Journalism Industry Grapples With Rebuilding The Crime Beat

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A print newspaper. (Getty Images)
A print newspaper. (Getty Images)

The Boston Globe is rethinking its approach to the crime beat.

Their newly-introduced “Fresh Start” initiative allows subjects of crime stories to ask the newspaper to be removed from past coverage in online articles.

A few paragraphs and a mugshot on the internet can mean losing a job or being refused a loan. It can also have lasting consequences that disproportionately impact communities of color.

After last year’s racial reckoning across the country, journalists nationwide have been questioning the crime beat, including Mike Rispoli, news voices director of the Free Press.

In December, Rispoli and his colleague Tauhid Chappell co-wrote a Nieman Lab 2021 prediction for journalism calling on newsrooms to defund the crime beat.

“Reporting that talks about public safety or violence or trauma — that is necessary,” Rispoli says. “But historically, we know that crime coverage creates a lot of harm.”

Typically, newsrooms center their criminal justice coverage on the narrative of police officers, he says, and sometimes, crime stories are published with only a single police source. Not all police information given to reporters is true, he says, plus details from officers can sometimes “demonize” communities of color.

Research reveals the harm that news organizations’ depictions of crime can inflict on minority groups, specifically Black communities, he says. He points to studies that show people think crime is higher than it is because of the news media.

“If you look historically about how communities of color, especially Black communities, have been covered in the news, they've been covered as threats. They've been covered as violent,” he says.

In re-examining the crime beat, he says newsrooms need to hone in on serving their communities’ needs and think critically about the journalism they choose to publish.

Halting the crime beat doesn’t mean reporting on public safety doesn’t matter, Rispoli says. It means analyzing how stories are constructed — from the sources to the newsworthiness — and determining whether publishing it adequately serves the public or simply benefits the police.

Journalism students are often ingrained from the beginning to remain skeptical of sources of information, including police officers. But Rispoli is calling for something that goes deeper than being inquisitive in one’s reporting.

The crime beat should be abolished in order to make journalism center not on crime, violence and police, but rather on “communities that have been harmed, that have been systematically marginalized through generations of trauma from government divestment,” he says.

An educational facet accompanies this re-centering narrative, one that promotes “a deeper understanding of why violence occurs in our communities,” he says.

Some newsrooms are tinkering with how to cover crime differently, such as eliminating the use of mugshots in their coverage or anonymizing sources in their archives upon request like The Boston Globe.

Newsrooms can do more, he says, starting by dedicating resources to build relationships with the marginalized communities they serve. At the same time, newsrooms also must scrutinize their past coverage to see where harm may have been inflicted.

Any decisions on new journalism policies “need to be made in consultation with the communities that they're supposed to be serving,” he argues.

Rispoli does feel a sense of momentum in the right direction — but actions speak louder than words.

“I just don't want newsrooms to say, ‘Well, we got rid of mug shots. We can wash our hands now. We're done with it,’ ” he says.

Alexander Tuerk produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on February 1, 2021.

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Peter O'Dowd Senior Editor, Here & Now
Peter O’Dowd has a hand in most parts of Here & Now — producing and overseeing segments, reporting stories and occasionally filling in as host. He came to Boston from KJZZ in Phoenix.


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Serena McMahon Digital Producer
Serena McMahon was a digital producer for Here & Now.



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