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July 25, 2019

Two dozen Philly academics: Inky coverage undermines criminal justice reform

Villanova professor: Newspaper 'has done some great reporting over the years, but lately, it’s slipped in our opinion'

Opinion Criminal Justice Reform
Stock_Carroll - Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner was the focus of a letter from 24 local academics questioning media coverage of criminal justice reform efforts.

A week after Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long argued that the Inquirer’s Editorial Board “did not go far enough” in supporting the city’s district attorney against state officials seeking to usurp prosecutorial power in gun cases, two dozen faculty members at area universities and colleges have followed suit.

In a letter to the newspaper’s editor and staff that was delivered Wednesday afternoon, and shared with PhillyVoice a day earlier, the academics say the Inquirer's “recent reporting on shootings in the city” is damaging criminal justice reform efforts in the city and beyond.

“Rather than honestly reporting on gun violence and its causes and solutions, this string of stories is rife with misleading claims that risk stoking unfounded fear over criminal justice reform,” the letter read, calling out “fear-driven narratives” that were not fully investigated.

The letter – spurred on through The Justice Collaborative – calls out crime reporting that repeats narratives fed by law enforcement and foes of criminal justice reform, and suggests that the reporting did not check for empirical evidence backing the claims.

Similar letters were recently published in Boston-area media outlets.

Among the 24 academics who signed the letter to the Inquirer was Brianna Remster, an associate professor in Villanova University’s department of sociology and criminology.

She was quick to point out that the letter wasn’t written in a confrontational sense, but as a result of ongoing conversations within the academic community, most of whom are avid readers of the newspapers to which they wrote.

“The Inky has done some great reporting over the years, but lately, it’s slipped in our opinion,” she said. “How crime is portrayed in the media has been a longstanding issue. There’s been a continual conversation about what’s happening in Philly and how it’s portrayed in a widely influential newspaper.”

She questioned a lack of in-depth investigation seeking trends as opposed to quick-hit coverage, at a time when media outlets are being financially pared back, something that the letter-writers acknowledge is “so frustrating for reporters.”

That disconnect, according to Remster, has helped bolster mass incarceration and other trends that criminal justice reformers aim to reverse.

“There was an exciting interdisciplinary conversation going on for a while now, with people from fields I’d rarely interact with since we’re all in our own little silos,” she said. Media outlets “have incredibly scarce resources, but we need to find a way to balance the need to meet deadlines and demands with the need to share facts and context so readers can make up their minds for themselves.

“It’s hard to overstate the power these pieces wield at a time when we have among the highest incarceration rates in the nation, and a district attorney who’s trying really hard to try new policies. The country is watching Philadelphia. It’s an important time. We just hope they take a step back and look at the big-picture consequences we wrote about.”

Stan Wischnowski is the executive editor and senior vice president of The Inquirer, whose reporting on the issue includes a handful of stories cited by the academics. 

Offering a response to PhillyVoice upon receiving the letter late Wednesday afternoon, he defended the paper's coverage.

"Like every public official, the district attorney and his policies are subject to scrutiny," he said. "While we respect the views of the local academics who signed this letter, and we welcome and appreciate all good-faith criticism of Inquirer coverage, we stand by our depth of reporting on gun violence in Philadelphia. 

"Our reporters, columnists and the editorial board have been fair, accurate, and thorough in covering this critically important issue.”

The letter from the academics can be read in its entirety below:

Dear Stan Wischnowski, Editor, and the Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Staff:

We are 24 faculty members at Philadelphia area universities and colleges, including the University of Pennsylvania, Temple, Villanova, St. Joe’s, and Rutgers. We are responding to The Philadelphia Inquirer’s recent reporting on shootings in the city. Rather than honestly reporting on gun violence and its causes and solutions, this string of stories is rife with misleading claims that risk stoking unfounded fear over criminal justice reform.

Local journalism provides the framework through which people assess whether their communities are safe and their justice system is fair. Reporters should state facts accurately and provide the public with sufficient context from which to draw informed conclusions. That often requires using evidence and data to dispel, and not exacerbate, fear-driven narratives around crime, especially those that emerge soon after violence like Philadelphia recently experienced.

But several recent Inquirer stories do not provide that necessary context. Instead, they uncritically repeat criticisms of Krasner, strain to connect his policies on bail and drug reform to a spike in shootings over a single weekend, and bury facts, in order to drive home the false narrative of a Philadelphia that is getting less safe thanks to criminal justice reform policies – especially those that District Attorney Larry Krasner was elected to enact.

One story, for example, quotes U.S. Attorney William McSwain. 

“There’s not the accountability that there used to be,” he says. “If there’s no accountability, the worst types of crimes are going to go up. I think that’s self-evident.” 

But McSwain opposes the very concept of prosecutors using their authority to stem the tide of mass incarceration, and he has long criticized Krasner’s decisions to not demand cash bail for certain charges and to seek shorter prison sentences.

The story includes a reply from Krasner calling McSwain’s assertion “fact free,” but omits research that largely supports these reform policies and certainly doesn’t link them to increased violence. It’s not clear why the reporter would allow McSwain to repeat such a claim without interrogation or at least seeking to verify it with evidence.

Even worse, Inquirer reporters have drawn a line from Krasner’s policies to gun violence with little factual support. The story, ““Criminal justice system at center of swirling debate as gun violence continues in Philly,” compares gun cases brought at the end of 2017, before Krasner took office, and those brought at the end of Krasner’s first year, in 2018. 

The story acknowledges that “criminal justice experts caution against drawing conclusions based on data tracking charging decisions or conviction rates alone,” but goes on to do just that, concluding that “Krasner’s office secured a lower percentage of guilty verdicts and saw more cases tossed than the year before.”

The analysis doesn’t attempt to discern why more cases were dismissed, and there is no explanation as to how this supposedly relates to recent shootings. But the suggestion is clear: Krasner’s office does a poor job prosecuting cases, and that makes Philadelphia more violent.

There are similar problems with another story about Krasner’s use of court diversion programs for gun cases. This one reports that Krasner has referred more cases of unlawful gun possession to diversion than did his predecessor. 

The lead anecdote involves a man who entered diversion after his first arrest, and who a year later was arrested and charged with murder. There is no apparent connection between the initial diversion referral and the subsequent murder, let alone to gun violence generally. But to make her point, the reporter resorts to hearsay, writing that there are “some on social media” who have held up this case “as an example of how they say District Attorney Larry Krasner’s policies are too lenient and lead to gun violence.”

Throughout the piece, the reporter downplays positive outcomes and omits research showing that diversion helps people keep their lives on track, thereby improving public safety. She also acknowledges that Krasner’s office has rarely offered diversion to people with prior arrests or convictions, or to those who commit a shooting. But she ultimately highlights two exceptions out of more than 100, even though both shootings were deemed to have been accidental or defensive.

Another story, “Philly’s top cop wonders if gunmen are emboldened by perception of ‘no consequences,'” uses a headline to suggest that Krasner is at fault for shootings, but omits the fact that police have “cleared” shootings at a rate no better than 30 percent in each of the last five years. 

Unsolved shootings predate Krasner, and the issue often has little to do with the actions of prosecutors, but those details are absent from this story. Additionally, the story minimizes the fact that Krasner has prosecuted gun cases brought to his office at a slightly higher rate than his predecessor -- a point that itself contradicts the throughline connecting each of these stories.

As academics in the Boston area recently wrote to the Boston Globe, responsible journalism about criminal justice and public safety does not stoke irrational panic for the sake of creating a story. 

Research has demonstrated that media coverage of criminal justice issues influences public opinion about punishment, fostering punitive public attitudes and political conditions that drive up needless incarceration. 

We know from decades of experience that these counterproductive policies destabilize entire communities and only perpetuate cycles of poverty and violence.

Serving the public interest requires the Inquirer to demonstrate a more factual and responsible approach to reporting on crime, punishment, rehabilitation, and safety.

• Professor Mary Frances Berry, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history; University of Pennsylvania

• Professor Jack Bratich, associate professor & chair, journalism and media studies, Rutgers University

• Professor Kate Cairns, assistant professor, Department of Childhood Studies, Rutgers University

• Professor Susan Clampet-Lundquist, associate professor of sociology, Saint Joseph’s University

• Professor Brian Creech, associate professor, Klein College of Media and Communication, Temple University

• Professor Susan L. DeJarnatt, professor of law, Temple University

• Professor Jamie Fader, associate professor, criminal justice, Temple University

• Professor Magda Konieczna, assistant professor, Klein College of Media and Communication, Temple University

• Professor Rory Kramer, associate professor, Department of Sociology and Criminology, Villanova University

• Professor Chenjerai Kumanyika, assistant professor of journalism and media studies, Rutgers University

• Professor Jessa Lingel, assistant professor of communication, Annenberg School For Communication, University of Pennsylvania

• Professor Larisa Kingston Mann, assistant professor, Klein College of Media and Communication, Temple University

• Professor Joan Maya Mazelis, associate professor of sociology, Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice, Rutgers University

• Professor Jill McCorkel, professor of sociology and criminology, Villanova University

• Professor Louis M. Natali, professor of law, Temple University

• Professor Wazhmah Osman, assistant professor, Klein College of Media and Communication, Temple University

• Professor Victor Pickard, associate professor of communication, Annenberg School for Communication, and co-director of the MIC Center, University of Pennsylvania

• Professor Adolph Reed, professor of political science, University of Pennsylvania

• Professor Brianna Remster, associate professor, Department of Sociology & Criminology, Villanova University

• Professor Dorothy Roberts, George A. Weiss University Professor of Law & Sociology; Raymond Pace & Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights; founding director, Program on Race, Science, and Society; University of Pennsylvania

• Robert Vitalis, professor of political science, University of Pennsylvania

• Professor Kelly Welch, associate professor, Department of Sociology & Criminology, Villanova University

• Professor Andrea Wenzel, assistant professor, Klein College of Media and Communication, Temple University

• Professor Todd Wolfson, associate professor of journalism and media studies, and co-director of the MIC Center, Rutgers University