John Oliver looked at how crime is covered by the news, particularly on the local level in the US. “TV news leans hard on ‘this could happen to you’ type of crime stories, which are designed to pull you in,” the Last Week Tonight host explained, which can stoke unfounded fear of crime, lead to misperceptions in the crime rate, and exacerbate inequities in the criminal justice system.
Oliver pointed to the recent example of rainbow fentanyl. According to many news outlets, the candy-colored narcotics have been designed to appeal to children during the month of Halloween.
“While the idea of rainbow fentanyl being made to target kids sounds very scary, experts on narcotics have pointed out that those pills are almost certainly colored just to differentiate products and it has nothing to do with marketing to kids at all, period, whatsoever,” said Oliver. “Which does make sense, doesn’t it? Because kids – and this is true – are not an ideal customer base for expensive street drugs.”
Some outlets noted that no such examples of kids taking rainbow fentanyl have been reported, but “that instinct to run an eye-catching crime story without being skeptical of its sourcing is unfortunately incredibly common,” said Oliver.
Oliver then pivoted to the development of the local crime beat – the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality that really took root in the 1970s, when two local Philadelphia stations started the “eyewitness” and “action news” formats focused on crime news. Local news also started publishing mugshots; the New York Daily News still maintains online mugshot galleries such as “criminally bad hair day” and “babes behind bars” – “It’s fun because it’s their worst day,” Oliver deadpanned.
“The faces that get shown can compound existing inequities in our justice system,” Oliver said, noting a recent study in New York which found that while a quarter of the city’s population was Black, Black people made up over half of all arrests and 75% of criminals shown on the news.
News organizations frequently don’t report follow-ups or developments in the case, and stories often rely on a single source: police. “Police say” is a phrase “you constantly hear from the mouths of news reporters,” said Oliver. “It’s right up there with ‘this just in’ or ‘back to you’ or ‘I apologize for the accent I did on Cinco de Mayo.’
“There is obviously nothing wrong with calling the police to ask questions,” said Oliver. “When you’re working on a deadline, you can’t always reach arrested civilians or their attorneys who sometimes don’t even want to talk with you anyway.” But there can often be huge discrepancies between law enforcement’s version of events and the real story.
Police departments also have robust PR departments. The LAPD, for example, had 42 people in its information bureau in 2020, at an annual cost of about $4.8m, on top of $3.29m spent per year for 25 people in similar units. “Which is already a little telling, because while a certain amount of spending is necessary, you don’t spend that much on PR if things are going great,” Oliver joked.
He homed in particular on the police PR jargon “officer-involved shooting”, which is “a weird term for reporters to repeat because it deliberately omits crucial information about how the officer was involved. If you went to someone’s house for dinner and they said ‘tonight there is a rat-involved dinner,’ you’d justifiably have some follow-up questions.”
One of the major problems with deferring to police, he added, is that “police lie”. As Last Week Tonight has covered in previous segments on law enforcement, police have lied to get search warrants for raids, to force confessions, and under oath to the point that the New York Times reported on “testilying”.
As an example, Oliver pointed to the press release from Minneapolis police after the killing of George Floyd in 2020: “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction”, which was picked up near-verbatim by local news the next morning. The “hugely self-serving” police statement elided their role; “his medical distress, and I’m using the biggest air quotes humanly possible here, was the result of an officer pressing his knee into his neck for nine minutes,” he said. “Repeating that claim by the police is an act of malpractice akin to Walter Cronkite saying JFK died of a headache today. Sure, it’s not technically wrong, but it’s the understatement of the fucking century.”
The Floyd example was not a one-off; Oliver cited a Guardian investigation into police killings in California which found that police misrepresented events at least a dozen times.
“By presenting police uncritically, you’re not just helping them dodge accountability. You’re giving them a huge lobbying platform,” he continued. There’s a lot of great crime reporting, he added, “but the daily crime beat, whether from lack of resources, lack of scrutiny, or lack of follow-through, far too often takes police at their word and not as an interest group who should be treated as such”.
Outside of police changing behavior, Oliver advocated for smaller changes already undertaken by some news organizations: replacing “police say” with “police claim”, doing away with mugshot galleries, reporting on cases beyond arrests to their conclusions. And he pushed for a larger cultural shift: asking if the crimes covered by local news are actually newsworthy, “because the truth is, not all crimes are”.
“Local news is incredibly important,” he concluded, “which is why it is so critical that it is done well.”