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Crappy criminal-justice reporting demonstrates journalism flaws exploited on national stage

Crappy criminal-justice reporting demonstrates journalism flaws exploited on national stage

“A lie ain’t a side of a story. It’s just a lie.”

Terry Hanning, The Wire

Since the presidential election, the national press has been struggling with the question of what to do when a politician is willing to tell outright lies and make assertions completely contrary to all available evidence. But the truth is, this was a problem long before Donald Trump threw his hat in the presidential ring. And the problem is perhaps worst in local coverage of criminal-justice topics.

Take, for example, this missive from the Bryan-College Station Eagle,  informing us that "the Brazos County Commissioners Court voted this week to approve hiring an additional state prosecutor to study how an extra attorney could help push cases through the criminal justice system."  The justification for the extra expense?

As the population of Brazos County continues to increase, law enforcement will have to continue to respond to an increase in local crime. Space will be set aside in the Brazos County Courthouse after renovations are complete for a fourth district court, to be used when needed. But [District Attorney Jarvis] Parsons said it's important not to go too big, too fast. Hiring more prosecutors could be an intermediary step, he said, one that leaves a much lighter financial footprint. 

"With an increase in populations comes an increase in crime," he said. "The last thing you want is be understaffed to deal with the massive amounts of people who have moved to this area and are going to move to this area."

Here's the problem with that analysis: Crime in Brazos County has gone down, not up, as the population increased. See crime stats for Brazos County for the last decade or so. Not only are rates (crimes per capita) down but also raw numbers for most crimes, and certainly the high-volume ones which occupy prosecutors' workaday duties. Brazos saw 549 burglaries in 2014 compared to a recent high of 1,207 in 2005. Thefts in 2014 were at 1,865, down from a high of 3,140 in 2004. There were 207 assaults in Bryan in 2014 compared to 550 in 2004.

So it's just false for Brazos County officials to pretend that a) crime is rising or b) that the amount of crime inherently rises with population. Neither are true. But the DA can make those claims confident that the reporter will merely quote what was said and not fact check it or hold him accountable.

This example helps explain why Americans believe crime is increasing when really it's falling. Reporters all over the country repeat this pattern every single day, quoting tuff-on-crime government voices from local police departments and DA's offices without fact checking their statements or seeking out contrary views. Local TV news, in particular, is rife with examples, but as with the Eagle reporter, print media are culpable, too.

This deferential methodology is precisely the flaw in American reporting that Donald Trump exploited to lie his way into the presidency. He'd make some ridiculous claim that 30 seconds of fact checking on Google would have refuted. But instead of evaluating the lie and either calling it out or declining to report it, reporters would avidly promote false statements as valid discourse. At most, they'd seek to "balance" lies with "the other side," almost always represented by a partisan voice whose motives could be discounted.

But a lie isn't "the other side" of the truth, it's just a lie. And reporters have become too habituated to letting them slide, allowing the he-said, she-said journalistic form to mask self-interested agendas. That defect in American journalism was made more glaring during the presidential election, but it by no means originated during this election cycle.

For an alternative approach, see here.

This article was orginally published at on December 1, 2016. It is published here with permission.



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