MediaWatch: June 1991

Vol. Five No. 6

Covering Crime and Punishment

When President Bush announced his crime bill in early May, stories on ABC and NBC emphasized criticism for its focus on punishment, not treatment. To determine whether this was an isolated incident or part of a pattern, MediaWatch analysts examined a year of ABC, CBS and NBC evening news coverage of crime. Analysts found that stories which portrayed treatment as the best solution to America's crime problem outnumbered pro- punishment stories by a ratio of almost four to one.

Between June 1, 1990 and May 31, 1991, analysts found that NBC Nightly News carried 243 crime stories, followed by the CBS Evening News with 196 and ABC's World News Tonight with 163. Analysts isolated those stories which dealt with the punishment/ treatment policy debate and found the networks devoted between nine and 13 percent of all crime coverage to this debate. With 21 stories, ABC dedicated the greatest percentage of coverage, CBS' 19 stories came in second and NBC came in third with 22 out of 243 stories. These pieces were classified as either pro-treatment or pro-punishment if two-thirds or more of the sources and statements by the reporter advocated one position of the two positions. The remaining stories were classified as balanced.

Overall, of the 62 policy stories studied, almost half (30) favored treatment, 24 were balanced and eight favored punishment. At 63.8 percent, NBC was the most pro-treatment, followed by ABC at 42.9 percent. Although just 36.8 percent of CBS reports argued for treatment, that's twice the number that favored punishment.

The networks made little effort to conceal their slant. Anchor Tom Brokaw, for instance, introduced a November 15, 1990 story by Lisa Myers by declaring: "About half the criminals sent to America's prisons have drug problems. Treating them behind bars could be about the best way to reduce drug-related crime, but the system is only now beginning to deal with their addictions." Myers added that "Studies indicate that once released [addicts] are even more dangerous than the typical ex-con....Perhaps not a magic pill, but consider the alternative." A presumably addicted criminal then asked "Have you any idea how much I cost the general public in one year?" Myers threatened: "And he will get out."

Reporter Ed Rabel lashed out at Bush's crime bill during an April 11, 1991 story. "A drug bust in south Florida. Police action to arrest and jail drug users: a violent hammering method emphasized by the Bush Administration in its war on drugs. Officials here denounced the tactics as absolutely unworkable," Rabel charged. "While Washington spends billions to fight drugs like it fights a war, officials here must scrounge, begging money from traffic fines and the defendants themselves."

On May 5, NBC News reporter Bill Lagattuta dismissed get-tough efforts: "President Bush, in his new crime bill, is proposing to spend a billion and a half dollars to build new federal prisons. It may not make the streets safer, but it's the kind of get- tough, lock-em-up philosophy many crime-weary Americans want to hear....No one disagrees that violent, repeat criminals should be locked away, but what's driving the increase in the prison population today are mandatory sentences for drug offenders. Another mistake, critics say..."

ABC offered similar arguments. On September 5, 1990, correspondent Beth Nissen opined: "Most of the ten billion dollars the administration wants to spend on the drug war in 1991 will still go to enforcement. That will mean more arrests, maybe more deterrence, but not much more relief for the walking wounded."

An April 23, 1991 report by Mark Potter on Bush's crime bill sounded like an old broken record: "Officials and residents say a crime bill that stresses punishment over prevention and ignores the underlying causes of crime does not go far enough and is doomed to fail...What has to give, critics and residents say, is the government's failure to address the poverty, unemployment and hopelessness that cause crime." Potter's critics "also believe punishment has little deterrent effect, especially in the crime-ridden inner cities....Dancing around the edges of a problem that even police say cannot be punished away."

It turns out crime coverage is no different than most political issues: many reporters and anchors take it upon themselves to arrive at a solution and attack programs that don't reflect their own philosophy.