Crime-ridden or over-reported? Missoula writer overwhelmed by crime news

A recently arrived resident of Missoula has noticed a curious thing: that exposure to Montana’s daily newspapers makes one keenly, alarmingly aware of local crime.

Anne Helen Petersen, the author of these musings, is a bit more than a casual observer. She is a native of Idaho who covers the West for Buzzfeed, who wrote one of the best, most thoughtful pieces on the special election that resulted in Greg Gianforte’s ascension to the House of Representatives.

In her piece on crime news, “The Fear Is Necessary,” she writes about the preponderance of crime news in Montana newspapers, and what it does to the perceptions of a reader like her. And then she gets to the heart of the matter:

“But the amount of crime/accident coverage is also a symptom of budget cuts. Reporting on crimes can involve original reporting, but the majority of stories that are flashing past me on my feed require none—just someone to transfer the details from the police department into a post, slap on a stock photo or mug shot, and post it to social media.”

This is the sad truth. As the daily newspapers get smaller and continue laying off reporters, it becomes ever easier to fill the paper with crime news, since it is handed to the reporters on a platter by local law enforcement and the court system, and requires little or no local knowledge or context.

And with fewer editors on board, it naturally happens that crime stories get longer, because it’s easier to simply give all the information than it is to boil the story down to its essential facts—or to have the wisdom to know when a particular story is not really “news” at all.

Petersen again:

“Crime and accidents are events in the community. They are news. There are benefits to reporting them—Montana has the third-highest fatal car crashes per capita, for example, and reporting who dies and why (alcohol, no seatbelts, speeding) brings awareness, even if it fails to change laws or foster alternatives to drunk or tired driving. But instant crime stories—especially straight facts/no reporting stories—frame crime as something that happens to people, a generalized, ever-present menace. They do not contextualize how individuals become criminals. They do not compare crime rates to national and historical averages.”

The whole piece is worth reading. And this reminds me that I meant to point readers toward another recent piece by Petersen: a long, deeply felt story about the author Sherman Alexie.

One of the best parts is when she explains how much Alexie meant to her as a young reader:

“I read Alexie’s work growing up because I had a college-educated white mother, but also because no one else seemed to write about the sort of people I knew in rural Northern Idaho: poor people, bigoted people, anti-gay people, Native people, Western people. Angry, frustrated women; drunken, self-defeated men; hopeful and weird misfit kids like myself.

“When I was young, I watched Smoke Signals a dozen times because it was the first time I’d seen my landscape depicted onscreen—the dusty sagebrush interspersed with towering pines, the bleak but beautiful and everlasting roads to nowhere. Revisiting Alexie’s work always makes me homesick to my stomach: How lucky am I, to have such a poet for such a place we’ve both come to loathe and love?”

Welcome to Montana, Helen, and please don’t let the crime news get you down.