Local television coverage of the release of a prisoner this week really hit a sore spot for me. I am in a unique position to make some comments about the coverage from two perspectives. Number one, I am a broadcast journalist. I no longer cover the news, but I was a member of the Radio-Television News Directors Association for over 25 years, and I won that association’s highest national award for editorial writing. And number two, I am a prisoner advocate. The agency that I founded is working with thousands of Michigan prisoners, and to claim that we have little understanding of prisoner issues would be a serious miscalculation.
Here's what happened.
A woman was released from prison who, with a partner, committed a heinous crime over 30 years ago. No one challenges the seriousness of the crime, or the extent of pain for all affiliated with the victims.
The Michigan Parole Board did not make light of this case. In fact, the board denied parole for this inmate time and again. Finally, board members felt that she could be released into society without reoffending.
Both Channel 8 and Channel 13 covered the story of her release this week, with ominous quotes from victims and the police, asserting that she will reoffend.
From a newsman’s point of view, here’s my beef: These TV stations have the right to editorialize all they want, and if they want to express an opinion that this woman is a danger to society, they should go for it. BUT, when covering a story, it’s important to get BOTH sides. It would be very simple, for example, to also obtain the Michigan Parole Board’s success rate, and the recidivism rate of the Michigan Department of Corrections. Both are quite positive.
From a prisoner advocate’s point of view, I and my team have seen rehabilitation work. Prisoner Policy Initiative, an agency that grades parole systems, contends that “Survivors of violent crimes should not be allowed to be a part of the parole-decision process. The parole process should be about judging transformation, but survivors have little evidence as to whether an individual has changed, having not seen them for years.”
Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), which also rates parole boards, has been insisting for years that the “’nature of the crime or seriousness of the offense should NOT be the reason for parole denial.”
Maybe this woman will reoffend. That will certainly give the TV stations an opportunity to gloat “We told you so!”
I hope she makes it. It won’t be easy. For every person released from prison after many years, it’s an uphill struggle. Compassion and assistance are often in short supply when needed the most. What that person really needs is an overdose of help and encouragement.
Invasive, one-sided media coverage doesn’t fall into that category.