In 2019, the Netflix series “When They See Us” won wide acclaim for its heartbreaking retelling of the Central Park jogger case in New York City, which saw five young Black and Hispanic children falsely accused and convicted of sexual assault. The series shone a harsh spotlight on the role the media played in the case and opened a wider debate about how journalists can and should cover criminal justice issues more responsibly. Four years on from the series, and more 30 years since the aftermath of the events in Central Park, there are some encouraging signs that the media might be starting to alter its approach to criminal justice reporting and embrace narratives that follow the data rather than follow the ratings.
The rollout of Illinois’s Pretrial Fairness Act (PFA) particularly underscores this change.
The bail reform law, which was passed in 2021 as part of a wider set of criminal justice reforms known as the SAFE‑T Act, replaced wealth-based detention with risk-based detention. The public debate around the law’s crafting, passage, and slow implementation was dominated by fear-mongering reports that claimed the law would turn the state into something like a horror movie where crime is legal.
year the Pretrial Fairness Act (PFA) is passed as a wider set of criminal justice reforms to replace wealth-based detention with risk-based detention
Global news agency AFP even had to run a fact-check that documented and debunked many of the brazen misstatements about the law that circulated online. This included a number of instances where news outlets published statements from system stakeholders that contained patently false or incorrect information.
Political pundits and commentators similarly made claims about the law untethered to the facts, often making hyperbolic claims before the law even went into effect.
“Illinois officials responsible for this law will have the blood of every innocent victim on their hands unless they reverse course […],” wrote a Fox News political analyst.
Similarly, the Chicago Tribune ran an op-ed by a group of Illinois state’s attorneys that blamed the SAFE‑T Act for rising crime before the law was actually implemented and falsely claimed it would require the release of “all defendants charged with criminal acts.”
“Not as bad as some thought, officials say”
However, as the bill went into effect on Sept. 18, 2023, some reporters began to step up with nuanced and accurate coverage that worked to dispel much of the fearmongering.
Or, as one Peoria television news report put it: “One month in, No Cash Bail seems to be not as bad as some thought, officials say.”
In the Chicago Tribune, criminal justice reporter Madeline Buckley wrote a story that accurately described many of the benefits of the PFA along with challenges associated with implementation, especially in less well-resourced counties.
“Throughout the first month, stakeholders in interviews with the Tribune took stock of the system so far, relaying both benefits and challenges and noting that it is early in a process likely to go through some growing pains,” Buckley wrote.
And in the Chicago Sun-Times, assistant criminal justice editor Tom Schuba covered a congressional hearing into crime in Chicago in a way that explicitly pointed out how and why certain attacks on the PFA were objectively false.
Commenting on how a Chicago police officer, Carlos Yanez Jr., accused the SAFE‑T Act of endangering crime victims, Schuba wrote that “Yanez did not mention that the bail reform law allows even people charged with misdemeanor crimes to be detained until trial – a fact praised by advocates for victims of domestic and sexual violence.”
This type of well-balanced reporting stands in contrast to some of the sensational and often inaccurate coverage of criminal justice reform in other jurisdictions and in Illinois before enactment of the PFA.
In fact, there has been relatively balanced, accurate coverage on the PFA in multiple Illinois media outlets, including the: Southside Weekly, The Times Weekly, the Illinois Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, The Pantagraph, The Daily Journal, WCBU, and many others.
Bad Media Translates Into Bad Politics
The Central Park Jogger case wasn’t the first or last time that the US news media was criticized for its approach to criminal justice reporting. Eager for viewers and clicks, individual stories of crimes are often sensationalized, long term trends are ignored, and evidence-based policy reforms are presented through the lens of partisan opinion with little objective analysis. In addition to individual cases of injustice, this type of reporting has contributed to mass incarceration and a lack of public trust in the justice system, among other problems.
At a time when crime has begun to tick up again from its historic lows, and criminal justice reforms like those around bail are becoming more controversial, experts suggest that it is imperative that the media use their power responsibly.
As Thomas Abt, founding director of the Center for the Study and Practice of Violence Reduction (VRC), told Arnold Ventures in 2022: “In a democracy, bad media translates into bad politics, which translates into bad policy, which translates into bad outcomes.”
In a democracy, bad media translates into bad politics, which translates into bad policy, which translates into bad outcomes.Thomas Abt founding director of the Center for the Study and Practice of Violence Reduction
Over the past few years, AV and many other organizations in the criminal justice field have published guidelines for how the media should cover crime and criminal justice reform. Prominent among the recommendations is holding system stakeholders accountable for making false, misleading, or politically motivated statements – preferably in real time, rather than issuing a correction after the fact. This requires a renewed investment in fact checking on the part of media outlets; as well as a commitment to learning about what particular reforms actually do – and don’t do.
Another recommendation for the media when it comes to criminal justice reform is providing adequate context. As it relates to bail reform, there will always be individual instances where a person released before trial commits another crime. However, these stories must and can be reported in a way that doesn’t undermine the factual evidence that the overwhelming majority of people released will not re-offend, that some people released under previous money bail system also re-offended, that incarcerating people charged with low-level crimes simply because they cannot afford to pay bail has significant individual, social, and economic costs, and that most bail reform laws include changes that make it easier to detain individuals that pose a high risk to community safety.
Relatedly, another recommendation is around reporting with empathy. In the case of bail reform, this includes finding and telling the stories of people who have benefitted from bail reform. This is potentially a more complex task as it requires reporters and media outlets to explain what would have happened to someone if they had remained in jail; or what could have happened to community safety had a person who was detained been released on money bail.
One early example of this from Illinois was a South Side Weekly article by Micah Clark Moody. For the article, Moody spoke with families at a bond court before and after the PFA went into effect. The interviews revealed the impact that money bail was having on individuals and families, and the relief many people felt at the prospect that they might be able to leave jail without having to financially burden themselves or their loved ones.
At a time when many media outlets face severe economic challenges, especially those at the local level, these types of shifts in how crime and criminal justice reform are covered may seem daunting. However, they are important not only because of how media coverage affects justice involved people and community safety and well-being, but as part of the process of rebuilding public faith and confidence in the media as an institution.
Reforming the system to be safer and more just also means changing the way media covers it, too.