Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Criminal Justice Reporting: It's Your Beat Whether You Think So or Not

By Zerline Hughes

Criminal justice reporting can be a challenge for journalists in these times. For that matter, reporting on anything is a challenge with the various fiscal issues that face media outlets today. Further challenging is the fact that criminal justice reporting is no longer a beat all its own. The old-school neighborhood cops and courts reporters have now transformed into regional and national politics and fiscal affairs reporters. Even health and medical issues reporters are assigned to the justice
beat as a result of the many issues that now span criminal justice (conditions of confinement, impact on state/national budgets). The same thing goes for journalists originally trained as finance and business reporters – they’re now dabbling in criminal justice-related issues because our U.S. criminal justice system is responsible for many states’ – and the nation’s – financial troubles. Entertainment and sports reporters, too, are now on the CJ beat, as celebrities and high-profile people (Lindsay Lohan, Martha Stewart, Plaxico Burress, Bernard Madoff, Dominique Strauss-Kahn) have been involved in the ‘system’ and regularly made headlines. How to report on these issues without sensationalizing them, and how to accurately explain how the law works and the lasting effects of criminal justice system involvement should, too, be a part of news reporting.

As a result of the growing need for accurate and appropriate criminal justice news coverage, the Justice Policy Institute led a workshop earlier this month during the annual convening of the National Association of Black Journalists conference, which this year met in Philadelphia. NABJ boasts 3,200 members that include minority journalists, bloggers, and media-related professionals dedicated to honing their craft of news reporting. From nationally syndicated TV and radio personalities like Soledad O’Brien to Michael Baisden, to reporters and columnists like the Philadelphia Inquirer Pulitzer Prize winning Acel Moore, NABJ members attend workshops, movie screenings (including “Joy Road,” an October 2011 release highlighting prison racial disparities), debates and awards ceremonies honoring and featuring hot-button issues for both the Black community, Black journalists and journalism overall.

One of the intensive workshops included “Criminal justice reporting: It’s your beat whether you think so or not,” facilitated by myself on behalf of JPI. As a former journalist and member of NABJ, I knew such a workshop would be of interest to the ever-changing journalism industry. I had the pleasure of designing and facilitating the 90-minute discussion on how to accurately cover criminal justice news, what experts to reach out to, how the criminal justice system works and how to thumb through lengthy reports on a deadline.

The workshop featured Professor Gloria Browne-Marshall of CUNY School of Criminal Justice; Attorney Daryl K. Washington of Dallas; Steven Gray, Washington Correspondent for TIME Magazine; and Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of It was this diverse panel of experienced researchers, advocates and recorders that was able to convey to some of the nation’s leading local and national reporters and bloggers some of the challenges organizations run into when pitching ideas to the media, in addition to barriers that reporters come across when trying to report on tight deadlines.

Various reporters from throughout the country sat in on the workshop representing outlets including the Houston Chronicle, New York Post, and a Black press publication just to name a few. I’m sure we got through to them our message of comprehensive reporting, how to pitch a hard-to-sell issue to news editors, and how to sift through pages upon pages of statistics on deadline. I noticed my fellow scribes jotting down notes after I offered potential story ideas based on the fact that nearly “60 percent of county-based public defender offices do not have caseload limits or the authority to refuse cases due to excessive caseloads,” (System Overload), and explained the impact and overall perception of using words like “formerly incarcerated” in place of words like “felon.” Furthermore, all the panelists challenged attendees to use new resources to get all sides of a story and to present more than just a “cops and courts” story as part of their journalistic responsibility.

As a panel, we shared some of the challenges posed by those representing the advocacy perspective. The one reporter on the panel, Gray, in addition to workshop attendees were able to let panelists know about some of their own challenges as well, which primarily focused on tight deadlines and staff shortages. In June, Gray wrote a TIME story entitled “Why Mississippi is Reversing its Prison Policy,” focusing on the reform efforts to save the state’s budget, which in turn, impacts thousands of individuals and families.

To be able to offer such an interactive and engaging workshop during an annual convention of newsmakers and information gatekeepers such as NABJ was a great opportunity for JPI to be a part of. I hope we can continue such dialogues to positively affect fair and accurate coverage.

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