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From a Lawyer's View: The Media and Crime Coverage

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

As defenders, do you pay attention to media coverage of crimes in your area, specifically crimes allegedly committed by youth? Does your local law enforcement or prosecutor’s office have a social media page from which they post information about pending cases and investigations? Does your local news outlet get its information from law enforcement directly? Have you seen an impact on clients in the legal system as a result of media coverage? If you have asked these questions or observed these issues, you may be interested in the Media Guide: 10 Crime Coverage Dos and Don’ts recently released by The Sentencing Project. This article discusses the impact of media coverage on public perception and resulting policies and legislation. It places media coverage of crime in context with historical data on crime rates and recidivism. Additionally, the article provides links to other resources regarding this data.

While the Media Guide was created as a resource for journalists, it provides insight into driving forces in tough-on-crime policies. Specific reference is made to the end of furlough and work release programs based on coverage of one incident which was extraordinary. (If you are unfamiliar with Willie Horton, follow this link from the Media Guide .) The guide notes statistics on a national level showing that crime rates fell by 50% pre-pandemic and began climbing in 2020 but are again declining. The article notes youth crime rates on a national level fell by 80 % from 1996 to 2020. Despite this decline, the article states that polls show most Americans believe crime rates are increasing. Comparisons are drawn to the mid-1990s and the myth of the youth “superpredators.” Just as the coverage in the 1990s led to punitive laws contrary to the science and data, current media reports continue to push a similar narrative of a youth crime wave. Consider this quote from the Media Guide regarding “superpredators”: “Though it failed as a theory, as fodder for editorials, columns and magazine features, the term ‘superpredator’ was a tragic success—with an enormous, and lasting, human toll.”

Racial equity is addressed in the Media Guide with journalists and news outlets being advised to conduct racial equity audits on the quality and quantity of crime coverage. The Guide notes an overrepresentation of news articles on crimes alleged to be committed by Black males and victimization by white females. Specific attention is given to the narratives presented about alleged shooters or other violent crimes based on the race of the accused. As an example, White mass shooters tended to be presented more sympathetically with reporting on mental health issues as compared to alleged Black shooters.

As a resource for media, the Guide provides thought provoking topics. The document could and should be utilized by defense attorneys to educate stakeholders on the issues surrounding media coverage and its impact on individual cases and policies. For example, if your client’s case has been addressed on social media or by news media, consider providing this article in the context of requesting gag orders or other relief. Utilize the article and its emphasis on how “[r]outinized crime coverage and click chasing promote punitive and ineffective crime policies.” Is media attention interfering with your efforts to address bond/secure custody? Reviewing this article may provide insight into arguments to be made to counter sensational media coverage.

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