Tuesday Talk*: Does “Copaganda” Have A Point?

It was one of those moments when, had I been drinking at the time, there was an excellent chance I would have spit all over my computer screen. Scott Hechinger, who has dedicated himself to telling his distorted version of reality since leaving Brooklyn Defenders to start his media activist site, “Zealou.us” twitted that Teen Vogue was “the best justice journalism outlet in the country.” Apparently, it’s not just about anal sex anymore.

But the particular point being made had to do with the magazine posting of a short video about “copaganda.” It’s a word that’s used by reformers to smear media’s presentation of crime and criminal justice issues either primarily from the perspective of official channels like law enforcement or to hype outlier anecdotes to create the impression that crime is rampant by feeding the public a steady stream of crime stories.

I’m not a fan of the word “copaganda,” which like most cutesy words is used to denigrate all reporting that runs contrary to what reformers would prefer the media report. They complain that the media’s longstanding focus on “if it bleeds, it leads,” should be replaced by the reformers’ “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead” stores of how a defendant was released without bail and went to the grocery store.

That no one would want to read it is besides the point, or at least their point. Their point is that the bulk of “crime” stories are uneventful. Of course, the same is true of the bulk of stories of police interactions, and yet they have no qualms about the publishing of stories of police abuse, misconduct and violence. This inconsistency doesn’t seem to bother them at all.

But the awful word, “copaganda,” aside, do they actually have a point? When a crime story breaks, it almost invariably comes from the police side of the room. After all, they are the only ones in possession of information at that point, and in the absence of some glaringly false or ridiculous claim, what are journalists supposed to do about it? So they regurgitate the story like “police stenographers” for lack of anything else to report at that stage.

There are two problems with this process. The first is that the initial story creates the “myth” of the case, “facts” alleged by unproven at that point which are repeated in all subsequent reporting without question. These “facts” become embedded so firmly in the narrative that it becomes impossible to think about or discuss a case without premising it upon these “facts.” Except they aren’t “facts,” and never were. They were merely an initial allegations, maybe mistaken or maybe deliberately false, used to form the context in which real facts are viewed or understood.

The second problem is that the initial story is the one that captures people’s interest. Often, people can’t be bothered to read subsequent stories, even when they refute everything alleged in the first story. Let’s face it, people are generally too lazy to read follow-up stories. Heck, people are generally too lazy to read beyond the first paragraph. And yet they form opinions about the substance of the former despite the story being completely one-sided.

Is this good enough? Are we being happily misled by reporters giving only the cop press release when it’s often wrong or inadequate? We can’t make people work harder than they care to work by putting in the effort to follow up on stories. We can’t make people interested in things that don’t interest them, such as the defendant who returned home to her family and appeared in court whenever required until her case was dismissed.

So what can we do to prevent being made to believe we know what we’re talking about when the reality is that we’ve been told nothing more than an initial impression, often contrary to the facts or at least devoid of the fuller story that could, and should, give us far more to ponder than the cop version?

*Tuesday Talk rules apply, within reason.

13 thoughts on “Tuesday Talk*: Does “Copaganda” Have A Point?

  1. Henry Berry

    There’s lots of youtube true-crime channels and podcasts these days, and Facebook groups too on particular crimes and true-crime in general. I’m not saying they are any more reliable or unbiased than mainstream media. But the better ones are sources of information, investigative activities, and debate that give a bigger picture to many crimes — usually of the more sensational types, e. g., murders, child abuse — and thus allow for a more evenhanded comprehension of cases.

  2. Pedantic Gammar Police

    “We’re all more safe, when more of us have access to freedom”

    A debatable proposition. If she’s talking about regular people being free to mind their own business, then of course it’s true, but I don’t think that is what she’s getting at. Are we more safe, if people who like to rob people or push them on to subway tracks, have access to freedom? Based on the recent experiments in NYC, SF, etc., the answer is no.

  3. Miles

    One perpetual problem is that stories of cop shootings are so often written in the passive tense. If they can finally put a stop that practice, it will be a significant improvement.

  4. C. Dove

    To be fair, it’s not like Donny Defendant is going to sit down with the Gray Lady to recount how he stuck up a Store 24 and got away with it. But I get that that’s not your point.

    The better reporters are those who hang around the Hall of Justice, the ones who get to know the players, and generally do not settle for regurgitating the nearest press release. That works well for print media, less so for the tee-vee, where stories are presented in 30- to 60-second clips.

    What’s the solution? I’d like to think it starts with having reporters who understand that pleading “not guilty” is not an insult to everyone’s intelligence but a normal part of the process.

  5. Jake

    As it would be inarguably better for all criminal defendants if journalists simply followed the 4 rules of journalism they all learn in J school, the position of all criminal defense lawyers should be aligned and clear.

    Call it bullshit, trash, or copaganda, but don’t call it journalism. Anything less than a full-throated presumption of innocence and gathering more than the cop side of the story on every crime report deserves your scorn.

  6. B. McLeod

    For the last five years or so, journalists have widely been qualifying their crime stories with “police say,” no matter how stupid it looks.

  7. Hal

    I knew the word “copaganda” was familiar, but only remembered the context a few moments ago.

    A politician, somewhere out west, was in a tight race and campaigning on an Indian reservation. At times during his speech, often after he described something he’d done to help the tribe, voices in the crowd would call out “Copaganda!”.

    He took this as sign of their enthusiasm and support.

    After his speech there was a bit of glad handing and small talk with the tribal elders, before he apologized and told them he was tight for time and had to go. He was advised that rather than try to make his way through the crowd to his limousine, he should cut across a cow pasture.

    “Just be careful not to stop in the copaganda.

  8. Chris Halkides

    I am working on the forensics of a possible wrongful conviction, and I am familiar with some of the pretrial publicity of this case. Based on this experience, I would muzzle the press before the trial. Certainly no perp walks or mugshots and probably no photographs of the accused. I would clamp down on police or prosecution who floated hypotheses anonymously. I would be inclined to only allow reporting on what was in the indictment.

  9. RCJP

    Journalist: “Why are there 12 police cars, 3 ambulances, a half-mile of crime scene tape, 2 bodies under sheets, and a guy in cuffs here?”

    Cop: Dunno. We haven’t concluded the investigation, and can’t say anything until after the jury verdict.

    1. Chris Halkides

      I agree that it is possible to take the idea of muzzling the media too far. My reason for focusing on photographs was to minimize the chances that an eyewitness would merge the media photograph with his or her own memory, a known phenomenon. When I said “hypotheses,” I should have been more specific. What I had in mind were comments that are either highly speculative or completely unsupported by the facts of the case but which heighten emotions against the accused. Possibly the Central Park Five case fits this description.

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