MSNBC demonstrates the do’s and don’ts of covering crime

In two segments less than a week apart, MSNBC vacillates between nuanced public safety analysis and anecdotal fearmongering

In two segments that aired four days apart, MSNBC gave its viewers two wildly different types of crime coverage — one offering a nuanced look at national trends which consisted of expert analysis, and another relying on personal anecdotes and fearmongering that played into right-wing media’s myth of a crime crisis. 

Both segments followed President Joe Biden’s February 3 trip to New York City, where he addressed the two-year-long spike in U.S. homicides. The president acknowledged the effect guns have had on the violent crime rate as he pledged to shut down what he called the “Iron Pipeline” that funnels out-of-state guns into East Coast cities and he directed the Justice Department to go after “ghost guns” (unregistered firearms that are assembled at home from parts bought online).   

On the February 5 edition of MSNBC’s Ayman, host Ayman Mohyeldin opened his segment titled “The Boogeyman Mantra” by playing a clip of Fox’s coverage of Biden’s trip to New York City. The chyron on the screen read “Conservative messaging on crime spike misses the mark.” Mohyeldin then brought on Jamiles Lartey of The Marshall Project — a nonprofit news organization that reports on the U.S. criminal justice system — to explain “what’s fact and what’s fiction.” 

Lartey explained that it is difficult to assess national crime data because all police agencies in the United States have different methods of measuring and reporting crime. He noted that according to the latest FBI numbers, most categories of crime have gone down, which he said “is probably a surprise to some viewers based on recent media coverage.” 

When Mohyeldin asked him about the effect of Fox’s “sensational media reports and misleading statements” on people, Lartey acknowledged that this type of coverage fuels “anti-defund the police” rhetoric even though there is no evidence linking elevated crime levels to jurisdictions that reduced their police budgets.

Video file

Citation From the February 5, 2022, edition of MSNBC's Ayman

Four days later on the February 9 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, co-host Willie Geist opened the show by displaying a story from the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post about a steak theft in New York City. As Geist pointed out that the Post referred to the shoplifter as the “hamburglar,” the apparent mock outrage quickly became serious. 

Co-host Joe Scarborough claimed every New Yorker has stories of “people just walking in and stealing stuff” and added, “It’s just like the smash and grabs on the West Coast. I don’t get it. I just don’t understand. This is basic stuff. How does this happen in an orderly -- what’s supposed to be an orderly society?” 

Following Scarborough’s outburst, Geist and MSNBC’s Al Sharpton bemoaned that products like toothpaste are locked up at drug stores, supposedly because of the rising crime (hygiene products have been under lock and key in some areas for years). 

MSNBC’s Jonathan Lemire insisted there’s a feeling in New York City that “things just aren’t quite right” and went on to baselessly claim those committing petty crimes are the same people that will go on to commit larger felonies. At the end of the 10-minute segment, co-host Mika Brzezinski called it a “great conversation, not our lead story, but glad we had it.” 

Video file

Citation From the February 9, 2022, edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe

While New York City specifically has seen a property crime increase in the first month and a half of 2022, the reality is that property crime — burglary and larceny — dropped by about 0.5% nationally in 2021, which is a continuation of the 8% decrease in 2020.   

Implying that crime trends in the biggest city in the country are reflective of national crime trends gives viewers a distorted image of public safety, and it can also bolster knee-jerk policy solutions, like rolling back criminal justice reforms or returning to a broken windows theory of policing. Broken-windows policing, which essentially posits that signs of poverty (or “disorder”) in a community create higher crime rates there, had a disproportionate effect on minority communities. Studies have shown that progressive policies like bail reform and prosecutorial discretion with petty crimes actually increase public safety.

MSNBC has a journalistic obligation to provide its viewers with an expert-driven analysis of crime trends and causes, rather than anecdotes from pundits. Reports like the one from Morning Joe play into right-wing narratives around crime and can inevitably result in policies that do nothing to serve public safety and disproportionately harm already vulnerable communities.