Why We Shouldn’t Reward Fearmongering in Criminal Justice Reporting

The Courier Journal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on Governor Matt Bevin’s commutations sensationalizes crime at the expense of future clemency efforts.

Why We Shouldn’t Reward Fearmongering in Criminal Justice Reporting

The Courier Journal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on Governor Matt Bevin’s commutations sensationalizes crime at the expense of future clemency efforts.

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

On May 4, the Courier Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, won a Pulitzer Prize for its December breaking news reporting on hundreds of last-minute commutations issued by Republican Governor Matt Bevin before his term in office ended. 

In a harrowing feat of journalism, the paper, with its print deadline fast approaching, confirmed in a Dec. 11 story that among those pardoned was a man who was serving a 19-year sentence for reckless homicide and robbery—and whose family had raised $21,500 for the governor’s 2015 campaign. The story, a classic case of money and cronyism influencing politics, was shared widely, kicking off weeks of reporting that looked into Bevin’s 657 pardons and commutations at the 11th hour.   

The Pulitzer Prize committee praised the paper for “its rapid coverage of hundreds of last-minute pardons by Kentucky’s governor, showing how the process was marked by opacity, racial disparities and violations of legal norms.” 

But in a letter published Tuesday and addressed to the prize board, over two dozen legal and public health scholars, including one of the authors of this commentary, took issue with the board’s decision. The letter rightly lays out the dangers of rewarding criminal justice journalism that is flawed, sensationalistic, and damaging to future reform.

Instead of interrogating Kentucky’s ballooning incarcerated population, or shining a light on cases that deserved clemency but were denied, signers of the letter, organized by the Justice Collaborative, argue that the Courier Journal’s reporting reinforced a harmful narrative that clemency threatens public safety, and that politicians should fear the backlash when using their unique power to reduce America’s bloated incarcerated population. (The Appeal is an editorially independent project of the Justice Collaborative.)

“The Courier Journal did what newspapers have been doing for years,” the letter states. “It cherry-picked several cases, focused in on the most contemptible details, and then made those sensational crimes the face of Bevin’s clemency efforts.” Singling out cases involving “brutal” acts of violence crowded out praise for other pardons by Bevin’s office, such as the 336 people with drug offenses who had their sentences commuted, the letter notes, though the paper did report on them

And though the paper rightly highlighted the racial disparity of those pardoned for drug offenses—95 percent are white—the letter goes on to argue that the award-winning coverage “carried water for the empirically unfounded, but all-too-common, narrative that pardons and commutations on a broad scale make communities less safe.” And this powerful narrative, the letter says, has functioned to keep people inside overcrowded jails and prisons during the current pandemic, where COVID-19 continues to spread uncontained and where practicing social distancing and basic hygiene is all but impossible. 

Cortney Lollar, a University of Kentucky law professor, told The Appeal that she signed on to the letter because “pardons and commutations are two of the few remaining legal mechanisms where the system allows for the exercise of compassion and mercy, the importance of which is highlighted by the current pandemic.” She added, “The politicization of the pardon process, and the Pulitzer Prize Board’s granting of an award to the Courier-Journal for endorsing this sensationalized approach to criminal legal issues, validates the incredibly devastating message that politics are more important than lives.”

Jody David Armour, a University of Southern California law professor who also signed on to the letter, told The Appeal that the Courier Journal’s reporting “smacked of sensationalistic fear mongering.” 

“Zeroing in on just a few problematic pardons cast a shadow and undermined the legitimacy of the entire clemency effort, making it look like it’s a serious harm to the public,” he said. “That has a chilling effect on future efforts by governors and authorities to exercise their clemency power because they have to worry it may boomerang on them.” Armour also noted that like the justice system itself, not all clemencies are perfect. “There will inevitably be some cases that don’t turn out well,” he said. “No process is infallible. But if we make the standard infallibility, if the only way to exercise clemency is with a system that is foolproof, then you’ll never decarcerate and achieve a more just criminal justice system.”

Rewarding journalism that undermines clemency powers, redemption, and mercy may hamper future efforts to undo America’s problem of mass incarceration. Harmful news coverage—from the racist and inaccurate “crack baby” narrative to more recent fear-based articles about bail reform—reinforces “tough on crime” politics and an extra punitive carceral system. The public learns about crime and punishment from the news media, which affords the press tremendous power and responsibility to challenge assumptions and stereotypes. The Courier Journal’s coverage mostly played into old prejudices. 

“If ever there were a time for the media to pay closer attention to the harms of prisons (not just crime), it’s now, given that many of the worst [COVID-19] hotspots are our prisons and jails,” John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University who also signed the letter, told The Appeal. “Yet even now we still seem to emphasize the One Bad Case over more balanced narratives that wrestle openly with the costs of punishment, and this Pulitzer unfortunately will encourage this to continue.” 

The reporting, the letter states, “failed to contextualize the critical role of clemency power, reflecting the reality that pardons, commutations, and other reprieve measures are severely under-utilized tools to alleviate mass incarceration, racial injustice, and prison overcrowding.” 

Indeed, the letter notes that as a consequence of the Courier Journal’s work, the Kentucky legislature has introduced a bill “to limit the governor’s power to commute sentences or issue pardons.” The governor’s constitutional right to set people free is being legislatively reined in by politicians who most likely fear for their jobs. 

“Lifting up this type of coverage of criminal justice issues is especially harmful at a time like this,” the letter states, “when those in overcrowded prisons and surrounding communities are increasingly vulnerable to the devastation of COVID-19. Rewarding this kind of coverage risks discouraging leaders to use their clemency power to save lives.”

This isn’t the first time that flawed, sensationalistic journalism about marginalized groups has been rewarded. During the heyday of the war on drugs in the 1980s, the Washington Post had to give back a Pulitzer after an article about an 8-year-old addicted to heroin turned out to be fabricated. 

The tendency to cover crime in America by instilling fear in readers has gone on for too long, and the Pulitzer Prize Board can help put a stop to it by refraining from rewarding it.    

Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist in Chicago and fellow at the Health in Justice Action Lab, a policy think tank at Northeastern University School of Law. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Slate, and Wired, among others.

Leo Beletsky is an interdisciplinary social epidemiologist who explores the role of law and law enforcement as structural determinants of health. He is on the faculty of the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, and serves as professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University, where he directs the Health in Justice Action Lab.

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