It is in vogue to say, because it’s true, that local news is more essential than ever. We need it, and we’re losing it, and it’s both empirically shown and obviously true that cities and towns are worse off without it. It’s also true that local news isn’t all good. Daily crime stories, the so-called bread-and-butter of local reporting, are often quite bad.
Crime reporting has a kind of mythology in the newspaper world, or at least it did for me when I started newspapering. Editors told war stories about their time working at New York tabloids in the ‘80s and ‘90s—buying drinks for cops, working the yellow tape at crime scenes, knocking on doors in “rough neighborhoods.” Smart, talented journalists talked about how showing up to blood-splattered sidewalks in the middle of the night turned them into better reporters. Okay, I thought, I’ll do that too.
Here’s a daily crime story: 300-600 words on a crime that happened. Maybe a shooting overnight that left one dead and another in critical condition (age and gender undisclosed). The reporter wasn’t there, and neither were the police and no one is in custody, so that’s the whole story. Or maybe someone was arrested, so the police might disclose the suspect’s prior criminal history, which will go in the headline. Or maybe the victim has a record, which will relegate the shooting to the category of “drug-related.” If a suspect is booked, there might be a mugshot. If they’re charged, a few days later court papers will provide a feast of details that can turn a bland blotter story into something more colorful—a portrait of a depraved criminal finally locked up. The district attorney will be happy to see it in the morning paper.
Reporting on crimes skews heavily toward the narratives of police and prosecutors, because who else can give you information? Actually, lots of people can. But if you have six hours (a generous amount of time, honestly, in the world of breaking news), and you’re making calls from a desk, or if you’re knocking on doors but no one is answering, all you’ve got is “police said.”
Some of this is an issue of both time and resources—if reporters had more of both, it would be easier to do the kind of groundwork that’s required to build out a full story, to talk to the neighbors and brothers and sisters, and fact-check law enforcement claims. But there’s something else at play, too: an abiding trust in police sources, a pervasive sense that they’re a neutral party. Most reporters wouldn’t say that—they’re used to holding the police accountable in other ways, or trying to—but crime coverage reflects that broad bias. Police have a functional monopoly on information in this beat that seems to me unparalleled across journalism. “Police said” is peppered all over daily crime stories. Often, if you look closely, you’ll notice it’s the basis for the entire story.
It’s not that police and prosecutors are always lying, though sometimes they are. A woman was raped in Prospect Park in 1994, and columnist for The New York Daily News wrote a story based on unnamed police sources headlined, “Rape hoax the real crime.” Even after police later found DNA evidence, the columnist persisted in toeing the law enforcement line. Over the woman’s account, and with blinding certitude, he chose to trust the police. This is not unusual; it has always been the norm. It hurts victims of crimes, and it also hurts the accused. The media played a big role in the fear-mongering around the Central Park Five, who were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for years for a rape they did not commit. Reporters toed the line. This is not a thing of the past. Every day, newspapers across the country print mug shots of people who have not even been charged with crimes, much less convicted. This is blind faith in law enforcement. It is, in my view, journalistic malpractice.
More than any single case, perhaps, the reliance on police narratives has the effect of reinforcing the notion that police are authority figures. Daily crime reporting creates good guys and bad guys, and the police are generally the good guys because they’re the ones telling the story. In the wake of publicized police shootings, some segments of society are becoming more skeptical of the institutions of law enforcement. Yet we continue to take their accounts of crime for fact, because newspapers do.
In The Belleville News-Democrat, police said that a Southern Illinois mom assaulted her 20-year-old daughter with a knife. The New York Daily News took the word of prosecutors who told them that a Brooklyn teen’s killer was gunning for the victim’s older brother. The San Jose Mercury News printed that a badminton coach in a Maserati has been accused of molesting a student in a San Jose park, according to authorities. In each case, no one else could be reached for comment, so, right or wrong, those were the stories.
It may not be obvious to those who consume news digitally, and elect not to click on spot homicide coverage, but these stories make up a substantial portion of a newspaper on any given day. Open a local daily paper, and you’ll get a sense of a city under siege. Crime has declined drastically in the last two decades, but newspapers are still doing what they’ve always done: covering crime.
There are real consequences to this overemphasis on crime. Polling has shown that Americans believe violent crime is rising though it’s been falling for years. Think of Trump’s “American carnage.” Part of that blame falls on newspapers— for overemphasizing even slight upticks in crime stats, for blindly rewriting items in the blotter, just because police put them out.
Smart editors and reporters have thought for years about how to fix these systemic issues with coverage. Some newsrooms, like the Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune, have started compiling databases of every homicide in a given region. This eliminates any bias in the selection of homicides to cover, but it doesn’t get at what I see as the heart of the problem—the stenography of police narratives. My essential thinking is that newspapers should cover fewer crimes, and cover them well. I don’t believe a newspaper has the mandate to cover every crime any more than it has a mandate to cover every concert. There’s no magical formula for what makes a crime worth writing about, and it’s hard to say before reporting begins. But we do know what a good crime story can do. It can expose fractures in a community, broad societal injustices, the failures of law enforcement. If the story doesn’t get at something beyond what the police said happened, don’t publish it.
I was briefly a reporter who wrote mostly about crime. I was not a good crime reporter. Sometimes I called the police for a quote, and other times I more or less rewrote releases they put out about incidents. Sometimes I went down to knock on doors near where a suspect lived, or to the scene of a crime, after the fact. I once spent a Saturday morning wandering through the Bayview neighborhood in San Francisco, where six men had been shot the night before, looking for clues. I stopped people on the street who were walking their dogs. Do you know anything about the shooting that happened here last night? No. I looked at some shards of glass and wondered if they mattered. I went home a few hours later and wrote a story: one person was killed and five were wounded in the Bayview Friday night, police said. I got the ages of the victims—24, 19, 23, 24, and 31–but no names. That was that.