How the New York Times Uses Sources
Interesting pro-incarceration patterns emerge when you see who appears in the news
Last week, I wrote about how some reporters at the New York Times cherry pick pro-police “experts” to cite in articles that help construct our sense of crime and safety. The issue of whose voices are included in the news and whose voices are ignored is not confined to experts though: a far more pervasive practice is shaping whose voices we hear at all.
Many news outlets are hyper-selective about all of the sources they use in their articles about crime and safety. If you’ve ever read an article about crime and safety, you’ll note that the reporters and editors are constantly making choices about who to interview to describe the problem, who to interview to describe potential solutions, and even which random residents to interview to give readers some sense of what ordinary people think.
In this process, many reporters will primarily rely, and sometimes exclusively rely, on the police and their carceral allies (like prosecutors, pro-police officials, former punishment bureaucrats, police consultants, and corporate profiteers) to talk about the facts of what happened. These practices are not confined to local tv news or Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloids. All major news outlets that I have studied do this in their crime coverage.
Equally importantly, the sources quoted in an article often play a vital role behind the scenes. Many people don’t realize that the people quoted in articles explaining what happened are often the very same people who brought the story to the reporter. They often share professional networks or are repeat sources of the kind relied on by good reporters everywhere. Or the quoted sources are often contacts of the person who brought the story to the reporter. In this way, professional networks that are mutually beneficial come to shape which stories are told and whose version of the basic facts are presented. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this—reporters need connections to help them find out about stuff! I’m just noting that, as you read below, keep in mind that there is an entire world behind who you see quoted that is determining which stories are even being told at all and who is presented in each story as the people narrating it.
I have collected some representative examples for you followed by some suggestions you can use when reading these stories. I primarily focus on the New York Times because it is the most widely read newspaper, because its longtime slogan of “all the news that’s fit to print” markets the paper as a definitive source for all important views, and because the paper is seen both as a “liberal” paper and the most prestigious source of daily news:
What do these pieces have in common? They empower government and corporate bureaucrats invested in punishment as a solution to social harm as sources to tell us the story.
In article after article, hundreds of times a month and thousands of times during our adult lives, we are bombarded with a carefully curated selection of facts about the world. This cannot help but change our perception of reality.
Why is this so dangerous? Cops, prosecutors, and the people literally and figuratively invested in the expansion of surveillance, control, and punishment are not neutral sources. These sources represent well-funded and powerful interest groups with professional and financial incentives, political views, and policy goals. And while people understand that prosecutors and corporate profiteers invest a lot of money in political and corporate PR, a lot of people know nothing about the far greater investment by police departments in an enormous amount of time and resources into strategic messaging and PR.
When newsrooms rely on police sources so heavily in their coverage of safety, they give police and their corporate allies the power to shape the narrative about complex social issues. The ultimate goal, of course, is to persuade news consumers that systems of social control need even more power and resources to respond to what the police classify as “crime” and to distract people from thinking about other investments that would better address the root causes of violence and harm (i.e. solutions that would reduce inequality).
What’s more, the police have a long, ugly track record of lies and dishonesty. Police historically manipulate crime statistics, make false claims, and cover up acts of violence or scandals within the police department. Relying on the police as the key or sole sources in an article about public safety not only creates a biased narrative, but it risks spreading misleading and inaccurate information to the public at large.
Whenever you read a news article, take a look at the sources the reporters and editors chose to present to readers to tell "the full story," in chronological order. Ask yourself these questions:
Whose voices are prioritized?
Who benefits from their point of view being presented as news?
Was anyone with an opposing viewpoint critical of the punishment bureaucracy included?
How did the reporter choose which voices to quote and which to ignore?
Where in the article were views challenging the narrative put forward by punishment bureaucrats placed?
Which sources were granted anonymity and why?
Did the reporter include any journalistic skepticism for claims made by police, or note whether the source has a history of dishonesty?
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