Friday, January 2, 2015

Bail and the Media -- Again

I've written about this before, so I'll be short.

This is the time when media outlets start listing all of the big important news stories that happened over the last year. I was watching CNN the other day, and, as media outlets that must fill 24 hours each day probably have to do, they were discussing the relative merits of their particular list. One guy -- I can't remember who -- lamented that the media tended to focus only on sensational stories. His example was that during a recent spree of looting by about 100 people after a protest in California, the media showed footage of that particular chaotic event repeatedly. But, he said, when about 25,000 people in California marched peacefully later that week, there was no coverage. The funny thing was that while he was saying all of this, CNN again showed the footage of the looting, but not the peaceful march. Point proven.

This all reminded me of the two biggest mistakes the media can make in covering news stories about bail. The first is to focus only on the sensational story -- usually an aberrational case of pretrial misconduct -- that doesn't represent the vast majority of cases or that is shown without any sort of explanatory perspective. If all they did was simply add a line of perspective, media outlets would go quite far in reducing the amount of unnecessary fear they tend to whip up concerning crime.

The second is to think that if any particular bail story presents two sides, then that story is balanced. No, in bail, you typically have about 20 different, important, and valid sides to any particular story. But 19 of them will all basically say the same thing in different versions and with different perspectives. The twentieth, often the opinion of a bail industry or insurance lobbyist who hopes to make a few bucks, will be the opposite of everyone else.

Don't get me wrong. I love the media and I can't overstate it's importance. I majored in journalism in college and for several years I represented television, radio, cable and satellite clients in Washington, D.C. If you're a reporter, though, and you're working on a bail story, try to stay away from these two mistakes. Or just give me a buzz.

Happy New Year!