Guidelines for transforming crime coverage

Mar 26, 2024 in Specialized Topics
Yellow police lines that reads crime scene do not cross

Crime reporting is getting a makeover in many newsrooms. The axiom, “If it bleeds, it leads,” is being reshaped into public safety journalism. 

The Minneapolis Star Tribune is a prime example. “Context and history must go along with reporting about what’s happening with crime in our communities. It’s about informing the public so they can make good choices about their safety,” said Kyndell Harkness, head of culture and community at the Star. 

One online course, “Transforming Local Crime Reporting Into Public Safety Journalism,” offered by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, has sparked change on the crime beat. “We were already heading down that road, but that program gave us structure in a way we needed at the time,” said Harkness, who took the course when it first was offered  in 2022.

To date, 65 media organizations have participated; 21 more signed up in March. The course is only open to U.S.-based news media.

Common habits, such as the use of mugshots and police press releases as sole sources of information, are under review. The Star Tribune no longer publishes mugshots unless, after discussion with a senior manager, the story is determined to be of “exceptional news value” – for instance, an ongoing threat to the public, a hate-motivated crime, a high-profile national story or one that involves notable community members.

“It's important to note that this is our starting point [...] we know these changes will shift and change over time. We talk about them being living documents that will grow with us,” said Harkness, who has been at the Star for 23 years. There also is a push for more explanatory reporting and crime demographics in the coverage.

Harkness pointed to a September 2023 Star report that used data to show that violent crime – murder, aggravated assault, rape and armed robbery –  was down to its lowest point since the 2020s in some areas of Minneapolis. The story explored the reasons, such as police getting more guns off the streets and confronting gang violence. 

“We showed what it used to be like and what it is like today.  We used data to drive the story,” said Harkness.

Among the list of objectives for the Poynter course:

  • Report on the underlying causes that contribute to crime, such as economic issues, education, access to health care, affordable housing policies, addiction and mental health treatment.  
  • Describe trends by using demographics and zip codes so that people understand risks in certain areas.  
  • Identify how news coverage shapes public opinion, which in turn, shapes public policies.

Cheryl Thompson-Morton, a co-leader for the course, defines traditional crime coverage as “one-off crime stories that only include law enforcement perspectives, provide little context as to crime trends, and fail to follow-up with communities to understand root causes and solutions. That is what we are trying to change.”

She outlined the following questions for journalists to explore:

  • Start with the mission:  Why is your newsroom covering crime?  What promise do you want to make to your audience?  
  • Where is your coverage currently? What would your coverage look like if you were successful?
  • What do you need to do to get from your present state on reporting crime to where you want to be in the future? Discuss tactics.
  • What stakeholders do you need to engage to make this change successful? How can you get them to buy into the process?
  • How do we get data and use it to expand discussions about trends of public safety in our communities as opposed to individual incidents?  
  • How does our relationship with law enforcement need to change? How can we add trauma-informed reporting to our approach?
  • How do we communicate these changes to our audience?

Resources for journalists

While there are no pat answers, these questions serve as guideposts for instigating change. Here are other resources that can help.

  • The Marshall Project: Focus on criminal justice reporting. Speaking to media at a 2023 conference, Marshall Project director, Carroll Bogert, noted, “News organizations are adopting a variety of policies to try to improve coverage. Some are attempts to balance the ‘police said’ side of the narrative.” 

Among other changes, she cited:

  • Dropping coverage of less serious or petty crime.
  • Not running police mugshots, or when they do, instituting a process by which a person can get the mugshot taken down.
  • Only covering cases worth following.

The project’s website posts stories that go beyond the ordinary with topics, sources and data.

  • Radio, Television, Digital, News Association: Guidelines to help rethink crime beats. RTDNA recommends updating or removing archived digital versions of stories when requested if the case is expunged, charges are dropped or withdrawn, the age of the case and mitigating conditions have created a changed environment for the victim and/or accused.
  • The Crime Report: Collaborative effort by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice, a “practice-oriented” think tank on crime and justice reporting; and Criminal Justice Journalists (CJJ) an organization of crime-beat journalists. 

According to its website, CJJ “operates a daily listserv for criminal justice journalists, develops special guides and case studies for reporters on coverage of criminal justice topics, and produces the country’s only daily digest and summary of criminal justice news, culled from hundreds of news outlets and organizations around the country.”

Photo by kat wilcox via Pexels.