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Mormon Media Observer: Reporting on prisons shows journalism is about more than selling papers

Published: Thursday, July 19 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

One of the old canards of journalism is that reporters write what they do “just to sell newspapers.”

While it is true that journalists try to be responsive to readers and publishers, and while it is true some reporters do report to gain fame and fortune, when I worked daily as a reporter, I always thought such comments insulting — as did every reporter I knew.

Such comments seemed to accuse me of unethical behavior, much like saying a doctor would perform a procedure not because it was necessary but because there was a fee involved or much like saying a lawyer is an ambulance-chaser.

I was thinking of that recently as I have observed a quiet trend in the reporting industry in recent months and years that clearly has limited correlation to “selling more papers.”

It is reporting on one of the most under-represented political constituencies in the United States — prisoners.

In recent months, several news organizations have done remarkable news reporting on America’s prison system — a system, I am told, that reports it incarcerates a higher percentage of its citizens than any other nation.

Now, I don’t wish to take a stand on whether our justice system is too strict or not strict enough. That’s for people with greater expertise in this issue.

What I am saying is I admire journalists for tackling with seriousness this important national issue — and in so doing raising troubling questions.

If reporters didn’t ask tough questions, who would? Do we think modern politicians would?

(For what it is worth, when Joseph Smith ran for president in 1844, one of his campaign issues was prison reform.)

Consider some powerful examples of the reporting on our prison system in recent years:

Wired magazine published a series of haunting images of young men in juvenile detention. It suggested difficult, overcrowded conditions.

The New Yorker ran a piece about the costs and consequences of keeping some 25,000 prisoners in long-term solitary confinement. It said it costs more than $50,000 a year per prisoner to house them this way.

National Public Radio discussed problems with our bail system, asserting it costs the nation some $9 billion a year to incarcerate people whose bail is as little as $50.

And in a reporting masterpiece, Propublica, Frontline and National Public Radio called into question many common assumptions about how police investigate crimes and how prosecutors use those investigations.

There has also been great reporting on individual cases of people wrongly convicted — or at least allegedly so.

Perhaps most moving was a masterful series about Louisiana’s prison system — the state with the highest incarceration rate — by the New Orleans Times-Picayune in May. The series laid out how private contractors and small counties profit from high incarceration rates. It spoke of the toll a high incarceration rate is taking on some communities and on the families left behind. Great stuff.

These stories of prison reform provide evidence of journalism at its best, of reporters trying to tell important stories in the public interest, while the idea of trying to “sell more papers” remains the furthest thing from their minds.

Kudos to the journalism that asks tough questions about unpopular topics and aims to keep readers informed.

Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.

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