Crime Coverage Summit Highlights: Data and Trends
By Sonni Effron
National Press Foundation
Walter Katz, a 17-year public defender, former police oversight official and deputy chief of staff for public safety for former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, spoke to more than 80 news directors at the 2023 Crime Coverage Summit. Katz discussed crime trends in his role as vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures.
Carroll Bogert leads the Marshall Project, a nonprofit focused solely on criminal justice reporting, and she spoke about newsrooms confronting problems with TV news crime coverage.
1. The reasons behind the homicide spike in 2020 remain unknown. Current explanations reflect biases, not facts. “One thing I’ll not tell you is why there was a rapid increase in violent crime, but we do know that homicides increased from 2019 to 2020 by about 29%, the largest year-over-year increase that had ever occurred in the history of data collection on homicides,” Katz said. There are many competing, unproven hypotheses, and the explanations that are being offered are being chosen based on bias, Katz warned.
In 2019, violent crime continued a long-term trend of deep decrease. The pandemic brought a confluence of “black swan” events (things deemed so unlikely as to be impossible.) There was a decrease in property crime like burglary and car theft – presumably because people and their cars were home – and a record increase in violence and gun sales.
And while Americans were at home, they witnessed on television the “obvious moral failure” of George Floyd’s killing by police, Katz noted. Both the “defund the police” movement and the demoralization of police have been blamed for the rise in violence.
“When one looks at the crime data, one says, ‘I see this giant spike in 2020. That must have happened because of’ – OK, well now you can have some options here.
“Option number one, is it because police officers felt the society didn’t have their back anymore, so they stopped doing police work?
“Is it because of the crash in legitimacy, and people are no longer respecting the law, and so taking law into their own hands?
“Is it because police officers engage in a cynical work slowdown and stop doing police work to teach everyone a lesson?” Katz asked. “I’m not giving you any of those answers. I don’t know.”
The problem for journalists, Katz noted, is “when we look at the latter half of 2020 into 2021, everyone had an answer. And in my view, most answers are already based on the biases of the person who is trying to provide the answer for you.”
2. Crime trends are difficult even for experts to tease out. Katz recommended Pat Sharkey’s “Uneasy Peace” for journalists who want to understand the origins and realities of crime. He also praised the reporting on police budget increases by ABC-owned television stations and recommended that journalists scrutinize the links between explanations of crime trends and police advocacy for larger budgets. The reporting showed that with few exceptions, the defund the police movement has not succeeded in prompting cuts to police budgets.
“Only eight agencies cut police funds by more than 2% while 91 agencies increase law enforcement funding by at least 2%,” Katz noted. “That’s an example of that vitally important context that has to be provided when we as a society are having these conversations about what makes communities safe, and what are the factors that help drive unrest and help drive disorder and violent crime.”
3. But the urgency of television news coverage too often results in loss of context. “For news stations where you have competitors, you have commercial challenges, you have time pressure, you don’t have a lot of time to put out a story, and often you don’t have time to follow up in a story,” Katz said. “Unfortunately, the cost is that there’s a ton of context in criminal justice which is getting lost, in my opinion, as a result of that need for urgency.”
4. How media cover crime truly matters, historically and today. “Criminal justice advocates think and talk all the time about what local broadcasters are doing, and feel that there are few elements in American society that are more determinative of what happens in criminal justice policy, than what you all put on the air,” Bogert said. “And if you feel sometimes like your job doesn’t matter or it isn’t what it once was, just remember you really, really make a difference.”
5. The attribution “police said” reflects the dependency on police sources that is the crux of the coverage dilemma. “The criminal justice system starts before the police, with a school-to-prison pipeline, and it cycles through a court system and prisons and re-entry. There’s a lot to cover in criminal justice, but in covering crime, the institution of the police is so overwhelmingly important,” Bogert said. “How can you do your jobs without information from the police? And what do you do when the police aren’t telling you the truth?”
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.