The Value of Detective Stories
18 Pages Posted: 31 May 2017 Last revised: 17 Jun 2017
Date Written: 2011
On a recent Sunday morning, The Times-Picayune, a newspaper from New Orleans, carried news that two young people had been arrested for an arson death, that a jury had convicted a man of killing a waitress in a robbery, and that a 15-year-old escapee from a youth detention facility had been recaptured. Those three stories were among the six main stories making up the first two pages of the local section of the newspaper.
That same day, the main website pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune featured similar police-related coverage. In New York, the Times reported that a suspect in a weekend murder spree had been arrested. In Washington, D.C., a highly-placed story focused on the sentencing hearing for the man convicted in the murder of Chandra Levy, a congressional intern murdered by someone who had kidnapped her while she was jogging ten years earlier. And in Chicago, all six “breaking news” stories on the Tribune’s website had some connection with a police investigation: charges in a double homicide, charges in a girl’s death, an arrest for animal neglect, a missing girl found, a death in a parking garage, and a house fire.
If there is one type of news that is routinely covered in media, it is what I am calling here “detective stories”: news items that report the details of a crime or a criminal investigation or an arrest or a trial or a sentencing. For those living near the scene of the crime or some other police activity, the stories offer an important alert to neighborhood trouble, update residents as the investigation moves forward, and offer them some comfort when a perpetrator is eventually caught. The stories detail human relationships gone terribly wrong, drug dangers, and an inexplicable disregard for humanity. They also often detail bold courage. The New York Times’ story on the murder spree arrest, for example, outlined investigating officers’ fearless moves to apprehend the suspect in a subway train after a worried witness spotted the fugitive onboard. Even though The New York Times has a decidedly national readership, the story of the subway arrest was the eighth most-viewed by readers that Sunday morning, indicating great public interest in a story that directly affected only a few.
And yet recent decisions by a handful of courts seem to hint at a limit to such coverage. These courts have punished media for reporting the arrest of a prosecutor, for publishing nude photos of a murder victim, and for reporting on somewhat mundane criminal matters. In many of the decisions, the courts criticize media both soundly and broadly, with great implications both for future cases and for editorial decisions on news coverage. This symposium piece offers a historical perspective on detective stories, it explores recent cases that seem to push some detective stories back to a time when patrician attitudes quashed similar coverage, and it warns ultimately that courts deciding such cases need to recognize that they have a marked and potentially unconstitutional chilling effect on press freedoms.
Keywords: Media, Newspaper, Detective Stories, Press, Chilling Effect
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