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Tuesday, September 01, 2020

How to Cover Protests and Crime (*slightly updated)

I just finished reading this thought-provoking article from Arc Digital about media coverage of protests and political implications.  It is a good reminder that media have to make substantive decisions about which stories to cover.   But it also is basically a microcosm of a lot of coverage that I've seen about how the lawlessness at protests and crime more generally is likely to play out in the presidential election.

Implicit (and sometime explicit) in this article is the idea that, although the political arguments about crime and the protests that are being leveled against the Biden/Harris ticket are wrong a a matter of fact and as a matter of logic, the arguments might still succeed.  The author notes that conservative media outlets and prominent Republicans keep saying that Biden and Harris haven't condemned looting and violence at the protests.  But of course they both have.  The author also seems to acknowledge that it's illogical to blame Joe Biden for things that are happening while Trump is president or to say that crime will get worse if Biden is elected.  Even if we think presidents are responsible for crime--which is a silly thing to assume--crime rates dropped when Biden was vice president, and similar protests and violence in Ferguson were handled much more effectively when Obama was president.  Yet this author is quick to tell Biden and Harris that they need to do more to reassure voters that they don't support violence, and that they have to be careful not to be more forceful in condemning vigilantes than antifa because that might give voters the wrong impression.

In short, the article adds to the pile of commentary that seems to assume the current violence in American cities will hurt Democrats, and thus focuses on how the Biden/Harris response could be *better* while largely ignoring that the Trump/Pence response has been pretty awful. 

That same double standard appears in the discussion of media coverage.  The article notes how the mainstream media has ignored some stories that gained traction in the conservative media.  And it argues that these omissions could make people think that Democrats support rioting.  But there’s no similar critique of the conservative media.  There is no detailed catalogue of what stories didn’t get coverage on Fox News or in the National Review.  There’s no concern about stories from these outlets that seem to support vigilantism or turn a blind eye to police violence.  Nor is there an explanation about why alienating voters is only something for mainstream media or left-leaning outlets to worry about.

Don't get me wrong.  I think that the concern and the critique offered in this article are based in good faith.  The author seems to support Biden/Harris and I suspect she wrote this story because she is worried that they might lose.  But I worry about the cumulative effect of stories such as this on criminal justice politics in this country—stories that focus on whether law & order issues will hurt Democrats and that assume they will help Republicans.  This country has only recently started to recover from decades of the two parties trying to out-do each other as tough on crime.  Framing "law & order" as something that Democrats always need to be afraid of could undermine the small reforms that have been made.

My biggest criticism of this reporting and lots of other commentary that I’ve seen is that it doesn’t attempt to put questions about crime and disorder at the protests into a larger context that includes actual empirical evidence about what’s happening (rather than just anecdotes).  For example, I’ve seen dozens of commenters talk about the “sense” or “perception” that the protests are not peaceful, but are instead riots filled with lawlessness and violence.  Isn’t that something that could actually be tested?  How many protests do we see across the country every day where there is no looting or burning of buildings?  A political commentor who is tempted to write another "crime is bad for Biden/Harris" story could do some independent research to provide additional factual context to whatever "there's a sense" conjecture that she wants to write.

For example, I haven't seen very much in-depth reporting about what arrests police are making at these protests.  A quick glance at the Portland Sheriff’s booking database showed me that law enforcement in Portland are still arresting a significant number of people for not following police orders.  That information about arrests in Portland is especially newsworthy given the wide spread coverage about the Portland DA refusing to prosecute people arrested at protests unless they were looting or engaged in violent behavior.  It’s fair to ask why the police are continuing to arrest these people who are literally protesting police aggression.  Similarly, a sheriff from just outside Portland* recently released a statement saying that judges are contributing to the lawlessness in Portland by releasing protestors on their own recognizance, claiming that police are arresting the same people over and over again.  This statement is gaining tons of traction on Twitter, but local reporting makes clear that the statement is factually incorrect:  "Court and jail records show that few people have been arrested multiple times at protests and that the majority of arrests have been for non-violent crimes."**

Finally, it would be nice if critiques of media coverage about crime during these protests seemed to have some appreciation about the ordinary problems associated with media coverage of crime—the disproportionate coverage of serious crime, the uncritical repetition of law enforcement statements, the effects of the availability heuristic on the public.  This article, for example, chides the media for not giving complete accounts of the criminal history of Jacob Blake.  Is that really what we want the media to do?  Do we really think that the fact a person has been accused of a crime makes it more likely that they were violent towards the police? And if so, where is the outrage that the media doesn’t have access to the disciplinary records of the officer who shot Blake?  Or do we assume prior bad acts are only relevant for people who police are shooting and not for the police themselves.

In any event, the article is worth reading because it does a good job highlighting questions about content decisions that those in the media have to make.  But this author had to make similar decisions for this very article, and it’s far from clear that her decisions are more evenhanded or less biased than the decisions she is criticizing.

* Previous version of this post mistakenly said that it was the sheriff of the country that includes Portland.

** This paragraph has been updated to include the information from local media contradicting the sheriff's statement

Posted by Carissa Byrne Hessick on September 1, 2020 at 09:17 AM in Carissa Byrne Hessick, Criminal Law, Current Affairs, Law and Politics | Permalink


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Posted by: vola sports apk | Sep 5, 2020 2:27:10 PM

This post appears to lack internal consistency. First, it states that we need a more proactive media that conducts in-depth reporting to uncover the truth behind arrests in Portland. Later, it goes on to suggest that the media should not cover the criminal history of Jacob Blake. What gives?

Posted by: theRealAnonymous | Sep 2, 2020 2:50:29 PM

What, exactly, is the objective of this post? Pointing out that all press are inherently bias and necessarily highlight certain topics? Showing that the protests are actually Trump's fault?

For the first one, I don't see many mainstream outlets talking about these topics in the way that Young does - so I think she definitely adds to the discussion. For the second portion, I've seen this weird 180 with many mainstream outlets: First the riots were "mostly peaceful" and justified (despite the looming COVID threat and wanton destruction of property). Now they're "Trump's fault" because he handled them so poorly.

To be clear, I don't think Trump has handled them well and I will vote for essentially any Dem over Trump because I don't think electing a president to "troll the libs" adds anything to nation... but that's not what Young is talking about. She's talking about certain outlets (and politicians) falling over themselves to excuse the conduct of people in the riots (usually until it shows up to their ivory towers), ignoring violent crimes, and waving away hundreds of millions of dollars in property destruction.

You seem to think this will set back talks of restorative justice but I don't think we should have to essentially lie to the public in order to make progress on that front. There is still a good argument to be made for restorative justice that allows for us to be truthful with people (lower recidivism rates, not radicalizing people in prison, cost, compassion, etc.). These riots are toxic and wrong; Trump is handling them badly; restorative justice can make substantial beneficial changes to our criminal justice system. All three of those things can be true.

Posted by: Sean V | Sep 2, 2020 8:29:32 AM

Carissa, the standards to be implied on journalism and ordinary media coverage of events, are, or, should be simply different (basically). They are not, and should not, and can't in fact, act and investigate like professionals. This is for too many reasons, but right now two:

First, they must cover online or ongoing occurrences. I mean, to make immediate reports, and quickly cover it, and bring it to the attention of public.

Second, and in accordance, professionals, must wait until sufficient data are gathered (for correctly and empirically analyze it). As illustration:

I have read recently, about certain research (of Dr. Joan Cook and others) connecting between abuse of women and domestic violence on one hand, and mass shootings on the other. But, for reaching the right conclusions, they had to investigate 749 incidents of mass shootings. So, only one or two or three, wouldn't suffice simply. But, this is not for journalists basically, but, more professional guys (from the academia).


Posted by: El roam | Sep 1, 2020 12:28:20 PM

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