January 11, 2010

How News Happens

Crime Events Raise Concerns About Juvenile Justice

The week of July 19, six different stories involving juvenile justice circulated in the Baltimore media. By week’s end, as news organizations looked for overlapping themes, the stories formed a loose master narrative about how authorities tried to prevent juvenile crime and punish offenders in Maryland.

In the process, at least one crime incident that might have been considered minor and received scant attention in another week became the biggest story of the week studied.

Lessons from the coverage

The six stories demonstrated how media can try to make sense of different news events that seemed thematically related and might hint at a more complex narrative. Among the lessons:

  • Traditional, news outlets drove coverage of juvenile justice during the week.
  • A handful of news organizations did original reporting. Most of the others merely echoed their work.
  • News outlets outside of the mainstream emerged as only bit players in the coverage. They mostly catalogued specific incidents or offered commentary.
  • Television and radio news tended toward emotional or personal stories, and they played a role in amplifying what would otherwise have been a minor event.
  • The press followed the events and newsmakers. Examples of press enterprise were few and far between.

Traditional outlets drove the coverage

It all began on Sunday, July 19, when the Baltimore Sun published a long front page enterprise story that raised questions about the effectiveness of Maryland’s juvenile sentencing and monitoring. The story focused on the case of Lamont Davis, a 17 year-old with a long juvenile record who was accused of wounding a 5-year-old girl during a gunfight with another teenager in South Baltimore. At the time, Davis was supposedly being monitored through a G.P.S. ankle bracelet.

On Monday, the Associated Press published an article about a separate event: a report by the Maryland Attorney General’s office about the escape of 14 minors two months earlier at a state-run juvenile detention center in western Maryland during which the offenders attacked staff and took control of the facility.

On Wednesday, in response to the report, state legislators promised hearings on failures at the state Department of Juvenile Services. Perhaps not coincidentally, as the week progressed, three alleged Cullen escapees involved in the melee were charged as adults for their actions in May.

And against this backdrop, two crimes involving minors got significant coverage during the week. On Sunday, July 19, a 19-year old named Brandon Brown allegedly shot and killed 16-year-old Jerrod Reed in East Baltimore and wounded another 16-year-old in the process.  A day later, police arrested three Baltimore boys ages 7, 8 and 11 for stealing a scooter, a wagon and bicycle parts from a neighbor’s yard in North Baltimore’s Medfield community and detained them at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center. This story would get the most coverage of all.

Throughout the week, traditional news organizations drove the juvenile crime coverage—particularly the Sun newspaper and the news operations of local television and radio stations.

There were 78 pieces of content in the media on juvenile justice during the week: 55 traditional news stories, 21 Twitter updates, four stories from the alternative press and two blogs entries. Of all these, 68 were produced by traditional news outlets.[1]

Moreover, every full news story that appeared came from a traditional news organization, though not always in the legacy platform: 22 appeared on websites, 12 were broadcast on local television, 10 were broadcast on radio and six appeared in print.

Only a handful of outlets did original reporting; most simply echoed others work

Two legacy media outlets, the Baltimore Sun and WBAL-TV broke most of the stories during the week and largely framed the narratives that were later picked up and reproduced by other outlets in the market.

Of the 55 traditional news stories, 16, or 29%, offered new information. But only six provided what amounted to significant new developments that would alter a news consumer’s understanding. WBAL produced three of the stories that added major advancements. The Sun produced two. The other account came from WJZ-TV, the CBS affiliate.

More often outlets just paraphrased or repeated earlier reporting done by others.

The most influential piece was the July 19 Baltimore Sun story by Julie Bykowicz that examined the state of juvenile sentencing and monitoring.

After it ran, three local television websites posted a brief from the Associated Press summarizing Bykowicz’s story. The three web postings were identical, but two of them, on the websites of WMAR and WBAL radio, had added staff bylines along with the AP credit line, suggesting that the local outlets had in some way contributed to the report. That was not so. The local Fox affiliate website posted the same AP brief, word for word, with just the AP credit line.

On Sunday evening, Bykowicz, on her Sun Twitter feed, called attention to the lack of attribution by media peers:

You’ve heard it on TV, radio without attribution. Curious about juvenile justice reform? Here is the Baltimore Sun story: http://tr.im/t4KK 6:11 PM Jul 19th from web

A rare example of an outlet doing additional probative reporting was WBAL’s July 21 story package that looked deeper into the issue of monitoring juvenile offenders. It built on the Sun story from July 19, which had touched upon problems with monitoring but focused more on juvenile sentencing.

Using the case of 15-year-old Simone Butler who ran away from her home while under house arrest, the WBAL report documented failures of the company the state had hired to electronically track offenders.

The new media and alternative press were bit players in the juvenile justice narratives

New media played only a minimal role in the juvenile justice narratives that week.

Perhaps the most significant use of new media came not from a news organization but from an official source. Late Sunday evening, BaltimorePolice, the department’s official Twitter feed, was the first source to break word of Jerrod Reed’s murder:

SHOOTING/HOMICIDE – KENWOOD & MADISON, 16 year old male shot. Police investigating10:55 PM Jul 19th from txt

The only local new media outlet to reference juvenile justice during the week was Inside Charm City, a Baltimore-based news and information blog, though it did none of its own reporting. On its Twitter account it linked to two different stories produced by the mainstream media.  

The alternative press in town also had only a limited role in the juvenile justice narrative.
The July 22 edition of City Paper, Baltimore’s alternative weekly newspaper, detailed the killing of Jerrod Reed in its Murder Ink section, a column that lists the previous week’s murders. The column, which reads like a police blotter, noted that Reed was the 17th teenager murdered in 2009.

Murder Ink reporter Anna Ditkoff told PEJ that she is able to update stories in print only as space allows but can post new information online as soon as she gets it. Shortly after an arrest was made in the Reed murder, for instance, Ditkoff posted an update on the web, reporting that “Brandon Brown, a 19-year-old African-American man, was arrested on July 31.”

The independent blog Baltimore Crime also posted the murder, but lagged behind the City Paper blotter and offered less information—Reed’s name, age and the location of the shooting with an image of the location via Google maps, but no additional details as police released more information on August 1.

Perhaps the most significant use of new media came not from a news organization but from an official source. Late Sunday evening, BaltimorePolice, the department’s official Twitter feed, was the first source to break word of Jerrod Reed’s murder:

SHOOTING/HOMICIDE – KENWOOD & MADISON, 16 year old male shot. Police investigating10:55 PM Jul 19th from txt

The only local new media outlet to reference juvenile justice during the week was Inside Charm City, a Baltimore-based news and information blog, though it did none of its own reporting. On its Twitter account it linked to two different stories produced by the mainstream media. [2]

The alternative press in town also had only a limited role in the juvenile justice narrative.
The July 22 edition of City Paper, Baltimore’s alternative weekly newspaper, detailed the killing of Jerrod Reed in its Murder Ink section, a column that lists the previous week’s murders. The column, which reads like a police blotter, noted that Reed was the 17th teenager murdered in 2009.

Murder Ink reporter Anna Ditkoff told PEJ that she is able to update stories in print only as space allows but can post new information online as soon as she gets it. Shortly after an arrest was made in the Reed murder, for instance, Ditkoff posted an update on the web, reporting that “Brandon Brown, a 19-year-old African-American man, was arrested on July 31.”

The independent blog Baltimore Crime also posted the murder, but lagged behind the City Paper blotter and offered less information—Reed’s name, age and the location of the shooting with an image of the location via Google maps, but no additional details as police released more information on August 1.

Another alternative publication, the Baltimore Times, a long-established weekly African-American newspaper, weighed in on juvenile crime and justice policies with a July 24 opinion piece on its front page. In it, Gregory Kane, a former Baltimore Sun columnist, argued that leniency for juvenile offenders begets more crime, a notion that was repeated in the press and echoed in citizen postings on media websites and by callers to talk radio during the week. Kane argued against “the wrist-slap” school of punishment:

“For decades, Baltimore and other localities have been using what I call the ‘little dear’ approach to juvenile justice. That approach goes like this: don’t punish juvenile offenders. REHABILITATE them. After all, they’re just poor, misunderstood little dears who need our sympathy, not our punishment. … That approach is now under attack, and rightly so. And in a way, we have one of those juvenile miscreants to thank: Lamont Davis.”

Kane’s piece, as well as other analyses and opinion in the media throughout the week, returned to the theme first advanced in Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz’s Sunday story:  the state’s policy of “rehabilitation over punishment,” leads “teens who are lightly sanctioned for early offenses” to “graduate to more violent crimes.”

TV and radio accounts tended toward emotion and sensation and led to a small story becoming a big one

Television and radio—and one news organization in particular—stood out for an intense focus on one of the more emotional stories of the week: young boys who committed a minor property crime.[3] 

On Friday, July 17, police arrested and detained three boys ages 7, 8 and 11 for stealing a scooter, a wagon and bicycle parts from a neighbor’s yard in North Baltimore’s Medfield community.

By week’s end, that story would account for 42% (23 stories) of all the 55 juvenile justice news accounts captured during the week. Nine of those stories aired on radio, eight appeared on legacy websites, five on local TV newscasts and one story in print. [4] Five news outlets covered the story.

This news event accounted for an even greater portion of television and radio coverage during the week. On local TV, five of the 12 juvenile justice stories were about the bike thefts, and all nine stories on radio were about the event.

WBAL broke the story in their late newscast on July 20, airing an exclusive interview with the mother of one of the boys’ mothers. The station then posted the story on its website later that night and widely disseminated it on WBAL radio talk programs the next morning.

The mothers of two of the boys then granted interviews with the competing local TV stations, all of which aired stories in their early evening newscasts on July 21. 

The Baltimore Sun followed with a story in the July 22 edition of the paper and a posting on Peter Hermann’s crime blog the same day.

In broadcast outlets, the story stretched out for another two days despite few developments. Instead, the additional reporting emphasized the parties in conflict with reactions from Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, the police department and the parents.    

WBAL in particular—with its television, radio and web platforms—made the most of its “scoop.” More than half of the stories (13) on the incident were produced by WBAL.

Tim Tunison, the assistant news director, told PEJ that Jaime Greeley, mother of Jesse Flayhart, the 7-year-old who was handcuffed and taken in by police, contacted the newsroom early on July 20. WBAL ran an exclusive story on Jesse and 8-year-old Ayize Massey’s run-in with police that night on its 11 p.m. newscast. Greeley and Ayize’s mother, Toya Goodson, also appeared on Maryland’s Morning News with Dave Durian on WBAL radio on the morning of July 21.

Tom Rouse, the guest host of WBAL radio’s Shari Elliker Show, which follows Durian’s program, devoted much of the first hour to the incident and took several phone calls from listeners, all of whom sided with police. 

Looking across all 23 stories, though, only five contained new information that added to the initial report by WBAL.

Despite intense attention in the broadcast media, there wasn’t much public debate over the police action.  An analysis of comments to stories related to the incident on the Baltimore Sun website, callers to the Shari Elliker Show on WBAL and responses to an unscientific text poll conducted by WBAL-TV showed overwhelming support for the officers’ actions.


Footnotes

1. One blog post on the Baltimore Sun website that served as the basis of a print story the next day was included in this sample.

2. One update provided a link to a July 20 Baltimore Sun story on the murder of Jerrod Reed and the Sun’s account of the state’s report on the Cullen Center on the same day.

3. The two boys admitted to stealing a wagon, a scooter and bike parts from a neighbor’s yard.

4. Eight stories about the incident appeared online, four of which were second platform versions. The other four reports contained no new information.