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Media Frame: Using Gun Fears to Demagogue Bail Reform

CBS 2 Chicago relied on police voices and irrelevant data to question efforts to end cash bail.

Image of Chicago Police officer
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

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.

As the movement to reform cash bail—a practice that experts say disproportionately punishes poor people and people of color—gains steam throughout the country, local media continues to rely on fearmongering police narratives in lieu of evidence and nuance. One recent example, CBS 2 Chicago’s report on police fears of bond reform, serves as a useful case study in how this misinformation spreads uncritically.

On June 3, the local TV station used to its evening news broadcast to demagogue the bail reform movement with an innuendo-filled segment that recited police claims as fact and exploited the public’s ignorance about bail and their justifiable fear of gun violence. The segment, “Officials Address ‘Vicious Cycle’ Of I-Bond Violations After Violent Weekend,” started off by implying that letting people out on bail from Cook County Jail for gun charges was dangerous. Anchor Irika Sargent leads into the report by telling viewers, “Eleven gun offenders arrested this weekend walked out of jail without having to pay a dime. … Tonight we’re asking if Cook County’s bond system is making the violence worse.”

Note the “just asking questions” formula, which is there to plant an idea in the viewer’s mind without the messy task of having to prove anything. Neither the police cited nor the reporter nor the expert interviewed actually answers the question that the report is ostensibly supposed to ask: Does bail reform cause more gun deaths?

Despite serving as the central premise of the segment, at no point does reporter Megan Hickey show that bail reform has made “violence worse.” What follows instead is a report populated by rhetorical sleight-of-hand.

From the get-go, Hickey’s story attempts to connect two unrelated things: those out on bail for simple gun possession and a series of gun-related crimes over the weekend of June 2. The opening B-roll is images of gunshot holes, a roaring ambulance, and police surrounding what appears to be a murder scene. But Hickey’s voiceover is about gun possession, not any of these crimes. Of course, none of the people out on bail for gun possession were arrested for the crimes depicted, nor rearrested for the crimes depicted.

The report appears to have been prompted by a tweet from Chicago Police Department spokesperson Anthony Guglielmi. Hickey began the piece by citing Guglielmi, telling CBS 2 viewers:

In a tweet Sunday night, a Chicago police spokesperson criticized the practice of letting gun offenders out on individual recognizance bonds or “I-bonds.”  

That’s when a defendant is released without having to pay, on the promise that they will return for the next court date.

The tweet said, in part, “Letting gun offenders out on I-Bonds shows there is absolutely no repercussion for carrying illegal guns In Chicago.”

Guglielmi’s factually inaccurate statement is left entirely unchallenged, repeated instead as a reliable claim. But an I-bond means one is still being charged with a crime. The only thing that has changed is the person arrested won’t be forced to wait in Cook County lock-up before they’ve been found guilty of anything. They very much are facing “repercussions”—a court date and potentially years in jail. The report strips this fact away, and the average viewer is left thinking the police simply let those 11 people go without charge or an upcoming trial.

Absent any evidence to support the claim that bail reform has made Chicago unsafe, Hickey reaches back to data from three to four years ago. “For a year-and-a-half period from 2015 to 2016,” Hickey says, “CBS 2 discovered that I-bonds for gun offenders were given at least a dozen times. In one 2016 case, Cardell Brown was charged and convicted of aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. Then when he was on probation he was charged with battery and he walked away on an I-bond.”

Hickey is using four-year-old data to criticize bail reforms that are less than two years old (a fact she notes later in her report). CBS 2 tosses out irrelevant statistics, hoping the viewer won’t notice they’re unrelated. The only example given to show that people released on bond for gun possession are a threat is a battery case from over three years ago, before reform began.

The only apparent attempt at balance in the entire segment comes from CBS 2’s legal analyst Steven Block, who tells Hickey, “Someone will go out and do something bad on bond. That’s inevitable, but what we need to look at is how you handle the cases on a whole.” Block does nothing to meaningfully push back against the narrative. He offers up vague hand-waving but lets the central, unsubstantiated premise that bail reform causes more gun violence remain unchallenged. Instead, the piece, and the viewers, would have been better served had Hickey contacted a truly independent source for comment, such as local bail reform groups like the Chicago Community Bond Fund.

While certainly the most sensationalist, CBS 2 Chicago wasn’t the only local outlet passing along the baseless trope that reform is causing gun violence. Without challenge, the Chicago Tribune permitted police Superintendent Eddie Johnson to fault bail reform for the violence over that weekend in June, writing: “Johnson has long blamed the unrelenting violence on the flow of illegal guns on city streets and a court system that allows too many criminals caught with those weapons to be bonded out prematurely.” No evidence for this claim was provided by either Johnson or the Tribune reporter.

WGN 9 Chicago’s Patrick Elwood more overtly misled viewers, implying that being released on an I-bond was the same as simply being let go: “Police arrested 19 people on gun related charges over the weekend, 11 of them are already out of jail.” As in the CBS 2 report, the average viewer would come away from this thinking the 11 were sent home without charge. This isn’t the case. All that has happened is people are not serving jail time before they’ve been convicted of anything. All 11 still potentially face years in prison after they’ve either pleaded or been found guilty by a jury of their peers.  

These reports also fail to take into account the motivations and conflicts of interest of bail reform opponents like the police. As one 2017 Human Rights Watch report shows, pretrial detention is significant leverage in leaning on––and extracting the most favorable plea out of––those charged by police. “Bail coerces people into giving up the right to trial,” the report says, because “prosecutors use custody status as leverage to pressure guilty pleas.” Anyone who has viewed the harrowing Netflix series “When They See Us,” about the Central Park Five, can see a dramatization of how pretrial detention can allow police to exploit people’s powerful desire to “just go home.”

Then there’s the data we do have on the relationship between crime and bail reform that flies in the face of Hickey’s narrative. Cook County’s data shows that of the 660 people facing weapons charges who were released on I-bonds in the 15 months following the bond reforms, only 10 (or 1.5 percent) were later rearrested for a violent offense. The vast majority, or 98.5 percent, were not. There’s also an important, but vastly overlooked dimension to this conversation: Multiple studies have shown pretrial detention increases the likelihood a person will commit future crimes. The exact reasons need more study, but one University of Pennsylvania Law School report suggests its most likely due to negative peer influence in jail or the manner with which pretrial imprisonment upends people’s lives through a loss of employment and education opportunities. This violence––both the direct violence of incarceration and the indirect violence resulting in the corrosive influence of jail––is ignored by CBS 2 and countless others. It may not make for a simple, scary headline, but it’s real and ought to factor into any reporting of bail reform.

As bail reform grows in popularity, expect police voices to get louder. Reporters would do well to source their stories beyond the authorities who parrot claims without evidence, and instead rely on actual data—data that indicates bail reform in Chicago has correlated with a decrease in crime. CBS 2 Chicago and other outlets helping police demagogue reform should abandon their scary anecdotes that wrongly imply bail reform is to blame for upticks in shootings—a storyline that is far more about keeping people behind bars than keeping people safe.