Nieman Lab’s “Predictions for Journalism 2021,” asks a pretty provocative question: Is it time to defund the crime beat?
The authors reach some conclusions that are bound to hurt dedicated, hard-working crime-beat reporters and their editors:
“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.”
There is no doubt that this past summer’s police response to public protest has moved the narrative for many. For the first time, many white middle-class people felt the brunt of the hyper-militarized police response — as did many journalists who came away bruised, beaten, and arrested for doing their job.
Hard as it is to grasp, cops aren’t always the good guys. Cops don’t always tell the truth. Cops sometimes commit crimes. Cops are human. They are like doctors — much less than gods. Though we expect and demand more.
The cop beat has never been easy. Cops are suspicious of news reporters. Reporters need to “earn” their trust. Editors are demanding more and more and quicker stories to feed the beast. Who has time to seek out perspective, context, or the other side of the story?
Just the facts, ma’am. And those are often lifted straight from the police reports which — if you burn a cop — you’ll never get to see again. Let’s face it, access is the coin of the realm, be it the cops, the military, politics, real estate, or sports beats.
Honest newspapers might acknowledge their internalized fear that low-income coverage will drive away high-income advertising. In San Diego, for example, has anyone ever explored the data on the number of La Jolla stories versus the number from Southeast, and the nature of those stories?
This is not an “all cops are evil” debate. They are not. The essay is asking — more like demanding — that journalists recognize that there is a whole other side to every story that comes out of the station house.
Just as “defund the cops” is a cry meant to bring attention to a problem (and not necessarily a literal demand), I think “defund the crime beat” may serve the same purpose.
The solutions in the essay seem like baby steps: “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.”
Philadelphia’s “Shift the Narrative” project is tackling the “if it bleeds, it leads” problem in creative ways. Read more here. It is building on the work of several other independent groups looking at media reporting on crime, gun violence, neighborhood impacts, and alternative narratives to the cop shop.
Newspapers are always looking for new and better ways to do their jobs. God knows, I sat through enough human resources and marketing-driven cold-coffee community focus groups — as I’m sure many of you did, too. Maybe it is time the impetus for change needs to come from outside the institution, as it is in Philadelphia.
Wouldn’t it be cool if MacKenzie Scott (currently giving away her billions to many great causes and needy schools) funded a newspaper that did away with all the old newspaper tropes and set out to redefine “news.”
It might even give her ex’s newspaper, The Washington Post, something to think about. And some serious competition.
I’d buy that newspaper in a heartbeat.
P.S. Nieman Lab asked a lot of people what they see in 2021 for the newspaper industry. Here is what they had to say.