January 19, 2024 7:00am

The news media and crime in Memphis

Is there too much crime in Memphis, or just too much media coverage of crime?

Photo of David Waters
Memphis, TN Correspondent

Crime in Memphis.

Is there more of it here than in other big cities? Or does local news coverage of crime just make it seem that way? Does the local news media's reporting on crime make us more informed or just more fearful? How can the local news media better inform the public about crime?

Those were the topics of January's Memphis Power Poll. Poll members had plenty to say. In fact, 24 percent of poll members responded to this survey -- one of the highest response rates ever.

"I’m happy you’re doing this poll. It’s been a long-standing gripe of mine," wrote one poll member. "Sensationalizing crime does not lead to safer outcomes for the public, it only distorts the public understanding."

More than half of respondents agreed with that poll member that crime in Memphis is overreported by the local news media.

'All major cities have crime," wrote another member. "That’s no surprise. Let’s stop making it THE headline for Memphis and have a much more balanced approach with the news."

Many members focused their criticism on local TV news.

"All Breaking News should not be crime," wrote one poll member. "'If it bleeds it leads' must end in Memphis media. Not helping Memphis."

On the other hand, a quarter of respondents said there is "just about the right amount" of local news coverage of crime. Another 13 percent said crime was underreported.

"Crime should get pandemic level attention, as Mayor Young is planning. News coverage should match that. Maybe have a news conference every day for officials to give briefings," one member wrote.

Nearly 7 in 10 respondents said the local news media's crime coverage makes them feel less safe, more fearful, and worse about Memphis.

"Quit sensationalizing it and not discussing how crime has risen all over the country," one member wrote. "Things are bad in all major cities but you wouldn’t know that watching news locally. All they are doing is scaring Memphians and driving people out."

But nearly a quarter of respondents said news coverage of crime doesn't impact how they feel about it.

"News coverage of crime is not why people feel unsafe. Crime is why people feel unsafe," said one member.

A large majority of respondendents said their primary sources of information about local crime are The Commercial Appeal or the Daily Memphian (45 percent), or local TV news stations (35 percent).

Another 13 percent said they get local crime news from social media platforms.

Memphis Power Poll members had plenty of advice for how the local news media can improve crime coverage.

There were too many comments to list here, but generally, respondents said local news media should provide more context and perspective about crime.

"Crime stories should be told in context. If you report on a child being shot, it should be more than just that," one member wrote. "Media should also provide statistics, offer analysis and coverage about what is working or could work."

Many said local news media should provide more balanced and positive coverage of what's happening in Memphis.

"Offset every crime story with a positive story of people working together across economic class, racial profile, and part of the city. Demand it and run it alongside the news of the crime," one member wrote.

"Report the truth, but balance with the good news and things happening here too," another member wrote. "Avoid click-bait headlines and sensational stories targeting ratings only. More discussion of solutions."

Some members long for more in-depth local journalism.

"Keep sending journalists to ask deeper questions about the systems and how they are succeeding or failing," one member wrote. "The surface-level reporting is what feels like fear baiting. The deeper more entrenched journalism is so needed! And should be better funded."

Perhaps the most thoughtful and constructive comment came from Meka Egwuekwe, executive director of the nonprofit CodeCrew. News editors and producers take note.

Here is his full response:

* Focus on Context: News outlets should provide context to crime stories, including the broader social and economic factors that may contribute to crime rates. This can help the audience understand the underlying issues and potential solutions.

* Highlight Positive Initiatives: Showcase positive initiatives and community efforts aimed at reducing crime and improving safety. This can include profiles of organizations, community leaders, or programs working to address the root causes of crime.

* Avoid Sensationalism: News coverage should avoid sensationalizing crime stories. Sensational headlines and graphic imagery can increase fear and anxiety among viewers. Instead, focus on providing factual and balanced reporting.

* Diverse Perspectives: Include a variety of perspectives in crime reporting, including input from community members, law enforcement, social workers, and experts. This can provide a more comprehensive understanding of the issue.

* Long-Term Trends: Report on long-term crime trends rather than isolated incidents. This can help the public see the bigger picture and understand whether crime rates are increasing or decreasing over time.

* Solutions-Oriented Reporting: Explore and highlight potential solutions to crime problems, such as community policing, mental health support, or youth outreach programs.

* Humanize Victims and Perpetrators: Share stories that humanize both victims and perpetrators. This can help the audience empathize with the people involved and understand the complexities of crime.

* Transparency in Reporting: Be transparent about the sources of crime data and statistics. Explain how crime data is collected, analyzed, and reported to avoid misconceptions.

* Educate About Safety Measures: Provide information on practical safety measures and precautions that individuals can take to protect themselves without inducing unnecessary fear.

* Promote Dialogue: Encourage community dialogue and discussion around crime issues. Hosting town halls, forums, or debates can foster a more informed and engaged citizenry.

* Verify Information: Ensure that crime reports are accurate and verified before publishing. Misinformation can lead to unnecessary panic.

* Investigative Reporting: Invest in investigative journalism to uncover the root causes of crime, corruption, or systemic issues that may be contributing to crime problems.

Power Poll Members: Do you have a friend or colleague who should be on Power Poll? Please invite them to join!

About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

More on This Poll

More Polls

More on This Poll