By Destiny Gurrola
ST PETERSBURG, FL – Journalists across the United States are trying to change their approach in covering crime from “If it bleeds, it leads” to reporting that is more explanatory and accountable, according to Kelly McBride, senior vice president and chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at The Poynter Institute.
McBride, NPR’s Public Editor who also guides, with Poynter, professional news organizations in the best practices for serving citizens, building trust and elevating democracy, said policies designed to encourage reporting on public safety trends are being implemented in newsrooms.
This, said McBride, is to discourage common journalism trends, “that can amplify false stereotypes, like rampant use of police mugshots, or relying on police press releases as the sole source of information for stories.”
“While this movement is still nascent, progress is visible,” she adds, and notes that news organizations first got rid of their mugshot galleries…“that move was underway in 2020, but accelerated after the public protests following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer,” adding many newsrooms adopted a higher threshold for overall running mugshots.
“Local newspapers continue to shrink as they struggle to find sustainable economic models. For-profit digital competitors like Axios moved into many markets. Local public radio news capacity expanded, and nonprofit startups also proliferated,” said McBride in Poynter.
She writes a similar set of threats is experienced by local TV news, although they continue to attract viewers. Consumers are favoring streaming and mobile apps for weather and traffic updates while leaving cable TV.
Newsrooms want to distinguish themselves from their competitors by defining relationships with their audiences, suggests McBride, adding, “Every newsroom declares it wants to be the “trusted source” of news for the community. “Many are rethinking their crime coverage, recognizing that the communities most affected by crime often feel revictimized by the media.”
“This is where newsrooms with strong leadership separate themselves from the pack. Going beyond those mostly cosmetic reforms is much harder for news companies because it requires the entire staff to rethink how it defines breaking news,” said McBride.
McBride states, “I know because I’ve coached more than 50 newsrooms through two pilot projects on transforming crime coverage here at Poynter. These companies have come to see that most crime stories are the junk food of the daily news budget. Nobody wants to run them, but breaking the habit is incredibly difficult.”
McBride states, “When I ask this question many journalists think I’m joking. I’m a former crime reporter. I get it. The marriage of the sensational crime story and the daily news report was cemented so long ago, it’s hard to imagine it could be different.”
She adds, “When I press, most journalists arrive at the language of ‘public safety,’ meaning that journalists report on crime so that the public can ‘be safe.’ That argument falls apart quickly when I press for specific connections between news reports on specific crimes and overall public safety. Of course there are exceptions, like when a serial predator is on the loose. But most stories about instances of crime do nothing to promote public safety.”
McBride writes, “The first step is to articulate a journalistic purpose that goes beyond, ‘It’s just interesting.’ When newsrooms struggle with this step, it’s either because they have journalists on staff who have built their careers on traditional crime coverage or because the organization is addicted to the modest traffic spikes that come with crime stories, and the big peaks that come with the most sensational stories.”
McBride writes, “Establishing guidelines about which crimes should be pursued or reported on is one of the first stumbling blocks for many newsrooms. For most newsrooms that haven’t gone through this program, it’s rare to have a written policy that helps reporters decide which crime stories to cover.
“Mike Canan was the senior director of local media content at WCPO-TV in Cincinnati when he recognized that his crews were more likely to cover nonfatal shootings that were closer to the station. And they didn’t always follow up on those stories, which is particularly harmful when people are arrested but the charges are later dropped or reduced.”
“Canan, who teaches in our course, changed his newsroom’s approach. WCPO still sent crews to many shootings but only did stories when someone died, or when the shooting was in a high-profile location like a shopping mall, or when it involved a child or prominent person. WCPO also promised to follow up on every story it initially reported,” explained McBride.
She adds, “In Seattle, the journalists at KING-TV recognized the traditional approach to covering crime was flawed and stopped doing most of it before the station enrolled in the Poynter course in 2022. That was a bit of an overcorrection, news director Julie Wolfe told me. Turns out that it’s easier to just quit covering crime than it is to reform the reporting approach.”
Apparently, said McBride, Wolfe said, “We wanted to go through the program to create not just the idea of who we want to be, but the workflow and the process to make sure that it lives beyond those of us who are here now,”
Author McBride said, “KING’s policies set a high bar, discouraging stories reported only from police sources, Wolfe said. Field crews expressed concerns that they wouldn’t always be able to hit that standard. Wolfe said that after discussing it, they decided to keep the policy in place.”
Wolfe, according to McBride, said, “We are not going to lower the bar so we can easily reach it every day,” and “Some days we might fall short. … Maybe sometimes it’s day two when we fulfill the commitment.”
According to the author, KPBS in San Diego learned traditional public radio reports did not have the adequate vision of what to cover thus, making it inadequate.
“After taking the course, an internal newsroom committee drafted a set of guidelines for journalists creating stories for the shows, podcasts and the website. Digital editor Elma González Lima Brandão said during an on-air interview that the station consulted with its listeners to find out what they wanted to know,” noted McBride.
The KPBS news director Terence Shepard, according to McBride, said, “Communicating what we will and will not cover gives our audiences a clearer picture of who we are as a news organization and internally allows us to focus resources in more impactful ways.”
McBride mentions crime rates in America had been declining for 30 years, prior to the pandemic, and “That trend still holds mostly true, although many cities and states saw increases in 2020. Even so, crime rates continue to be much lower than they were in the late 1980s and early 1990s.”
She reports, “And yet, almost every year when they are polled, most Americans believe crime is getting worse. Why is this? Two reasons.”
The first reason, explains McBride, is, “the data is both slow and flawed. By the time the FBI releases its annual report, the data is almost a year old. Although there was a violent crime increase in some cities in 2020, it was already starting to fall in some places by the time the FBI stats were released in late 2021. Just over half of law enforcement agencies report their crime stats to the Justice Department. And there are no audits at all to determine if the reports are accurate.”
She continues, “Second, the amount of space the news media devotes to crime tends to stay the same whether crime is rising or falling. As a result, news consumers get the same diet of crime stories, regardless of the trends. Their conclusions, although wrong, are not unwarranted.”
“Solving this problem is not easy. This year we’ve expanded our program to include a section on data, taught by Ted Gest, a veteran reporter and the president of the association of Criminal Justice Journalists. We’ve also added a section on daily techniques for scrutinizing law enforcement agencies,” according to McBride.
Adds McBride, “Every one of the 44 newsrooms that completed the program in 2022 came up with its own custom plan, rooted in the community it serves, the resources it has and the mission of its newsroom.
“Most of the newsrooms rolled out their new policies and strategies step by step. Almost every participant said it took longer than they planned. Some newsrooms discovered specific sticking points: for instance, persuading weekend staff to change their story choices.’
“Because this work involves redefining how journalists work with police, it’s common for those relationships to become strained. That’s what happened at ABC15 in Phoenix, which already had a robust history of investigating law enforcement,” McBride notes.
The manager of investigative research there, writes McBride, said, “After our transformation, some police agencies criticized our coverage and refused to work with us even on ‘positive’ stories. Some of those rifts were mended as we explained why KNXV covers public safety differently,” and “We also learned not to focus on the few stories we didn’t get. Instead, we concentrate on providing the information that is most valuable to our entire community.”
Assembling a team to rethink the coverage of public safety would be required of newsrooms in Poynter’s transforming crime course, noting “KING-TV’s Wolfe advised newsrooms to assemble a team that includes representatives from across the newsrooms, including field crews, producers and digital staff. ”