This article is based on questions (below) addressing the relevancy of media objectivity by the Columbia Journalism Review. I spent thirty-five years directing multi-award-winning media relations for national and state criminal justice organizations. I understand what happens when events go from incident to issue. I wrote a book about my experiences (below).
What do I mean by incident to issue? Incidents are just that, they are events that get media coverage for short periods of time. Issues go on for much longer. American policing is now an issue receiving widespread negative media coverage over the course of years.
Some in the media feel that American law enforcement is fundamentally flawed, possibly racist, violent, or corrupt.
Examples? A national source did a review of police social media posts and declared them wildly interoperate. So I went to journalism social pages and found the same comments. You could go to social media posts of any profession and get the same results.
The media mentions of current or former cops who were part of the Capitol Hill insurrection are unnecessarily endless. Thirty officers “attending” the demonstration (per National Public Radio) out of a million police employees hardly represent the totality of law enforcement. Yes, the invasion of the Capitol was immensely disturbing, but media implications as to people “attending” are stereotypically harsh. Cops have the same rights as anyone to express their political views.
But it’s the day-to-day media coverage that concerns me. At one time, cops were respected by the media with the sense that if someone screwed up, it may be an isolated incident, not an indictment of all police officers. In most cases, it was an incident, not an issue.
Every day I get requests from reporters, students, and the curious wanting to know what happened to American law enforcement. Why are they so violent, racist, or insensitive. US Department of Justice interviews of citizens (with a methodology based on the Census) refute most of these assumptions yet the stereotypes continue, Police Myths.
Is the intensely negative media coverage of law enforcement contributing to cops leaving and exploding violence? Is media objectivity a thing of the past?
Are we capable of having an honest conversation about crime control and law enforcement?
Not Going To Downplay Our Issues
There’s no sense in downplaying the incidents where cops have either made mistakes or engaged in deliberate criminal behavior. There is a history of law enforcement and minority communities that is tragically unenviable. There are histories of corruption in some agencies.
We within the justice system need to do better. We are here to serve. Equal, respectful treatment under the law is what we pledged to do. Anyone engaging in “purposeful” disrespect towards anyone doesn’t deserve to be a cop.
But every profession has its issues. If you intensely scrutinize priests, ministers, doctors, nurses, reporters, bankers, lawyers or anyone else over the course of years, you will uncover more than you want to know.
I see little in law enforcement that I do not see in any profession, including disparities.
Systemic Problems Versus Bad Apples
Presidents Obama, Trump and Biden (plus endless others) state that the vast majority of police officers are decent people trying to do a dangerous and complex job. President Obama said it best when he stated that society expects too much from law enforcement and too little from ourselves.
There are problems with community relations, and they have to be addressed. But if you are capable of stereotyping a million cops (sworn and civilian) for the actions of a few, then you are capable of any “ism.” If you feel that “all” cops are…, then you are possibly a bigot.
There are endless newspaper articles citing instances of cops leaving the job. Some cities don’t have enough officers to patrol their streets (i.e., Minneapolis).
Per the Police Executive Research Forum, recruitment is down by 63 percent. Because of the violence directed towards police officers and COVID deaths, and because of harshly negative media, family members are telling loved ones to get out of policing, and to get out now, Cops Leaving.
Violent Crime Increases Dramatically
Per the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the US Department of Justice, violent crime increased 28 percent since 2015 (the year of the Freddie Gray incident and numerous disturbances). Serious violent crime increased. Fear of crime is at an all-time high. Gun purchases are skyrocketing. Security devices are hitting record numbers. People and businesses are leaving cities. A variety of sources have documented a dramatic increase in homicides and other forms of violence, US Crime Rates.
It’s possible that immense negativity is causing people to leave law enforcement or not engage in proactive policing that’s contributing to dramatically rising violence in many cities, Proactive Policing Reduces Crime.
How America Feels About Cops
But it’s interesting that, regardless of the harsh coverage, the vast majority of Americans, regardless of who they are, feel that the overwhelming number of encounters with the police were fair and respectful. Law enforcement is one of the highest-rated progressions, scoring much higher than the media or Congress, Perceptions Of Law Enforcement.
Data from the US Department of Justice based on interviews with citizens refute almost every stereotype about the profession.
I get questions about the “immense” violence inflicted by cops on citizens, yet data indicates that out of sixty million plus citizen encounters, force “or” threat of force is used in less than three percent, hardly the carnage charged, Police-Citizen Interactions.
As to police-initiated contacts, there is no difference between Blacks and Whites, use of force has decreased, the lowest and highest income levels had the same amount of contact.
Even in fragile communities (i.e., high unemployment), a study finds that 74% of fragile-community residents vs. 87% of Americans overall think people like themselves are treated “very fairly” or “fairly” by their local police, Gallup.
An estimated 40 million U.S. residents age 16 or older, or about 17 percent of the population, had a face-to-face contact with a police officer in one year. Among people who had face-to-face contacts, about nine out of 10 residents felt the police were respectful or acted properly, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Yes, there are differences based on race. Regardless, in most polls, the majority of people interviewed want cops in their neighborhoods and rate most interactions favorably.
Yet many (most?) media articles and reports focus on negative incidents as representative of all police and citizen interactions.
The Media And Objectivity
After decades of media relations, I have immense respect and appreciation for the majority of journalists. They are more like cops than most realize. They see a misinformed citizenry who refuse to understand journalism or the issues reporters cover. They feel unfairly maligned.
But back in my day, there were journalistic ethics as to objectivity that were enforced. As a reporter, you were not supposed to express public views about politics or any other social issue. You were supposed to be objective. You were supposed to be fair. You were supposed to be right. You were expected to report on both sides of an issue.
Today’s public perceptions of journalism are horrific. Search “media objectivity” and you will get endless articles as to how the public doesn’t trust what they read, watch or hear. Every day I read reviews about the media industry and they are filled with stories of fewer jobs, failing papers, and a dramatic loss of income, Axios.
By the way, please give me your list of truly objective news sources with an unimpeachable reputation for fairness are accuracy? Beyond the Associated Press and a few others, most seem to embrace agendas.
When I went to National Public Radio headquarters in D.C., I joked with the reporter that I’ve never been to the Kremlin before. She laughed. Regardless of impeccable reporting, NPR leans left, and the world knows that.
What Comes After We Get Rid Of Objectivity?
(some quotes rearranged for brevity)
The killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and the protests that followed, helped spark a debate in many newsrooms and journalism schools around the country about the time-honored principle of objectivity in journalism, and whether it serves any useful purpose.
Former Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery wrote in the New York Times that what we call objective journalism “is constructed atop a pyramid of subjective decision-making,” and has been defined “almost exclusively by white reporters and their mostly white bosses.” Since then, journalists at the Los Angeles Times and other newsrooms have spoken out about their longstanding experiences of racism, and the impact those have had on the journalism they and their employers do.
So is objectivity a relic? And if so, what should we replace it with? We got a group of journalists and other experts together on CJR’s Galley platform this week for a virtual panel discussion on those and other related questions.
Lewis Raven Wallace is a writer, journalist, and author of the recent book The View From Somewhere, as well as the host of a podcast of the same name. He is also a co-founder of Press On, a Southern collective of journalists, storytellers, and organizers that uses journalism in the service of liberation. Wallace’s book is based in part on his personal experience as a former reporter for Marketplace, from which he was fired in 2017 after he wrote a blog post questioning the idea of objective journalism.
“I believe objectivity itself is a myth that’s been perpetuated based on a normative white male cisgender perspective in journalism,” he said. “The journalism we call objective is generally just biased towards acceptable social and political norms.”
The media, Wallace said, needs to think about “the relationship between journalism, identity, community, and truth.” Focusing on that relationship can offer a path forward for journalism that rebuilds trust with audiences, he said—trust that has been lost after decades of supposed objectivity.
Morgan Givens also argued that there needs to be a complete reframing of what journalism is and how it operates. Givens is a writer, performer, and audio producer based in Washington, DC. He works with NPR and WAMU, and is also a former police officer who worked in prisons to eliminate sexual violence.
“Black Americans have always lived in a United States where police killed us and still do with impunity, but this was an America that white journalistic institutions and those who allow them to function ignored,” he said. “Is ignoring these communities an example of being objective or ignoring the truth because the reality makes white journalists uncomfortable?”
Heather Chaplin is the founding director of Journalism + Design at the New School. She is also co-host of the podcast Tricky and has been a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. She told CJR’s Josh Young that she tries to distinguish between objectivity and “neutrality, which is a concept that has never made any sense to me. I think what people are upset about, and incorrectly calling objectivity, is really BS neutrality. When the New York Times bends over backwards to give voice to someone espousing obviously racist views that’s not objective. That’s trying to adhere to a nonsensical notion of neutrality.”
Brent Cunningham is the executive editor of the Food and Environment Reporting Network, and a former deputy editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, where he wrote a piece for the magazine in 2003 entitled “Rethinking Objectivity.” He said he agrees with Wesley Lowery that “this embrace of an impossible standard has produced coverage that fails to convey the truth of a given situation, given cover to lazy reporting, and allowed those who would spin and distort the truth the ability to do so without being called on it.”
Will Meyer is a writer, editor, and musician from western Massachusetts and editor of a local publication called The Shoestring. He told CJR that in addition to moving beyond a commitment to an old-fashioned concept like objectivity, “I would argue that [we] need to move beyond an advertising/commercially driven press system.
Yes, the objectivity standard absolutely privileges the white male vantage point, and I would agree with everyone who says there needs to be more work on diversifying newsrooms.” But Meyer said he also thinks that the practice of journalism has to “think about moving beyond the commercial pressures that created this shoddy standard to begin with.”
Discussions questioning media objectivity frighten me; they are challenging the very essence of good journalism. Poll after poll cite the lack of objectivity as the reason for a declining journalism industry.
People feel free to tell cops that if they can’t take the heat and make great decisions under immensely difficult circumstances, then leave. That same message applies to reporters. If you can’t practice objectivity, if your personal views guide your reporting, then get the hell out of journalism. Per polls, you are damaging the profession.
The two institutions are hurting. The media profession is hemorrhaging jobs, income and prestige. Cops are leaving and violence is skyrocketing.
Debates as to media objectivity are like arguing about the structural integrity of ocean liners as the Titanic is sinking.
It’s the adherence to objectivity in the media that creates trust. It’s the dedication to fair and equal treatment in law enforcement that gains citizen cooperation, respect, and crime reductions.
But objectivity and regaining the public’s respect for both institutions begins with a refusal to stereotype. Ninety-five percent (more?) of cops are good people. Most reporters are honorable. Mistakes in both professions are ridiculously easy to make.
Yea, I understand that many will blast me for not taking sides. Real journalism died years ago say many. Cops are brutal, right-wing abusers of people others suggest.
We’ve been through all this in the past. Policing and journalism will emerge better for the experience. But stereotyping either when facts don’t support the truth is simply dysfunctional.
See more articles on crime and justice at Crime in America.
Most Dangerous Cities/States/Countries at Most Dangerous Cities.
US Crime Rates at Nationwide Crime Rates.
National Offender Recidivism Rates at Offender Recidivism.
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My book based on thirty-five years of criminal justice public relations,” Success With The Media: Everything You Need To Survive Reporters and Your Organization” available at Amazon.