Real fake news, interpreting 2020 crime stats, and another school board race where school police are on the ballot
I hope everyone is enjoying their summer, which feels like it’s going by rather quickly?
Just a quick note/reminder before I share new work. Earlier this week I was thinking about stories to pitch and I half-jokingly tweeted:
Most of the responses I received were also jokes, practical life advice stuff, but I actually did get a few really helpful emails and private messages with ideas from people, some who I knew, some I didn’t but they just saw the tweet. It reminded me that for most people, the whole news gathering process is pretty opaque, and even if one has tips or ideas for pieces (sometimes called ‘leads’) they don’t necessarily know what to do with them or how to share information in a way they feel is secure. Or they don’t know if what they have is worth sharing.
So I just wanted to put out there that if you ever do come across some information and you wanted to pass it along or a topic that you think might have merit and isn’t getting attention, please do! I really welcome your ideas, and sometimes I can’t follow up on everything, but sometimes timing works out extremely well. And the idea might not turn into its own individual story but it also might help inform other ones. Or sometimes I might know another reporter who I think would be great to take that particular idea on. Journalism really does take a village and so just a standing invitation that:
You can always email me: email@example.com. Or you can text me on Signal, which is an encrypted text messaging service, at 1-202-681-6194 or you can leave me a voicemail at 202-681-6194.
Ok! Now on to stories:
Today at The Intercept I have report on a little-known project funded by the American Federation for Children, which is a leading national school choice lobbying group that Betsy DeVos funds and was chair of prior to becoming Trump’s Education Secretary. (Her family foundation actually continued to fund AFC while she was education secretary, and the group then turn around and lobbied her Department as she worked there.)
The project, called “Ed Newsfeed” employs former TV news reporters and producers to create and distribute weekly content for free to local news stations nationwide. And then the stations often air the segments, word-for-word, with no disclosure that they’re funded by AFC and narrated by an AFC “national correspondent.” Many subjects featured have political and financial ties to the group.
The piece looks at why this is happening, and the depressingly longer trend that’s been going on since at least the 1990s of corporations and government agencies producing so-called Video News Releases, or VNRs, for hamstrung broadcast stations eager for some inexpensive content. A journalist at TV Guide published a front page cover story in 1992 warning of the risks that this real fake news posed for media. I interviewed media scholars about the AFC’s project and got what information I could out of AFC about their effort. (I learned about Ed Newsfeed’s existence via a tip.)
Here’s the 1992 cover:
And you can read the story here.
Last week I had a story published in The Daily Beast trying to make sense of what we know about crime in 2020 and what might be in store for the rest of this year. Overall crime, including violent crime, was down in 2020, but homicides and shootings were up significantly, so experts and the general public are rightfully concerned and thinking about what was driving it.
I reviewed what’s been previously published and interviewed some criminologists about what factors seem more plausible than others to them (it’s certainly a multi-factor situation.)
One of my takeaways from doing this story was that so much of our public narrative around crime, and which places are violent, are driven by the slow, terribly uneven and incomplete ways in which crime data is published. If you go back and look at news coverage from and about 2020, so many stories on the last year are about crime rises *in large U.S cities*. You know, those generally liberal, urban areas so many Americans already harbor racist fears about.
Here are some examples of what I mean (Wall Street Journal, CNN, and Forbes headlines respectively)
But in reality, shootings and homicides were up significantly across all jurisdictions. Including suburbs, rural areas, small towns, and mid-sized cities. The problem is, most of those places aren’t able, or choose not to publish regular crime stats in the ways large cities do, and so researchers can’t then study those trends as early, and reporters can’t then cover the researchers’ analyses on those places as early. The FBI will eventually publish final comprehensive crime stats for 2020 by fall 2021, but by that point, most people will have already moved on to discussing what’s happening in 2021.
If you recognize that our shooting and homicide problem is a nationwide one, then our debates about policing + protest + prosecutorial ideologies look different.
I looked at likely factors impacting crime such as the pandemic and the increase in guns. The role of policing is more nuanced; deteriorating relations/trust with police does probably affect the ability to solve crime — like journalists, police rely on tips and cooperation with the community during their investigations. But it’s more glib, and less convincing, to say those strained relations are causally driven by the racial justice protests or the “defund the police” movement. I also looked at less-cited factors that deserve more attention, like our ongoing opioid crisis. (Preliminary CDC data suggests drug overdoses were up 29 percent last year over 2019, disproportionately affecting Black Americans and driven largely by fentanyl.)
Ultimately it’s a lot easier to argue about police budget funding than to pass meaningful gun control reform and tackle our opioid crisis. This Vox article which came out after my story also lends more evidence to the theory that increased gun carrying had a role to play in what happened last year. I will say it’s not all bleak news. Community institutions re-opening and infusions of federal funds to those places like schools, pools, libraries and rec centers are promising developments, and experts think will help ultimately with crime.
Murders tend to increase in the summer, so you might see some similar headlines about large U.S. cities over the next few months. There are serious concerns in these places, but I would say just keep in mind that what you’re reading is very likely distorted by what data is available to write reports about. You can read the Daily Beast piece here.
And lastly, I have a piece at The Appeal about the role of school police in an upcoming school board race in Syracuse, New York. Elected school boards wield tremendous power over the budgets that go towards school police (often called ‘School Resource Officers’ or SROs) and activists nationwide have been turning their sights to those representatives. School boards in place like Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Denver, and Portland, Maine, voted to end their contracts with local law enforcement last year, and in Syracuse, activists pointed to Rochester, a city just 90 minutes away, where the city council also voted last June to remove school police.
Not everyone wants to remove school police, and as you can imagine, many point to the rise in shootings/homicides over the last year as one reason they should stay. Activists say the evidence that school police prevent crime though is thin, and that the ongoing cost to students is too high. I wrote a story about how this was playing out in Prince George’s County last fall, and this piece zeroes in on Syracuse. Rest assured these are questions being tackled in school districts nationwide. You can read that here.
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