I’ve been following the latest stories about the election and the news of killings of and by the police, most recently in Dallas, St. Paul and Baton Rouge.
How the Media Promotes Confrontations and Distorts the NewsUnfortunately, the media has been treating the election like a prize fight, while painting a picture of a police force out of control and ignoring the good things that police officers do in their community every day. The net result is that the media sensationalizes the news which provokes confrontations (possibly sending the Dallas cop-killer over the edge), but ignores the policy positions of the politicians and the actual statistics of different types of crimes that should matter more.
These cherry-picked media stories thus can make a case much bigger than it is, especially when it comes to crime. These accounts thrust the victim and hunt for the perpetrator, if not already known, into a kind of mystery show that plays out in the news as long as there is new information and the public remains interested – until the next big crime story pushes it off the front pages.
As I have discussed in my book American Justice?, which discusses problems in the criminal justice system along with the story of my wife became a victim at the hands a hostile prosecutor, these big stories feature compelling victims, so everyone can feel the horror of what happened to them. For example, the stories may be about a young girl or hiker killed by a rapist, a husband pushed from a cliff by an angry wife, or a teenage girl who persuaded her boyfriend to kill himself by carbon dioxide in a truck. Such cases turn into tabloid fodder, though sometimes these stories reveal some misconduct by police or prosecutors in pursuing the case and turn into a call for justice.
An example is the recent Steven Avery case, in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, where the police or prosecutors might have planted evidence to convict Avery, who was previously convicted and later set free after DNA evidence revealed he wasn’t the killer. Maybe things would have been different if Avery had simply gone on with his life, despite the injustice he suffered due to an overly zealous prosecutor who ignored witness evidence that excluded Avery as a suspect since he didn’t matching the victim’s description of her rapist. But since Avery decided to sue for false imprisonment and won a $36 million judgment against the police and city, he certainly made himself a persona non-grata in the county, where he continued to live. So, as seems likely to many commentators on the case, one way to make the suit go away was for the police to arrest him and the prosecutor to charge him and win a conviction against him for something else – the murder of a woman who came to the family junkyard to photograph a car. So now he is in prison while a new lawyer fights to free him.
media photographersThe local media originally helped him seem guilty, and then the Netflix TV series Making a Murderer helped to draw attention to his case, and the storm of protests led to a new lawyer signing on to try to reverse the verdict. I can really identify with such a story, since I saw first-hand how a determined prosecutor seeking victory can ignore the truth or not want to hear the other side of the story, if the truth counters a preconceived belief in the defendant’s guilt. Then, the prosecutor may choose to accept the stories of one set of witnesses and not listen to the defendant’s side of the story, which is what happened to my wife. The prosecutor chose to believe the lies of the kids who initially accused her of trying to run over one of them, a case bolstered by a hostile neighbor who claimed to have seen the incident, when any investigation would show he couldn’t have seen what he claimed from his vantage point. But when my wife claimed this incident never happened, he ignored her entreaties , and the local media contributed to making her seem guilty as charged.
Another type of big story case now includes the mass murders of a half-dozen or more people in places around the U.S. – the bigger the body count, the bigger the story. All sorts of settings are fair game – from theaters and night clubs to schools. This is not to denigrate the seriousness of these cases, but to show how the media selectively picks a certain case to highlight – usually one with the biggest body count, while not reporting on the even much greater number of killings that happen every day due to road rage, family homicides and inner city killings of primarily blacks killing other blacks.
As with well-publicized cases of confrontations between blacks and police, such mass shootings are grim stories and need to be reported. But the media blows a selected case up out of all proportion to the thousands of other cases that have even more victims and are more common.
Moreover, these media accounts have unintended consequences in creating other victims of hate. For instance, the mass killings have triggered a growing intolerance towards Muslim Americans, since the last two killers had a heritage from the Middle East, though Muslim Americans have decried such killings. In fact, some recent killings of Muslims, such as a doctor being shot on his way to a mosque in Houston for morning prayers, are due to this incitement of anti-Muslim hostility. Cop killing cases have led to massive protests against the police and have contributed to a growing racial divide in America, since the police have increasingly been seen as the enemy in the inner cities.
Thus, the tension and the potential for even more conflict and violence continues, because these stories help to breed fear of the other and promote racial tensions between groups. By contrast, the truth is that most killings are due to conflicts with people one knows, and the statistics bear this out. For example, the majority of homicides occur between family members and between blacks killing other blacks. But the media plays up stories of the dangerous stranger, so fear spreads through the land.
What is the solution to help reduce the misleading accounts by the media or fearful impressions formed by the public? In American Justice? , I have made a number of suggestions to help overcome some key abuses by the media, which include making the defendant look guilty, notorious trial and pretrial publicity, racial basis, and criminal bias. For instance, the names of individuals charged with a crime should not be reported in the media. The media should not be permitted to write about what they learn from prosecutors, unless they also receive the defense attorney’s comment on that information. They should stop hiding behind the use of the word “alleged”, which readers basically ignore.
image004If false stories get published or produced, reporters, publishers, and others who have produced such stories should be required to do follow-up stories to make up for the false information that they have spread. Then, too, the media should not report speculations, rumors, and expressions of opinions as facts. Instead, they should be required to specify when they don’t have actual facts in a case but are reporting rumors and social media musings. They should also direct more attention to the level of violence in our society, as exemplified by the number of individual homicides, together with suggestions for how to reduce it.
In short, I firmly believe the media should be held to higher standards of accuracy and civility, rather than sensationalizing cases to appeal to readers who want to be entertained rather than informed about the truth.