Crime Coverage Summit Highlights: Fact vs. Fiction


By Hope Kahn
National Press Foundation

Audiences are interested in crime news. “We all have an emotional response that we want to be safe,” and that drives people’s reactions and perceptions of crime, said Insha Rahman, a vice president at the Vera Institute of Justice. Rahman and Josh Hinkle of KXAN shared ways to provide context to the complicated topic of criminal justice reporting.

“How do we get out of the individual high-profile cases, the one-off incidents that often dominate the nightly news and headlines, and actually look to the systems behind it that drive those headlines?” asked Rahman. Here’s her advice:

  • When reporting on a shooting or homicide, remind people that this is a small fraction of what happens every day with police-citizen interactions. “There’s over 10.5 million arrests” annually she said, but violent crime only accounts for 5% of all arrests. Providing context is key.
  • Report on crisis intervention programs. The STAR program in Denver, Colorado sends civilian specialists instead of police to respond to low-level crisis situations. It reduced low-level crime by 34% compared to neighborhoods that didn’t pilot this program, according to Stanford University. “People are actually really interested in hearing about the solutions that prevent crime in the first place and not just the big, awful headline.”
  • Talk about the consequences of jail time on a systemic level, Rahman said. “The research has shown definitively that even 24 hours in jail makes a person more likely to be arrested in the future.” Jail time increases the likelihood of losing your job, “which is what keeps people stable,” and could even spark a potential investigation by children’s services. If journalists report on the consequences, “we’re saying something just about the system overall,” she said.

But sometimes, system-level information is not readily available.

Hinkle found this when he co-reported the “Mental Competency Consequences” project. From prior reporting, KXAN found that there were a lot of problems with the way mental competency was being tracked in Texas – and those deemed mentally incompetent were being forced to wait in jail while mental hospitals were full. “Just in this last year we have 2,500 people … waiting in jail for mental competency restoration.”

And, sometimes, people die while they’re on the waitlist. “What we’ve found is the state is not tracking this data right now,” he said.

The waitlist of mentally incompetent individuals is private in Texas, so Hinkle had to find another way. “We went to the district attorney’s office and asked for a list and timeframe of all of the people who had been labeled as incompetent to stand trial.”

But in the data, they found inaccuracies in race and ethnicity, and a lack of information about the economic status of the individuals. Hinkle turned to custodial death records compiled by the Texas Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that aggregates and provides criminal justice information to the public for free. They merged those two datasets and found matches: individuals found incompetent to stand trial who also died in custody.

Reporting on this could lead to legislators requiring the Commission on Jail Standards to track what happens to people who are in jail awaiting a mental health bed and he hopes it will lead to greater funding for mental health services so that these people don’t up in jail in the first place.

Sometimes it takes deaths in custody to wake us up to the problem.”

If law enforcement or other agencies are providing information, Hinkle says journalists should always ask how you know it’s accurate. If they’re not providing information, Hinkle says to look for other sources and also ask:

  • Are police reporting what’s required?
  • Are those agencies breaking the law?
  • How can you put pressure on them to do better/make changes?
  • Can you report what they’re not doing?

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.