To read the New York Post, you can’t venture out into the streets or subway of New York City without being likely to be beaten, robbed or shoved in front of a train. Of course, the Post is the right wing tabloid of the City, so that’s what it’s expected to say. Thankfully, we also have the New York Times to provide balance and thoughtfulness to the news.
Let’s take a step back. My admittedly dry account above of the newsworthiness of the new FBI data and subsequent efforts to twist it is how the story could and should have been reported by journalists. No sensationalism. No speculation. At least some context and nuance. And what we can actually determine based on the data.
But if you were to read the coverage of the data’s release by news sources like The New York Times and NPR, you would now likely believe that the only news from the FBI data was that there was an unprecedented spike in homicides—and that this unprecedented spike, against all evidence to the contrary and the FBI data itself, could very well have been caused by bail reform and protests for racial justice following the police killing of George Floyd.
The Times and NPR are now two bastions of right-wing reactionary “copaganda”? The Times and NPR? This is terrible. What the heck did the NYT do to cause this attack?
Murders Spiked in 2020 in Cities Across the United States
The year-to-year increase in homicides from 2019 was the largest since national record-keeping began in 1960. But overall, major crimes declined last year.
And the first two paragraphs of the article are even worse.
The United States experienced its biggest one-year increase on record in homicides in 2020, according to new figures released on Monday by the F.B.I., with some cities hitting record highs.
Although major crimes were down overall, there were an additional 4,901 homicides in 2020 compared with the year before, the largest leap since national records started in 1960. The significant rise has roughly coincided with the 18 months of the Covid-19 pandemic.
To the unwary, it might at first appear that the Times’ headline, subheader and article are entirely accurate and balanced. After all, homicides spiked. Major crime otherwise did not. And there is nothing to suggest that any of this was caused by criminal law reforms. The Post said so, and shouts it at every possible opportunity, but there’s no mention of the Post in Scott Hechinger’s effort to come off as the bearer of unvarnished truth and not some hysterical activist.
So what’s the beef?
This kind of “justice” reporting is not just false; it is dangerous, widespread, and long-standing. I write this not to attack the Times or NPR or the reporters of these stories, nor to take away or distract from the very real and disturbing tragedy of every single one of these murders, but to call attention to an insidious and historically rooted contributor to the system of policing and prison in our country: a pro-police worldview deeply ingrained in journalism.
At first, this may make you cringe, but reformers have long been critical of routine journalism’s unholy relationship with the police. From the regurgitation of police press releases immediately following a tragic or horrific crime to the still common bizarrely passive “officer involved shooting.” But while there are legitimate gripes about reporters who rely on the police for fodder and so maintain “good” relations with cops to get the scoop and write up stories as if they’re on the payroll as police stenographers, that’s not what Hechinger is complaining about here. It’s what he wants you to believe is the problem, since it really is a problem, but he’s a crafty guy.
First, in both the Times and NPR coverage of the FBI data, the reporters focused on the sensational. Outlets prioritize clicks over nuance. Because many readers don’t look beyond the big print, these kinds of trade-offs can be consequential.
It’s not that the spike in murders isn’t news. Obviously it is. It’s a big deal. Why it’s happening is unclear, and anyone who claims to know is blowing smoke. When the murder rate goes down, cops take credit even though it can be empirically proven they had nothing to do with it as their brilliant tactics weren’t employed elsewhere where the murder rate also went down just as much. Then again, when it goes up everywhere, it can’t be the fault of, in this instance, New York’s bail law reforms for the same reason. So everybody is pretty much full of it when they claim to know who to credit and who to blame.
The attack against those “copagandists” at the Times and NPR isn’t about it’s not presenting the facts, but because they did present the facts. Is it “sensationalist” to put the spike in murders up top, above the “major crimes decreased,” which is the less-than-sensational piece of information that reformers rely upon to show they’re on the right track?
The old saw, “if it bleeds, it leads,” is a reflection of how the media prioritizes news. The sensational is what interests people, gets them buy papers or click on links, and that’s still true today. And it’s neither unfair to call it news or to characterize it as sensational. But the argument falls flat when you see that the decline in major crimes is pretty much said in the same breathe. What more could you want from the Times?
Every time there is a “rise in homicides,” instead of journalists using the occasion to question the efficacy of policing, police are allowed to use their failures to demand more resources, more funding, more support.
The problem isn’t the reporting, at least in this instance, as the Times and NPR is neither inaccurate or unbalanced, but that it’s too accurate, too balanced, and that means it fails to push the reformers’ agenda by giving facts from which readers might conclude that there are things happening out there that raise serious questions of crime and public safety that might concern them.
The recent momentum and support for systemic change to the criminal legal system is widespread and unlike anything in recent history. But it is also fragile—as recent news reports and elections show. If we are to have any hope at ending this costly, ineffective, and inhumane era of mass criminalization, we cannot overlook or underestimate the role of the media in perpetuating it.
There are two problems here, one reflecting a legitimate concern about media reproducing “copaganda,” the official explanations for why bad things happen, and the one presented by Hechinger, that the media is complicit by accurately reporting facts that don’t help his cause. We can’t have that in the New York Times.