Covering Crime in the Age of Virality

Lam Thuy Vo
7 min readJun 2, 2022

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In the summer of last year, a video capturing a shoplifter became the talk of the town in San Francisco. The video shows a young man grabbing items from the shelves of a Walgreens and putting them into a plastic bag before mounting a bike to ride out of the pharmacy. A security guard at the Walgreens is seen filming the incident without interfering.

“​​This just happened at the @Walgreens on Gough & Fell Streets in San Francisco. #NoConsequences @chesaboudin” tweeted Lyanne Melendez who filmed the incident and is news reporter ABC Owned KGO-TV (ABC7) in the San Francisco Bay Area. The video hit a nerve and promptly went viral, racking up 6.3 million views and more than 16,000 likes since it was first published.

Source: https://twitter.com/LyanneMelendez/status/1404574079156318210

According to an analysis by Fair, a nonprofit that analyzes and comments on media coverage of current events, the incident generated at least 300 news stories within the first 28 days of its publication. A search for the tweet on Buzzsumo showed that it was embedded in articles in various languages, including Dutch, Japanese, Polish and Chinese.

In the age of virality, this footage of a local crime spread far and wide.

The video was one of several viral incidents that have contributed to local and national conversations around rising crime rates among the general public and policymakers alike. From a person stealing 10 steaks from a Trader Joe’s to the footage of packages strewn across train tracks in Los Angeles — many incidents of local theft have gone viral and made headlines across the nation, becoming anecdotal focal points for conversations in the public and in the realm of politics about crime.

Source: https://nypost.com/2022/02/08/video-shows-man-nabbing-10-steaks-from-nyc-trader-joes/

One opinion writer at The Wall Street Journal proclaimed that “San Francisco Has Become a Shoplifter’s Paradise.” Another opinion writer for the Desert Sun called for a proposition from 2014, “which made it a small-time offense to steal anything worth less than $950, unless you have a history of violent crimes” to be rewritten and for lawmakers to introduce harsher punishments.

But some experts worry that these incidents do not properly contextualize current crime numbers and may paint an atmosphere of lawlessness in cities across the country that the numbers do not always bear out. And for journalists across different media organizations, the Walgreens incident and the outrage it sparked have also brought about a conversation around how crime should or should not be reported.

‘Anecdata’ and the need for context

Nigel Duara, a Justice Reporter at Cal Matters, has been covering crime for more than 17 years. He remembers having a beeper and waking up to notifications about breaking news in the middle of the night. Cutting his teeth as a reporter at a local news publication, responding to the police blotter was part of his job.

While he understands why reporters may need to cover crime like this — in an incident-by-incident fashion — he’s also concerned about the way in which a viral and visual story like the Walgreens shoplifting incident may provoke reactions that may lead people to make assumptions about crime trends for which we don’t yet have data.

Duara describes these kinds of instances of crime as ‘acedata’ — anecdotes or singular data points that are used to draw conclusions about long-term trends.

“I don’t want to lecture other journalists. I was in [their] shoes. I was doing the same thing,” Duara said. But “I think that every story should have contextualization in it.”

“Crime today does not portend crime tomorrow, right? […] So, the year to year over year changes, especially when it comes to anomalies like COVID, or, you know, just a bad year, doesn’t necessarily portend a bad year, the next year,” Duara said.

In a recent explanatory piece about California crime numbers, he wrote that experts recommended looking at crime data over longer time spans than just one year to another to draw meaningful conclusions about long-term trends.

Source: https://infogram.com/property-crime-1hxr4zxjmqrxo6y

“Obviously, there are places where there’s property crime going up. But nationally, property crime has fallen in something like 21 of the last 23 years,” said Jeff Asher, crime analyst and consultant based in New Orleans. “It’s fallen a long way. It’s fallen consistently.”

He said that he thinks the reason that people struggle with understanding the larger picture is because of the perception that these incidents create.

“You don’t see it on the news, unless it’s something viral, “ he said. “Then you think: ‘Oh, these things are out of control.’ And you’re looking at one incident that was a particularly brazen incident […] that must mean crime is up because I saw this.”

Asher also attributes some of these perceptions to the ways in which crime is discussed on NextDoor, Facebook, often with accompanying media provided through doorbell cameras.

“[With] the proliferation of things like NextDoor and Facebook, a lot more people are talking about [crime]. It’s a lot easier to get your ring doorbell and now you’ve got video of this guy breaking into my car right outside my window […] maybe you see a couple of them every two months, but you don’t have that larger context,” Asher said.

In many ways, the viral age intensified a back and forth between two types of reporting: On the one hand, more and more national reporters might feel compelled to cover a crime on an incident-by-incident basis akin to how local TV stations or newspapers may do regardless of whether it happened in their region or not, because thousands, if not millions of people are speaking about it online. On the other hand, beat reporters and data journalists like Duara are working hard to contextualize these incidents and diffuse the emotional reaction they bring about.

The San Francisco Chronicle, for instance, has dedicated several stories and a podcast episode, gathering and analyzing data that counter many claims that shoplifting is on the rise in drug stores in the Bay Area.

But it’s unclear how much attention these data-driven stories receive, compared to the viral spread of the individual stories like the one of the Walgreens theft. Duara worries that only a fraction of the people hearing about these viral cases might actually read a followup piece that explains how they fit into longer-term trends. And in large part, that’s because these viral stories often feature provocative videos or photos. The power of visuals in reporting on crime has always been pronounced, Duara said, but the Internet has only amplified this, making it hard for explainers like Duara’s or the San Francisco Chronicle’s to cut through the noise.

There are real political consequences from the ways in which this viral content has shaped public conversations around crime. California Governor Gavin Newsom came to a cleaned up train site to announce new multi-agency efforts to keep tracks cleared and to curb theft from trains. And across the nation, both Democrats and Republicans are suddenly under more pressure to adopt tough-on-crime views.

“There was an attempt to recall the governor [Newsom] and one of the chief marketing points from the Republican challenging him was ‘This guy is not hard enough on crime, look at the homicide rate, California is fallen state’ and we’re even making all these assumptions saying all these large things off of one number,” Duara said. “If you look at the overall trend, [it] isn’t even that high for the state compared to 30 years ago.”

Crime and media narratives around it have been a political battleground for decades, and many observers said the current conversation around crime must be understood in the context of the George Floyd protests and the increased calls for defunding police departments. Local politicians, advocates and scholars said the panic over rising crime is a direct backlash to the push for criminal justice reform over the past two years.

People saw that crime could potentially rise due to the pandemic, said Angel Diaz, lecturer in law at UCLA law school and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. But he also said that there was likely going to be a “push to make a story out of minor crimes to sort of push back on two years of social justice movements to defund police departments.”

In many ways, it’s also important to step outside defining the health of a community entirely through crime numbers, Diaz said.

“It is important that when it comes to reporting, [we] sort of have an understanding that goes beyond just policing and think through what it means to have these [crime] levels coming out of a pandemic; what it means to have [eviction] moratoriums removed. [We need to] go beyond numbers of reported crime. What is the context in which they are living? And I think that oftentimes, that is missing from reported pieces,” Diaz said.

A version of this story originally published in the Investigative Reporters and Editors Magazine in May of 2022.

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Lam Thuy Vo

Journalist. German-born Vietnamese nomad who tells stories using data, visuals & words info@lamivo.com