The Corner

Politics & Policy

Local Television News and the Return of the Crime Issue

Jonathan Martin of the New York Times makes a point about the focus of Republican Ed Gillespie’s campaign in Virginia:

…his advertising reflects what he thinks will actually move the electorate: He is spending the bulk of his money on commercials focused on the statues, which make no mention of his view that the South was “on the wrong side of history,” and illegal immigrants. One of his immigration ads features amply tattooed Salvadoran prisoners meant to be members of the menacing gang MS-13, a target of the president’s.

I’d argue Gillespie’s MS-13 ad is as much a crime-themed commercial as an immigration-themed one, and it’s worth keeping in mind that northern Virginia has an indisputable MS-13 problem.

Virginia’s gang problems may pale in comparison to the country’s most crime-ridden venues, but it appears to be slowly but surely growing worse:

“We have seen a resurgence of MS-13 in the past four or five years,” said an FBI agent who spoke with WTOP on the condition of anonymity. A Fairfax County gang task force leader who has tracked MS-13 for more than 15 years says the gang is “much more violent” than ever.

Three murders associated with the gang have been committed in Virginia this year; two more were committed in Montgomery County, Maryland, last year. A total of 30 suspects believed to be connected with the gang have been arrested in these killings, including 10 juveniles, some of whom are being charged as adults. (Not all the victims were connected with MS-13.)

And 29 members of MS-13 were arrested recently in a nationwide gang crackdown, including 11 at a house in Falls Church in April.

The gang deals largely in drug-running, extortion (in the form of protection rackets) and sex trafficking, a number of sources in and out of law enforcement said…

A 2009 report by the task force said that there were about 3,000 MS-13 members in Northern Virginia. Now, [Jay Lanham, a retired assistant chief of the Prince William County police and executive director of the Northern Virginia Gang Task Force] estimates there are “over 5,000 easy.” But he doesn’t know the exact number for sure and that leads to the other reason for MS-13’s resurgence in the area: a lack of money for gang prevention.

Beyond that, research indicates that those who follow local news closely are more likely to vote; this is why the commercial breaks on your local news stations are filled with political ads as the election approaches. And what topic does local news love to cover, perhaps more than any other? Crime.

If it bleeds, it leads. The odds are good that your local news broadcast this evening will be heavily shaped by the police scanner. Local television news crews love crime stories because they’re pretty easy (show up at the crime scene or courthouse steps and point the camera) and straightforward. The story often offers dramatic visuals: police tape, distraught victims or eyewitnesses, statements from the police spokesman, composite sketches, flashing police lights, etcetera. It offers human drama and scale, and reporters can genuinely argue they’re serving their community, spotlighting terrible crimes, giving victims a voice, and so on.

So when the average northern Virginia local news viewer sees a Gillespie ad about MS-13, he probably doesn’t think about how Virginia’s overall, non-violent crime rate is holding steady. He probably thinks, “thank goodness someone wants to do something about those terrible shootings, drug trafficking, and sex trafficking that I just heard about during the news.”

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