After a year of concentration on national politics, much coverage of crime and justice in 2017 in the U.S. news media shifted to a discussion of the presidential election’s aftermath and of a topic given new prominence by Donald Trump’s presidency: immigration.
Also dominating the year’s news cycle were two subjects that hadn’t been so prominent before: drug overdoses and sexual abuse.
The media also paid attention to what seemed like an endless series of mass shootings and a continuing focus on fatal encounters between police and private citizens.
We’ll cover all of this and more in our annual review of how the news media treated major crime and justice subjects over the year.
A capsule of what captured the most mainstream media attention can be seen by looking at what the three major broadcast networks covered in their nightly news programs, as compiled by analyst Andrew Tyndall.
In 2016, the biggest single crime stories by far were the gay night club massacre in Orlando and the killing of five police officers on the same day in Dallas.
Last year, not surprisingly, the most-covered crime stories were mass shootings: the killing of 58 concertgoers in Las Vegas by Stephen Paddock, followed by the attack on members of Congress at a baseball practice in northern Virginia, and the massacre at a Texas church in which 26 people were killed.
Viewed through a broader lens, seven of the top 20 stories on all subjects had some criminal justice element, leading with the investigation into possible Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections and including President Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, the White House ban on travel from Muslim-majority nations, and the immigration crackdown generally.
This assessment of criminal justice in 2017 as reported by the media will be supplemented by a conference call conducted by Criminal Justice Journalists with James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University; William Freivogel of Southern Illinois University and the Gateway Journalism Review; Marea Mannion of Penn State’s College of Communications; Brandt Williams of Minnesota Public Radio; and Dan Shelley of the Radio Television Digital News Association.
Editor’s Note: A transcript of the conference call will be posted online. Please check The Crime Report for availability.
CRIME TOTALS VARY, DISAGREEMENT ON TRENDS
Crime had been rising in many big cities in the two years before the 2016 presidential campaign, giving Republican candidate Donald Trump a major issue to discuss. The final crime numbers are not in for Trump’s first year in office.
Because the FBI reports its national crime count so late (typically in late September for the previous year), an advocacy group, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, has commanded much of the media attention to the subject by publishing its own compilation of crime totals from the 30 largest cities.
Typical was this report by NPR, which quoted the Brennan Center’s projection that when the totals are in, rates for overall crime, violent crime and murder in the U.S. will have declined in 2017.
One subject that received less national media coverage last year than it had in the last few years was crime in Chicago, where homicides in recent years had hit the highest levels in two decades. That is because the total dropped in 2017. This Chicago Tribune summary said that the year’s murder count was down 15 percent, or more than 100.
The newspaper said the decrease has “raised new hopes that Chicago could make progress in shedding its national reputation for gun violence, an image fueled by both President Donald Trump’s frequent mentions and by the distressing loss on Chicago’s streets.”
The FBI in September issued the final crime numbers for 2016, as submitted by local police agencies. The website FiveThirtyEight.com reported a month later that the newest edition contained about 70 percent fewer data tables, most of the missing ones concerning arrests and homicides. There was little explanation for the omission other than that the data tables had relatively few hits when they were posted on the internet in the past.
Even later than the FBI report was the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ annual victimization survey, which on Dec. 7 estimated 5.7 million “violent victimizations” in the nation in 2016 but said that because of a redesign of the survey, there could not be a precise comparison between 2015 and 2016.
Newsweek magazine reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had misrepresented his own agency’s statistics by saying in a speech, alluding to that report, that there had been a 13 percent spike in the violent crime rate. “The report he was citing clearly said there had been no measurable change,” Newsweek said.
TRUMP, SESSIONS PURSUE “TOUGH ON CRIME” POLICIES
The pledges by President Trump and Attorney General Sessions to take a tougher line than the Obama administration on crime and punishment have shifted Department of Justice polices—and raised concerns among reformers and advocates. The details were just beginning to be laid out in 2017, but the national media chronicled the unfolding story.
“Return of the war on drugs” was the front page headline in the Washington Post on Sunday, April 9. The story featured Sessions’ hiring of federal prosecutor Steven Cook of Knoxville, Tn., an advocate of tougher federal sentencing. The Post reported that Sessions and Cook “are eager to bring back the national crime strategy of the 1980s and ‘90s from the peak of the drug war.”
The following day, in “The Rise and Fall of Federal Efforts to Curb Police Abuse,” the New York Times described another Obama-era policy likely to fall under Trump, the use of consent decrees to impose reforms on policing in cities across the nation. The article detailed the history of the first such decree, in Pittsburgh in 1997. “The only realistic way to look at this is that it did not stick,” University of Pittsburgh law Prof. David Harris told the newspaper about the Pittsburgh experience..
Then in June, the administration replaced a National Commission on Forensic Science with an in-house task force. The Washington Post reported on this, as well as the suspension of an effort to set uniform standards for forensic testimony and to widen a review of FBI testimony on several controversial techniques.
Another notable example of Trump policy coverage was published by the New York Times on Nov. 22 under the headline, “Dept. of Justice Eases Scrutiny of Local Police.” The newspaper said that many police chiefs lamented the demise of the Justice Department’s “collaborative reform” program in which police department got Justice Department advice on best practices. The article attributed the conversion of the program to “technical assistance” in large part to the Fraternal Order of Police, which believes that the previous effort was too burdensome on rank-and-file officers.
The Times treated Trump’s overall philosophy on the crime issue with a healthy dose of skepticism, as indicated by a “news analysis” on Aug. 28, headlined “A Law-and-Order President (Enforcement May Vary).”
The article was prompted by Trump’s pardon of former Maricopa County, Az., Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who had been found guilty of contempt of court after he was found to have violated an order prohibiting his office from engaging in racial profiling. The Times quoted the conservative Washington Examiner, which said in an editorial that “once again Trump really means ‘busting heads’ when he says ‘law and order.’ “
IMMIGRATION GETS INTENSE ATTENTION
Immigration has been a contentious issue for decades, but the Trump administration ratcheted up media attention with its vow to crack down on undocumented residents nationwide. The news media have devoted a considerable volume of coverage to the issue. It was 16th on the top 20 story subjects covered during the year on the Tyndall summary.
A study by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy of media coverage of President Trump’s first 100 days in office found that immigration was the single most covered subject during the period, commanding 17 percent of coverage by the major media (health care was second, with 12 percent).
The study assessed the tone of coverage, finding that overall coverage of Trump “set a new standard for negativity,” with 80 percent of it judged to be negative. Notably, immigration received far the most negative coverage of any topic, by the Shorenstein Center’s assessment, with a full 96 percent of stories judged as negative.
Could some of this be due to journalistic ignorance? David Seminara of the non-partisan Center for Immigration Studies, who is frequently interviewed on immigration issues, wrote that “for every one reporter I’ve spoken to who understands legal and illegal immigration, there are 20 who are absolutely clueless.”
One reason that so much of the coverage is deemed negative may be that news stories often point out misstatements by President Trump and his associates.
For example, on Aug. 10, Slate.com reported on Trump’s repeated references to the 2015 killing of Kate Steinle in San Francisco by a man who had been deported from the U.S. five times and who then re-entered the United States illegally. (The man was acquitted recently.)
Early in this presidential campaign, Trump said, “Public reports routinely state great amounts of crime are being committed by illegal immigrants.”
Slate said, “This is not true. Study after study shows undocumented immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than the general population, and crime rates in cities with large immigrant populations have fallen disproportionately. Regardless, the lie that undocumented immigrants are likely to be violent criminals would help propel Trump to the GOP nomination and ultimately the presidency.”
That story would have been classified negative to Trump by a study like Harvard’s (which was issued before the Slate article), but such coverage seems to be based on facts and not bias against Trump.
Much of the local coverage has dealt with aspects of the “sanctuary city” question, with many stories about the administration’s threats to withhold federal aid from jurisdictions that don’t cooperate with federal authorities on detaining undocumented immigrants. Many big-city mayors and police chiefs have not complied, arguing that many citizens, both legal residents and others, will not cooperate with law enforcement on any issue if they could be threatened with deportation.
On May 14, the Washington Post said that many police departments had experienced a drop in crime reporting in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods, which police chiefs attributed to undocumented immigrants being hesitant to deal with law enforcement because they feared deportation.
The media have devoted considerable effort to correcting other utterances by President Trump relating to immigration. The Washington Post Fact Checker said that the most popular fact check in the column’s 10-year history involved Trump’s statement that his executive order blocking travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries was comparable to what President Obama did in 2011. In fact, Obama was responding to an actual threat: two Iraqi refugees were involved in bombmaking that targeted U.S. troops. No specific threat prompted Trump’s order, and Obama’s policy did not prevent all citizens from Iraq from entering the U.S., the Post said.
MASS SHOOTINGS: “We Are Inundated by Rage”
The United States seems to be plagued with terrible mass shooting incidents several times a year.
They follow a predictable pattern in the media: The event gets saturation coverage, with detailed attention both to the shooter and the victims, there are cries for reform from gun control advocates and opposition from gun-rights advocates saying legal changes would make no difference, and then little coverage until the next episode.
One prominent episode occurred on June 14, when James T. Hodgkinson of Belleville, Il., opened fire at a baseball practice involving members of Congress in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Alexandria, Va., severely wounding House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA).
The New York Times termed it the latest example of a “grim trend” of politically-inspired violence (the shooter was a fervid opponent of President Trump). Former Sen. John Danforth (R-MO) observed, “We are inundated by rage … it’s the demand from the base of the two parties and it is in large part encouraged by the media.”
The October shooting at a Las Vegas concert by Stephen Paddock, whose victim toll of 58 was the largest in recent U.S. history also brought a torrent of news coverage. It was unusual that many months later, neither law enforcement nor the media has been able to determine a motive for the massacre.
In early November, Devin Kelley opened fire in a Baptist church in the small town of Sutherland Springs, Tx., killing 26 people. In most such cases, it becomes clear that either the shooter obtained his weapons legally (as apparently was the case in Las Vegas) or there would have been no easy way to prevent him from obtaining them.
This case was different. As the New York Times put it in a lead story on Nov. 7, the Air Force immediately admitted that it had failed to enter Kelley’s domestic violence court-martial into a federal database that could have blocked him from buying the rifle that he used.
The episode prompted many articles about flaws in the federal background check process, but as seems typical in coverage of firearms issues, the stories mostly came to an end after a few days.
The day after the Air Force story, the Times published a detailed analysis of the mass shooting trend. Its conclusion was that “the only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.” One figure cited is that the U.S. has about 4.4 percent of the world’s population and 42 percent of the world’s guns.
MEDIA TRACK SHOOTINGS BY POLICE
Police officers in the United States have long been involved in gunning down citizens. It took the death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 to make the phenomenon been a major subject of national and local news coverage.
In the absence of reliable federal data, the Washington Post has been maintaining a database of police shootings. Early in 2018, the Post reported that last year’s total was 987, roughly the same as in the previous two years. The newspaper said that since its project began, it had logged the details of 2,945 police shooting deaths, which it compiled from local news coverage, public records and social-media reports. The number of unarmed black men killed last year declined from 2015.
Earlier, the Post ran a front-page story on May 3 reporting that the U.S. Justice Department had decided not to bring charges against a Baton Rouge, La., police officer for shooting Alton Sterling on July 5, 2016 in a case that got much national attention. It was the first major federal decision in such a shooting during Jeff Sessions’ tenure as attorney general
One of last year’s well publicized and controversial police shooting incidents involved the July 15th fatal shooting in Minneapolis of Justine Ruszczyk Damond. The 41-year old Australian woman was shot moments after she called 911 to report an alleged assault in a back alley behind her home, and reportedly struck the side of a police squad car .
An officer in the passenger seat fired a single shot shortly after Damond approached the vehicle from the driver’s side. The incident not only came with a racial angle twist—Damond was white; the officer who killed her is of Somali descent—but it attracted international coverage as Australian journalists traveled to the Twin Cities to cover the case.
The coverage was distinctive. “American Nightmare” was the front page headline in the Sydney Daily Telegraph.
“In Justine Damond’s native country, news of the meditation teacher’s baffling death has dominated the airwaves, newspapers and websites for days, feeding into Australians’ long-held fears about America’s notorious culture of gun violence,” wrote the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
In essence, the coverage overseas appeared to castigate and place more blame for Damond’s killing on the United States’ gun culture than at the hands of an individual police officer, who may or may not ultimately face criminal charges in the shooting.
The Washington Post is one of the few national media outlets that have closely following the problem of police misconduct since the Michael Brown shooting.
On Sunday, Aug. 6, the newspaper published results of a major investigation headlined “Fired/Rehired,” concluding that since 2006 at least 1,881 officers had been fired by 37 large police departments. Some 451 of them appealed and won their jobs back through rulings of arbitrators.
Policing reforms overall did not get much significant attention from the news media last year. One exception was a front-page story in the New York Times on October 21 reporting a study in Washington, D.C., that seemed to show that equipping police officers with body cameras had almost no effect on their behavior. Police Chief Peter Newsham was quoted as being surprised by the results, but he said the city’s police force would continue using cameras because they bring benefits that are not easily measured.
THE OPIOID CRISIS WORSENS
The overdose death totals from the opioid epidemic keep rising, especially in the Rust Belt states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Media attention also has increased, notably in newspapers like the Washington Post and Cincinnati Enquirer.
The Post has provided extensive coverage of the national picture, reporting on Aug. 9 that newly released data showed that drug overdoses increased in the first nine months of 2016. The story also said that President Trump had declined to declare the situation a national emergency, something he later did.
CBS’ “60 Minutes” and the Post deserve credit for an investigation that was broadcast and published on October 15. It reported that as the opioid epidemic raged, Congress in the spring of 2016 stripped the Drug Enforcement Administration from its strongest weapon against drug companies that are suspected of providing large quantities of prescription narcotics to the public. The law made it virtually impossible for DEA to freeze suspicious drug shipments from the companies.
The reporting had at least one significant result: It highlighted the fact that the legislation had been spearheaded by Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA), who had been nominated by President Trump as the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (popularly known as the “drug czar.”) After all of the publicity, Marino withdrew his candidacy.
The Post has long been ahead of the curve in reporting on the drug industry’s role in the crisis. On April 3, the newspaper published a lengthy story detailing the federal government’s failure to file criminal charges against Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals for failing to report suspicious orders of 500 million pills it manufactured that were distributed in Florida between 2008 and 2012. The firm ended up agreeing to pay a $35 million fine, a sum one government official described as “chump change” for the company.
The Cincinnati Enquirer, located in the heart of the area most affected by the opioid epidemic, published a special report on Sept. 10 headlined “Seven Days of Heroin: This Is What An Epidemic Looks Like.”
As described by Nieman Storyboard, during one week in July, the newspaper sent more than 60 reporters, photographers and videographers to document the impact of heroin in the Cincinnati area. They went to jails, courts, methadone clinics and psychiatric hospitals. The reporting included witnessing overdoses, listening to 911 calls, attending recovery meetings and riding with police officers who were looking for users and dealers.
They tallied 18 deaths and 180 overdoses during the week.
Nieman Storyboard called the paper’s effort “a riveting portrait of the human face of heroin. Instead of a traditional narrative, the project was presented largely as a series of chronological vignettes, interspersed with photos, social media posts, 911 recordings and rap lyrics. The mixed-media collage effectively showed that virtually no local geography or institution was left untouched by heroin.”
In the New York Times on June 18, freelance journalist Sam Quinones contributed a strong piece about an effort by two dozen county jails in Kentucky to start “therapeutic communities” for their increasing population of addicts.
These and other stories are indications that the media have covered the opioid crisis both as a public health emergency and as a criminal justice challenge. This contrasts with the treatment of the crack cocaine surge of the 1980s, which was mostly reported on the topic as a law enforcement issue.
Media coverage also highlighted the business aspect of the opioid crisis. “Mexican heroin is flooding the US, and the Sinaloa cartel is steering the flow,” was the headline to a Business Insider piece last fall, referring to the band of traffickers formerly headed by Joaquin El Chapo Guzman.
SEXUAL HARASSMENT’S MEDIA MOMENT
Sexual abuse in the U.S. may not have increased, but news media coverage of it has intensified notably, as it seemed that hardly a week went by in late 2017 before another celebrity was accused of harassment, some of it dating from decades earlier.
At least one case from years past already had attracted considerable interest before the year began: Accusations against comedian Bill Cosby in the form of a criminal case filed in the Philadelphia suburbs. A well-covered trial ended up with a hung jury.
The issue exploded again onto the front pages in early October, when the New York Times published an extensive report that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein had quietly settled at least eight sexual harassment complaints over three decades. It was not clear in early 2018 that any of the numerous accusations against Weinstein would lead to a criminal case, but the Weinstein story has set the backdrop for a number of other prominent charges against entertainment and media figures as well as politicians, such as U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), who was pressured to resign after he was accused of abuse in several cases.
The news media themselves were hit by a barrage of major departures over sexual harassment charges, including Matt Lauer of NBC, Charlie Rose of CBS, Michael Oreskes of NPR and Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker.
“The news media is supposed to be a surrogate for the public, and most Americans don’t like the thought that our surrogates are living in and endorsing workplace environments in which sexual harassment now seems to be too common,” Jeffrey McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University, told The Hill.
“Further complicating the media’s image in all of this is the sanctimonious manner in which the media has covered sexual harassment in other corners of society,” McCall said. “It is difficult for the news media to parade around as haughty overseers of right and wrong in broader contexts of society when they clearly have in-house confusion about first principles of decency.”
Between the time allegations first surfaced about Weinstein in early October and Nov. 20, the evening-news programs of ABC, NBC and CBS devoted 218 minutes to sexual harassment stories on their weekday newscasts, according to industry consultant Andrew Tyndall, Variety reported. Most of that coverage involved Weinstein and Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore. (By comparison, the probe into Russian influence on the U.S. presidential election drew 85 minutes of coverage during the period and the church massacre in Texas 67 minutes.)
Kelly McBride of the Florida-based Poynter Institute, a longtime writer on media ethics, says that many media policies on reporting sexual harassment are behind the times, limited to rules such as “Because of the stigma associated with sexual assault, we do not publish the names of victims.”
McBride issued a challenge to news organizations:
Rather than starting with a policy that tells us what to avoid, what if our policies encouraged us to tell the story of sexual assault more completely, so that the public might understand how it happens and how to prevent it? Today’s policies presume that our journalistic motive for telling a sexual assault story is rooted in our urge to improve public safety. But sexual assault isn’t really a public safety problem; it’s a public health problem.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM – A STATE ISSUE
Criminal justice policy, from policing to courts to prisons, always has been primarily an issue for states and localities to decide, but the issue had more national resonance in recent years as the Obama administration and a bipartisan group of U.S. senators focused on ways to reduce the rapidly growing federal prison population, which is larger than the total in any single state.
The Trump administration worked on increasing the number of federal criminal cases and has shown no interest in reducing prison sentences, in line with positions taken by Attorney General Sessions as a U.S senator.
This has made prisons and sentencing again more of a question for states than for Washington, D.C., but the news media have shown only sporadic interest.
One of the few national examinations of the subject ran on the front page of the New York Times on May 19, which focused on a reform bill in Louisiana and reported that 30 states had limited some sentences and expanded alternatives to incarceration.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune and The Advocate also reported on the reforms, with the Times-Picayune quoting Gov. John Bel Edwards on May 17 as saying that the state may still have the nation’s highest per capita rate of incarceration after the new law goes into effect.
DECLINE IN LOCAL NEWS REPORTING RESOURCES
While we have reported on significant criminal justice coverage by many news media organizations from around the nation—and there are many others that are not reflected here—it is important to note that the manpower available to report on justice and many other major topics has dropped sharply in recent years.
Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan discussed this trend in an April 17 column that cited the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting that had just been won by the Charleston, W. Va., Gazette-Mail for stories on the prescription drug epidemic.
The family-owned, 37,000-circulation paper with a staff of 50 decided to pursue the question of “where all these drugs were coming from, and how could so many pills be diverted onto the street,” said executive editor Robert Byers.
Gazette-Mail reporter Eric Eyre attributed the winning series partly to his coverage of the state attorney general’s office.
The problem, The Post’s Sullivan says, is that this kind of journalism is disappearing. Over the last 15 years, the workforce of U.S. newspapers shrunk from 412,000 employees to 174,000. The number of reporters covering statehouses—where much criminal justice policy is made—has declined even further. (After Sullivan’s column was written, the Gazette-Mail filed for bankruptcy but will continue to publish under new ownership.)
Newspapers are not the only source of local reporting, of course. Television and radio stations, and community newspapers, continue to thrive in many areas. Websites have filled some of the gap left by the erosion of daily newspapers.
Among nontraditional sources that have contributed notable reporting on justice subjects are the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal, the Frontier in Tulsa, Ok., and the Grits for Breakfast blog in Austin, Tx.
Crime and justice always have been staples of local reporting, and that hasn’t changed. There is bound to be less of that reporting as the number of people doing it on a regular basis is much diminished in many U.S. cities.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists (CJJ) and Washington Bureau chief of The Crime Report. Rubén Rosario is Metro columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and a CJJ board member. The Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College thanks the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation for its continuing support of the crime journalism year-end reviews.