Who Do We Think We Are?   /   Spring 2021   /    Notes & Comments

The Press and the Police

When you turn to the news, what you will encounter, overwhelmingly, is crime.

Sophie Haigney

Global Daily News/zef art/Shutterstock. Inc.

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These are some things that happened, according to the “Local” section of the Kansas City Star, on July 8, 2019. As in the metro sections of many newspapers, a grim picture is splashed across a few pages—short items on homicide sandwiched between reports on national news, a feature on how the Kansas governor’s cat became a social media sensation, and sports.

I am always struck by how much and how little these stories contain, their selective factual precision, and the enduring, larger mysteries they don’t even attempt to address. We read a story about an unknown man—unknown, anyway, to the reporter and the reader—shot by another man, unknown even to the police, but we know that he was driving a white Chevrolet, possibly a Malibu, at 5:10 a.m. near a specific intersection. These minor descriptive details also imply that the reporter has a certain level of authority: Surely she was near the scene just after the shooting took place, ducking under the crime-scene tape and interviewing the victim about the color of the suspect’s car.

But throughout such crime stories are phrases that are their own kind of clues to how the reporting was done, or rather not done: Police said, police say, according to police, the driver told police, police also noted, police said in a news release.

“If it bleeds, it leads,” is the saying in the newspaper world. This has a quaint ring to it, perhaps because the idea of “the newspaper world” has already been shaded by its own demise. As that world declines, it is easy to romanticize. But the press remains, for most of us, our source for information about the outside world. Even if you no longer wake up to the local paper on the doorstep, its online version, or the television, or the radio will likely be what you turn to if you hear what sounds like gunshots, if rumors of a murder are circulating on social media, if there is an impending storm. And when you turn to the news, what you will encounter, overwhelmingly, is crime.

Studies on the overall prevalence of crime news are mostly out of date. In 1997, a study called “Local TV News: Getting Away with Murder” compared 100 local news television shows from fifty-six different cities; the researchers found that crime was the most prominently featured news topic in local television news, accounting for roughly one-third of the time devoted to news. In some cities, it was found, as much as 75 percent of news was devoted to crime—an absurd figure, particularly given that in the 1990s the rate of violent crime in the United States began falling, in what has become known as the “Great Crime Decline,” a trend that persisted into the 2010s. A 2009 paper titled “Race, Gender, and the Newsworthiness of Homicide Incidents” showed that studies conducted in the 1990s and early 2000s found that between 10 and 50 percent of news stories across different media were devoted to crime.

At the same time, many homicides in high-crime cities aren’t covered at all. In a 2012 analysis of the Baltimore Sun coverage of local murders, Jaclyn Schildkraut and Amy M. Donley found that nearly one-third of all murders in Baltimore went totally unmentioned in the newspaper that year. This research supports an earlier hypothesis advanced by criminal justice scholar Steven M. Chermak that the news organizations most frequently cover crimes that “deviate most from what is statistically normal.”

Crime is thus both ubiquitous and unusual. Though the rate of violent crime has been declining for years, most Americans surveyed in 2019 thought it was rising—a belief US residents have expressed for decades. We might blame the previous president for spreading ideas about “American carnage,” but we can also blame the press, which reports on violence so extensively that we feel we are living in a constant state of catastrophe. (Research on this effect isn’t entirely conclusive: A 2018 paper, titled “Media Consumption and Crime Trend Perceptions: A Longitudinal Analysis,” argued that the effect of the media on public perception of crime has been overstated.) But there is another way in which the prevalence of crime news can affect society. Sociologist Jack Katz examined roughly four years of crime stories in New York and Los Angeles between 1974 and 1978, coding them according to different archetypes that made them newsworthy. Katz found that crime news, by emphasizing abnormality, can serve as a kind of ritual reaffirmation of societal norms.

This theory helps us make sense of why newspapers cover the most abnormal crimes most aggressively, rather than try to paint a more accurate portrait of a world that is essentially safer and more law-abiding, and far less spectacular in its transgressions. The newspaper is interested in, and its readers want, the aberrations as a contrast to the ordinary—precisely to affirm the ordinary. Katz wrote, “The reading of crime news appears to serve a purpose similar to the morning shower, routine physical exercise, and shaving…: the ritual, non-rational value of experience that is, to a degree, shocking, uncomfortable, and self-destructive, and that is voluntarily taken up by adults in acknowledgment of their personal burden for sustaining faith in an ordered social world.” Such an ordered world is ordered in large part by the police.

I was a daily crime reporter at a local newspaper for a short time—and not a good one. Part of that was personal failing. I didn’t have the drive that compels the best reporters to knock on the front door of the victim’s mother’s house the day after her son was killed and introduce themselves. But the problem was also structural, I think, inherent in the way the job is done and particularly how it is done now, when newspapers have fewer and fewer resources but are tasked with being ever more responsive to every single event. I routinely wrote three or more stories a day from a desk, though to call some of them stories would be overstating it. I received information through various channels—the police scanner, other news outlets, Twitter most of all—and then I made a lot of calls. Most of these calls went to various offices and officials of law enforcement: highway patrol, sheriffs’ offices, police spokespeople, the district attorney’s office. When they gave me more information—the name of a suspect, for instance, or the address where something had taken place—I then made more calls. But these calls were rarely answered.

Sometimes I take a random look at the stories I wrote. They are grim. Here is one in its entirety, from the San Francisco Chronicle in 2018, published online under a stock photo of yellow tape that reads “Crime Scene”:

A man was shot and killed early Friday morning in Oakland, police said. Oakland police received a call at 6:15 a.m. about a male shot at MacArthur Boulevard and Parker Avenue, and officers located an adult man who was suffering from a gunshot wound, said Officer Felicia Aisthorpe, a police spokeswoman. The victim was pronounced dead on the scene, Aisthorpe said. No arrests have been made and no suspects have been identified.

This is less than a hundred words, and it is a record, basically, of how little I knew about something that had occurred. Everything about this incident was dictated by the police, likely in an e-mail blast to reporters, which I followed up with a call to the spokesperson on duty. There were questions I used to ask to try to get a little more, some detail that might unlock something or at least allow me to paint a fuller picture of a scene I hadn’t visited: Do you know what kind of car the person was driving? Were there bullet shells left at the scene? Was the victim taken to the hospital? Sometimes, if something big had happened, I would call the hospital only to be told that it wasn’t allowed to give out information.

You could argue that the value of this story was that it was simply a record of something that happened, preserved abstractly online for history. But there is not enough there for it to be a record of something meaningful, although what happened—the loss of a man’s life—was significant. There are good arguments for why the loss of life is “newsworthy.” But covered this way, it is a failed exercise. This story simply documents what the police chose to tell me.

Like the image of the reporter ducking under crime-scene tape in hot pursuit of a story, the scene in which the journalist and the cop exchange information in a dark bar happens mainly in movies. Usually, there is an air of corruption about this interaction, the sense that the cop may be revealing more than he ought to, and that, in exchange for access and information, the journalist might be ceding too much, implicitly or explicitly agreeing to paint a portrait of events favorable to the police. There are undoubtedly journalists like this. But I would venture to guess that this brand of corruption is uncommon. There is something more pernicious and subtle at work in the relationship between the police and the press, and it’s also very simple: The source for any story about crime, any major event, is almost always the police. They are given near-total authority.

Take, for example, the phrase “officer-involved shooting,” which was invented by the police and then spread through the media in the 1970s. It’s an awkward and nonsensical construction that obscures what happened: A police officer shot a civilian. “Officer-involved shooting” elides responsibility and raises basic questions: In what capacity was the officer involved? Who fired the gun?

Phrases like this—ones that make no sense by any standard of clarity—are used because reporters are afraid of being wrong, and their only source is the police, who have said that an “officer-involved shooting” has happened. We do not immediately have all the information—only the police do, and we have become accustomed to printing their words, even in situations in which they are reporting on themselves. Even if reporters are moving away from that particular phrase, they have been complicit in the normalization of police killings of mostly black citizens in the streets by failing to clearly describe what happened.

This is not how the American media thinks about itself. It is also contrary to how many Americans think about the press, which sometimes gets classified as part of “the resistance,” particularly during the Trump era, when news organizations regularly exposed scandals and corruption within the administration. The branding of our newspapers as being all about “accountability,” about “speaking truth to power,” about “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted” is well established. But the American press is on the whole responsive rather than proactive. Coverage decisions often seem as random as anything else—“Get over to the scene, something’s happening”—although in their randomness these decisions are inflected with biases. These biases are of the newsrooms themselves, which are disproportionately white and male. They also reflect the broader bias about what constitutes news—that it is always “something happening.”

Is there a way out of this? Probably not, or at least not within the media ecosystem that exists now. There is the doggedness of individual reporters who work hard to get information from other sources, but this is not nearly enough. A redefinition of news is needed. Think of this in terms of the difference between the climate and the weather. Environmental reporters can hardly avoid pointing to systemic problems like the energy lobby and the changing climate. Meanwhile, the people who report on the daily weather—a task I used to relish because it got me out of writing about crime—are simply writing stories about the sky, what it might look like today and tomorrow. Crime reporters, by the nature of their job, are more like weather reporters. They relate the events that have occurred, as told to them by the police, without scrutinizing the systems.

I have focused on the print newspaper, even if it no longer dominates the news media, because it still tells us the most about the news media’s priorities: what gets space and what doesn’t. If we were inside a newsroom, we would be having a similar conversation about Internet traffic: What is driving clicks to the page, what is feeding ad revenues? Does crime do that? In my experience, it often does. But readers care about many things—a viral road rage video, the latest coronavirus headline, the Kansas governor’s cat—and all news is now competing for the same attention. The most outrageous and sensational stories have always been popular with readers, but perhaps never more so than they are now in our attention economy when struggling news organizations depend on that first click like a lifeline.

The story of the drug-fueled murder gone wrong will get told. There will be the reports on the murder-suicide at the hotel. There will be a flurry of reports on rising rates of property crime, on broken car windows all over the city, as though this news is more significant, than, say, the deaths of people without health insurance. There will be stories that are obscured because they are not the kind of discrete ruptures in social fabric that readers are accustomed to, and there will be the ones that are told because they fit those patterns like fingers slipping into a glove. And throughout these daily crime stories, we will continue to see these words, repeated like a mantra: Police said, police said, police said.