While the U.S. justice system seeks to adhere to due process (which is fair treatment through the judicial system), the media often uses bias and sensationalism to sway the court of public opinion. Depending on the media’s portrayal of events, readers may prematurely decide someone’s innocence or guilt, often before a case has even gone to trial. Such is the case here.
The articles we analyzed on the Kate Steinle case presented two stories: the details of the trial, and the supposed issue of violent crime and immigrants in the U.S. See how the media bias in each can limit critical thinking and the way we approach such problems.
Biasing the Kate Steinle case
When reporting on the case itself, CNN implies Garcia Zarate is innocent, and doesn’t weigh the prosecution’s side equally in the article. Although the U.S. justice system operates under the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” CNN biases readers by favoring the probability of his innocence.
By contrast, the other three outlets suggest Garcia Zarate is guilty. For example, Fox News’ article opens with “Kate Steinle’s murder …” The choice of the term “murder” (which implies intent) and the absence of a qualifier such as “alleged” introduce the idea that the suspect is guilty, before we’ve even read through to the end of Fox’s lead sentence.
Biasing an audience towards guilt (compared to innocence) is harder to correct, because it isn’t possible to “un-know” negative information once it’s introduced. This is one of the reasons why the justice system takes precautions to disallow certain types of witnesses or evidence, or why judges override lines of questioning that could negatively bias a jury or the proceedings.
When reporting on new or ongoing trials, only data-based and balanced coverage can minimize predisposing readers to a potential outcome. Bias, opinion and spin have a tendency to inspire prejudice and premature conclusions, and that’s why The Knife advocates separating them from the facts.
Biasing our understanding of violence
Like Trump and Sessions, some public officials in the U.S. claim there’s a correlation between immigration and violent crime. They argue that if the country expands its law enforcement and immigration policies enough to keep foreigners out, then it would help solve the problem of violent crime nationwide. Is this logical?
Let’s work it out: if immigrants were largely responsible for violent crimes in the U.S., then removing them would provide short-term and long-term relief. But that doesn’t follow, because violence could come from other sources or groups. It’s a similar reasoning to Session’s statement, which CNN included in its article:
“Her death was preventable — and it should have been prevented,” Sessions said. “She would still be alive today if her killer had been imprisoned or deported as he should have been.”
Deaths by violent crime cannot be prevented by eliminating any one group, because violence isn’t caused by immigration status, race, religion, gender or any other demographic marker (although these things are often used as justifications). As our Context section shows, research doesn’t provide clear evidence of correlations between these things and violence.
It’s limiting for politicians to promote this type of thinking, but the problem compounds when the media doesn’t correct it and instead propagates it through its coverage. The San Francisco Chronicle, The Associated Press and Fox introduced the notion that violence and immigration are correlated (sometimes as early as the headline) but none of them questioned its validity, and none of them provided data to back up the claim.
CNN’s article, on the other hand, could suggest there may be no correlation because the Trump administration is supposedly using the Steinle case to further its agenda as regards immigration and law enforcement policy. For instance, it wrote, “President Donald Trump and other Republicans have invoked her name in decrying sanctuary cities and promoting the construction of a border wall.” However, the outlet doesn’t provide readers with data that could debunk it.
In August, we covered a similar story in which politicians and the media drew a correlation between crime and sanctuary cities like Chicago. We found there was an absence of data supporting the correlation, and the same occurred here. (To read some of the data our researchers found on the subject, click here.) While relationshipsbetween violent crime and things like immigration exist and change over time, thinking there’s a causal relationship between these two issues can move us away from understanding and possibly solving the problem of violence.
Written by Julia Berry López and Ivy Nevares
Edited by Ivy Nevares, Rosa Laura Junco and Jens Erik Gould
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Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News