Houston TV stations: Stop fearmongering and misinformation about the criminal legal system

Houston TV stations: Stop fearmongering and misinformation about the criminal legal system

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Texas Center for Justice and Equity (TCJE) started this petition to kprc and

The importance and reach of local news stations cannot be understated: according to the Pew Research Center, nearly 10 million Americans tuned in to watch the news on their local ABC, CBS, FOX, or NBC affiliate on the average day in 2020.[1] In Houston, reporting from these local news affiliates has an unquestionable impact on its sizable audience, making it all the more important that their stories are accurate and independent reflections of what is happening in our communities.

Our recent analysis of local coverage of bond reform has uncovered major issues with how each of Houston’s big four news stations reports on the issue. After reviewing hundreds of stories that aired over the past four years, we found the following issues, among others:

  • Each station disproportionately featured stories about Black defendants, painting an inaccurate picture for the audience.
  • Each station is over-reliant on interested sources – such as police officers and District Attorneys when discussing bond reform. Voices describing the positive impact of bond reform on our communities are regularly excluded from the conversation.
  • In addition to an overreliance on the police and prosecutors, each station ran countless stories sourced to Crime Stoppers, an organization that profits from court and probation fees, amongst other problematic practices,[2] without any disclosure of their conflict of interest.
  • Each station ran stories on criminal allegations that included the name and mugshot of defendants who later had the charges at hand dismissed. We could not find any instances of follow-up stories in any of these cases for any of the stations.

The negative impact that these stories has had on the policy conversation cannot be exaggerated. Far from being the trusted local voice, too often reporting on local news relies on inaccurate fearmongering that distorts the truth. As such, we ask the local news affiliates for ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC to commit to the following changes:

  • Adopt policies that ensure Black people are not disproportionately featured in stories about the justice system;
  • Adopt a consistent policy on the naming of judges, police officers, and prosecutors involved in any case your station is reporting on;
  • Avoid reporting names of any individuals arrested or charged with a crime where there is no intention to publish a follow-up story, and refrain from using names until the case has been resolved;
  • Discontinue the use of mugshots in any way in your reporting;
  • Publicly disclose any relationship (financial, editorial, or otherwise) between your station and any Crime Stoppers chapters, and end any existing partnerships between your stations and Crime Stoppers; and
  • Commit to meeting with local advocates and community members for input on ways to improve reporting on bond and to repair the harm done by past reporting.

We are ready and willing to have a dialogue about our analysis, and we are committed to working with the community and your stations to ensure the end of these discriminatory and misleading reports on the criminal legal system.

Sincerely,
Texas Center for Justice and Equity

[1] https://www.pewresearch.org/journalism/fact-sheet/local-tv-news/#audience
[2] https://newrepublic.com/article/164156/crime-stoppers-fees-police-reform

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More:

In November 2021, the Texas Center for Justice and Equity released research on Houston-area TV stations’ coverage of misdemeanor bond reform. Our analysis found misinformation, false narratives, and bias in their reporting. Join us in demanding that these TV stations prioritize facts over fear!

Background: In 2017, a federal district court declared Harris County (Houston)’s misdemeanor bond system unconstitutional: low-income defendants were being held in jail before trial because they couldn’t afford to pay bond, while higher-income defendants could post bond and expect prompt release. That wealth-based discrimination led to a settlement, and now the county requires the majority of misdemeanor defendants to be released on personal recognizance (PR) bonds, which don’t require an upfront cash payment.

By providing defendants with a new system for bonding out of jail that doesn’t discriminate based on income, Harris County is upholding the principle of a ‘presumption of innocence’ for the criminally accused, and taxpayers no longer have to foot the bill for unnecessary weeks or months of incarceration. Plus, independent court monitors have found no evidence that people out on PR bonds have engaged in higher rates of reoffending, and the vast majority of people are appearing at trial.

But opponents of bond reform frequently criticize the changes to the system, and they regularly scapegoat bond reform for the various failures of the criminal legal system. By using misinformation, spreading false narratives, and exploiting race-based disparities, they portray bond reform as a threat to public safety. Unfortunately, this disinformation effort is helped along by local media outlets, which amplify the voices of opponents and broaden their false narratives.

Local television news stations in Houston have been some of the worst culprits when it comes to misinformation about bond. Without a change in how these stations are doing their reporting, the groups helping to spread false narratives will continue to have a negative impact on viewers’ opinions and on relevant policy discussions.

We ask Houston news stations to end this era of disinformation and adopt policies that prevent the fearmongering reports that dominate the local news.

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