Violent Crime: While Improving, the Media Need to Sharpen the Public Perspective and Devote More Time to Explaining the Causes

By Kirkhorn, Michael | Nieman Reports, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Violent Crime: While Improving, the Media Need to Sharpen the Public Perspective and Devote More Time to Explaining the Causes


Kirkhorn, Michael, Nieman Reports


I am sitting a few feet from a young man who is about to be convicted for murder. He slouches in his chair, showing no sign of remorse, or even discomfort. Now and then he glances indifferently at the jury. The jurors, 12 residents of Spokane County, Washington, are doing their best to follow Judge Kathleen O'Connor through the sheaf of instructions that will guide their deliberations, though they will not deliberate long before finding the young man -- a boy, really, 16 years old -- guilty of the most severe crime with which he is charged, aggravated first degree murder.

A member of a street gang called the Crips, Kenneth Comeslast is on trial for murdering Cindy Buffin, 17, and Kendra Grantham, 16, with an assault rifle as they sat talking with friends on a front porch one summer evening in Spokane's Hillyard District. Wearing a dark hooded shirt, the killer approached the porch across a shadowy yard and without warning fired an assault rifle at the girls, killing two and wounding another.

Comeslast did not testify, but from similar incidents elsewhere we can guess that the shooting was an act of adolescent bravado or vengefulness, couched in the barbaric jargon of young gangsters (one place where the girls gathered was referred to in testimony as a "slobhouse").

In his summation the prosecutor displays large portrait photographs of the victims and reminds the jury of the power of the rifle. "Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam," the prosecutor says, showing a police photograph of the scene on the porch, emphasizing that the girls were murdered with five hollow-point bullets that shatter on impact and cause horrible wounds.

The jury goes out, reviews the evidence and returns with the guilty verdict. A week or so later judge O'Connor sentences Comeslast to consecutive terms of life imprisonment. "There are some people in our society so dangerous that they cannot be permitted to live with the rest of us," she tells him, thereby emphasizing the legal system's most drastic method of dealing with teenage violence and, indirectly, society's failure to come to grips with its underlying causes.

The general public learns as much as journalists choose to tell them about incidents of this kind. Indeed, news about murders, assaults, domestic violence, rape and other sex crimes is the most traditional kind of daily news reporting. Increasingly, however, under competitive pressures, the media have adopted more aggressive practices in coverage of crime and its handmaiden, violence -- practices that sometime spotlight reality and lead to reforms.

For example, all forms of media have jumped in to expose the extent of abuse of children by parents, the battering of women by husbands and male companions and rogue cops's overuse of weapons against blacks, Hispanics, homosexuals and other minorities. The result has been improvements in police and court procedures.

Moreover, newspapers that once downplayed crime are now devoting more space and more prominent display to such stories. The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune are obvious examples.

Nevertheless, the increased emphasis on crime often distorts reality:

* Early this year the media, both print and broadcast, trumpeted the burning of black churches throughout the country as an epidemic with strong intimations that racists had revived an old tactic to intimidate blacks. It was not until USA Today in June and The Associated Press and The New Yorker in July checked that the media learned and reported that the number of burned churches fell within the normal pattern of such incidents. Television, especially local TV, by devoting so much of its time to street news, often from other cities -- with flashing-light police cars, handcuffed suspects and blanketed bodies -- gives a warped impression of the incidence of violent crime, thus raising fears of the viewing public at a time when statistics show that such crimes are decreasing. …

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