November 13, 2003

Cheap Shots on Crime Coverage

A Stanford University group called Grade the News monitored the amount of crime coverage in the Bay Area news media and then asked local TV news directors and newspaper editors to comment on its findings.

It's almost too easy, almost too cheap a shot, to pick on San Francisco Chronicle metro editor Ken Connor for his explanation of how the Chronicle chooses which crimes to cover. Says Connor:

"We've made a real decision here in our crime coverage. In the newsroom there's cheap crime and there's good crime. Good crime is what's important to our readership in the nine-county Bay Area, which would be a crime that has sufficient interest to the greatest number of people or communities. Cheap crime is often confined to a neighborhood."(Emphasis added).

Cheap crime? What neighborhood activist, community representative or mother or father of someone killed in a shooting "confined to a neighborhood" wouldn't look at those words and see arrogance and willful disregard for their community?

For years, minority communities have accused newspapers of ignoring crime in their neighborhoods in favor of white-on-white crime like the kidnappings of cute, young suburban girls and other "Amber alert" type incidents. What black or Latino or immigrant Asian family whose son was killed in a drive-by would consider the death of their child "cheap"?

And a good crime? What's that? Laci Peterson is one answer. A quick search of the Chronicle's web site found 124 references to Peterson this year alone. Ironically, given Connor's choice of words, Grade the News used the same phrase when it attempted to explain what it called "The Laci Peterson Show":

"Who decides whether any of these stories are news? Often, journalists cover crime because it's easy and cheap to do, and because it never occurred to them to change."(Empahis added).

To be fair to the Chronicle, it has run a number of substantive projects looking at, for example, the ongoing murder spree in neighboring Oakland's poorest neighborhoods, the type of coverage Grade the News calls "thematic," as opposed to the "episodic" reporting of daily murders.

Those of us who have worked in newsrooms, especially on a metro paper with a coverage area much greater than its reporting staff, know what Connor really meant (assuming eloquence failed him). The Chronicle can't report every local crime, nor should it, so it must concentrate on those it deems to the widest reader appeal, which typically are those that don't occur in poor communities, where, ironically, most crime occurs.

How much crime coverage is too much depends on the mission of a particular paper and its community. When I travel to New York, I buy the Post and expect to see more crime stories. That's part of the Post's appeal.

In the Bay Area, Grade the News monitored three newpapers - the Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury, the Contra Costa Times - and found that 16 percent of their column inches to daily and, presumably more substantial, episodic crime coverage.

That means one in six stories is about crime in some way. Is that too many? Yes. One-sixth of my life and one-sixth of most people's lives is not about crime. Studies by the Readership Institute have found readers don't care for the type of crime coverage found in most newspapers. They want less national coverage, fewer photographs and more local coverage. In other words, they don't want more of the "good crimes" like Laci Peterson; they want the "cheap crime" that happens in their neighborhoods and on their blocks.

Newspapers have a lot of crime coverage because they have reporters designated to look for it. This may seem self-evident, but consider how the police beat works on most newspapers, large and small. Each day the police reporter - or reporters in the case of metro - checks in with anywhere from a half-dozen to two dozen law enforcement agencies seeking an answer to the question, "What's going on?"

On a metro with a morning and evening cop reporters that question will get asked more than once a day. Do the math: Metro police beat reporters are asking cops "What's going on?" as much as 40 or 50 times a day - a guaranteed way to produce stories.

Does that happen on any other beat? No, but imagine if it did. Imagine how the content mix would change if health or education or arts reporters made 20, 30 or 40 phone calls a day looking for stories.

Many readers like crime coverage, just as many readers like sports. Sports has its own section, so maybe crime should, too. That's how papers handle crime coverage in Mexico, for example. No shoeshine stand or taqueria is complete without a copy of the local Policiaca section. (Here's one from by favorite town, Oaxaca).

Newspapers need to rethink crime coverage. Some are. The Oregonian, for example, as part of ASNE's Journalism Credibility Project, asked itself: "If we were to create a new newspaper, unbound by the traditions of how we've always done it, what would coverage of crime and public safety look like?"

After several months of conversations with criminal justice experts, community leaders, readers and others, the paper reorganized its crime beats, making them more thematic: Neighborhoods and Quality-of-Life Crimes, Business Crime, Effects of Crime (including victims and prisons), Family and Juvenile Crime. Response from readers, judging from positive reaction to stories and fewer complaints about sensationalism, has been good.

I like the Oregonian's approach to rethinking its crime coverage. It was zero-based. It discarded assumptions. It offered, as the paper put it, this lesson for other newspapers:

"It's important to ask fundamental questions about coverage, asking what parts of our coverage are shaped or possibly distorted by habit or because of the press for newsiness on any given day. It is important to challenge the effectiveness of standard practices in aiding public understanding, keeping the best practices and discarding those that do not best serve readers."(Emphasis added)

That's good, not cheap, advice.

 Grade the News Ratcheting up the mayhem
 ASNE Is Crime Coverage Out of Balance?
 ASNE Bias and Sensational Coverage: Crime (The Oregonian's story)

Posted by Tim Porter at November 13, 2003 09:01 AM