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Boston Globe Accused of ‘Willie Horton’-Style Fearmongering

Nineteen academics published a letter to the newspaper over its coverage of the Suffolk County DA.

Rachael Rollins
Courtesy of the Suffolk County DA's Office

Boston Globe Accused of ‘Willie Horton’-Style Fearmongering

Nineteen academics published a letter to the newspaper over its coverage of the Suffolk County DA.


This morning, 19 Boston-area academics published a letter to the Boston Globe condemning the paper’s recent reporting on Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins.

Rollins took office in January, becoming the county’s first Black woman to serve as DA. In March, she published a 64-page memo detailing reforms that she hoped would decrease incarceration and reduce racism in the criminal legal system, including a list of low-level offenses her office would no longer prosecute. Incarceration, she wrote, is “a last resort.”

“I don’t believe accountability has to equal incarceration,” Rollins wrote in the memo. “There are many ways that we can hold people accountable without putting them in jail.”

On July 6, the Globe published an article by Andrea Estes and Shelley Murphy about Rollins’s reforms, with a focus on her goal of diverting people from jail and prison. Estes and Murphy quoted Rollins as saying, “If the person presents with mental health issues, substance use disorder, homelessness, or poverty, we’re going to pause just for a moment to see who is this person in front of us.” Also in the article, Estes and Murphy referred to several people who decried Rollins’s commitment to using tools other than incarceration.

“We have a country of laws,” Mike Leary, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, said. “You can’t have open drug dealing. It drives cities and towns down. It grinds them into the ground. Crime will go up. Shootings will occur.’’ The reporters provided no contextual data that would either support or contradict Leary’s claims.

The reporters also provided comment from one critic who said Rollins’s reforms don’t go far enough. “We’ve seen a change in degree,” said Atara Rich-Shea, a former public defender who co-founded Court Watch MA. “We want this to happen faster.” But the overall tenor of the article leans toward the conclusion that Rollins is insensitive to victims and lets dangerous people escape incarceration.

The 19 signatories are advocating for the practice of two interrelated standards: the inclusion of fact-based context in all local journalism and a heightened sensitivity to the role that local media plays in the politics of criminal justice policies. They say the Globe practiced neither in its recent article. Rather than scrutinizing the statements made by Leary and other critics of Rollins, the university professors say the paper acted as a bullhorn for them.

“It relies upon a limited narrative structure to convey a clear, yet misleading, message to the reader: Rollins has gone too far, and the city is not safe,” reads the letter. “Largely unchallenged, these kinds of statements by law enforcement and politicians have driven decades of over-investment in criminal justice systems, resulting in serious structural problems reform-minded prosecutors are working to remedy.”

The editor of the Boston Globe, Brian McGrory, has not yet responded to The Appeal’s request for comment. The Appeal also contacted the reporters Estes and Murphy, who are both unavailable, according to their outgoing voicemails.


“It feels like the Globe has been recycling tropes about criminal justice—about ‘soft on crime’ and ‘tough on crime’ and public safety,” said Daniel Medwed, a signatory on the letter and a professor at Northeastern School of Law. “It feels like a little bit of a retreat to some outdated and misguided views of criminal justice, of the criminal as the other, as all of us as in need of being protected from the other.”

Most of the signatories are law professors at Boston-area schools, including Northeastern, Harvard, and Boston College. In their letter, the professors cite a 2016 article from the Washington Post that attempts to explain the connections between crime and punishment, or as the piece says, how “numbers in prison can go up while crime is going down.”

The Boston law professors reiterate the key factor given in the Post: news coverage of local crime. “Now more than ever, we need journalism that exposes rather than stokes baseless fear and irrationality,” the letter reads. “Research has demonstrated that media coverage of criminal justice issues influences public opinion about punishment, which in turn has led to the political decisions behind mass incarceration.”

The signatories to the letter say last week’s article in the Globe “represent[s] exactly the brand of journalism that fosters punitive public attitudes and creates the political conditions that drive up needless incarceration.”

Ronald Sullivan Jr., a professor at Harvard Law School who signed the letter, told The Appeal in an email, “We’ve spent the last 30 years in the shadow of Willie Horton in Massachusetts, and with reporting like this, I worry it will be how we spend the next 30 years, too.”

The full text of the letter is below.


July 12, 2019

Dear Brian McGrory, Editor, and The Boston Globe Editorial Staff:

We are 19 faculty members at universities across the Boston area, including Boston College, Boston University, Harvard University, and Northeastern University. We wish to respond to The Boston Globe’s recent article, “Stopping injustice or putting the public at risk? Suffolk DA Rachael Rollins’s tactics spur pushback,” which contained reporting that appears to us to be, at best, seriously misleading.

Local journalism plays a critical role in guiding public conversation around the issues that affect our sense of safety and justice. It is imperative that when reporting on these issues, journalists provide the factual context that readers need to understand the policy decisions that shape our local criminal justice system—context that enables an objective, informative discussion. Unfortunately, this article does not provide that necessary context. Instead, it relies upon a limited narrative structure to convey a clear, yet misleading, message to the reader: Rollins has gone too far, and the city is not safe.

For example, Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association President Mike Leary is quoted suggesting that District Attorney Rollins’s policies will drive “open drug dealing” and an increase in violent crime. That is an evidence-free statement calculated to incite fear in the reader, and to suggest that the District Attorney’s policies are causing people in Boston to be unsafe. Largely unchallenged, these kinds of statements by law enforcement and politicians have driven decades of over-investment in criminal justice systems, resulting in serious structural problems reform-minded prosecutors are working to remedy. Yet, the Globe’s coverage carries water for this fear-mongering by failing to question the accuracy of Leary’s assertion that “[c]rime will go up. Shootings will occur,” or examining how this conclusion was reached. Indeed, Reporters Estes and Murphy do not even attempt to place that statement in context of the research behind these policies: for instance, the currently low levels of serious crime compared to historic baselines, or the relationship between incarceration rates, crime rates, and levels of addiction and other drug-related harms.

Nor are the handful of cases outlined in the article a fair measure of Rollins’s policies. DA Rollins has presented a specific vision of public safety and a rationale for policy decisions in her office memo. Agree or disagree with those decisions, it is clear they are grounded in academic research and motivated by public safety. Given that the Rollins memo is publicly available, this article should have contained context on why the District Attorney believes the policies at issue in the article will result in more safety, not less. That context would have provided a balance to the unrebutted quotations from “experts” suggesting that these policies are antithetical to public safety. Instead, the absence of that context leaves room for us to wonder whether the reporters used a few isolated incidents and select quotations about those incidents in an effort to get Globe readers to draw particular conclusions about these policies.

This article undermines the appearance of journalistic objectivity and fairness, and it is not the type of rigorous journalism that Globe readers expect and deserve. Now more than ever, we need journalism that exposes rather than stokes baseless fear and irrationality. Research has demonstrated that media coverage of criminal justice issues influences public opinion about punishment, which in turn has led to the political decisions behind mass incarceration. This article represents exactly the brand of journalism that fosters punitive public attitudes and creates the political conditions that drive up needless incarceration. Given what we now understand about the media’s role in contributing to mass incarceration, reputable media organizations like the Globe must demonstrate a more ethical and responsible approach to reporting on crime, punishment, rehabilitation, and safety.

Signed, with institutional affiliation listed for identification purposes only, by the following:

Leo Beletsky

Professor of Law and Health Sciences and Faculty Director, Health in Justice Action Lab

Northeastern University School of Law

Robert M. Bloom

Professor of Law

Boston College Law School

Mark S. Brodin

Professor of Law and Michael and Helen Lee Distinguished Scholar

Boston College Law School

Margaret A. Burnham

University Distinguished Professor of Law and Director, Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project

Northeastern University School of Law

James Alan Fox 

Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy

Northeastern University

Jorie Graham

Boylston Professor of Oratory and Rhetoric

Harvard University

David J. Harris

Managing Director

Charles Hamilton Houston Institute

Harvard Law School

Stephanie R. Hartung 

Teaching Professor

Northeastern University School of Law

Elizabeth Hinton

John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences

Harvard History and African and African American Studies Departments

Kari Hong

Assistant Professor of Law

Boston College Law School

Margo Lindauer

Director, Domestic Violence Clinic

Northeastern University School of Law and Bouvé College of Health Sciences

Gerry Leonard

Professor of Law and Law Alumni Scholar

Boston University School of Law

Daniel S. Medwed

University Distinguished Professor of Law and Criminal Justice

Northeastern University

Michael Meltsner

George J. and Kathleen Waters Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Law

Northeastern University School of Law

Deborah A. Ramirez

Professor of Law

Northeastern University School of Law

Peter M. Sacks

John P. Marquand Professor

Harvard English Department

Ronald S. Sullivan Jr.

Jesse Climenko Clinical Professor of Law and Director, Criminal Justice Institute

Harvard Law School

Laurence H. Tribe

Carl M. Loeb University Professor and Professor of Constitutional Law

Harvard Law School

Dehlia Umunna

Clinical Professor of Law and Faculty Deputy Director, Criminal Justice Institute

Harvard Law School