Is youth crime “surging” in the United States or is it “sharply declining”? The answer can depend in part on how journalists report the news, and the reality is often much more nuanced. The media has a critical and often delicate role in covering crimes involving young people: Reporters may have limited time and resources, but the words they produce can have lasting effects on policy and the lives of those accused.
To support reporters in writing research-based stories, The Pew Charitable Trusts and the National Association of Black Journalists launched the Youth Justice Reporting Fellowship in May 2023. This first-of-its-kind program provides data coaching and mentorship for five journalists, competitively selected, who are investigating justice issues that are specific to emerging adults.
The fellowship kicked off with a two-day convening at Pew’s Washington office with presentations from reporters, academics, youth leaders, and government officials. Among the speakers were representatives of news organizations, such as Jamiles Lartey of The Marshall Project and Jodi Cohen from ProPublica, as well as advocates for young people in the court system such as Josh Rovner and Jordyn Wilson, both from The Sentencing Project.
Speakers interacted with fellows in a small group setting, sharing insights about the field and building connections. Among the common themes was the need to report without reharming, specifically considering the media’s history of perpetuating false narratives about crime and its drivers. Carroll Bogert, president of The Marshall Project, and Abd’Allah Wali Lateef, deputy director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, spoke about the myth of the “superpredator” and the need to learn from the harmful impact of such mischaracterizations based on faulty data.
They discussed how the “Central Park 5” case more than 30 years ago normalized the widespread use of dehumanizing language to describe young people of color. As tough-on-crime rhetoric and legislation flourished into the 1990s, the myth of the superpredator took hold. The theory that a new type of violent and irredeemable teen was to blame for the rise in crime was first advanced by a professor then at Princeton University who has since rebuked the notion. The legacy, however, still lingers today.
“It has dire consequences on the individuals that are so described. It has dire consequences on the communities that are impacted. It has dire consequences on our public psyche, where we become afraid of one another, where difference is perceived as an automatic threat, and none, or very little of it, is factually based,” said Lateef, who was himself incarcerated as a teenager.
The fellows and other journalists at the sessions expressed their dedication to reshaping how crime is discussed in the media and undoing past harms, specifically related to the treatment of Black young people. Black teenagers and young adults remain overpoliced and overincarcerated, while their White peers who get into trouble with the law are often allowed to stay with their families and in school. Responsible reporting can help shine light on and create a sense of urgency about the need to address these prolific disparities.
The full panel discussion between Bogert and Lateef is available to view on demand.
Breana Lamkin is an officer within The Pew Charitable Trusts’ safety and justice portfolio, and Ruth Rosenthal is a senior manager with Pew’s public safety performance project.