Journalists have incredible power to shape our perceptions of reality, risk, and safety, and with that power comes responsibility. Especially regarding how we report crime and the lives it affects. In this three-part series titled, Rethinking Crime Reporting, Prism’s Crime, Reform & Abolition reporter Tamar Sarai does a deep dive into how people and their communities are continually impacted by anti-Blackness in crime reporting and the media’s uncritical acceptance of the information provided by law enforcement. This series also covers the growing movement within newsrooms and among media advocates to cultivate an active awareness of how our coverage can further entrench racist narratives and provide the public with reporting rooted in context and humanity as much as factual accuracy. This is part one of the series, you can find the following two parts here.

Identity shapes how a person moves through every stage of the criminal legal system—income, nationality, race, and neighborhood affect how a person is treated at the moment of arrest, while in court, during incarceration, and even upon returning home. What can be less obvious is how those disparities show up in media coverage of defendants and victims and how they shape public understanding and perceptions of cases. 

Imagine a simple Google search drawing up a news story or image from the worst day of your life. A mugshot or a short local news story from years ago driving a wedge between your new job, a housing opportunity, or a future relationship. For thousands of people who have been entangled in the criminal legal system, the longevity of digital content can be a haunting specter that thwarts their ability to rebuild their lives after their arrests–regardless of whether they’re found innocent or not.   

A 2021 report from the Global Strategy Group (GSG) and the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) analyzed national and local coverage of 10 criminal cases—five with a white defendant and five with a Black defendant. The report found troubling differences in the language used to describe these defendants and how the defendant and victim were framed in relation to one another. According to the analysis, mugshots accompanied 45% of the stories about Black defendants as opposed to just 9% of those about white defendants. Photos where the defendant was wearing a suit or dressed professionally accompanied 13% of stories about white defendants as opposed to just 6% of Black defendants. Further, white victims were nearly four times as likely than Black victims to have a photo with friends or family alongside their coverage, which can engender deeper feelings of sympathy and remind people of the ripple effect that a death can cause in the community surrounding a victim. 

In a 2015 research study conducted by advocacy group Color Of Change, similar biases and distortions emerged in TV broadcast news. An analysis of four major network news affiliates in New York City found that news focused on Black people involved in murder, assault, and theft an average of 75% of the time, a rate exceeding actual arrests of Black people by 24%. Further, the study “found that not one of the [news] stations contextualizes their crime coverage with any analysis of the overall justice system.” While overrepresenting Black people as offenders, this news coverage streamed into homes every night, failing to discuss the factors laid into the over-targeting of Black New Yorkers by the police and the impact that poverty and discrimination play on crime. 

The scope of these reports exists within a long line of advocacy interrogating how newsrooms cover crime and develop new practices that push back against traditional newsroom standards that have carried consequences for both individual people and the broader public. This coverage and the misconceptions they create can breed stereotypes that disempower certain groups of people and tear apart the fabric of whole communities. 

“The power of language”

In 2006, Eddie Ellis, the founder of the Center for NuLeadership on Human
Justice & Healing, penned an open letter about the importance of using humanizing language when discussing those that the carceral system impacts most intimately. Ellis’ “Language Letter” is largely identified as the first initiative that deliberately worked to shift how formerly and currently incarcerated people are portrayed in the media and in everyday discussions. 

“When we are not called mad dogs, animals, predators, offenders, and other derogatory terms, we are referred to as inmates, convicts, prisoners, and felons—all terms devoid of humanness which identify us as ‘things’ rather than as people,” Ellis wrote. “These terms are accepted as the ‘official’ language of the media, law enforcement, prison industrial complex, and public policy agencies. However, they are no longer acceptable for us and we are asking people to stop using them.” 

What Ellis was referring to is currently known as person-first language, such as “incarcerated person” as opposed to “inmate” or “felon”; or “child in juvenile detention” as opposed to “juvenile delinquent.”

In the almost two decades since Ellis’ “Language Letter,” the media landscape has shifted dramatically around the use of humanizing vocabulary. In 2015, the Marshall Project produced a landmark survey asking incarcerated respondents how to refer to people behind bars. In 2016, The New York Times editorial board condemned the use of labels like “felon” and traced the genesis of the Obama administration’s shift toward person-first language to Ellis and his open letter.

As Ellis noted, “we habitually underestimate the power of language,” a fact underscored by a 2020 feature from the Poynter Institute that illustrates how humanizing language doesn’t just have implications for broader movements towards either reform or abolition—it can also shape the way people can see themselves. In a 2014 press conference held after the state of New York awarded the Exonerated 5 a $40 million settlement for their years of wrongful incarceration for a beating and rape that occurred in New York City’s Central Park, Kevin Richardson drove home the pain of his time inside and the degrading words used by the press that shaped his reality. 

 “You all don’t really understand what we went through,” said Richardson. “You tried to dehumanize us… but we’re still here. We’re strong. Nobody gave us a chance except the people that believed in us. People called us animals, a wolf pack… It still hurts me emotionally.”

Right To Be Forgotten

Media imagery can either restore or strip the humanity of defendants and victims, as well as skew public perceptions around a case’s significance. Images can also haunt defendants whether or not they are even found guilty—mug shots can linger online in perpetuity and often come up as some of the first results when typing someone’s name into a search engine. The consequences this can have on securing housing, employment, or even healthy relationships can not be overstated.

In an interview with HuffPost, Rutgers associate professor Sarah Esther Lageson noted that in her research on the availability of crime data online, she found people would shy away from activities that could lead people to search and find their mugshots. To protect their reputations, these individuals avoided things like dating online, applying to jobs, volunteering at local organizations, or finding more safe or stable housing. 

“And of course,” Lageson said, “these are all the things that make us safer because those are all factors that prevent crime.”

The stress and strain of living with the omnipresence of past coverage was highlighted through the story of Darcell Trotter in the 2019 documentary “Out of Omaha.” In 2012, Trotter and his twin brother were charged with sexual assault. While the charges were dropped and the accuser recanted her accusations and pleaded guilty to falsifying her report, Trotter continues to be plagued by local news coverage published online. In the documentary, he’s seen calling publication after publication requesting the removal of his name in stories about the case after the charges were dropped. 

The broader movement interrogating media coverage of the criminal legal system has created an opportunity for media outlets and journalists to engage more deeply with questions of representation, framing, and justice when reporting about crime, and how that reporting impacts individuals, communities, and larger systems of social, economic, and political inequity. Newsrooms have recently begun to adopt “right to be forgotten” policies, inspired in large part by Europe’s Right to Be Forgotten laws, to reduce the ongoing harms of past coverage. 

In 2018, Cleveland.com/Advance Ohio made headlines after creating a new policy that would allow community members to submit requests to have mugshots removed or stories about past offenses taken down. Initially, Cleveland’s policy only accepted requests from people whose records had been sealed by a judge and whose offenses were not related to heinous violence, sex crimes, or public corruption. However, a team led by Cleveland.com/Advance Ohio editor Chris Quinn noted some requests required more nuance to be considered, otherwise they would fall outside of the current parameters.

Requests are now managed and evaluated by a committee of journalists, legal professionals, and community members who deliberate about whether the story at the center of each request should be preserved as-is due to its news value and public safety benefits or whether its continued visibility does more harm than good. 

The idea for a dedicated committee was inspired by NJ Advance Media’s Content Removal Committee. According to a letter penned in 2021 by the paper’s Public Editor, Judy Locorriere, the removal committee has acted upon 30 to 40 requests every month for the last six years. In 2021, at Locorriere’s behest, the committee adopted an online form for readers to place removal requests, streamlining the process while also making it more accessible to the communities that are the most disproportionately impacted.

Basing journalistic integrity on humane practices instead of sensationalism

The adoption of more humanizing language and efforts to redress harmful consequences of past coverage has been met with both praise and backlash from within the journalism community. At the heart of these discussions is the debate around whether shifts towards person-first language or right to be forgotten programs help promote or undermine the integrity of journalism. Many advocates say that arguments about the “news value” of mugshots or detailing low-level offenses need to focus on whether those practices actually contribute to public safety. 

The growing consensus is that outside of heinous crimes, serial crimes, or cases of public corruption, this coverage works more towards sensationalizing incidents of harm as opposed to keeping readers abreast of potential danger in their community. However, when it comes to the use of more humanizing language when reporting on the criminal legal system and those caught by it, advocacy groups have been more amenable to adopting person-first language than newsrooms.

In a 2021 interview with Prism, Nuleadership co-director Kyung-Ji Kate Rhee said that public institutions like the New York Public Library system were swift to heed the advice of Ellis’ letter and edited their existing resource guides to feature person-first language for people returning home. The media, however, was slow to respond.

“In the beginning, the media was dismissive for the most part,” said Rhee. “The first reaction we got from media professionals was, ‘Oh my God, but the media is all about soundbites and brevity, and headlines.’ So they were saying that this [ask] was cumbersome.”  

In other cases, the backlash against the linguistic shifts encouraged by the Language Letter actually served to illuminate the power of those very proposed changes. In 2017, the Trump administration released a memo outlining language guidance for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). The memo sought to roll back shifts made during the Obama administration towards humanizing language. The guidance discouraged the use of the word “reform” in favor of “improvement” and replaced terms like “overrepresentation of minorities (in the juvenile justice system)” with “disproportionate minority contact.”

These new linguistic mandates aligned with other shifts made by the Trump administration, including dismantling the OJJDP’s research arm that helped track racial disparities within the system. The terms used by the administration represented a rhetorical shift as well as a harbinger for approaches to crime that would have real world impacts on people across the country. 

Further, the OJJDP memo illuminates how bureaucratic language used by political actors reflects their priorities, and how it is quickly adapted and parroted by newsrooms. In the context of the criminal legal system, words and phrases often used by local elected officials or the police such as “officer-involved shooting” can be mimicked by the media, further cementing a pro-police public narrative and protecting those in power who wish to avoid scrutiny.

Shifting newsroom practices and priorities

According to advocates, the growing adoption of humanizing language and the willingness to have more open conversations around related policies reflects a shift in how newsrooms understand their role in covering the criminal legal system.

In New Jersey, NJ Advance Media’s content removal committee has ushered in new changes in response to the kind of requests it frequently receives. Requests to remove mug-shots caused the newsroom to reconsider their value, which led to more restrictive guidelines around their use. Similarly, requests related to stories about low-level offenses that were never followed up on have inspired newsroom managers to direct their reporters to discuss those stories before writing them, introducing more discretion into the pre-reporting process. 

Right to be forgotten policies have also made their way to even larger newsrooms. In 2021, the Associated Press also made headlines announcing that they would no longer be reporting on lower-level arrests at all or including the names of suspects. And in 2020, the Boston Globe launched its Fresh Start initiative to address how the media discusses race and how to repair past harms in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Like other initiatives, Fresh Start allows readers to request the removal of coverage that continues to impact their lives far past its initial “newsworthiness.” Globe leadership has also acknowledged how the initiative itself may come to inspire changes in future coverage. 

“If we see a story where we think maybe sometime in the future we might be de-indexing it because of Fresh Start, that’s going to be a real question,” said Jason Tuohey, the Globe’s managing editor for digital in a 2021 interview with Slate

However, shifts toward humanizing language have come to resemble a double-edged sword. As newsrooms and advocacy groups have begun to fold person first language into their style guides, corrections officials and other supporters of the criminal legal system have followed suit and co-opted language meant to illustrate the inherently dehumanizing nature of that system. More and more groups are deviating from the Trump memo to focus on surface-level reforms by embedding progressive language in projects that actually seek carceral expansion. As reported by Prism, the creation of a new women’s prison in Massachusetts has been touted as “trauma-informed healing and transformative environment” and a “holistic milieu.” 

An ongoing challenge for movements towards more ethical crime reporting and media coverage is how to standardize and expand these shifts throughout the industry without compromising their power. As Rhee told Prism, changes in reporting must be accompanied by newsroom discussion about the actual goal of those changes. Rhee said that media professionals, advocates, and others adopting these changes in practices and terminology need to ask themselves what the purpose of doing so is and how to make sure these actions go beyond mere performance.

“What are some action steps that result from using more human language that will really evolve humanity?” Rhee said. “It’s inviting the media to ask a different set of questions when covering these issues, rather than covering it the same old way.”

Tamar Sarai

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.