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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Author: Natalie Yahr

A high stakes beat: tips for balanced and informed crime coverage

Photo of small blue house perched on edge of a cement dock.

Photo by Cindy Tang on Unsplash

1. Get trained.

Crime and courts coverage is often assigned to early-career reporters, but rookie and veteran reporters alike need specific training to tackle the complexities of these beats. 

“Most of the new reporters — and I would count myself when I started out — they don’t know anything unless they took some course in college or (have) family members in the criminal justice system working in it,” says Ted Gest, the Washington bureau chief for The Crime Report and president of Criminal Justice Journalists, the nation’s only association of criminal justice reporters.

Gest recommends reporters new to these beats dedicate several hours of their first weeks or months on job to informational meetings that aren’t about any particular story. Investing the time to sit down with police, parole officers, judges, prosecuting and defense attorneys, victims’ rights advocates and criminologists can help the reporter learn more about how the system works, enabling them to provide more context to readers or recognize new stories. 

“I think a lot of reporters probably are reluctant to do that,” Gest acknowledges. “Either they think they can just learn as they go along or they don’t have time or whatever.” But he argues that it would be worth the time they put in. 

Keri Blakinger, a reporter for the nonprofit criminal justice news outlet the Marshall Project, agrees. “The greater a reporter’s working knowledge of the broader criminal justice issues, the easier it is to … at least be cognizant of what questions you should be asking yourself,” Blakinger says. “There’s really no substitute for that. You have to do your homework.”

Other sources of information include the Criminal Justice Journalists association; fellowships from the Center for Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College; Crime and Justice News, the newsletter Ted Gest writes each weekday for The Crime Report; the Crime & Justice Research Alliance’s database of experts and research; the Justice Research and Statistics Association’s state-specific data analyses; and research from organizations such as the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, the Vera Institute of Justice, the Brennan Center and various research centers.

Still, says Gary Fields, who spent more than two decades covering crime and criminal justice for the Washington Post and USA Today, there’s no substitute for the guidance that an experienced editor can provide. “I’m not averse to having somebody relatively new get on the beat because it’s a fantastic way to actually become a better reporter, but you make sure that the people that are with them and overseeing them are really good,” Fields says. He adds that editors should assign the more complex stories — such as unexplained jailhouse deaths — to more experienced reporters or to teams combining experienced and rookie reporters. “If you’re not going to guide them, then I’ve got a problem with it,” Fields says.

2. Dive deep.

Pamela Colloff, who built her career reporting on character-driven narratives about the criminal justice system, notes that some crime and courts topics demand a deeper sort of training. She recalls covering cases where bloodstain pattern analysis — an unproven tool — was used to convict a person, but even on her longer magazine deadlines, she didn’t have the time or resources to explain to readers why they should view that specific forensic method with skepticism.

Now a senior reporter at ProPublica and a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine, Colloff recently found herself reporting on bloodstain pattern analysis again, this time with the goal of explaining how the questionable “science” has led to questionable convictions. In one case she was writing about, the expert who testified about the bloodstains had received 40 hours of training — which Colloff describes as “laughably small for something where someone’s life hinges upon it” — so Colloff decided to take the same course. “I wasn’t a police officer for 20 some odd years like he was … but I had the same training in bloodstain pattern analysis that he did, and that allowed me to look at this case in an entirely new way.”

3. Question everyone.

Without sufficient training, Gest says, reporters find themselves relying exclusively on police or district attorneys’ explanations. “They tend to learn everything from the vantage point of the police,” Gest says. That in turn shapes their stories. “I’m hesitant to give a percentage, but a large percent of stories you see are told totally, 100 percent from the police viewpoint.” 

When reporting breaking crime news, reporters may need to rely heavily on police accounts and should attribute that information. But Fields says reporters should be careful about how they use the information law enforcement provides, always asking themselves why law enforcement provided that information and what they stand to gain from sharing it. 

Reporters should be especially careful if charges have not yet been filed, Fields says. Police could be using the media to apply pressure to a suspect, and reporters may face lawsuits or credibility crises if they publish false allegations. He recalls the man who was identified in the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta but was never arrested or charged. “The first question you should have asked is, ‘So why are you guys giving me his name if you don’t have enough to actually charge? What’s in it for you? How are you trying to use me?’” Fields says. 

Fields prefers to rely on the “vetted” information that authorities publicly share on their own social media accounts. He’ll also contact the prosecutor, ATF, FBI or emergency services. Publishing additional information that law enforcement might dangle could mean beating the competition, but he says he’d rather be right than first.

4. Seek balance.

Once a suspect has been charged, the story shifts from crime reporting to courts reporting, where the importance of balance continues.

“This is very difficult reporting to do,” says Carroll Bogert, president of the Marshall Project. “Criminal justice inevitably involves people with at least two conflicting views of what happened. Think about a courtroom: One side is arguing that this happened. The other side is arguing that happened. So who’s right?”

She recommends reporters hold a “fundamental skepticism” about any press conference held by police or prosecutors. “Ask yourself, ‘Is the defense in this picture? What is the defense saying? Why aren’t they in this picture?’” Bogert advises.

But balanced courts reporting is easier said than done, Blakinger says. “You can talk to the defense and talk to the prosecution and just get such a different framings of the same thing. It can be really hard to figure out how to … present things in a way that is both fair and as close to truthful as you’re able to tell.” 

And, she says, “sometimes one side is not being straight with you,” which poses an added dilemma. “Though it’s your responsibility to give space to both sides, it’s not your responsibility to make someone who’s lying look as credible as someone who’s not,” Blakinger says.

5. Diversify your sources. 

Defense attorneys aren’t the only ones left out of crime and courts reporting: Gest notes that many other types of people employed in the criminal justice system are seldom cited. “The police chief is not necessarily the only expert on this,” Gest says, adding that including sources such as judges, drug treatment staff and probation officers could change the content of some stories.

6. Look for trends. 

There’s always room for more stories focused on trends in the criminal justice system, Gest says. Such stories can help readers make meaning out of the scattershot crime stories they see, but he acknowledges that many reporters don’t have the time or resources to uncover these stories on their own. 

To those reporters, he offers a shortcut: Look for ideas in the roughly 60 mini-stories that he distributes each week in the Crime and Justice News newsletter. Many of those stories highlight emerging trends, and reporters can explore how those trends are playing out locally. 

That said, he offers a caution to any reporter seeking to analyze trends: take the long view, looking for trends over an extended period rather than zooming in on the change from one year to the next.

7. Consider the accountability angle.

For Bogert, criminal justice stories are inherently accountability stories. “This is a huge portion of government expenditure,” Bogert says. “We’re spending billions and billions of dollars on the criminal justice system. What are we getting out of that?”

But it’s not just the fiscal side that deserves investigation. “The criminal justice system is just inextricably intertwined with issues of racism,” she says, calling for more reporting “that elucidates that pernicious and persistent connection and brings to the fore ways in which … we are systematically biased against people of color.”

8. Expose under-covered effects of the criminal justice system.

Good reporting on the criminal justice system should explore the experience of all people involved in the system — including victims, defendants, prisoners, guards and police officers — Bogert says. 

“It actually affects the lives of so many,” she says, noting that reporters should beware of oversimplifying the racial dynamics. “Lots of people who work in the criminal justice system are black, and lots of people who pass through the system are white.”

Bogert says reporters should cover the realities of criminal justice employment. “We’ve all seen the suicide and alcoholism rates, right? These are not happy professions. So I think we have to be direct in saying … the system spreads a lot of its suffering around.”

She’d like to see more reporting on the “human experience” of the various people connected to the system. There’s a reason these stories have become staples of TV and movies. “There’s an inherent drama to it. But a lot of that is kind of sloppy and categorical, like ‘Cops are good,’ or ‘Cops are bad.’ I mean, cops are neither good nor bad. They’re complicated humans,” she says, as are people who’ve been labeled as criminals.

It’s the job of reporters, Bogert says, to show this complexity in the lives of all players. “So how can reportage just help people see the humanity … where they’ve just seen categories?” Bogert asks. She cites the journalists’ directive to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. “People who are ground down by the criminal justice system are among the most afflicted in our country,” she says, noting that they often don’t feel well-served by the news media.

9. Keep reporting after the verdict. 

Blakinger, who spent 21 months behind bars following a 2010 drug arrest, points to her own incarceration as the reason she covers an aspect of criminal justice many outlets ignore: prison conditions. A combination of public records requests and conversations with inmates’ families, defense attorneys and legislators led her to uncovering, while reporting for the Houston Chronicle, how Texas inmates are being denied dentures and new efforts to address the shortage with 3D-printing. 

Too often, she says, outlets focus on how people end up in prison but ignore what happens to them once they’re there. “That is one place that I consistently see that a lot of outlets sort of draw the line there, or are not interested,” Blakinger says.

There are logistical reasons for that, she says. Prisoners are locked out of view, so “it’s very difficult to write about what goes on in a prison until it comes up in a lawsuit.” But she thinks it’s in part about editorial choices. “This can be a hard sell to editors,” Blakinger says. “I think a lot of editors don’t believe that readers are going to care about like ‘Are prisoners getting dentures? Are prisoners baking to death in 100 degree heat?’”

Blakinger notes another reason editors don’t prioritize prison coverage: “In a lot of states, it’s never a local issue to anyone,” as inmates are often sent to prisons outside of their own communities. The outlet covering the area that the prisoners are from may not prioritize covering a non-local prison, and the outlet covering the small town where the prison is located — if such an outlet exists — may not prioritize covering the conditions the non-locals confined there face.

10. Help your audience understand how the system works — or doesn’t. 

The legal system is complex, and many readers have learned about it primarily through TV and movies. Reporters can aid their readers by explaining lesser-known or commonly-misunderstood aspects of the legal system, such as specific types of forensic science. This sort of reporting is Colloff’s speciality, weaving together a single dramatic case with explanation of the practice in question. Her recent reporting has explored the ways that bloodstain pattern analysis and testimony by criminal informants might be unreliable evidence for convictions.

But Colloff isn’t the only journalist taking this approach. Colloff herself admires the way the  podcast “In the Dark” weaves key context within a compelling narrative. In Season Two, producer Madeleine Baran recounts the story of Curtis Flowers, who has been tried six times for the same crime. Throughout the story, she critically examines each step in the case, including inviting an expert to explain why the bullet comparison process used to match Flowers’ gun to bullets found at the scene of the quadruple homicide should raise doubts. 

With this approach, reporters can harness the interest-factor of a single case to educate the public about issues that extend far beyond an individual case, such as the prevalence of false confessions or the striking of black jurors.

11. Weigh what not to do.

Ethical crime and courts reporting is also about what an outlet doesn’t do. Reporters must choose which coverage will best use the limited time and resources available, and more time spent covering low-level crime may mean less time available to reveal trends. 

And Blakinger argues that more crime coverage isn’t always better. “One of the dangers of crime reporting is if you deeply report on every crime, there’s some concern that maybe that stokes fear of a crime wave or of crime increasing when it’s not,” Blakinger says, which can in turn lead to expensive or problematic policies.

And, of course, that coverage has negative repercussions for the person who’s been charged, which should be weighed against the news value of the story. Blakinger would like to see newsrooms having more conversations considering under what circumstances they’ll cover low-level crime or show mugshots, so that individual reporters don’t have to make these choices on their own

Meanwhile, Fields believes that any journalist who names someone in an arrest is responsible for tracking the story and reporting on its resolution, since an unfinished story could lead to stigma or employment consequences for the person named. “I feel like you owe them that much,” he says.

 

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

When coverage is what they want: covering mass shootings without perpetuating them

As news of yet another school shooting — this one in Santa Clarita, California — broke in mid-November, one key piece of information was decidedly absent from the headlines and initial internet search results: the name of the perpetrator. 

Though police had identified the gunman, many major outlets gave his name and description low billing in their reporting. It’s part of a reporting shift over the past few years that goes well beyond decisions about using names or images. In response to research suggesting that extensive coverage of these assailants may encourage others to follow suit, many outlets have chosen to devote less coverage to perpetrators and more to victims and to the laws and policies that have not prevented these tragedies.

Are the killings contagious?

Long before Julie Turkewitz knew she’d become a New York Times National Desk reporter — and long before she knew she’d cover more mass shootings than she can count — Turkewitz was a 13-year-old watching coverage of one of the nation’s earliest mass shootings: Columbine. She’s never forgotten what she saw. 

“That was really the beginning of streaming news, 24-hour news,” she said of the 1999 tragedy. “Some of the images that I saw on TV …  are seared in my brain still.”

Coverage of the nation’s early mass shootings focused heavily on perpetrators, a fact that has not escaped later perpetrators seeking such attention. So many people have admired the Columbine attackers that the phenomenon has a name — “the Columbine effect” — and admirers have a name too: “Columbiners.” 

And it’s not just Columbine that inspires new attacks. The gunman who killed himself and nine others at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, in 2015 expressed in an online manifesto his allegiance with the Isla Vista gunman. It was the first mass shooting that Turkewitz would cover. 

And the teenage gunman who killed 17 at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in 2017 said in a cell phone video, “I’m going to be the next school shooter of 2018 … It’s going to be a big event. When you see me on the news you’ll all know who I am.” 

Researchers are working to determine whether mass shootings are essentially contagious, and the results are not yet clear. A 2015 study found that the likelihood of a mass shooting event was greater within two weeks of another mass shooting, but a 2017 study found no such link. Still, the authors of the 2017 study noted, “if outsized media coverage of mass killings is indeed increasing the frequency and lethality of subsequent attacks, the priority should be on altering coverage of these incidents so that no additional harm is done.” 

“They’re seeking notoriety”

Caren Teves needs no convincing that the contagion effect is real. When her son Alex and 11 others were killed in 2012 in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, the coverage was perpetrator-focused as it had been 13 years before. “If coverage had changed immediately following Columbine,” Teves said, “I do believe my son would still be alive — and thousands of others.”

Since 2012, Teves and her husband, Tom, have made it their mission to convince media outlets to minimize their use of assailants’ names and photographs and thereby avoid glorifying assailants and their crimes. Their organization, No Notoriety, calls on news outlets to follow six guidelines, including naming perpetrators only once per story, not adding color to descriptions of perpetrators and not publishing perpetrators’ “self-serving” statements, photos or manifestos.

“The perpetrators are telling us themselves,” Teves said. “They’re seeking notoriety. So if we can eliminate notoriety, hopefully we can really cut down on rampage, mass shootings.”

The fact that journalists have already changed their practices to reduce the risk of suicide is proof that they can change their practices on this issue too, Teves said. “We’re not asking to reinvent anything. We’re just asking journalists to use the practices that are already in place.” In 2017, suicide-awareness group SAVE published recommendations designed to help reporters do just that.

Coverage shifts

While few outlets have publicly pledged to follow all of the No Notoriety guidelines, there’s no question that many outlets have changed their approach.

In a June Poynter article titled, “Not naming mass shooters (much) is now the norm,” Kelly McBride, chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at The Poynter Institute, wrote, “For an industry that is often criticized for being slow to change, this development is remarkable.”

Al Tompkins, senior faculty for Broadcasting and Online for the Poynter Institute, has long made clear that he doesn’t believe outlets should stop naming perpetrators altogether. “There’s a difference between reporting and glorifying,” he said, differentiating between the nicknames news outlets gave criminals a century ago. 

In fact, Tompkins said, reporting on the assailant’s behavior can provide an important service. “Virtually every mass shooter in the last 20 years has left behind a substantial trail of evidence that somebody could have stopped it,” Tompkins said. “You’ll never know everything we should and could know about the shooters — about what motivates them, who they are and so on — unless we take time to figure out who they are.”

But, given the possible risks, Tompkins said, minimizing the use of an assailant’s name and photo may be appropriate. (He offers his own recommendations here.)

The New York Times has no policy against naming the perpetrators of mass shootings, but Deputy National Desk Editor Julie Bloom said the outlet has taken steps to avoid feeding into the violence. It’s not rules but “more just a …  sense of this is how to responsibly handle it.”

“I think we’re very careful,” Bloom said, noting that the Times makes deliberate choices about how often to name perpetrators and often avoid using their names in display copy. “We don’t want to be a platform …  for giving attention to gunmen or attackers.”

Reporter Julie Turkewitz said this also means making choices about how to portray the gunman. Descriptions of an assailant’s outfit — for example, whether he wore white supremacist symbols or body armor — can become problematic, as they “sort of turn them into an image of an action figure,” whose image other perpetrators ritualize and copy. “That’s why it’s important to hit pause and say, ‘Is this description of their outfit adding something to the greater knowledge and reporting here?’” Turkewitz said.

Instead of just describing their outfits, Turkewitz said, reporters should ask deeper questions: “Where did they get that body armor, and why did nobody raise a flag? … If a perpetrator was wearing something with white supremacist symbols on it, what role did the political climate and white supremacy generally play?”

Meanwhile, many outlets have shifted coverage from assailants to the victims, survivors and their families, whose emotional and physical wounds will last lifetimes. Teves has noticed the shift. “When my son Alex was killed, if you think about the front page of the newspaper, all you saw was that red-haired individual,” Teves said. “If you look at the most recent shootings, if you look at the front page of the newspaper, what do you see? You see photos of the victims. So we know it’s changing.”

Growing frequency, technology prompt new approaches

Turkewitz attributes these new practices to the growing frequency of mass shootings. “It was hard to have that conversation … even in 2015 because these things didn’t seem to be happening quite as frequently,“ Turekwitz said. “As they have happened more and more, I think that there has been more of a reckoning and more of a thought to what is our involvement.”

But responsible reporting gets tougher as reporters are expected to report faster than ever, Turkewitz said, pointing to the 2015 San Bernardino shooting — which quickly became a talking point in the presidential campaigns — as the start of accelerated expectations. 

Digital environments have also raised new ethical challenges for this reporting, Bloom said. Each outlet wants to appear at the top of the search results when someone Googles “El Paso attack,” for example, “but we also want to be careful that we’re not helping boost, say, the name of a gunman.” 

Outlets could soon have a new set of principles to guide their reporting on these events. In an August Columbia Journalism Review article, Miles Kohrman, special projects editor at The Trace, and Katharine Reed, professor of practice at the Missouri School of Journalism, invited newsrooms to work with them as they draft guidelines on covering mass shootings. “Our work should not contribute to the country’s accelerating scourge of mass killings, driven by young men with firearms seeking fame and recognition,” the authors wrote.

But just making more ethical reporting choices isn’t enough, said Joy Mayer, an engagement strategist and director of Trusting News. Newsrooms also need to explain their choices to their audiences, as the Viriginian Pilot — a participant in the Trusting News project — did when it chose to name the man who killed 12 in Virginia Beach in May. 

“The efforts of journalists to make thoughtful, respectful, consistent decisions are invisible to their audiences unless they shine a light on them,” Mayer said in an email. “The importance of transparency increases when the stakes are high. We simply must find ways to explain that we aim to be a public service, and we need to walk them through our decision-making.”

Not just about names — or even mass shootings

But ethical reporting on gun violence goes beyond decisions about naming or describing perpetrators. “This is the most low-hanging of all fruit,” Tompkins said, arguing that stopping shootings would require changing access to guns and ammunition. “But people don’t want to do that. What they want to do is say, ‘Oh, you know, if you just stop mentioning the shooter’s name, that’ll do it.’ No, it won’t … It’s just too simple. And all the easy stuff’s already been done.”

But writing stories about the laws and policies that have allowed these tragedies to occur comes with its own challenges. “We don’t know what policy failed if we don’t know what happened,” Turkewitz said. “We’ve got to understand the who, what, why, where and when, before we can step back and have the bigger conversation … I do think that’s why it’s kind of important to explore both wings.” 

For The Trace, a nonprofit news outlet exclusively covering gun violence and gun policy, policy issues are the issues. While The Trace includes basic information about a shooting in stories about policy or victims, it doesn’t cover the events themselves as news. Many outlets want to “report out all the gory details of a particular incident and how it unfolded and what actually happened,” Kohrman said, “and I think our job is to kind of contextualize the shooting.”

In covering the Las Vegas shooting, for example, The Trace’s coverage focused on bumpstocks and “barely legal” accessories that can make legal guns more lethal. And in covering November’s Santa Clarita school shooting, The Trace asked how, in a state with some of the strictest gun laws in the country, a 16-year-old got a gun. 

Getting serious about gun violence also means looking beyond single events, Tompkins said, noting that far more people die of gun violence in general than die in mass shootings, and yet more die from suicide than homicide. “We get so focused on the smallest numbers, while the largest numbers we don’t pay attention to,” Tompkins said.

Those largest numbers are the specialty of the reporters at The Trace. “I understand why news outlets focus so much on mass shootings because they are these huge international news events,” Kohrman said, though they represent only about 3% of all gun fatalities in the U.S. each year. “The media landscape coverage is skewed towards mass shootings. And that’s … not really an accurate representation of the issue.” 

The Trace, meanwhile aims to explore “everyday gun violence … the steady drumbeat that happens every day.” 

But, Kohrman acknowledges, The Trace is able to do that work in a way most outlets can’t. He said he talks to many editors who say they’d like to do more investigative reporting on guns but don’t have the resources. That’s why The Trace partners with other outlets, he said, to combine both gun expertise and local expertise. 

“But, I mean, I think it’s something that everybody’s struggling with,” Kohrman said. “There’s no easy answer to it.”

 

CJE Fellow Natalie Yahr served as a freelance reporter for the New York Times national desk during the fall 2019 semester. Her work for the Times was independent of her reporting on this story.

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

 

Doing no harm: the call for crime reporting that does justice to the beat

 

If you ask Carroll Bogert, crime news in the U.S. is broken.

Building off renewed interest in the Central Park Five case spurred by Ava Duvernay’s Netflix series “When They See Us,” Bogert attacked criminal justice coverage in a May 2019 op-ed published by the Los Angeles Times and the Marshall Project, the nonprofit criminal justice news outlet where Bogert serves as president.

“News coverage has contributed to wrongful convictions and, more generally, to decades of draconian criminal justice policy,” she said.

The Netflix miniseries follows the arrest, conviction, prison sentences and eventual exoneration of five young men who came to be known as the Central Park Five. The series has had considerable impact, affecting key players in the case. A prosecutor who advanced a theory that the defendants formed a “wolf pack” to attack a jogger lost a lucrative publishing contract. Another gave up her position in the Columbia University Law School.

Yet media outlets that swallowed the “wolf pack” framing whole and uncritically echoed the prosecution’s story seem to have escaped largely unscathed. The New York Daily News even republished its infamous “Wolf Pack’s Prey” story in 2013, never noting its role in amplifying a false narrative.

Today, the criminal justice system is at the center of bipartisan legislation and partisan debates. It’s also increasingly a focus of media coverage, with national outlets rolling out major investigations and newer nonprofit news outlets such as The Appeal and The Marshall Project reporting exclusively on the topic.

But crime is local, and so is most of the crime reporting Americans see. Some veterans on the beat worry that local newsrooms, increasingly asked to do more with less, may inadvertently harm themselves, their communities or the institution of journalism with their coverage. To report responsibly on this high-profile and complex beat, they say, newsrooms will need new ethical standards, deep conversations, better training and more diversity in the ranks.

‘Where is the line?’

Keri Blakinger now reports for the Houston Chronicle, where she spends much of her time covering prison conditions, but some of the toughest ethical decisions she’s wrestled with as a journalist came on her first beat: breaking crime news.

It’s a common assignment for the youngest and least experienced reporters, who typically have no background in criminal justice. “I get why that happens,” Blakinger said, “but it means that the people who have to face these questions everyday don’t have the years of knowledge developed to be able to ask questions as broadly, in many cases.”

Reporters face decisions about what crimes are worth covering or whether to run a mugshot photo, Blakinger said, and in the current media environment, many will have to decide on their own.

“Maybe you have a really good editor who has a good sense of this. Maybe your editor doesn’t give a shit,” Blakinger said.

For Blakinger, these questions are personal. Having spent 21 months behind bars following a 2010 drug arrest, she remembers what it was like to see her own mugshot in the newspaper.

But in her first reporting job, she sometimes found herself writing the kind of low-level crime stories that she now feels might do more harm than good. These questions later became a source of newsroom dialogue.

“We definitely started having a lot more discussions about ‘Where is the line?’” Blakinger said, noting that what might count as a newsworthy crime at that alt-weekly in Ithaca, New York, was different than at the Houston Chronicle. “It’s a little bit of a different ballgame when one of the towns you’re covering has 5,000 people.”

Newsrooms need to talk about these things, Blakinger said, so individual reporters don’t have to make these choices on their own.

‘The equivalent of eating a giant bowl of M&Ms’

Some veteran crime journalists criticize the “If it bleeds, it leads” editorial approach, arguing that the most important stories are often not the most dramatic — or the most popular.

Janine Anderson, who spent eight years covering crime and courts for Wisconsin newspapers, quickly learned that she could churn out a high volume of stories based on the day’s criminal complaints.

“They would fill the paper, they were read well online, but they didn’t feel to me like I was actually doing anything that helped people understand what was happening in the community,” Anderson said.

For the readers, Anderson believes, “It was the equivalent of just eating a giant bowl of M&Ms. You’ve consumed a lot of individual things, but you don’t walk away from it feeling full the way you might from a larger analysis piece.”

But those bigger stories can be easy to miss, said Ted Gest, Washington bureau chief for The Crime Report and president of Criminal Justice Journalists, the nation’s only association of criminal justice reporters.

Covering local municipal courts for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the 1970s, he overlooked a big one. “I completely missed what became the Ferguson story — that the local municipal courts in that area use municipal courts as cash generators and discriminate against minorities,” Gest wrote in an email, praising recent coverage of the practice by his former paper. “I do not know if the courts then were as bad as they were at the time of the Ferguson shooting in 2014, but they may have been.”

There’s good coverage of systems and trends today, said Gest, who serves as a juror for the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Awards for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting and reads dozens of crime stories each weekday to write a crime news digest, but he’s surprised there’s not more.

“It’s a very common cliché these days among politicians to say, ‘The criminal justice system is broken.’” Gest said in an interview. “I don’t think it is, but if that’s really true, you’d think we’d be seeing lots of reporting on that.”

But reporters writing these deeper stories have to work harder to engage readers, said Pamela Colloff, who’s won awards for long-form stories on blood spatter pattern analysis and wrongful convictions. Her secret: character-driven narratives like“The Witness,” which tells the story of the death penalty through a the eyes of a woman whose job required her to observe 278 executions.

“We can write all day long about the problems in the criminal justice system, but it’s not until you get people emotionally invested in a particular person’s journey or a particular case or a particular wrongful conviction or what have you that — I believe — they’re really going to care,” Colloff said.

But those stories take time that many reporters don’t have. “I have the luxury of being able to put in the time to hopefully do things right,” Colloff said. “That doesn’t mean by any means that I always do.”

‘We should have been more skeptical’

Speaking from experience, Gest offers another critique:

“A large percent of stories you see are told totally, 100% from the police viewpoint,” Gest said. Reporters who are new on the beat or strapped for time often rely heavily on what the police tell them, but they should consult other key players like criminologists, victims’ advocates, judges, drug treatment counselors or probation officers, Gest argues.

Reporters shouldn’t treat any source as authoritative, Gest said. It’s a lesson he’s learned from experience.

He recalls one criminologist whom journalists routinely quoted in the 1990s, who said crime would keep going up — a theory that already by the early 1990s had proven false.

“I quoted him about ‘This thing is going to be out of control,’ using, if you can imagine, a graph going straight up for years… and this is a responsible guy who was testifying in Congress about this,” Gest said. “Looking back on that, we should have been more skeptical.”

‘The bullets are still flying’

Gary Fields, who spent more than two decades covering crime and criminal justice for the Washington Post and USA Today, said crime reporters often don’t give a story the time or attention it deserves.

Pressure to meet deadlines or be first on a story can push reporters to publish before they’ve got all the facts, and incomplete or inaccurate stories can harm multiple players. Outlets may have to issue corrections or retractions or fight lawsuits. Reporters may face reprimand. Innocent people may be unjustly maligned, and readers may lose confidence in journalists’ reporting.

“That early stuff’s often not accurate because they’re still trying to figure out what’s going on. We’re out here trying to get the story, and the bullets are still flying, and the shell cases are still dropping,” Fields said.

“That’s kind of a recipe for alterations in your story… You just kind of keep going and hope that this attention deficit disorder society we’re now living in doesn’t remember what you said initially.”

With the move to digital and the accompanying 24-hour news cycle, the pressure has only increased, and reporters sometimes choose being first over being right, Fields said. His advice: “Get it right first, then get it first.”

And, he said, outlets ought to stick with a story to the end. Back when he was a young reporter in Louisiana, he’d visit the Bossier Parish Jail each Sunday to copy down the arrest log.

“Unless it was some high-profile case, we never went back to say, ‘So how was this resolved?’” Fields said, so a reader would never find out whether the charges were dropped, or the case was dismissed. Looking back, Fields said, “That was a huge gap.”

Fields now believes that any journalist who names someone in an arrest is responsible for tracking the story and reporting on its resolution, since an unfinished story could lead to stigma or employment consequences for the person named. “I feel like you owe them that much,” Fields said.

‘Remember the humanity’

With the proliferation of true crime stories on Netflix and podcasts — expanding what some call the “true crime industrial complex” — Colloff worries that the already blurry lines around crime journalism are getting even harder to see.

“It’s something I think about on an almost daily basis because when you’re writing a long-form narrative, it has to be engaging and vivid and thought-provoking,” Colloff said. “How do you write narratives that fulfill that mandate without treading into exploitation or something that feels more like entertainment?”

We should “remember the humanity of everyone involved,” Colloff said, be they victims, perpetrators or anyone in between, and “always have that at the forefront of what you’re doing.”

Much crime reporting doesn’t do that, Anderson said. “It’s the news equivalent of looking at an accident when you drive by it.”

That “rubberneck coverage” can feed division and prejudice within communities, Anderson said. “It becomes a lot of like, ‘Look at that over there! I’m glad I don’t live in that neighborhood.’”

Sensational coverage can also affect whether justice is served. “If you take virtually any wrongful conviction and you spool it back to the beginning, there is very often terrible media coverage at the beginning,” Bogert said in an interview. “I just think very few people who are accused of a crime or involved in a crime come out of it feeling like the media did the right thing, and we’ve got to ask ourselves why.”

Reporting ‘close to home’

One way to promote more nuanced reporting: Hire journalists who’ve experienced the criminal justice system firsthand.

“When you’re reporting on issues that hit close to home, you know what questions to ask and can more easily see how to elevate a story because you might be aware of other angles that someone without that connection would not be aware of,” Blakinger said.

Some might argue that a reporter’s criminal history would bias her reporting, but Blakinger disagrees. “We wouldn’t question, ‘Can women cover women’s issues?’ (or) ‘Can LGBT people cover gay rights issues?’” Blakinger said. “Reporters can be fair or unfair and I don’t think it’s reasonable to make assumptions about someone’s fairness based on their past.”

Her own experience might make her more zealous about her work, she said, but that’s a good thing, just as female reporters might be more passionate about covering women’s issues and LGBT reporters might be more passionate about covering LGBT issues.

“I don’t think those are bad things,” Blakinger said, “and I don’t think it’s a bad thing if you get a criminal justice reporter with a criminal record who can come at it with more intensity than someone with no personal connections to it.”

Colloff argues this reporting is yet another example of the value of diversity in the workplace. Compared to her own early-career self, those who’ve been victims or served time would have a lot more perspective.

“It shouldn’t be unusual,” Colloff said. “I think we miss something if we don’t have more people in the mix.”

‘How does this whole equation balance out?’

Headlines like “Wolf Pack’s Prey” are — hopefully — a thing of the past, Fields said.

“I hope that there’s enough awareness of the power of language,” Fields said, citing the dehumanizing effect of terms like gang and mob. “The words can subtly do things in terms of the interpretation of your audience.

“I hope we have seen enough exonerations in my profession… for us to always keep a little air of suspicion,” Field said.

Blakinger is hopeful too. She sees journalists, including in her own Houston Chronicle newsroom, engaging in “evolving discussions” on issues like what terms to use to describe people in prison or whether it’s appropriate to publish a mugshot.

She believes these conversations, which might not have been imagined five or 10 years ago, are an ethical obligation for the profession.

“While it’s not our responsibility… to do journalism that doesn’t harm people, it should be, morally, as humans, a thing we’re thinking about,” Blakinger said. “If we’re causing harm… what is the news value and how does this whole equation balance out?”

 

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Changing the conversation, one word at a time: how professional organizations are pushing for changes in the AP Stylebook – and beyond

Photo of AP Stylebook: Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

It started with a single word: Boy.

At a protest following the in-custody death of Freddie Gray, a black woman had been caught on video hitting and berating her teenage son for participating in the demonstration.

“I believe the headline was ‘Woman beats boy,’” Sarah Glover, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, recalled. “That really bothered me because the African-American male subject was not a boy. He clearly was a teen, if not a young adult, if not a man.”

But it wasn’t just the young man’s age that made boy the wrong word, Glover argued. The word itself, when used to describe black males, was historically derogatory.

“That really resonated with me as a clear example of everyday journalism which we can do better,” Glover said, “and I took it as a call to action to reach out.”

Glover asked The Associated Press if NABJ could submit suggestions for a revised AP Stylebook entry for boy. The Stylebook editors agreed, opening the door for the professional association to help shape the language used in American journalism.

NABJ proposed expanding the Stylebook entry to offer more context on what might have seemed like a simple term.

“Words do matter,” Glover said. “The Stylebook isn’t a dictionary… but it is providing context on how to use words.” The entry could not be complete, Glover argued, if it didn’t explain the term’s history with respect to black men. “The word has a different meaning when you’re talking about that population.”

“It no longer becomes a word around age. It becomes a word around power, from slavery to Jim Crow-era lynching, to violence and death that black men are subjected to,” Glover said.

Also pushing for the change was NABJ Vice President-Print Marlon A. Walker, who began his career as a copyeditor and calls himself “the grammar Nazi of our board.”

NABJ sent recommendations about several other terms as well, including multiracial, biracial, -American, and reverse discrimination, for Stylebook editors to consider. Several of those recommendations were adopted in the 2018 Stylebook.

An ever-evolving guide

This wasn’t the first time Stylebook editors had acted on recommendations from marginalized groups. In February 2013, Jen Christensen, then-president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (now known as NLGJA/The Association of LGBTQ Journalists), wrote an open letter to then-Stylebook Editor David Minthorn requesting that AP revise the husband, wife, entry to allow those terms to be used to refer to people in same-sex marriages.

A week later, The Associated Press announced it would adopt the change beginning in the 2013 edition. In the same edition, the editors revised the illegal immigration entry, advising journalists, “Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant.”

“The Stylebook team has been tackling more issues-oriented concerns in recent years,” Paula Froke, Stylebook lead editor, said in an email.

“We frequently seek feedback and advice from groups and people who are experts in certain areas or who have extensive background in topics we’re discussing,” Froke said. “It’s natural that we would turn to NAJA (Native American Journalists Association), NABJ and other journalism groups for their input on race-related topics and terminology.”

Making the preferences official

Of course, contributing to the Stylebook is not the only way in which communities shape the language journalists use. Organizations like NABJ, NLGJA and NAJA have long held their own style preferences and advised other journalists.

“We offer ourselves as a resource to The Associated Press and any newsroom that would want to tap the NABJ to get our insights on representation and communities of color,” Glover said. For at least 20 years, NABJ has maintained its own style guide, which explains many terms related to African-Americans and the African diaspora that don’t appear in the AP Stylebook.

NLGJA also maintains its own guide — available in English and Spanish.

Bryan Pollard, director of programs and strategic partnerships for NAJA, said for years Native American journalists found some Stylebook entries lacking.

“Well, I think any of us that are Native and have been in the journalism business, we all kind of have our own experience for looking through the AP Stylebook and finding an entry and being like, ‘What?’” Pollard said.

But NAJA had not formalized its style preferences until Froke contacted the organization for advice on creating an entry for Indigenous Peoples Day. NAJA’s board of directors took that opportunity to suggest changes to a few other entries as well.

“It wasn’t that the entries were wrong, necessarily, but we felt like they didn’t provide really clear guidance,” said Pollard. “But that kind of spurred the thought: If we have these style preferences, we can’t just sit back and rely on the AP to adopt these because they may or may not. That’s their choice.”

To make those preferences known, NAJA produced a one-page, die-cut insert, for sale on its website, that snaps directly into the Stylebook.  “It’s literally our addendum to the AP Stylebook,” Pollard said.

In fact, so many groups now have their own guides that one veteran editor created a website to make them easier to find.

“I have been editing for over 20 years, and I’ve accumulated a lot of style guides written by communities telling people exactly how they want to be talked about,” said Karen Yin, founder of Conscious Style Guide. “I realized that this stuff is spread out all over the Internet, and wouldn’t it be awesome if somebody just put it all together on one website and linked to these fairly hidden resources?”

Usage requires awareness, Yin said. “If you don’t know it’s out there, you’re not going to be able to use it. So I see a lot of editors kind of just floundering. Most of us want to do the right thing, but we don’t know what it is.”

Going beyond the Stylebook

Yin initially focused on creating and compiling glossaries but soon realized that writers and editors would need deeper guidance to choose the right words.

“I want people to realize the importance of how content works with context,” Yin said. Because context and audiences vary, Yin said there are no one-size-fits-all terms. In one context, queer might be the right word; in another, it would be LGBTQ.

“I don’t know how your words are supported by the context, therefore I cannot say, ‘This is the word you should use.'”

While Yin’s website links to a wide variety of key glossaries, Yin has turned her own energy toward compiling and writing articles that help writers and editors — of journalism, fiction, or ad copy — to think deeply about their language choices.

“I’m trying to push critical thought more,” said Yin. “There are no simple answers. You need to just live conscious language.”

Yin aims to educate writers and editors about the “current mood and feeling” so that they can better anticipate the impact their words will have. That is, assuming they care: “If you don’t care about impact and you think intention is all that matters, then you’re probably not somebody who reads Conscious Style Guide.”

Pollard agrees that terminology alone is not enough. He said many journalists covering Indian Country don’t have enough context to tell stories accurately.

“Most mainstream journalists feel like they can just go in and cover it like they cover any other news story, and it’s really not true,” Pollard said.

Pollard argues that journalists covering Indian Country need to look at their stories through at least three lenses: news, culture and colonization.  To help journalists understand those contexts, NAJA produced six one-page guides.

Say you’re reporting a story related to the Indian Child Welfare Act, for example. If you take 10 minutes to read NAJA’s guide to that law, you’ll be better prepared to tell that story, Pollard said.

“It will give you some really good background information on the law, some of the nuances of it, how it affects Native communities and Native people and Native children.”

Of course, there is only so much context one can learn from a single page, so NAJA gives newsroom trainings across the country on how to cover Indian Country more accurately and completely.

Some recommendations not yet accepted

Some changes suggested by advocates have not yet made it into the Stylebook.

Yin has been pushing since 2014 for Stylebook editors to add entries on bisexual and asexual. She would also like to see writers replace the opposite sex with a different sex or another sex in order to not reinforce that binary, and she would like writers to not use the phrase coming out every time a person publicly discloses their non-heterosexuality for the first time.

“It assumes that it’s something that we hide and then suddenly we are out of the closet now,” Yin said. “Not all people in the LGBTQ community have been in the closet, and we’d like to be able to talk about it without people thinking that we’re admitting something that’s shameful or secretive.”

Pollard, meanwhile, has been lobbying Stylebook editors to capitalize indigenous when referring to people or communities, as opposed to plants, for example. He said some outlets have already adopted that style.

“AP will eventually come around,” Pollard said. “They may be late to the game on that particular change, but I think that they’ll get there. But if I could snap my fingers and make a change right now, that would be the one.”

Meanwhile NABJ’s Walker is still trying to persuade Stylebook editors on one point.

“For me, black as a standalone noun should never be a thing,” Walker said, noting that white is never used as a noun except alongside black. The Associated Press still permits this use in headlines in order to save space, as in Chicago TV station WGN9’s recent headline, “How the Sears catalog revolutionized the way blacks shopped,” but Walker disagrees.

“At the end of the day, if you can find more space for other things, you should be able to find more space to describe who you’re speaking about,” Walker said.

Stylebook editors work on updates and additions throughout the year, considering ideas from a variety of sources. Among those sources are public suggestions submitted at the online suggestions link, questions from Twitter and Facebook, emails, recommendations from other members of the AP staff, and the observations of Stylebook editors themselves. (You too can make a Stylebook suggestion by emailing Froke at pfroke@ap.org.)

“The Stylebook team reviews suggestions and decides which ones most merit attention,” Froke said. “We then discuss ideas and approaches, craft an initial entry, continue to discuss, and revise as warranted. A great deal of time and thought goes into every entry.”

Revising the “Bible”

Revising the Stylebook is just one step in changing the narrative about people of color, said NABJ’s Glover. In June, NABJ will continue its annual Black Male Media Project for the third year, and this time they’re considering issuing guidelines for visual journalism. Glover, who trained as a photographer, said the group seeks, among other changes, to counter the practice of using mugshots to depict individuals who are not suspects in the story.

“If they’re a victim, they’re a victim,” Glover said.

Changing the Stylebook might be a single piece in the puzzle, but Glover calls it “a huge industry impact.”

“Those [AP] datelines show up all over the world, so this certainly has the capacity to have a major impact worldwide in terms of how black males are covered in general,” Glover said, adding that as journalists consult the Stylebook, the revisions will prompt newsroom conversations about context and impacts on communities of color. “Editors and reporters will have discussion around covering diverse people and communities and not just reach for the low-hanging fruit.”

Walker agrees. “It’s exciting,” he said of the opportunity for journalists of color to help shape that conversation. “As a journalist, the AP Stylebook is the Bible. So to be able to say that I contributed to changes in the Bible is an amazing thing.”

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism, and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.