Regardless of political affiliation, most Americans feel that the news media has lost its credibility. A 2020 Gallup poll shows that only nine percent of Americans have “a great deal of trust” in the media, while 33 percent say they have no trust at all. Traditionally, this distrust has been reserved for national and cable news organizations. But a call by two Philadelphia-area activists in Harvard University’s Neiman Journalism Lab to suppress local coverage of crime shows why this unfortunate trend is likely to spread to the local level as well.
In an article published by the Nieman Lab, authors Tauhid Chappell and Mike Rispoli characterized local crime coverage as “terrible, racist, classist, fear-based clickbait masking as journalism.” Chappell’s employer, Free Press, has been working to eliminate this coverage in Philadelphia for over a year through its “Shift the Narrative Project,” which also seeks to limit the relationship between the media and law enforcement. The narrative they are promoting in conjunction with groups like Black Lives Matter is one that blames “systemic racism” for any outcome of economic or social inequality and most crime. It also paints law enforcement as a racist mechanism of oppression.
This proposed narrative, however, has time and again been easily debunked by facts. A myriad of both government and academic statistics (including those from Harvard, ironically) have shown that the vast majority of police interactions with civilians are peaceful and show no statistical evidence of bias. Furthermore, their narrative doesn’t account for the fact that the political leadership, law enforcement agencies, local judiciaries, and, most notably, the local citizens who call for police assistance are themselves racially diverse. Nationwide, a great many of America’s low-income, high-crime areas are not composed solely of black and brown residents – proven locally by the fact that Kensington, the center of Philadelphia’s opioid crisis, is a racially diverse neighborhood that’s a destination for suburban, white addicts seeking inexpensive opioids.
Their narrative doesn’t account for the fact that the political leadership, law enforcement agencies, local judiciaries, and, most notably, the local citizens who call for police assistance are themselves racially diverse.
But beyond the biased and flawed lens through which these local journalists want their peers (and their audience) to view the world, the fact that their radical ideology is being normalized by the Neiman Foundation does even more harm the integrity of journalism. Established in 1938, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard administers the oldest fellowship program for journalists in the world. More than 1,300 journalists from 88 countries have benefited from a year of study and exploration at Harvard through Nieman Fellowships. For this renowned program to promote concepts that falsely construe the factual reporting of actual crimes as serving “three powerful constituencies: white supremacy, law enforcement, and newsrooms—specifically a newsroom’s bottom line,” is to underscore just how disconnected the academic elite who educate journalists are from the reality on the ground at newsrooms across the nation.
Further disconnecting journalism from what communities are actually going through will result in even less public trust in the media, not to mention a mass violation of journalists’ code of ethics.
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The truth is that crime is news that impacts a local readership/viewership. By encouraging media outlets and journalists to edit or limit the reporting of crime based on ideology, Neiman is denigrating the rights and duties that journalists fought (and in some cases died) for around the world. At the top of these rights and duties is the expectation that journalists should respect the right of the public to know the truth, defend freedom of information, report only the facts of which they know the origin – and not suppress essential information or alter texts and documents.
Worse, with a national surge in violent crime and nearly 500 murders in Philadelphia in 2020 alone, refusing to report what people of every race, social strata, and ethnicity can plainly see before their eyes will mean that the media outlets closest to home are robbing their own communities of essential information that can help improve how crime is addressed.
A. Benjamin Mannes, MA, CPP, CESP, is a Subject Matter Expert in Security & Criminal Justice Reform based on his own experiences on both sides of the criminal justice system. He has served as a federal and municipal law enforcement officer and was the former Director, Office of Investigations with the American Board of Internal Medicine. @PublicSafetySME