Scary Monsters

Are crime reporters guilty of fear mongering and, if so, does that derail the development of good public policy?

Kasia Mychajlowycz
Winter, 2012 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

 

Len Gold looks nervous as he stares into the black eye of the camera. Wearing a leather jacket over a Vancouver Canucks T-shirt, he recites his question for the leaders of Canada’s four main political parties. Framed by mountains meeting the ocean in Gibsons, British Columbia, Gold says, “My concern is safety for people in this country, to be able to walk down the streets at night and being safe in their homes, and I’d like to know what the government plans on doing, dealing with these criminals and the light sentences being handed down to them by the courts.” His is one of just six questions chosen from over 6,000 submitted to the Broadcasting Consortium for the only English-language televised debate in the 2011 federal election.

Gilles Duceppe, then leader of the Bloc Québécois, tells Gold, “The American model imported to Canada would be an important error. We can’t accept that. Their philosophy is more guns and big prisons and I think that is a dangerous social cocktail.” Then Stephen Harper, who calls the man “Len,” takes his turn. “We have mandatory penalties that involved gangs and organized drug crimes, for sexual predators. We want to repeal the case where criminals can get pardons automatically.” Harper, referring to an omnibus bill later titled “The Safe Streets and Communities Act,” says, “These are bills sitting before Parliament. When a re-elected Conservative government gets back, we’ll package these bills together and get them passed.” While the other candidates dismiss Gold’s question, Harper exploits it; he answers with what his party is doing about “lighter sentences” with his push for mandatory minimums (without talking about if they work or not). He’s direct, he looks compassionate and, according to many studies and criminology experts, he’s completely wrong about what it takes to reduce crime.

If the news reported the most common offences, we’d drown in drunk driving stories. We’d hardly ever hear about rapists hiding in bushes attacking strangers; instead, women would be warned to guard against the people they trust the most. Serial killers would almost never come up. But Christopher Schneider, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, explains that the news gives us stories that feed our fear and capture our attention. So we get serial killings, not drunk driving, which killed 714 people in 2009, according to the Traffic Injury Research Foundation. “We’re generally the safest, healthiest human beings, especially in Canada, to ever walk the earth,” Schneider says. “And yet we’re the most afraid.”

Crime was clearly a wedge issue during the campaign, something that Harper used to separate the Conservative agenda from the rest of the pack. His platform document devoted six pages to crime. Meanwhile, as Ira Basen wrote in a cbc.ca piece, the Liberal Party’s platform was “silent on all of the red-meat, law and order issues that the Conservative government has been pushing for the past five years,” even though it helped pass (or at least didn’t block) many of the 21 crime reforms the Conservatives pushed through during their minority tenure. Harper may have been aided and abetted by the so-called liberal media because, while crime continues a decades-long downward trend, coverage of it remains a staple of our news diet. But does “if it bleeds, it leads” journalism favour right-of-centre politics by putting a conservative bugbear in the limelight? And does the way journalists cover crime affect policy-making and the political landscape?

In Canada, as in most Western countries, crime is declining. Many theories purport to explain this—from legalized abortion to the phasing out of leaded gas—but the most sensible reason, to me, is demographics: fewer young men, who are most likely to commit crimes, in an aging population. The most recent statistics showed that the amount of crime reported to the police in 2010 fell five percent from the previous year; the severity of those crimes fell by six percent. With a population of just over 34 million, Canada had 554 homicides that year; by comparison, 865 people were murdered in the state of New York, which has fewer than 20 million residents. Drug crime, though, was up by 10 percent in Canada, mostly because more people were busted for marijuana possession. Child pornography, gun crime and sexual assault all increased, but not enough to influence the overall downward trend. Canadians haven’t seen a crime rate this low since 1973.

Despite all this, crime shows up everyehere, especially on local TV. It’s a broad category, too; there are reporters on justice, crime, police and courthouse beats producing breaking news, daily articles and features. In a 2006 study of local TV news in the United States, the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) analyzed the content of 24 newscasts on one day in three cities: Houston, Texas; Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Bend, Oregon. Crime took up 42 percent of all the newscasts. It’s a small study, but as a report on media coverage of organized crime, commissioned by the RCMP in 2002, noted, “even the relationship between the media and crime/justice has not yet been thoroughly explored.” The study found that journalism favours straightforward and violent crimes over environmental and corporate ones and concluded that the media aren’t reflecting “the true criminal reality of our society.”

Of course, sensational crime stories have been in vogue since the “murder” pamphlets of the Renaissance. One of the most popular, published in 1551 by a German Lutheran minister, featured this long headline: “A True and Most Horrifying Account of How a Woman Tyrannically Murdered Her Four Children and Also Killed Herself, at Weidenhausen Near Eschwege in Hesse.” Just as we are with horror stories around a campfire, we’re drawn into and terrified by true crime accounts, and that interest never seems to be sated. Frank Magid, a social psychologist turned news consultant, took this time-honoured truth to local television stations. By the 1970s, he was remaking the 6 p.m. news: it was cheaper and flashier with a steady stream of weather and traffic—but mostly crime. Magid taught the now-standard TV approach: visuals of guns, crime scenes, lights flashing, short hit from a reporter interviewing shocked onlookers and victims’ family members.

Though he recently died, his company, Frank Magid Associates, continues. CBC hired the firm for its news relaunch in 2009. But Magid’s wisdom has come under fire. A 2007 PEJ study, “We Interrupt This Newscast: How to Improve Local News and Win Ratings, Too,” found that Magid may have been underestimating local TV news audiences. The five-year analysis across 50 different American markets found that trend pieces actually garnered higher ratings—especially among younger people, a prized demographic for advertising—than the scandal of private citizens and racier stories. One of the main findings was: “Flashing lights, yellow police tape, and so-called eyeball-grabbing visuals do not by themselves attract viewers.” The study is also careful to point out that though “too much crime” was a common concern among local TV producers, there was still a way to cover it that improved ratings and the quality of journalism at the same time: provide context, choose cases involving public malfeasance over breaking news about violent crime and explain the relevance of the event to the audience.

Aaron Doyle worked the police beat at the Etobicoke Guardian andother community newspapers before he went to graduate school. “I spent a lot of time reflecting on my former sins as a journalist,” jokes the criminology professor at Carleton University. More seriously, he explains, “We know that people who watch a lot of TV tend to be more afraid of crime, but it’s very hard to actually prove scientifically that watching a lot of TV causes them to be afraid of crime.” Elderly people, for example, tend to watch a lot, but do they think crime is rampant because of what they watch? Perhaps they stay home because they’re afraid to go out or because it’s harder to get around. It’s likely, though, that the fear, however it started, is reinforced by TV. With so many other factors in people’s lives, academic study has hit an impasse figuring out the cause and effect.

In his 2003 book, Arresting Images: Crime and Policing in Front of the Television Camera, Doyle found a way around this, showing a kind of feedback loop between television news, the police and policy-makers. He doesn’t think politicians are only swayed by journalism through voters, i.e. the audience; they are, after all, news watchers, too. “If an issue gets a lot of media attention, political actors and people in the justice system tend to start responding to that without waiting to hear from the public,” Doyle says. “Often there can be a kind of bubble in which there’s the media and the key players, and the key players are sort of just reacting to the media coverage.” In other words, politicians consume news, too, and heavy coverage might push them to react with a policy change or new initiative, either to try to fix the problem or to appear proactive and get more attention from the same journalists who got the ball rolling. This might help explain a startling statistic in the 2009 StatsCan “General social survey on victimization”: despite many assumptions to the contrary, 93 percent of Canadians are either “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their personal safety. It’s an idea that complicates how journalists affect democracy. Not only does journalism inform citizens, who appeal to or vote for politicians, politicians react to the news while courting it.

To get a closer look at crime journalism, I spent two sunny spring mornings in the basement of the Fredericton courthouse sandwiched between linoleum floors and acoustic ceiling tiles with Michael Staples, 21-year veteran crime reporter with The Daily Gleaner. He’s dressed in his usual suit and tie as we sit in the public gallery of the provincial courtroom, in the farthest pew from the entrance, right at the front to better hear the proceedings. The mundane bureaucracy of shuffling case documents and schedules and the perfunctory exhortations to “keep the peace and be of good behaviour” take up most of the time, but it’s the horror that Staples is here to recount. The first case he expects to write about—a sexual assault a fellow reporter told him had something to do with the internet—is dismissed in the first five minutes of the first day. On the second day, after a few hours of scheduling, we witness the verdict of a sexual assault of a minor by her stepfather. Staples mostly keeps his head down, furiously writing notes in an illegible custom shorthand while I watch the lawyers uncomfortably recount the nauseating details, most of which appear the next morning in Staples’s front-page story. As we walk out, he says it is one of the worst cases he’s covered in his career.

At a café down the street, Staples tells me how crime reporting has changed. “Back in the ’90s, for example, it was very much sensationalized. You could put pretty well anything in the paper. And I printed some pretty gross stuff,” he says, eyes earnestly wide. “And then at the start of this new millennium there was less interest in that. Now we seem to be easing back into that again.” But, I ask, where do journalists draw the line about what to print? “We try not to sensationalize it,” he says. “I think the public has a right to know about those types of things that are going on.”

I hear much the same answer from other journalists. Sam Pazzano, a court reporter for the Toronto Sun, calls his work a public service. And when I ask Catherine McDonald, a Global TV crime reporter in Toronto, whether crime is over-covered, she says, “In the 11 years I’ve been here, we’ve reported, I believe, the same amount of crime. If it’s a newsworthy crime, it’s a crime that will outrage people, then we’ve reported it. If it affects people, we’ll report it. We haven’t changed our criteria.”

Tim Appleby, who’s worked the beat at The Globe and Mail for close to 30 years, says journalism has become more competitive, which changes the kinds of stories that get coverage: “It certainly has become more graphic. When I came here, we wouldn’t show photographs of dead bodies,” he said. “We wouldn’t name people who had been charged, but not convicted. So yeah, they didn’t cover it or they covered it right. Certainly that’s changed.” Appleby uses the trial of Russell Williams, disgraced colonel and serial killer, as an example of just how graphic crime coverage can be. He wrote A New Kind of Monster: The Secret Life and Shocking True Crimes of an Officer…and a Murderer, a book that despite its tell-all headline-style title and its meticulous cataloguing of Williams’s torture and killing, doesn’t dwell on the sickening details. “It was largely unprintable,” he says, adding that the Globe also decided against printing many of the photos that came out in the evidence. Despite that restraint, competition often trumps decency. “I don’t think we have any choice,” says Appleby, “because if you don’t print it, somebody else is going to.” The Toronto Star, by contrast, published a self-portrait of Williams on its front page, posing for his own camera in stolen lingerie. In defence of the decision, public editor Kathy English quoted publisher John Cruickshank: “It’s a story that we shouldn’t turn our heads from. And it’s for that reason we made the choice that we did.”

As to whether their reporting affects policy decisions, there’s much less consensus. Pazzano hesitates before admitting, “I mean I guess I think to a certain degree [it can]. You can get a skewed view of the world.” But ultimately he says he’s just telling the facts, and his job is “to present the story.” When I ask McDonald if she thinks crime reporting changes what the public thinks or politicians do, she vehemently doesn’t know. “I don’t cover politics. So I don’t report thinking about the political implications. And I don’t cover the political side of crime, either. I cover the crime scene. I don’t cover what the politicians are saying about crime.” She contends it’s rarely an election issue and low on the political agenda, anyway.

But when I ask Michael Staples if his work affects public policy, he answers simply: “Absolutely.” In 2002, a front-page series he wrote on the consequences of cuts to New Brunswick’s RCMP budget on underserved rural communities and overworked, stressed-out cops contributed to a reversal of the decision. And Appleby believes his feature stories can affect policy, too. He uses a long article he’d written for that week’s Globe as an example. It’s about murder in subsidized housing, a great piece of crime journalism that took several months collaboration with freelancer Stephen Spencer Davis. Using data from freedom of information requests, they showed how neglect and poverty lead to violence in city-owned housing, where tenants are four times more likely to be murdered than other Torontonians. It puts a face to a societal trend while staying rooted in meticulously researched numbers and covers the issue from a variety of angles with interviews from tenants, academics, spokespeople from the city and community activists. It treats crime as a social issue, not a series of events. But it’s a rarity. Citing a small staff, Appleby says his work is “almost entirely breaking news and court stuff.”

Luckily, there are many journalists who can go beyond the “quick hits” and latest stabbings to create pieces that orient crime within the constellation of societal factors, statistical trends and personal lives. The June 2011 edition of The Walrus featured Rachel Giese’s cover story, “Arrival of the Fittest,” which linked the dropping crime rate with increasing immigration. John Macfarlane’s editorial reflected on how shortcomings in crime coverage and readers’ and journalists’ misunderstanding of statistics drive Canadians to support policies that are punitive—and don’t work. (A 2010 Angus Reid survey showed that a majority of Canadians support the death penalty for murderers, up from just under half in 2004.) In a Globe column about the newest statistics, Jeffrey Simpson laid out the relationship between the Conservative agenda on crime and journalism’s coverage. “The average citizen, especially those who favour the Conservative Party, is told by political leaders that crime is on the rise, and needs to be fought with a bevy of harsh new measures,” he wrote. “Then they watch the television news, where ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ dominates local coverage. Then they turn to the tabloid press, or tabloid elements in the so-called serious newspapers, to read endless stories about crime. No wonder some people believe a crime wave is washing over Canada.”

The Toronto Sun dutifully reported the falling crime rate, though it seemed to more often highlight the specific crimes that were increasing, while other newspapers didn’t or relegated it to the requisite counter-argument paragraph close to the end. Sun columnist Lorrie Goldstein kept his opinion constant, if not his reasoning: a Statistics Canada survey showed a slight increase in crimes not reported to police, but Goldstein claimed there was an “alarming” and “statistically significant” jump in unreported crime. Then, in July, when research showed that crime was continuing its downward trend, Goldstein undermined the statistics: “What does the crime rate matter to a rape victim who discovers unsupervised temporary absences and early parole make a mockery of the sentence the judge pronounces in court?” As Simpson wrote in an online discussion with readers, “We all live with the tyranny of the anecdote.”

But another way to put that is an old adage of good journalism: put a face to every story. Romayne Smith Fullerton, an associate professor of journalism and media studies at the University of Western Ontario, is editing a collection of essays on crime coverage. She says it’s difficult for a journalist to sell a story about the statistics. “Oh, that’s a good news story: ‘Hey, guess what? There are less robberies than ever!’” she says sarcastically. “So what’s the timely peg for that? What’s the angle? What kind of photograph are you going to run with that kind of story? You’ve got nothing. It’s got no sex appeal at all.” But without those stories, “we journalists completely play into the hands of politicians like the Conservatives” who, she says, take the stories as evidence that we need to get tough on crime.

The high-stakes competition in North American journalism only makes it harder, but it’s not the only way to report today. In other countries Fullerton has researched, stricter rules reduce sensationalism. In Sweden and the Netherlands, for example, it’s rare for news outlets to name the accused or the victim. That refocuses a story, bringing it out of the personalized, emotional realm and letting the implications of the crime for society out from under it.

When crime coverage becomes too overblown, too emotional and too out of proportion, what citizens and politicians alike may end up with is the current California prison system, radically changed by the “three strikes, you’re out” law passed 19 years ago. In 1993, 12-year-old Polly Klaas was abducted from her home, raped and murdered by career criminal Richard Allen Davis. The media coverage was high-pitched from when she went missing through the two-month-long search for the girl to the moment Davis was convicted of first-degree murder, smirking and flipping the bird to the TV cameras. In response, California enacted the “three strikes” policy, an extreme version of mandatory minimum sentencing: commit three offences (the first must be serious, the last could be shoplifting) and you’re in jail for life. It’s a simple, catchy baseball metaphor that puts criminals away; criminologist Aaron Doyle calls it “sound-bite justice” because its pith is easily captured for the 6 p.m. news. President Bill Clinton even invoked Polly’s name during a State of the Union address to shame the House Representatives into passing a national crime bill, which became law shortly after. “Polly’s legacy is immense,” wrote the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1994.

The policy had many advocates in the media, according to Doyle. “And it was a public policy disaster.” The law pushed California’s prisons to 200 percent capacity, causing miserable crowding and a suicide rate 80 percent higher than the national average for prisoners by 2010. Meanwhile, the prison system has nearly bankrupted the state. In May 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision that broke along ideological lines, ordered California to reduce the number of inmates to 137.5 percent of its prison capacity because the conditions have caused “needless suffering and death.”

Polly’s legacy even reached Canada. In 1994, the Reform Party adopted a resolution calling for a similar three-strikes law, though it downgraded the punishment from life in prison to an indefinite sentence in a bid to “be more saleable and defensible in mainstream politics,” according to a Globe article filed from the party’s convention. At the time, MP Harper was Reform’s chief policy officer. Once at the top of a western protest party, today Harper is mainstream. But even conservative Texan lawmakers are warning Canadians against the tough-on-crime approach championed in their state. “It’s a very expensive thing to build new prisons and, if you build ’em, I guarantee you they will come,” one Lone Star State Republican representative told cbc’s Terry Milewski. “They’ll be filled, okay? Because people will send them there.”

Designing new prisons has been a large part of my architect parents’ livelihood since 1992, when they built their first penitentiary in Joyceville, Ontario. I was five years old. As a tween, I got a prison toothbrush as a souvenir of my dad’s business trip to Indianapolis; the handle was less than an inch long and round like a loonie, he told me, to make it impossible to sharpen into a shank or choke a grown man. But my parents won’t compete for federal prison projects anymore. In anticipation of more overcrowding after the omnibus bill passes (the problem is getting worse thanks to two reforms already in effect), the federal government has been building cookie-cutter cell blocks across the country, without incorporating the sustainable architecture or rehabilitative design that have become my parents’ hallmark. Their designs incorporate “small gestures,” my dad told me, which make prisons—and thus prisoners—less aggressive and intimidating, features such as real wood doors, windows without bars that actually open and a set-up that lets inmates get outside without a guard, all without compromising security. Some jobs have to be done right, goes their thinking, and housing inmates—the vast majority of whom will be released one day—is one of them. Crime journalism is the same: nobody wants to pay for it, but it’s still worth doing right, even if it doesn’t make our politicians happy.

 

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