Ben Lowenthal: Local Media Must Avoid Encouraging Low-level Crime


Police in Honolulu arrested a 21-year-old guy in connection with a “double shooting” that occurred over the weekend at a Kalihi gaming room. A guy from Kapolei has been charged with domestic assault and has pleaded not guilty. These are just two of the many crime tales covered by local news outlets this week.

There are always stories in the news about people killing, stabbing, and stealing from each other. If the local TV news was all you heard about Hawaii, you might think that we have a lot of physical crime and thieves and other bad people.

This criminal fiction frequently has little connection to the real-world communities they are set. They are presented with very little background information and don’t touch on social problems, long-term patterns in crime, or the wider picture.

This is because law enforcement is the primary source of information for these tales.

The narrative often begins with an arrest. A mug shot, which is an unflattering snapshot taken almost shortly after the arrest, and a brief statement explaining the reason for the arrest are made public by police or prosecutors. They could even mention that the individual had prior arrests. That is all.

The mug photo then appears on the nightly news, and the official news narrative is based on the police department’s account of what transpired. It’s simple to overlook the fact that a criminal investigation doesn’t end with an arrest.

Because the mug photo makes it seem so obvious that the individual is a criminal, it’s much easier to forget that the person who was arrested is innocent.

What I refer to as the “arraignment story” is another variation of this. As a follow-up to the arrest, we frequently observe it. Following an arrest, prosecutors moved to press charges. For their arraignment, they are taken before the court.

The arrested guy is now a defendant, and the court needs to hear their open answer to the charge, which is to maintain their innocence and want a trial to determine if the prosecution can substantiate the accusations made against them. Even though it plays a significant role in criminal proceedings, it is scarcely noteworthy.

Nevertheless, it frequently appears in the news. Maybe the reasoning goes something like this: if the media reports on the arrest, it’s important to keep them coming and demonstrate that the prosecutors took action.

Perhaps it would be a good idea to expand on the original report about the arrest and demonstrate the prosecutor’s office’s actions. Even yet, there are further issues with the arraignment tale.

Defendants remain in jail if they are unable to pay their bail after being arrested. Thus, the press now portrays them in handcuffs and jumpsuits, entering a not-guilty plea.

Even if they are innocent, they appear to have been found guilty and given a punishment. In certain cases, the news will rerun the original mug image from the same story, adding to the guilty feeling.

If the media shows up at all following the arraignment, it’s for the trial or sentence. It seems inevitable to sentence someone who is already in detention following the mug photo, the in-cell arraignment, and the guilty finding. It is unexpected if the outcome is different, such as a not-guilty finding or the case being dismissed.

Narratives of crime such as this accumulate. People who regularly consume these stories may begin to feel unsafe and vulnerable. However, national statistics indicate a decline in violent crime.

In the absence of context, significant details are omitted from the account.

Let’s imagine the defense claims that the suspect’s constitutional rights were violated by the police entering his or her home or vehicle without a search warrant while they were conducting an investigation.

Prosecutors must thus justify the actions of the police and typically call the officers into court to provide testimony at a hearing. Courts all around the nation regularly hold proceedings of this nature.

What if the media covered the court proceedings in the same context-free manner that they cover arraignments and arrests? Even if the prosecution subsequently establishes that there was no constitutional violation, it can give the impression that the officer had engaged in wrongdoing.

What if similar hearings were routinely covered by the media, suggesting that police are infringing on people’s constitutional rights by searching people’s homes, cars, and persons without a warrant?

Is that true in reality? Without context, who knows? You cannot learn it from a narrative centered around a particular case and its hearings.

Why is there even a report of low-level crime? Is reporting these things out of context ethical and morally right?

This year, to create and execute a re-education program for newsrooms, the Poynter Institute, a longstanding supporter and pioneer of responsible reporting, collaborated with The Just Trust, another group dedicated to criminal justice reform.

The initiative calls on media outlets to stop sensationalizing specific criminal situations, refrain from stereotyping while reporting, and lessen the harm done to the areas that are frequently portrayed as dangerous and crime-ridden.

The Poynter Institute’s endeavors are a component of the growing agreement among news companies to stray from the conventional crime narrative. Major city news agencies have been avoiding the use of mug pictures in their stories for the past three years or more.

Some have gone so far as to cease covering low-level criminal cases entirely and stopping to identify defendants by name. According to the Biloxi Sun Herald, a deceptive picture is created in the media by a deluge of these tales, which suggests that crime is rampant in Mississippi.

The managing editor of the Houston Chronicle said it best when they joined them in 2020: “We’re better than that.”

“Other media outlets and law enforcement agencies will follow your lead and rethink the practice of publicly shaming arrested people who haven’t been convicted of a crime,” expressed gratitude for the decision from a spokeswoman for the local sheriff’s office.

Hawaii is not Houston at all. The adage “if it bleeds, it leads” is still often used and misguided throughout the islands.

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