Whose fault is fear of crime? Media: They pander to demagogic politicians and lead the public to believe that violence is constant and everywhere, say academics and police officials.

November 03, 1996|By Peter Hermann

GLEN COVE, N.Y. -- As I sit inside a posh Long Island conference center, a world away from my gut-wrenching job as The Sun's crime reporter, I cringe as a panel of academics and police officials tells me that the nation has an irrational fear of crime, and it's my fault.

Well, not all my fault. The rest of the media are to blame too, along with the politicians who demagogue the crime issue. You see, according to the panelists, we're all in cahoots, the media and the politicians; we're locked in a conspiracy to scare the public into believing there is anarchy on the streets. As proof, the panelists point to coverage of the so-called "War on Drugs," which they describe as a fraud.

Politicians foster the drug war myth to get votes and the media perpetuate it to sell newspapers and to feed their insatiable appetite for ratings, say the panelists. Meanwhile, the coverage gives average Americans the impression that they are just a heartbeat away from being robbed, shot, bludgeoned or maimed.

As the public clamors for more police protection and tougher sentencing laws, more people, especially minorities, are getting longer prison terms, more drug addicts are receiving jail time instead of medical treatment and more police departments are getting the green light to run roughshod over citizens' rights, the panelists say.

"Politicians cheaply buy votes on the fears and individual prejudices of others and on the freedom of some," said Norval Morris, a professor of law and criminology at the University of Chicago.

While I dine on salmon and roast beef, and try to learn how to do a better job of reporting the death and mayhem on Baltimore's streets, a half-dozen of my colleagues are busily working a story about a senseless act. A fool with a gun opened fire on a crowd outside Volcano's, an East Baltimore nightclub, killing two and wounding five. Two college students with bright futures were slain.

While the participants at the conference debated the abstractions of crime coverage, editors back home were dealing with the realities. The Sun covered the Volcano's shootings aggressively, and I'm sure many of our readers expected no less.

The intent was not to exploit the crime but to tell our readers as much as we could about it. The stories told the human impact of the killings on the victims' friends and relatives and they revealed that the club had licensing violations.

While some crime stories have an important ramifications, others are bizarre, too bizarre to ignore -- such as the Carroll County woman slain in North Carolina, apparently after plotting her own demise with the suspect over the Internet. Crimes like this capture the public's interest and people look to the media for details.

The conference was held by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Columbia Journalism Review. Billed as "the largest gathering of police reporters on Long Island since the arraignment of Amy Fisher," participants sought out ways to make crime reporting more relevant to readers.

David J. Krajicek, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, urged reporters to get away from being "confined to blotter-based" crime reporting that has been consistent for the past 175 years.

He said that one-third of stories in newspapers and two-thirds of television news comes from the police or courts.

"Given this bleak portrayal, it's no surprise that the news consumers are afraid to of being carjacked each time they go to the 7-Eleven for a gallon of milk," Krajicek said, adding that the media have created a view of the nation as "teetering on the edge of an apocalypse."

The biggest complaint raised at the conference center is not one I disagree with. News organizations, particularly television, spend too much time presenting a litany of car accidents, shootings, slayings and domestic trauma and not enough time covering criminal justice issues.

Reporting the daily tragedies fails to put crime in the proper perspective and leaves the impression that violence is constant. "The flow of superficial crime stories has turned into a flood," Morris said. "I've come to the conclusion that crime is public entertainment. The reality is bad enough without making it worse."

Morris complained that the media have become "handmaidens of politicians" in fostering the idea that crime is epidemic. He said this country leads other Western nations in the number of gun robberies and homicides, but the U.S. figures are only slightly higher than theirs for other crimes like burglary and rape. Yet, Morris said, the United States has a imprisonment rate five times as high as other Western countries and sentencing is an issue that the media either ignore or deal with superficially.

One Texas television station is embarking on a bold experiment to combat its "if it bleeds, it leads" image. Before a crime story is aired on KVUE-TV, a series of questions are asked, among them: Is a child involved? Is there a threat to public safety?

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