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Assuming Guilt While Reporting on Mass Arrests

Kansas City news outlets called scores of people ‘violent criminals’ based solely on the word of police and the federal government.

Operation Triple Beam
Operation Triple BeamShane T. McCoy/US Marshals/Flickr

The public’s perception of crime is often significantly out of alignment with the reality. This is caused, in part, by frequently sensationalist, decontextualized media coverage. Media Frame seeks to critique journalism on issues of policing and prisons, challenge the standard media formulas for crime coverage, and push media to radically rethink how they inform the public on matters of public safety.

A basic tenet of U.S. law holds that people are presumed to be innocent until found guilty after some amount of due process. It’s a deeply flawed system, but that principle generally stands.

As such, it is especially critical that news outlets and journalists covering crime and law enforcement do not condemn people based on their arrest alone. Usually, journalists can satisfy this by qualifying police or other law enforcement claims as “alleged” or by putting them in quotation marks to reflect that they are simply accusations. But recent reports on a mass federal arrest have thrown this standard out the window. 

Last month, U.S. Attorney Tim Garrison and Missouri Governor Mike Parson announced that U.S. marshals, state officials, and local law enforcement in the Kansas City, Missouri, metropolitan area, made hundreds of arrests as part of an initiative dubbed Operation Triple Beam.

“Armed and dangerous fugitives were located, arrested, and taken off the street to face justice in state and federal court,” Garrison said at a press conference.

Immediately following the announcement, several local news outlets repeated the central claims of law enforcement as fact. Fox 4 Kansas City ran a headline stating “‘Operation Triple Beam’ results in arrest of more than 350 violent criminals in KC metro.” The station’s news segment called those arrested, without qualification, “hundreds of the worst criminals.” KSHB NBC Kansas City headlined its segment on the arrests “Operation Triple Beam removes 355 violent offenders from KC streets.” The segment led with the following: “Hundreds of dangerous criminals are off the streets thanks to efforts for Operation Triple Beam.”  

The headlines and ledes of these reports leave no doubt that those accused were guilty. How, one might ask, would these media outlets know all 355 people arrested were “violent criminals” before they’ve had a trial, much less been convicted of anything? Only 41 of the arrests disclosed by prosecutors were for violent offenses (22 for assault, eight for homicide, six for sexual offenses, four for sexual assault, and one for arson). The rest are either unknown or for drugs, burglary, failure to register as a sex offender, or weapons possession. 

And inaccuracies in headlines are not minor infractions. A 2016 BuzzFeed News study found that 75 percent of Americans who read fake news headlines believe them to be true. 

Although they did avoid prejudicial headlines, reports from KMBC ABC and the Kansas City Star, like those from Fox 4 and KSHB, repeated the U.S. attorney’s and law enforcement claims without skepticism. None of these reports sought comment from any of the accused, their representatives, or any independent groups or criminal legal reform advocates. The totality of coverage amounted to little more than repackaging what was said at the Justice Department’s press conference. 

This type of media rush to judgment can be dangerous. In April 2016, the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and New York Police Department carried out an extensive  “gang raid” in the South Bronx, arresting over 100 people. In the headlines of their reports, major publications took as fact that those arrested were guilty and in gangs. “87 Bronx Gang Members Responsible for Nine Years of Murders and Drug-Dealing Charged in Largest Takedown in NYC History,” read one headline in the New York Daily News. The New York Post headlined their story “More than 100 gang members arrested.” A WABC 7 headline stated “100+ Bronx gang members arrested.”

But years later, based on a detailed report co-authored by City University of New York law professor Babe Howell and graduate student Priscilla Bustamante, we learned that roughly half of those arrested weren’t accused by federal prosecutors of even being in a gang. (This is using the state’s own claims, though the number is most likely less, given the historically loose criteria for being a gang member.) 

Eighty of the 120 defendants were not convicted of a violent crime, yet dozens of major media outlets had rushed to condemn those arrested as “violent hoodlums” and “unrepentant gangbangers.” Their names and faces were plastered over news websites and TV reports, but they were never said by the federal government to be in a gang nor found guilty of violent crimes.

It’s also important to note, as Howell and Bustamante did in their report, that almost half of those arrested were simply being rearrested and retried by the U.S. attorney’s office under RICO statutes—laws pertaining to vast criminal conspiracies with lower burdens of proof—for crimes they had already been convicted of in state court. What appeared to be, based on superficial media accounts at the time, 120 “gang members” rounded up before they could harm again was to a large extent federal law enforcement rearresting people who had already served sentences for the crime in question.

There’s a human face to these sweeping arrests and summary media condemnations. As journalist Simon Davis-Cohen documented for The Appeal in April, dozens of those caught up in the Bronx 120 “raid” for low-level offenses have had their lives upended. Lloyd Rodriguez, 23, explained to Davis-Cohen that he was having a difficult time finding work because of his felony conviction for selling marijuana. “There’s days I wake up, and I feel like I’m just a felon,” he tells the camera. “I want a career, a lot of careers that I wanted to pursue, I can’t no more because I got a felony.” 

These are life-altering charges being wielded as a blunt instrument by the state, with major consequences to those arrested. But viewers of accusatory reports are fed one narrative: a simple “Bad Guy arrested” tale being proffered by law enforcement. An asymmetry made worse by headlines that assume guilt before any due process. 

Crime reporters would do well to wait until people have actually stood trial—much less been found guilty of anything—before stating their criminal status as a certainty, or rushing to characterize mass arrests as taking down sprawling and dangerous conspiracies. Police claims are just that: claims, not statements of undisputed fact to be repeated without qualification or skepticism.