Crime isn’t black & white—reporting shouldn’t be either

We can’t always take crime reporting at face value.
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Over the past few months, various stories have circulated in the news about violent criminals being released after their sentences despite the potential risk of them reoffending. 
 
In June, Kingston Police announced the release of convicted murderer Christopher Watts back into the community. They also put out a safety notice warning the community that he posed an elevated risk to young women, which, in a city with multiple higher education institutions, understandably sparked public outrage.
 
Watts, who was convicted of manslaughter and the sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl in 2003, completed his 12-year sentence in 2015. 
 
This case, along with many others, has incited discourse on the effectiveness of the criminal justice system. Many are questioning why violent criminals are released back into communities despite being deemed likely to reoffend and consistently defying parole conditions. 
 
However, there’s more to these stories than pointing out the need to protect the public from violent ex-cons the system failed to rehabilitate. Crime stories often lay the foundation on which public opinion is built, yet easily mislead and fall prey to sensationalism. 
 
As a society, we need to re-evaluate how we report on crime and consume journalism about crime. 
 
Reporting on crime, especially violent crime, warrants an emotional response—journalists are only human. It’s when these emotions and biases translate into work that sensationalizes begins. 
 
While the emotional reactions are often understandable, they should be omitted from a reporter’s work. The one-dimensional perspective presented by a sensationalized story ignores the nuances of the situation, ultimately harming the victims and their families. 
 
As with all forms of media, it’s important to read crime coverage with appropriate skepticism. Ideally, most crime stories won’t be taken at face value, rather unpacked and compared.
 
As media consumers, we must learn to recognize the characteristics of a sensationalized story by reading critically. Melodramatic language, poor contextualization, and vague or unexplained statistics are some of the tell-tale signs. 
 
Reporters should also be asking themselves what crime coverage is worth putting out into the community. Sensationalism in crime journalism often comes off as the author making light of a serious, usually sensitive topic, regardless of their intention. 
 
Simply put, these situations aren’t simple. The nuances must be acknowledged. 
 
Just as there are two criminal justice systems—the one white people experience and the one marginalized communities experience—there are also two versions of the press. Neither institution was designed to be equitable and fair; to report on crime without acknowledging systemic prejudice is to do the job poorly.
 
The discriminatory nature of the criminal justice system often leads to white offenders receiving shorter sentences than BIPOC individuals. It isn’t a journalist’s job to solve the problems with the criminal justice system, but they do have a responsibility to identify and challenge them. 
 
For example, criticizing the carceral system’s role in perpetuating cycles of poverty without excusing theft. Crime journalism too often neglects relevant details relating to the bigger picture of criminal justice, including socioeconomic status and race. 
 
Indigenous and racialized people are incarcerated disproportionately in Canada, but this disparity is relevant even in many pieces about white criminals. Criticism of discriminatory tendencies shouldn’t be exclusive to stories covering BIPOC-perpetrated crimes.
 
The press has long worked to uphold inequalities built into the justice system. Until we see meaningful reform, crime journalism needs to be less black and white. 
 

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