Ventures and hosted by NPF and RTDNA. This content originally appeared on the National Press Foundation’s website. You can view more of their content here.