Journalism Matters


Guest blog by Stephen Handelman, Director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, and executive editor of The Crime Report

In an era of fake news and alternative facts, accurate reporting has never been more important—especially in criminal justice. Justice reporters in particular are called upon to digest and interpret new developments and research. They’re crucial players in the ongoing national debate about how to fix our justice system, but even the best ones can find it hard to get up to speed quickly. This is especially true with topics like pretrial and bail reform, which suffer from both widespread misunderstanding and misinformation.

For more than a decade, the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College (CMCJ) has brought together journalists, policymakers and practitioners to discuss emerging criminal justice topics in an effort to target that critical gap between reporting and research. More than 800 journalists from around the country have participated in our symposia and workshops on issues ranging from mass incarceration and policing reform to pretrial justice. Our “flagship” annual John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America just ended recently. Entitled “Justice in the Trump Era: The State of American Criminal Justice (2017 and Beyond),” it involved more than two dozen journalists along with top scholars, practitioners and thought leaders. We were especially honored to include the Pretrial Justice Institute’s CEO, Cherise Fanno Burdeen, on a panel called “Jail or Bail: Rethinking Pretrial Justice.”  

More than 150 participants and Reporting Fellows from all areas of criminal justice joined us at John Jay for the two-day conference—and the Pretrial Justice panel turned out to be one of our most compelling. Cherise was joined by Paul Heaton, Senior Fellow and Academic Director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, and Meg Reiss, Executive Director of  John Jay’s Institute for Innovation in Prosecution. The panel was moderated by James Doyle  a Boston Attorney and advisor to NIJ’s Sentinel Events study. What made the discussion unique was that we looked at the flawed bail system from a “systems” perspective: Rather than trying to identify specific players who make wrong decisions (judges, public defenders, police), we looked at how the entire process that begins with the apprehension of a “suspect” can be hostage to mistakes of procedure, understanding and communication that have created a system where, for example, innocent people plead guilty.

For obvious reasons, it’s crucial for journalists to learn how to apply this broader and less-judgmental perspective in their reporting. Too often, the public learns about justice “mistakes” in sound-bytes or sensational headlines that offer few directions for real policy change. Throughout the history of this nation, reporting on issues of public concern has been an integral part of holding institutions of government accountable, of mobilizing voters, of celebrating successes, and of most theories of change. The 24-hour news cycle has created an appetite for “content” that often falls short of traditional journalistic standards. And now, thanks to social media, this information is delivered with even more speed and fewer characters. In other words, now more than ever, we need to ensure that journalists can have intensive access to issue experts to shorten the learning curve.

In 2012, the CMCJ co-sponsored a similar two-day symposium in New Orleans focused specifically on the pretrial issue, supported by the Public Welfare Foundation. Several key pieces of reporting followed by journalist attendees, including work by Maura R. O’Connor, Jordan Smith, and Kathy Reckdahl.

Some deep-dive investigative reporters may spend months or years becoming issue experts in order to write well-researched pieces that cover an issue from top to bottom. Laura Sullivan did this for her bail reporting in 2010 and earned a Peabody Award for her reporting. But this kind of coverage is expensive and time-consuming and increasingly rare in our short-cycle media environment.

I invite you to keep an eye out for the reporting that will come from this year’s attendee journalists and encourage you to keep demanding the best from your news sources. You can also keep up with our own work, and the work of our Fellows, by reading our daily online publication, The Crime Report at Free speech, informed voters, and vetted public policy can work together to keep us collectively focused on a high quality of life for all Americans. We’re delighted to have the Pretrial Justice Institute as partners in a mission that promises to be even more challenging over the next four years!

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