When searching for the perpetrators behind this nation’s current cops-and-incarceration boom, media workers need only look in the mirror. While reporters and writers may occasionally finger demagogic pols for shamelessly campaigning on soft-headed, tough-on-crime promises, our industry typically primes the public to salivate in anticipation of each new slab of lock-’em-up legislation. This is nowhere more obvious than with youth crime.
Despite seven years of plummeting adult crime rates and five years of dropping youth crime, “if it bleeds, it leads” remains the mainstream media mantra. Publishers, editors, and reporters know that carnage grabs readers and viewers immediately; bureaucratic statistical reports on the declining amount of violence don’t. As online news and TV outlets proliferate, so does the sense that America is utterly, apocalyptically out of control.
“Welcome to the age of multimedia!” laughs Matthew Felling of the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Media and Public Affairs. “We have MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, and all the others–which means that if a JonBenet [Ramsey] gets killed, we have around-the-clock coverage.” But good news, Felling says, “has the life span of a fruit fly.”
A 1997 report by the CMPA found that crime has been “by far the biggest topic of the decade, with 9,391 stories on the network evening news shows–an average of over 110 stories per month, or nearly four per day, during the past seven years.” Networks last year ran 1,392 crime reports on the nightly news, according to the center, which maintains a media criticism website called NewsWatch (www.newswatch.org).
But while crime coverage is booming, serious felonies are dwindling. According to the FBI, serious crime last year dropped six percent, hitting its lowest point since 1985. Youth crime is diminishing even faster–serious youth crime fell 11 percent last year. Crimes by minors in California declined seven percent in 1998, while adult offenses dropped by six percent. (It should be noted, too, that FBI statistics reflect arrests, not convictions.)
“People should feel safer on the streets than they have in the last 20 years,” says criminologist Khaled Taqi-Eddin of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. “Instead, they feel just the opposite. Politicians and conservatives use the media as a source to manufacture fear.”
Pete Wilson’s Baby
Enter the Son of Three Strikes: In March 2000, California voters will determine the fate of Proposition 21, called the Juvenile Crime Initiative. Sponsored by ex-Governor Pete Wilson and the California District Attorneys Association, the 43-page ballot measure would revamp a huge chunk of the current juvenile justice code. Opponents–including the Northern and Southern California chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union, the California Teachers Association, the Youth Law Center, and Californians for Justice–are calling it the “War on Youth” Initiative. And given the current media-whipped crime hysteria, the referendum has a strong chance of succeeding.
Proposition 21 would hand prosecutors sweeping powers to try minors as young as 14 in adult courts, thus making teens eligible for perpetual prison sentences. Currently, when a youth between the ages of 14 and 17 is charged with a serious felony, a judge must determine whether he or she is “fit” for the reform-oriented juvenile justice system or should be dealt with in the purely punitive adult system. The prosecution and defense each have a chance to present witnesses and try to sway the judge. Should the case go to adult court, a conviction usually means hard time in the state penitentiary. A sentence in juvenile court, on the other hand, is likely to lead to a youth-specific boot camp or jail with at least a semblance of rehabilitative programming. And teens sent to the juvenile system generally can’t be incarcerated past the age of 25.
If Wilson’s initiative wins, these “fitness hearings” will be a thing of the past, and district attorneys will have free rein to take minors accused of serious crimes to adult court. While Proposition 21 won’t repeal California’s ban on executing juveniles, it may mark a significant step toward killing kids.
The initiative also contains a bundle of other punitive measures. Among other things, it would make graffiti damage of more than $400 a felony, make it harder to seal juvenile court records, eliminate informal juvenile probation, expand the definition of a gang member, and stiffen sentences for gang-related crimes. Critics see such provisions as fiscally wasteful and unnecessary–and say that Proposition 21 will criminalize more young people of color, making them unable to ever join the mainstream.
Journalism by Anecdote
The press drove California’s last major criminal-law ballot measure to victory with the help of a perennial con and a murdered girl. In 1993, when Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old Petaluma girl, was kidnapped and brutally killed, the media chronicled every sordid detail. Polly’s horrible story became newspeople’s gold: Some unknown psycho had snatched a white girl from a serene small-town home and ripped her from this world. If this child–so far from the seething inner city–wasn’t safe, then who was? A massive two-month manhunt ended in the capture of Richard Allen Davis, a repeat offender. According to CMPA, network news coverage of murders tripled during 1993, a jump fueled in part by the Polly Klaas tragedy. Meanwhile, California murder rates declined.
Public outrage at the girl’s murder found a political outlet when her father, Marc Klaas, signed on as spokesperson for Proposition 184, the Three Strikes Initiative. But then Klaas read the law’s fine print and realized that Proposition 184 would jail tens of thousands of nonviolent offenders for life. Several months before the November 1994 vote, he withdrew his support, hooked up with progressive criminologist Vincent Schiraldi of the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), and waged an anti–Three Strikes campaign.
But as detailed by local documentarian Michael J. Moore in The Legacy, his 1999 film about Three Strikes, mainstream reporters ignored Klaas’s change of heart. And “it wasn’t just Marc; none of the other critics were able to get the cameras on them,” says Moore. “The media loves sex, loves violence, loves uncontrolled people spewing polemic. [Three Strikes spokesperson] Mike Reynolds learned that early on. Marc wasn’t willing to say anything to get on television.”
Klaas and other Three Strikes opponents faced an additional challenge: Images of SWAT teams booting down doors, prowling drug dealers, and bloody corpses make good, visceral TV; talking heads don’t. “It was a war of images, and [Three Strikes foes] didn’t have any images,” Moore says. He fears anti–Proposition 21 forces will hit the same roadblock.
Proposition 21 ties together a whole load of legal revisions, none of which can be summed up in a sound bite. Backers of Proposition 21 need not flesh out the legal details–they can simply tell voters, “Here’s a new law drafted by California prosecutors that will keep killer kids and gang bangers under lock and key.” Opponents, on the other hand, will need to explain the complex, esoteric body of juvenile law–both as it stands, and as it would be amended by Proposition 21.
All Columbine, All the Time
Proposition 21 forces, currently showing a $10,000 debt, have thus far spent about $1 million, the bulk of which went to paid signature-gatherers to get the measure placed on the ballot. Three months before election day, the low-profile campaign–which lacks even a website–had yet to launch a media blitz, though that may be coming. But Proposition 21 doesn’t really need to run TV or radio spots or full-page print ads: The press has spent a decade selling the notion that Armageddon, teen style, is just around the corner.
For the past couple of years schoolhouse shootings have generated endless column inches and broadcast hours. The Associated Press alone has published at least 250 stories on the Columbine High School massacre and its fallout since Dylan Harris and Eric Klebold went on their killing spree in April 1999. The output includes a host of non-news stories such as “Fergie Visits Columbine Memorial” and “Columbine Victim Is Homecoming King.” The newswire this year also ran 38 pieces on Kip Kinkel, the Springfield, Oregon boy who shot up his high school. Kinkel, bear in mind, committed his crime in May 1998–but apparently still warrants a story nearly every week. For 1998, analysts at CMPA charted 50 TV network news segments focused on Kinkel, along with 76 reports on the Jonesboro, Arkansas, school slayings.
While conventional reporter’s wisdom apparently holds that every kid is on the verge of going postal, clear-minded criminologists like Vincent Schiraldi are quick to point out that violence in schools is decreasing or holding steady. In July 1998, as the two boys behind the Jonesboro incident went on trial, the Justice Policy Institute released Schoolhouse Hype, a report putting the school shootings in context. According to the JPI, while American schools saw 55 shooting deaths in the 1992–93 school year, the number fell to 40 during the 1997–98 period (and these figures include suicides and adults shot by other adults). Despite the rash of highly publicized slayings, in 1999 American schools will very likely see fewer shootings than they did at the beginning of the decade. To put it in perspective, 5.5 kids die daily of neglect or abuse at the hands of their parents or guardians, according to the JPI report.
Pushed by the progressive PR experts at Communication Works, the JPI study garnered coverage by CNN, along with stories in USA Today, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the San Francisco Examiner, the Sacramento Bee, and the Houston Chronicle. It was a major success for the PR firm, but a fleeting moment of relief in the parade of “killer kids” stories.
That these stories have had an effect is undeniable. The ultrashoestring No on 21 campaign, boasting but a trio of full-time staffers and still scrambling for any advertising loot, isn’t simply battling Pete Wilson and pals–it’s up against the media status quo.
Mitch Zak, spokesperson for the campaign to pass the initiative, tells us that the referendum is a response to “the threat that exists every day of youth violence and the increasing threat of gang violence.”
Zak says the proposition’s supporters would like to see more programs aimed at preventing youth crime. But “for those who are not reached by those programs, if they make the very conscious decision to break the law, there have to be consequences,” he says.
Despite the evidence, Zak simply doesn’t believe violent crime is diminishing–and he seems to be representative of the general population.
“In the polling we’ve done we’ve found that people don’t believe juvenile crime is going down,” says Kim Miyoshi, statewide field director for the No on 21 campaign. Why? “They say, ‘I see it on the news every night.'”
A. Clay Thompson is a reporter for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and an instructor in Media Alliance’s Raising Our Voices Training Program. The Data Center’s Impact Research Team provided research assistance on this article.