The Real ‘Bond Pandemic’: Misinformation, False Narratives, and Bias in the Media

Introduction

In 2017, U.S. District Court Judge Lee Rosenthal held in an historic ruling that Harris County’s misdemeanor bond system was unconstitutional, given that wealth was the primary factor in pretrial release. As part of the resulting settlement, Harris County now requires the release of the majority of misdemeanor defendants on personal recognizance (PR) bonds, which do not require an upfront cash payment.

Harris County’s implemented reforms ensure that defendants are not prematurely punished with jail time—upholding the principle of a ‘presumption of innocence’ for the criminally accused, and preventing taxpayers from footing the bill for unnecessary weeks or months of incarceration. Multiple reports from the court’s federal oversight monitor have documented the successful changes made to the bond system.

Though Harris County continues to reap the benefits of a fairer, less discriminatory system, many county residents continue to be in the dark as to these meaningful improvements. Despite the positive numbers reported by the court monitor, a counter-narrative has emerged. This counter-narrative—that bond reform lets dangerous individuals out of jail, negatively impacting on public safety—has been propagated by much of the local media, including the local television news.

TCJE analyzed media coverage of bond in Harris County by local television news outlets to better understand their role in shaping the false counter-narrative that bond reform is a dangerous proposition. The results of our investigation were shocking. We found that a large proportion of local stories have a negative slant on bond reform and/or intentionally conflate the positive changes happening in the misdemeanor bond system with the larger, vaguer concept of “bond reform.” Further, most of these stories can be traced to one of a small number of sources with a vested interest in a negative perception of bond reform.

Explore the page and links below to evaluate specific outlets and quoted sources, read examples of articles that show the local news media’s malpractice, and find recommendations and other resources. You can read the full text of the report in PDF form here, as well as online here.

Station Reports

The Real Bond Pandemic - Station Reports

TCJE analyzed 226 news articles run by six Houston-area television stations between January 2015 and June 2021. While the primary focus of our analysis was bias against bond reform, we also reviewed 15 other key variables, such as referenced ‘experts’ and the defendant’s race or ethnicity. Our analysis reveals that many local media stations disproportionately publish biased articles in their reporting on bond. Each card below flips to offer top-line statistics and a link to further information.

KPRC

KPRC
(NBC)

48% negatively biased coverage

51% of defendant articles featured
Black defendants

30% of covered defendants allegedly involved in homicide

Click to read the full analysis

KTRK

KTRK
(ABC)

51% negatively biased coverage

50% of defendant articles featured
Black defendants

67% of covered defendants allegedly involved in homicide

Click to read the full analysis

KHOU

KHOU
(CBS)

62% negatively biased coverage

59% of defendant articles featured
Black defendants

77% of covered defendants allegedly involved in homicide

Click to read the full analysis

KRIV

KRIV
(FOX)

85% negatively biased coverage

55% of defendant articles featured
Black defendants

70% of covered defendants allegedly involved in homicide

Read the full analysis here

KXLN

KXLN
(Univision)

8% negatively biased coverage

8% of defendant articles featured
Black defendants

42% of covered defendants allegedly involved in homicide

Read the full analysis here

KTMD

KTMD
(Telemundo)

25% negatively biased coverage

50% of defendant articles featured
Black defendants

50% of covered defendants allegedly involved in homicide

Read the full analysis here

Case Studies

Harris County Bail Media Case Studies

We selected several articles from our sample as case studies that exemplify the reporting issues highlighted in our report.

Hover over the underlined text in each article to see our annotations, which identify sources of bias, contextualize false or misleading claims, and unpack the assumptions underlying negative bail coverage.

For example, one quote from a high-profile opponent of bail reform is misleading:

“The revolving door at courthouse is playing a significant, major role in the increased crime rates."Despite opponents' efforts to link Houston's 2020 "crime wave" to bail reform, empirical evidence demonstrates that releasing people pretrial does not harm public safety. In reviewing data from several jurisdictions that implemented bail reform, The Prison Policy Initiative found that the vast majority of jurisdictions saw decreases or negligible increases in crime after implementing reforms.


Read the case studies here.

Most Quoted Officials

The Real Bond Pandemic - Most Quoted Officials

Though many factors contribute to the imbalance in coverage of bond, the use and selection of ‘expert’ references is particularly revealing. The most commonly quoted sources in bond articles are individuals and groups that have a stake in the criminal legal process against defendants; these references often explicitly voice opposition towards bond reform. Each card below flips to offer top-line statistics and a link to further information.

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg
Harris County District Attorney

Referenced in 14 articles
(6% of sample)

71% of articles negatively biased

Art Acevedo

Art Acevedo
Former Houston Police Chief

Referenced in 35 articles
(15% of sample)

77% of articles negatively biased

Crime Stoppers

Crime Stoppers

Referenced in 76 articles
(34% of sample)

99% of articles negatively biased

Harris County DA's Office

Harris County District Attorney's Office

Referenced in 55 articles
(24% of sample)

60% of articles negatively biased

Houston Police

Houston Police Department

Referenced in 141 articles
(62% of sample)

52% of articles negatively biased

Recommendations

The Real Bond Pandemic - Recommendations

Academics and journalists have recognized the media’s complicity in the racism and harm of the criminal legal system, highlighting their role in promoting a narrative of crime that legitimizes the police and promotes maintenance of the status quo. In light of the findings detailed in this report, local media outlets should acknowledge that their approach to reporting on bond and bond reform functions to undermine police accountability, bolster the power of law enforcement, reinforce racial stereotypes, and undercut further reform efforts.

Read our recommendations on how media outlets can transform their approach to reporting on bond and crime.

Resources

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition is now the Texas Center for Justice and Equity! Learn More