Our images of crime victims

Back in December, I said I would remain deliberately vague for now about my book project. That’s still the case, but I’ll drop a little hint about what’s on my mind by talking about the lecture I’ll give today.

I’m honored to be invited back to the Syracuse University College of Law and to a class I helped create about 10 years ago on law, politics and media. It’s an outgrowth of a program that combines the strengths of SU’s journalism, public affairs, and law schools. And under the direction of my former colleagues it excels at exploring the issues at the intersection of these powerful forces.

My talk builds on the work that I did on a series about the ways in which we fail crime victims with tough-on-crime policies. I will look at how news coverage of crime distorts our views of the realities of violence and its victims — who they usually are (namely, poor people of color, not the more famous victims we see in the news advocating harsher laws) and what they really need (crime prevention and healing services, not just a focus on how much to punish offenders). News is defined by what’s unusual, and so we are fed a diet of scary aberrations. That influences public opinion and policy aimed at preventing less likely crimes and ignores the most common forms of  violence and their victims.

I’m not entirely pessimistic. I’ll talk about the solutions-journalism approach that informs the surplus of quality journalism these days on criminal-justice policy. But myths, which often start with news coverage, still dominate much of our thinking. For proof of that, we need to look no further than President Trump’s emphasis on crimes committed by immigrants, which runs directly counter to the facts about that population’s propensity to commit crime.

I’m not saying yet there’s definitely a book to be written on this topic — that’s still in the talking and preliminary-research stages — but stay tuned.

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