Troy Davis execution raises questions about episodic coverage of death penalty

Coverage of the death penalty is episodic, with journalists converging at the most dramatic moments — when an execution is imminent — to offer updates and last-minute explanation and context on issues that deserve a fuller, more frequent treatment. As an execution nears, journalism’s focus is appropriately on the specifics of that situation: the legal drama, the crimes and evidence, the families. But a brief mention or count of protesters outside the prison does an injustice to the facts and deeply-held beliefs that belong in a civic discussion of the death penalty. When do journalists give that discussion the time and space it deserves? The Storify below captures the related journalistic issues that arose Wednesday night as Troy Davis faced death.


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  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Brian, you make an excellent point. One of the causes of episodic coverage may be that there are no longer the newsroom resources to invest in ongoing, deeper coverage of these issues and/or possibly no longer the will to do that. To know for sure, we’d have to look back 10 years or so and see whether there was more ongoing coverage of it at a time when there was more newsroom reporting staff. –Julie

  • http://www.facebook.com/brianhaas Brian Haas

    I think the author misses the point. The problem isn’t that the coverage is episodic. It’s that there aren’t enough journalists anymore to cover these issues the way they deserve to be covered. Gavel-to-gavel coverage of court cases (absent a Casey Anthony-type case) is nearly gone. Coverage of appeals of big cases is similarly lacking.

    There simply is no other way to cover these stories in the current media environment. And it’s only going to get worse unless media companies start reinvesting in quality content instead of trying to cut their way to success.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brianhaas Brian Haas

    I think the author misses the point. The problem isn’t that the coverage is episodic. It’s that there aren’t enough journalists anymore to cover these issues the way they deserve to be covered. Gavel-to-gavel coverage of court cases (absent a Casey Anthony-type case) is nearly gone. Coverage of appeals of big cases is similarly lacking.

    There simply is no other way to cover these stories in the current media environment. And it’s only going to get worse unless media companies start reinvesting in quality content instead of trying to cut their way to success.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Well-put, Anne. It’s the flow of coverage I see as episodic — it starts a few days before a scheduled execution, peaks at the time of execution then recedes quickly — within a constant news cycle. It’s a victim of “breaking news syndrome.” It’s the same challenge we face with sexual violence; we cover it after *something happens* and we define that “something” by traditional news values. But we miss opportunities to cover the underlying issue that way. Same with the death penalty. –Julie

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Well-put, Anne. It’s the flow of coverage I see as episodic — it starts a few days before a scheduled execution, peaks at the time of execution then recedes quickly — within a constant news cycle. It’s a victim of “breaking news syndrome.” It’s the same challenge we face with sexual violence; we cover it after *something happens* and we define that “something” by traditional news values. But we miss opportunities to cover the underlying issue that way. Same with the death penalty. –Julie

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks, Grayson & Kevin. I was tremendously impressed with the coverage I saw yesterday, on Twitter and in traditional formats. I think it was well-done and reflected the depth of knowledge of the people covering it. Unfortunately, we in the news media rarely talk about the death penalty *outside* the context of an execution (including the few days before and sometimes just after). If we only treat the death penalty issue as breaking news, a crime story or legal drama, we do a disservice to the issue and everyone who takes it very seriously. –Julie

  • Anonymous

    Julie, thanks for putting this together, good discussion and repository of last night’s files. As someone who followed tweets most of night from reporters at the prison in Jackson, the coverage didn’t seem episodic and in fact just added to the body of work journalists had already done on this case in previous days, weeks, months and years.  In total the journalism was powerful. Whether tweeting or “sweetheart get me rewrite,” there’s no substitute for a reporter who’s at the scene/on the ground, staying til the bitter end to tell us what happened.

  • Anonymous

    Julie,
    Thanks for putting this together, raising lots of good discussion and better yet a repository of the “files” yesterday and last night from the prison in Jackson. As someone who followed Severson’s tweets all night, they delivered the shifting dramas closely. Not episodic in anyway because of the context she and other reporters who’ve been following this case filed in their more traditional stories, which were loaded with case background and links. In total the effect of the journalism was powerful. Twitter or “sweetheart get me rewrite,” there’s no substitute for a reporter on the ground, staying til the bitter end to tell us what’s happening.  

  • http://www.kevinbondelli.com Kevin Bondelli

    I don’t believe the author is attacking social media. The point is that many journalists and outlets cover death penalty cases and capital punishment itself like a sports highlight reel, remaining mostly silent on the issue in the interim between highlights. We would be better served by reporting that reflects the depth and complexity of such an issue, in addition to the episodic coverage.

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  • http://twitter.com/SpaceyG SpaceyG

    Not sure exactly what your point is here. Yes, there was a constant stream of *episodic* real time material… as well as insight, commentary, discussion, analysis (in-depth or otherwise) going on throughout the execution prelude… on my (one) Facebook Wall alone. Should it all be wrapped-up with a pretty bow in some OTHER kind of manner or singular packaging? Charlie Rose only allowed? You prefer a print piece five years later by a retired SCOTUS? Something with sparkles on TV today?  Again, what’s your point? The conversation and *facts and deeply-held beliefs that belong in a civic discussion of the death penalty* will go on. Ad nauseum. Everywhere. In every possible form/media one can imagine. So they happened in real time, everywhere, last night. That’s hardly a deterrent to, again your words, *facts and deeply-held beliefs that belong in a civic discussion of the death penalty* coming to pass. Whenever.