Public Defender Warns ‘Fearmongering’ Journalism Threatens Progressive Criminal Justice Reform


By Angelina Sang

NEW YORK CITY, NY – The New York Times and NPR recently released articles regarding the highly awaited FBI 2020 crime statistics that Brooklyn Public Defender and civil rights attorney Scott Hechinger argues prioritized sensationalism instead of offering the true nuanced nature the stats revealed.

In his article, A Massive Fail on Crime Reporting by The New York Times, NPR, Hechinger argues this sensationalization on the 30 percent increase and speculation as to why the rates are up both misleads readers and has detrimental effects on progressive criminal justice legislation, specifically bail reform.

Though the overall major crime rate has continued to steadily decrease, The New York Times, NPR, The Washington Post, NBC News, The Hill, and The Guardian, among many other news outlets released coverage primarily focusing on the 30 percent rise in murder rates while burying the overall major crime decrease, he noted.

Hechinger asserts that using titles like “FBI data show surge in murders in 2020,” popular news sources draw attention to only part of the picture. Living in a day and age where many consumers simply read the headlines to catch up on the news, such titles can be extremely problematic and detrimental to the truth of the situation, Hechinger proposes.

Hechinger also scolds media for their liberal use of volatile, short-term data.

According to Hechinger, using uncontextualized, short-term statistics to begin with creates issues, and when media utilize such statistics as instruments to further their political beliefs the negative effects are compounded.

“Journalism today continues to ignore these ‘criminological fact[s]’ while instead following the familiar and dangerous patterns from the 1980s and ’90s that helped drive mass criminalization itself: overly simplistic stories with alarmist headlines and dehumanizing language that rely predominantly on police as sources, neglect nuance, provoke fear in the public, speculate about short term crime data—and posit police, prosecution, and prison as the solutions to crime,” Hechinger writes.

Echoing Hechinger’s frustration, Vera Institute of Justice argues that short-term fluctuations in crime rates are not meaningful unless used alongside and contextualized by long-term trends.

Nonetheless, it’s noted, popular news sources have used the short term data and are beginning to ascribe politicized reasons for such rises, such as bail reform and racial justice protests responding to George Floyd’s killing.

According to Hechinger, ‘fearmongering’ articles highlighting the rise in murder rates and blame bail policies can powerfully and dangerously affect policy-making.

Hechinger uses the media coverage surrounding the 2019 New York bail reforms to exhibit how media can shape legal policy.

“Police and prosecutors immediately started cherry-picking and weaponizing —and the media started publishing—sensational cases and short-term statistics that drove the untrue narrative that releasing people before trial fueled a rise in crime. That fearmongering worked. Bail reform was rolled back in 2020—mere weeks after it was enacted,” Hechinger said.

Vera stands in agreement with Hechinger, arguing that those against bail reform policies “have been hard at work wrongly warning that bail reform endangers public safety…fearmongering should have no role in driving policy.”

Hechinger predicts the current journalism surrounding the FBI’s 2020 statistics will create similar policy responses, using the attempts to recall progressive-leaning prosecutors in both California and Illinois as examples.


About The Author

Angelina is a junior at UCSB from San Carlos, California studying Psychological and Brain Sciences and History pursuing a pre-law track.

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2 thoughts on “Public Defender Warns ‘Fearmongering’ Journalism Threatens Progressive Criminal Justice Reform”

  1. Alan Miller

    Scott Hechinger argues prioritized sensationalism instead of offering the true nuanced nature . . .

    Scott Hechinger again!?!  [See “Police, Other Data Show There May Be More to Shopliftings, Walgreens’ Exodus in San Francisco”, also today].  OK, I’m seeing a pattern here.  This SH guy spins crime statistics to make them not appear as bad so that progressive reforms won’t be hurt by the crime statistics.  But then he uses super-progressive woke buzzwords that only those sorts of people would not laugh at, thus alienating all from his audience except those who already believe his rhetoric, thus showing he’s not in it to change hearts and minds of the influencable, but for self-aggrandizement amongst his own kind.  Do I pretty much got that right?  Or should I say . . . far left?  Or . . . far out there!

  2. PhillipColeman

    I can’t get myself to believe that there are–just possibly–folks who may be using fear-mongering journalism techniques to promote their personal agenda somewhere in the criminal justice system.

    Who would do such a dastardly deed? Shocking, but never fear.

    We in the greater Davis community are all pure of body, mind, and soul and would never resort to such shameful disgusting tactics. Character assassinations, spreading of baseless rumors with no attribution, cooking and altering statistical data, use of inference and innuendo to further a personal retaliation agenda, will never happen here.

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