What Influence Have the News Media Had on
Crime and Justice in Minnesota?
Gary Gilson

Gary Gilson, Executive Director Emeritus of the Minnesota News Council, is a graduate of Dartmouth College and the Columbia School of Journalism, where he directed faculty in broadcast journalism for members of racial minority groups. He has worked in public television in New York and Los Angeles, and has taught at Yale, Minnesota, Macalester, St. Thomas and Colorado College.


The news media have done an inadequate job of reporting on and analyzing the justice system, including corrections policies.


As a result, the public is poorly informed and receives little help in thinking about, and exerting an influence on, this crucial piece of public business.


Because the daily news media rarely pay attention to ideas. Instead they concentrate on incident rather than condition, and in reporting on incident they focus mainly on conflict, rarely on solutions.


The idea that imprisonment should provide opportunities for rehabilitation enjoyed some popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, but justice and corrections professionals, with the support of the public, turned away from that proposition and instead embraced, at the worst, imprisonment as merely punitive or, at best, as merely warehousing.


Some fringe periodicals and broadcast documentaries have paid attention to these matters, but they have exerted scant influence.


A rise in crime rates and in public fear of crime 30 years ago solidified public opposition to what the majority came to see as “coddling criminals.” People easily forgot — if they ever knew — that it costs more per year to incarcerate a prisoner than to send a young person to a top-rated college. Society and its elected representatives seem to prefer to prosecute criminals than to prevent crime.


This ostrich-like posture has helped produce 1) neglect of basic human needs in impoverished neighborhoods and 2) generation after generation of young people of color, who disproportionately populate our corrections facilities and who have little or no reason to hope that they will ever find a better place.


Here are some ways in which the news media, among others, have failed to lead the way to improvements:


* The media’s sensationalizing of crime news has contributed to this skewed view of reality. In fact, crime rates have dropped dramatically in recent years, yet appropriations for more and more jails and prisons have risen.


* The idea that the United States supports what some critics call the profit-making prison-industrial complex has received hardly any attention in the mainstream news media.


* In the 1970s Fair Trial/Free Press Councils were organized in several states, designed to address the tension between conflicting Constitutional rights. Representatives of the courts, prosecution and defense, law enforcement and the news media met and drafted guidelines to prevent conviction before trial by either law enforcement or the news media. 


For example, the parties agreed that police and prosecutors should not release, and news outlets should not publish, so-called confessions of guilt before trial. Arresting officers and prosecutors should not announce to the press and public, before trial, “This is the man who committed the crime.” Such statements should be introduced only as evidence in a trial. Further, police and prosecutors should not provide, and news outlets should not publish, records of a defendant’s prior arrests. Pre-trial knowledge of those records could prejudice potential jurors.

What came of these agreements?

Almost as soon as they were adopted, both sides – law enforcement and news media – began to violate them. They have proved almost totally ineffective. The motivation of law enforcement – to help insure conviction – and the motivation of the news media – to compete for audience with sensational details – have overridden the noble goals of the Fair Trial/Free Press councils.


Even the New York Times, which supposedly has ethical standards among the highest in the news business, does not hesitate these days to publish stories that virtually convict a defendant before trial.


The public needs the news media to provide more reporting, more context, more analysis. Those who profit by stirring fear can easily exploit an ill informed public.


The news media can play a healing role. They may insist that they are not therapists, but they need not be. They need merely seek out and tell truths they have ignored for far too long. For example, how do people who are likely to wind up in jail and prison live in their neighborhoods from day to day? What are their hopes? Obstacles? What help can they get? Who among them has overcome deprivation, and how? Where are the stories of redemption?


During the late 1960s, when black ghettoes in major cities across the country were exploding in violence between angry residents and the police, I was a reporter exploring causes and effects of the riots in Detroit and in the Watts section of Los Angeles. White people acted terrified of poor blacks and of what came to be known as their revolution of rising expectations. Wherever I went I would approach unemployed young black men on ghetto street corners; many freely admitted to me that they regularly committed crimes, and I would ask, “What do you want from your life?”


Their answers revealed anything but revolutionary tendencies. Uncannily, most of them said essentially the same thing: “I want a job where I sit at a desk and wear a white shirt and a tie, and I want a little house with a white picket fence.”

Most people would recognize that as The American Dream.

The waste of human potential; the cost of ignoring human need; the failure to devote journalistic resources to helping all of us know the truth about where we all live and who

we all are — all of these contribute to the polarization of our society, and they help keep us from increasing our abundance and contentment.


One of the fitful innovations in the American journalism – something called Public Journalism, or Civic Journalism — established a foothold in the 1990s, when some newspapers were willing to invest money and staff to research subjects that went beyond normal newsroom agendas for newsgathering.


One aspect of this new departure was for newsrooms to solicit from the public ideas for what was worthy of coverage. This generated praise from some news people who realized that they did not know everything and that their reporting could benefit from input from non-regular sources. It also generated criticism from other news people who said that to ask the public to act as editors amounted to an abandonment of journalistic independence.


Now the argument is moot; newspapers are not spending money on such projects.


One of the most successful such projects deserves special attention, and it should be a model for continuing endeavors along these lines. It can easily be adapted to media exploration of the justice and corrections systems.


In Charlotte, N.C., the newspaper decided, upon the urging of citizens who felt disfranchised, to publish a series it called Taking Back Our Neighborhoods. The paper explored five neighborhoods, three of them black, all of which had been ignored for decades.


Reporters and editors soon learned that reporters were not welcomed or trusted in neighborhoods where none was ever seen except to cover a sensational crime. The remedy, editors decided, was to spend time in these neighborhoods and do stories about everyday life.


Some reporters balked at assignments they considered “fluff.” When one editor insisted, a reporter barked, “If you want fluff, I can do fluff,” and he went about his assignment. That editor admitted later that she, too, was skeptical about the project.


But in the end, she said, the results were spectacular: She said she learned more about the town she lived in than she had ever known. And the neighborhood residents, seeing that the newspaper was showing an interest in more than crime, began to trust reporters and to give them tips on serious stories of corruption.


That is what can happen when news organizations allocate their resources to what some call live-in journalism: the kind of reporting you can do when you invest time, money and curiosity in a community, and come away with context and understanding.


This approach holds great promise for journalism and for communities. Without it, or some form of in-depth reporting, we may be doomed to news as a commodity, the staple of which is diverting entertainment. We cannot afford to be diverted.


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