Among the many things 2020 has helped clarify is that journalism, particularly the journalism practiced by the corporate media, is in bad shape. From the media’s coverage of impeachment (remember that?), to the presidential election, to the pandemic and the riots and everything else, it has become painfully obvious that the establishment press isn’t interested in journalism as such, but in woke political activism and race hustling.
So no wonder the very smart journalists at Harvard’s Nieman Lab want to “defund the crime beat” because reporting on crime is apparently now racist.
That’s the gist of a recent piece published as part of Nieman’s series on “predictions for journalism 2021.” It’s not so much a prediction as a shoddy argument, though, and it opens with the blanket claim that “Crime coverage is terrible.”
It’s racist, classist, fear-based clickbait masking as journalism. It creates lasting harm for the communities that newsrooms are supposed to serve. And because it so rarely meets the public’s needs, it’s almost never newsworthy, despite what Grizzled Gary in his coffee-stained shirt says from his perch at the copy desk.
Haha, get it? Grizzled Gary is old-school in a bad way, untutored in the finer points of woke journalism, and although he might not be personally racist, he supports crime coverage that serves “three powerful constituencies: white supremacy, law enforcement, and newsrooms—specifically a newsroom’s bottom line.”
Employing prose better suited to a graduate seminar on critical race theory than a newsroom, authors Tauid Chappell and Mike Rispoli go on to argue that because crime beat reporters often rely on the police for basic information when reporting crime stories, such stories can’t be trusted because the police can’t be trusted. In their minds, the crime beat is a nexus of greedy news media owners and racist cops. But this is of course a caricature unconnected to the reality of actual newsrooms.
What Chappell and Rispoli miss, maybe because they’ve never covered a crime beat themselves, is that most reporters don’t just regurgitate what police tell them. They talk to families, lawyers, witnesses—as many people as they can to verify the facts and get a clear picture of what happened, usually on a tight deadline.
I know a little about this because I was once a crime beat reporter. My first job in journalism was at my hometown newspaper in southcentral Alaska, and like most cub reporters I was given the cops and courts beat.
It was a good beat for rookies because it was good training. You had to gather facts quickly, ask questions on the fly, and produce copy against a deadline. It could also be monotonous. Most days I would drive to one of two local police stations or the state trooper post and read through incident reports for the “police blotter” section, mostly just cases of DUIs, petty theft, and assault.
But sometimes the monotony paid off and I found a real story (which is part of why news outlets have beat reporters at all). One morning, I came across a longer report. State troopers had arrested a couple on charges of kidnapping and multiple counts of felony assault. It turned out their victims were their five children, three girls and two boys, aged 6 to 15, all of them adopted. The couple had been foster parents to all of the children, and at one point was collecting $3,400 from the state to care for them.
In the process of reporting the story, what I discovered shocked and sickened me—and in fact shocked the entire state. The couple had been running what amounted to a torture camp for their adopted children—beating them, locking them in cages, chaining them to trees outside for days on end, depriving them of food.
The case triggered an investigation of the state’s Office of Children’s Services, which had been responsible for vetting and approving the couple as foster parents and allowing the adoptions to go through. It also triggered a lawsuit, which the state settled in 2014, paying $1 million to one of the abused boys but admitting no wrongdoing.
I mention all this because the outlets that first broke the story—my own local paper and the paper in Anchorage—did so because lowly beat reporters had been leafing through police incident reports as part of their unglamorous daily grind.
Beat reporting, in other words, is an important part of journalism. Reporters covering a beat might understandably get bored with it sometimes but they also become experts on their beat, developing sources, building relationships, and most importantly, being there to catch news that might otherwise go unreported. This is especially true of city hall reporters, who are often the only people covering otherwise mind-numbing municipal hearings that can have huge consequences for residents of a city or town.
As local newspapers wither and die across the country, beat reporting is dying out, too. This is bad for actual journalism but good, I guess, if your goal is something other than actual journalism. Chappell and Rispoli, for example, work for a media nonprofit called Free Press, an entity whose self-described social justice mission involves “uplifting the voices of people of color in the media,” and “reimagining local journalism.”
The journalism they’re reimagining, though, isn’t the kind that will simply report news in the public interest, let alone catch major stories that would otherwise go unreported. It’s the kind of journalism that would rather lecture the public about racism and confirm boilerplate woke pieties. As a vision of what American journalism should be, it’s pretty dismal. But as a prediction for where corporate journalism is headed in 2021, it’s probably right on the money.