Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Cay Johnston is a journalistic treasure -- and also a major league crank. In a new piece, he explains why most journalism is so bad nowadays, beginning with overhyped crime coverage:
To understand how badly we're doing the most basic work of journalism in covering the law enforcement beat, try sitting in a barbershop. When I was getting my last haircut, the noon news on the television—positioned to be impossible to avoid watching—began with a grisly murder. The well-educated man in the chair next to me started ranting about how crime is out of control.
But it isn't. I told Frank, a regular, that crime isn't running wild and his chance of being burglarized today is 42.5 percent of what it was in 1980. The shop turned so quiet you could have heard a hair fall to the floor had the scissors not stopped. The barbers and clients listened intently as I next told them about how the number of murders in America peaked back in the early 1990's at a bit south of 25,000 and fell to fewer than 16,000 in 2009. When we take population growth into account, this means your chance of being murdered has almost been cut in half.
"So why is there so much crime on the news every day?" Diane, who was cutting Frank's hair, asked.
"Because it's cheap," I replied. "And with crime news you only have to get the cops' side of the story. There is no ethical duty to ask the arrested for their side of the story."
Read the whole thing, in which he hands up -- or maybe hands down (if you read the article, you'll understand what that means) -- an indictment of the way most journalists do their job. Regarding crime coverage, I'd have to say there have been times here at the Daily News where we've done what Johnston complains about, and for that very reason, that it was cheap and easy.
Recently, we've moved strongly away from that, curtailing our crime coverage often to one page, anchored by a helpful map. More importantly, the paper and its ace reporters Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker just won a Pulitzer Prize for challenging the cops' side of the story. So it's hard work, but it can be done.