June 4, 2024

Here’s a prediction: A decade from now, the American newsrooms still standing will have completely reformed how they cover public safety, replacing cheap stories about shootings and stabbings with data-rich narratives that educate communities and hold cops accountable. This includes local TV stations and lurid tabloids.

Last week, The Associated Press released the latest revamp of its Stylebook. It includes an entire chapter on criminal justice. This will become a foothold for newsrooms looking to chart a new course.

The changes to the AP Stylebook are significant because they embrace a philosophy that emerged in the wake of the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd. In the opening of the chapter, the AP lists several reasons for covering public safety, including educating the community, holding police and courts accountable, giving voice to victims and documenting trends.

The chapter instructs journalists to be wary of police reports, especially early ones. And while it stops short of admonishing newsrooms for past behavior, it does say, “Accounts by police, especially in the hours just after a crime, are very incomplete and can be inaccurate, whether about specific details or about motivations behind the crime.”

Here are a few of my favorite entries:

  • Eliminate all forms of the word “slay” and “slain” when it comes to covering murder and homicide. Only journalists use those words to reference killing people.
  • Avoid using “juvenile” and “minor” because they are bureaucratic language that dehumanizes people. Instead, just say “child” or “teenager.”
  • Put the person in front of the condition. So instead of calling someone a “felon” or a “convict” or a “murderer,” use the condition as a dependent clause, as in, “John Doe, a felon.” (This now includes references to former President Donald Trump.)
  • It is now OK to use the term “assault rifle” or “assault weapon” on first reference, but reporters are encouraged to be more specific as well.
  • In the name of fairness, mug shots are discouraged, especially before a person is convicted. (I wish the AP had gone farther on this.)

MORE FROM POYNTER: Newsrooms are rethinking their use of mug shots in crime reporting


Jill Bleed, U.S. news assignments manager for the AP, told me last week that it’s not really the AP’s style to call out sins of the past. She led the committee that wrote the new criminal justice entry. It took 13 months to complete the work, including participating in Poynter’s six-month online course, Transforming Crime Reporting into Public Safety Journalism. (They give our work a shout-out. Here’s this year’s course, which is halfway complete. If your newsroom is interested in reforming your policies and practices, reach out to transformingcrime@poynter.org.)

“We tried to make it in line with how the rest of the stylebook was and have it be forward-thinking,” she said. So, no scolding or shaming.

The press was among the institutions that came under uncomfortable scrutiny in the reckoning after Floyd’s death. Journalists were criticized for their deference to police narratives, including the one from the Minneapolis Police that reported that Floyd died “after a medical incident during police interaction.”

Of course, we journalists knew about this tendency of police to minimize culpability — their own or that of people very close to law enforcement — long before Floyd’s murder. Earlier that year when a retired investigator for the local district attorney’s office chased down and killed Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, there was scant media attention because police refused to release any information for weeks. It took the local Brunswick News almost two months of investigating to finally get ahold of the 911 call to hear a dispatcher asking, “What was he doing wrong?”

That shooting was reminiscent of the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, where the Orlando Sentinel first reported, based on police reports, that the teen’s death was the result of an altercation. In reality, Martin, 17, was walking back to his father’s home after purchasing Skittles and an Arizona fruit drink when he was followed and eventually shot by a neighborhood watch captain. It wasn’t until the family retained lawyer Ben Crump and bloggers began calling attention to the case that local journalists started scrutinizing the police response.

Likewise, the initial New York Police report of Eric Garner’s death in 2014 did not refer to the chokehold that had been used to subdue him before his arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes. Bystander video revealed the truth in that case.

In addition to falling short when it comes to scrutinizing police use of force, many newsrooms lean heavily on police press releases for low-hanging website fodder. It’s not hard to find stories in any media market across the country where the only attribution is “police said.” In fact, one study documents that as crime fell 34% between 1991 and 2000, stories in the press about homicides rose 700%.

In hindsight, it makes sense. As news went digital, the police press release replaced the police blotter. And instead of just the local printed newspaper, every news outlet in town took part.

As a profession, American journalism is challenged when it comes to evolving our habits. Why? There are no central governing bodies. Instead, in an unlicensed field, companies are left to their own devices.

Rapid and universal adoption only comes with the promise of profit. That’s actually how we journalists arrived at a common practice of crime coverage. This Philadelphia Inquirer documentary traces the creation of “Eyewitness News” in 1965 to the proliferation of local television stations that embraced the mantra, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

I, along with hundreds of other newspaper police reporters from the 1990s and early 2000s, can attest that we were trained by our colleagues to amplify police reports. Because there won’t be a financial reward for doing the right thing, this change will take a decade to complete.

In most newsrooms across the country, the amplification of police narratives remains a pernicious habit. The bulk of these rewritten press releases don’t even generate much traffic. But there are so many of them that collectively they help digital editors hit their targets.

As a result, the public routinely believes that crime is rising, according to polls. They believed this all through the 1990s as crime was dramatically falling. They believed it in the early 2000s when the drops were less dramatic.

When crime actually spiked during the pandemic, they believed it was at an all-time high, even though it was well below the levels of the early 1990s. And now that it’s falling back to prepandemic levels, the public believes it’s still rising.

That collective misinformation leads to bad public policy. Just last year, media consulting firm Magid Research advised TV journalists covering the 2024 elections to press candidates to address crime because that’s what the public wants to hear.

So why am I optimistic that our profession will reform? Because I’ve been here before. Here’s a list of all the topics where we’ve improved because it was the right thing to do, even when there wasn’t a clear profit to be made:

  • In 2001, an editor asked me what I thought about running a gay marriage announcement that had been submitted to his paper. When I pointed out that he didn’t ask straight couples for their actual marriage certificates, he told me his audience just wasn’t ready for it. By 2008, long before the Supreme Court universally legalized gay marriage, his paper was doing the right thing, printing the announcement of gay couples.
  • In 2012, newsrooms balked at the notion of minimizing the names of mass shooters, even in the face of a public campaign led by families of victims. By 2019, after the Parkland school shooting, it was standard practice.
  • Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, sexual violence prevention advocates were begging journalists to cover more than kidnappings and stranger assaults. Then came the 2002 Boston Globe investigation into the Catholic Church, the stories about Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, and finally the reporting on Harvey Weinstein that led to the entire #MeToo movement.

We are in the early stages of a shift in our ethical standards. Right now it feels like only the most advantaged newsrooms have the privilege or the ability to deliberately set different patterns. The ability to embrace ethical improvements is not unlike the ability to evolve the business model.

I can see the front-runners who are already ahead of the curve. I can see the bulk of the industry that will eventually catch up. And I can tell who the laggards are, who will hold back in defiance.

In 10 years, I’m betting there will be a correlation between the speed at which newsrooms adopt a more journalistically sound approach to covering public safety and the stability of their bottom line.

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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