Crime in the News
Tall Tales and Overstated Statistics
If the mystery about baseless scares is how they are sold to a public
that has real dangers to worry about, in the case of more defensible
fears the question is somewhat different. We ought to have concerns
about crime, drug addiction, child abuse, and other afflictions to be
discussed. The question is, how have we gotten so mixed up about the
true nature and extent of these problems?
In no small measure the answer lies in stories like one that broke
on March 19, 1991. If you read a newspaper or turned on a TV or radio
newscast that day or the several days thereafter you were told that
the streets of America were more dangerous than a war zone.
The press had been provoked to make this extreme assertion not by a
rise in violent crime but by a dramatic event. The Gulf War had just
ended, and a soldier who returned home to Detroit had been shot dead
outside his apartment building.
The front-page story in the Washington Post portrayed the situation
Conley Street, on this city’s northeast side, is a pleasant-looking
row of brick and wood homes with small, neat lawns, a street that for
years was the realization of the American dream for middle-income families.
But in the past few years, Conley has become a street of crack, crime
and occasional bursts of gunfire. And at 2:15 a.m. Monday, the bullets
killed Army Spec. Anthony Riggs, something that all of Iraq’s
Scud missiles could not do during his seven months with a Patriot missile
battery in Saudi Arabia.
Described by his mother as a man who deeply loved his family and his
country, Riggs had written home from Saudi Arabia, "There’s
no way I’m going to die in this rotten country. With the Lord’s
grace and his guidance, I’ll walk American soil once again."
But before that letter even arrived, while Riggs was moving his wife
and three-year-old daughter to a new apartment, five shots rang out
and witnesses heard the sound of screeching tires. Some faceless thug
had killed him just to get his car. "His wife, Toni, found him
dying in a gutter," the Post reported.
TV newscasts showed Mrs. Riggs sobbing. She had warned her husband
that there had been a shooting on the street earlier in the day, but
he wouldn’t listen. "He said he’d just got back from
having missiles flying over his head, and a few shots weren’t
going to bother him," according to Toni’s aunt, quoted in
the Los Angeles Times. That of course was the larger point, or as the
Post put it, "Riggs’s death was a tragic reminder of President
Bush’s words recently when he announced a new crime bill: ‘Our
veterans deserve to come home to an America where it is safe to walk
Oops, Wrong Story
From the point of view of journalists and editors an ideal crime story-that
is, the sort that deserves major play and is sure to hold readers’
and viewers’ attention-has several elements that distinguish
it from other acts of violence. The victims are innocent, likable people;
the perpetrator is an uncaring brute. Details of the crime, while shocking,
are easy to relay. And the events have social significance, bespeaking
an underlying societal crisis.
The murder of Anthony Riggs seemed to have it all. The only problem
was, very little of this perfect crime story was true. Reporters named
the right victim but the wrong perpetrator, motive, and moral.
It was the massive media attention, ironically, that resulted in the
real story coming out. Confronted with demands from politicians and
citizen groups to catch Riggs’s killer, the Detroit police launched
an all-out investigation. While digging through garbage cans around
the Conley Street neighborhood, an officer came upon a handgun that
turned out to belong to Michael Cato, the brother of Riggs’s wife,
Toni. Nineteen years old at the time and currently serving a life sentence
for murder, Michael said in a confession that his sister had promised
him a share of $175,000 in life insurance benefits.
Reporters cannot be blamed for failing to possess this information
prior to its discovery by the police, but had they been a little skeptical
or made a few phone calls they almost certainly would have stumbled
on at least some aspects of the truth. They might have learned, for
example, that Toni had been making noises about dumping Anthony for
some time, or that it was she who arranged a hefty life insurance policy
for her husband before he went off to war. Reporters might also have
checked into Mrs. Riggs’s past and discovered previous irregularities,
such as the fact that she had not yet divorced her previous husband
when she married Anthony.
Journalists also might have discovered the existence of a letter Riggs
wrote to his mother from Saudi Arabia. "Toni has wrecked my car.
She is now bouncing checks...She is never home: 2:30 a.m., 4 a.m...I
would put my head through the neck of a hot sauce bottle to please her,
but now I need happiness in return," People magazine, the only
major publication that subsequently ran a full-fledged account of the
true story, quoted him penning.
Had news writers checked with knowledgeable criminologists or homicide
detectives they might have been impressed as well by the improbability
of a car thief murdering someone execution-style when a simple shot
or two would have done the job. Carjacking victims seldom get shot at
all, particularly if they do not resist.
Journalists generally pride themselves on being suspicious about information
they are given. Your average journalist "wears his skepticism
like a medieval knight wore his armor," Shelby Coffey, head of
ABC News and former editor of the Los Angeles Times, has said. Yet when
it comes to a great crime story, a journalist will behave like the high
school nerd who has been approached by the most popular girl in school
for help with her science project. Grateful for the opportunity, he
doesn’t bother to ask a lot of questions.
There are discernible differences, though, between reporters for electronic
versus print media. Unlike their colleagues at local television stations,
who will go for any story that includes a police chase or a humiliated
celebrity, journalists at newspapers and magazines have a particular
fondness for crime stories that help them make sense of some other phenomenon
they are having trouble covering in its own right. In the Riggs murder
the phenomenon in question was the Gulf War. The news media had difficulty
reporting accurately on the war because the Pentagon kept the press
away from the action and used tightly scripted briefings to spoonfeed
only what the generals and the president wanted known. As part of that
spin Generals Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf were defined as the
war’s heroes. Grunts on the battlefield and in the air seemed
almost irrelevant to a war fought with smart bombs. Their homecoming
consequently had little intrinsic meaning or news value. So when the
Riggs murder came along, reporters eagerly used it to mark the end of
the war on Iraq and the start of the next phase in the ongoing domestic
war on crime.