Tuesday Talk*: Does “Copaganda” Have A Point?

It was one of those moments when, had I been drinking at the time, there was an excellent chance I would have spit all over my computer screen. Scott Hechinger, who has dedicated himself to telling his distorted version of reality since leaving Brooklyn Defenders to start his media activist site, “Zealou.us” twitted that Teen Vogue was “the best justice journalism outlet in the country.” Apparently, it’s not just about anal sex anymore.

But the particular point being made had to do with the magazine posting of a short video about “copaganda.” It’s a word that’s used by reformers to smear media’s presentation of crime and criminal justice issues either primarily from the perspective of official channels like law enforcement or to hype outlier anecdotes to create the impression that crime is rampantby feeding the public a steady stream of crime stories.

I’m not a fan of the word “copaganda,” which like most cutesy words is used to denigrate all reporting that runs contrary to what reforms would prefer the media report. They complain that the media’s longstanding focus on “if it bleeds, it leads,” should be replaced by the reformers’ “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead” stores of how a defendant was release without bail and went to the grocery store.

That no one would want to read it is besides the point, or at least their point. Their point is that the bulk of “crime” stories are uneventful. Of course, the same is true of the bulk of stories of police interactions, and yet they have no qualms about the publishing of stories of police abuse, misconduct and violence. This inconsistency doesn’t seem to bother them at all.

But the awful word, “copaganda,” aside, do they actually have a point? When a crime story breaks, it almost invariably comes from the police side of the room. After all, they are the only ones in possession of information at that point, and in the absence of some glaringly false or ridiculous claim, what are journalists supposed to do about it? So they regurgitate the story like “police stenographers” for lack of anything else to report at that stage.

There are two problems with this process. The first is that the initial story creates the “myth” of the case, “facts” alleged by unproven at that point which are repeated in all subsequent reporting without question. These “facts” become embedded so firmly in the narrative that it becomes impossible to think about or discuss a case without premising it upon these “facts.” Except they aren’t “facts,” and never were. They were merely an initial allegations, maybe mistaken or maybe deliberately false, used to form the context in which real facts are viewed or understood.

The second problem is that the initial story is the one that captures people’s interest. Often, people can’t be bothered to read subsequent stories, even when they refute everything alleged in the first story. Let’s face it, people are generally too lazy to read follow-up stories. Heck, people are generally too lazy to read beyond the first paragraph. And yet they form opinions about the substance of the former despite the story being completely one-sided.

Is this good enough? Are we being happily misled by reporters giving only the cop press release when it’s often wrong or inadequate? We can’t make people work harder than they care to work by putting in the effort to follow up on stories. We can’t make people interested in things that don’t interest them, such as the defendant who returned home to her family and appeared in court whenever required until her case was dismissed.

So what can we do to prevent being made to believe we know what we’re talking about when the reality is that we’ve been told nothing more than an initial impression, often contrary to the facts or at least devoid of the fuller story that could, and should, give us far more to ponder than the cop version?

*Tuesday Talk rules apply, within reason.

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