Let’s be honest: Crime coverage is terrible.
It’s racist, classist, fear-based clickbait masking as journalism. It creates lasting harm for the communities that newsrooms are supposed to serve. And because it so rarely meets the public’s needs, it’s almost never newsworthy, despite what Grizzled Gary in his coffee-stained shirt says from his perch at the copy desk.
This should be the year where we finally abolish the crime beat. Study after study shows how the media’s overemphasis on crime makes people feel less safe than they really are and negatively shapes public policy around the criminal–legal system. And study after study shows that it’s racist and inhumane.
While crime coverage fails to serve the public, it does serve three powerful constituencies: white supremacy, law enforcement, and newsrooms — specifically a newsroom’s bottom line.
Let’s start with the police.
The media tend to prioritize their relationships with law enforcement over their connections with communities impacted by state violence, overpolicing, and generations of trauma and governmental neglect. That’s because police give journalists information quickly and cultivate relationships with reporters through ride-alongs and press conferences. Police do all of this to control the narrative, set the news agenda, and stoke public fear so that law-enforcement budgets keep going up.
Take this recent example: After a Philadelphia cop killed Walter Wallace Jr., police stopped a car driving through the resulting demonstrations. The driver, Rickia Young, was on her way to pick up her nephew and made a wrong turn. Police pulled Young from her seat, beat her, and ripped her two-year-old child from the car. The National Fraternal Order of Police later shared images online of a police officer clutching the 2-year-old, claiming that the child was wandering the streets during the “violent riots” and police were “protecting” the child.
What’s worse is that journalists still defer to police, even though they know that some cops are liars. TV news in particular routinely runs crime stories that feature law enforcement as the sole source of information. This approach runs counter to everything you learn in Journalism 101 — independently verify your facts, talk to multiple sources, and don’t take the word of powerful people at face value.
And yet the “crime beat” still exists. You can blame the ingrained “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality. You can blame commercial media’s grotesque business model, where speed is valued over context and there’s a desperate need to attract as many eyeballs as possible to make a buck. For every good police-accountability story, or story covering the root causes and generational pain of violence and harm, there are dozens more crime stories that inflict trauma and make a spectacle of violence, mental illness, poverty, substance abuse, and generational divestment.
We’ve seen some positive changes over the past few years. Many newsrooms no longer use mugshots; some are creating appeal processes for the public to have stories removed from news sites; others are creating advisory boards. Calls to reexamine the relationship between police and media have increased since the summer’s racial-justice uprisings and the hundreds of press freedom violations at the hands of law enforcement. But journalists must recognize that what they’ve recently experienced with police violence is what Black and brown communities experience on a daily basis.
These steps, while important, are the low-hanging fruit. The whole process of how the criminal–legal system is covered needs to be reexamined — from who sets the news agenda, to who determines what’s newsworthy, to whose voices are centered in coverage and which relationships are prioritized. We need beats that focus on communities impacted by systemic marginalization and keep people safe and healthy. And we need beats that help people navigate the criminal-legal system, access important social services, and better understand their rights.
Here in Philadelphia, Free Press, the Media, Inequality and Change Center, Movement Alliance Project, and many other community groups have launched the Shift the Narrative Project. We’re working with residents and journalists to build power within communities to transform whose stories are told in local media.
The sooner journalists acknowledge that the crime beat needs to go, the sooner we can acknowledge and repair past harms, reimagine how newsrooms approach their coverage of the criminal-legal and carceral systems, and move in solidarity with communities whose perspectives and experiences have been excluded from local news.