Crime, News, And Media Literacy

Posted on July 11, 2012 by


Back on April 12, CrimeDime shared an infographic from Infobia. In that post CrimeDime noted that, “The relationship between crime and the media has never been great — and by ‘never been great’ what we really mean is news reporting about crime wildly misrepresents actual crime.” In this post, I’d like to explore this claim in a bit more depth by viewing it through the connected  lenses of media literacy and journalistic practice.

The Center for Media Literacy (CML) identifies five core concepts and key questions that any media consumer should ask while interrogating any single media message or collective group of messages. The CML suggests that when consuming media audience members should determine who created the message, the techniques used to create it, the different ways it might be interpreted, the points of view inscribed within it, and how the creator benefits from our consumption.

Let’s begin with a quick overview of what this infographic contains just so we know exactly what we’re seeing. The results are drawn from newspaper headlines in four major cities: Oakland, New York, Atlanta, and Dallas. This study neither claims to provide a full picture of the relationship between crime and all media nor does it accomplish this in a generalized way. Instead, this bit of information gives us a brief snapshot of a thin slice of news media content found in a handful of large urban markets. Having said that, the graphic does give us plenty of food for thought. It also gives readers an opportunity to develop media literacy skills.

In this case, we are dealing with some metadata about news media. Put differently, the infographic is a media message about a sample of media messages. For our purposes, lets explore the news stories examined in more detail than the graphic itself.

I agree with the underlying sentiment expressed by CrimeDime and Infobia–the news media tend to focus on certain types of crimes while ignoring other types of crimes. The old journalistic adage that “if it bleeds, it leads” still seems to apply and Infobia’s findings reinforce this claim. Readers do not need to go much further than the number of murders committed versus the percentage of media coverage devoted to them to locate support for this claim.

Now, the question becomes why is there such disproportionate coverage of some crimes versus others? This is a complicated question that brings us back to the CML’s suggestions. In order to begin to answer this question, it’s important to explore the techniques used to report news and how those who report it benefit from doing so. Let’s tackle the latter question first.

Newspapers in the U.S. are commercial industries. Put differently, U.S. newspapers are for profit enterprises that need to generate readers to enhance their value to advertisers. Selling space/audiences to advertisers is how commercial media make money. You are the newspapers’ product and the stories you read are the hooks used to reel you in.

On that note, covering boring crimes does not attract audiences, while covering sensational crimes does. Crime coverage has always been popular and profitable. We can think back to famous cases like Jack the Ripper and the Lindbergh kidnapping as timeless examples. More recently cases like the O.J. Simpson murder trial have created such fervor that they became almost soap operatic by encouraging viewers to tune in daily to see what would happen next. Beyond these cases, certain criminals have gained so much notoriety that they achieved legendary or mythical status. The likes of Bonnie and Clyde, Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and John Wayne Gacy provide just a few examples. These criminals spawned other pop culture treatments that helped raise them to mythical status.

These treatments tend to depart from the media coverage explored by Infobia since they are often not news media outlets. Film director Arthur Penn told the story of Bonnie and Clyde in a movie starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Manson is often associated with The Beatles’ tune “Helter Skelter,” which Vincent Bugliosi borrowed to use as the title of the book he wrote about the criminal. Veteran TV and movie actor Mark Harmon portrayed Bundy in a TV mini-series that was released just three years prior to the confessed killer’s  execution. Alt rocker Sufjan Stevens tells the story of Gacy in one of his songs helping to cement this child killer’s immortality. Of course, all of these popular treatments were preceded by massive news coverage that helped make these criminals household names allowing these cottage industries to develop around their personas. Put differently, these criminals sold lots of newspapers before their likenesses were imported to the entertainment side of media but I digress.

Returning to the news media coverage of crime, it is important to recognize how journalists determine what events and people they will cover. To answer this we need to understand the concept of  newsworthiness. Newworthiness refers to the criteria–or news values–that journalists and editors use to determine whether a story deserves to be chronicled and shared widely. These news values also influence the ways educators train aspiring journalists.

Dr. Anthony Curtis from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke defines seven news values that he teaches aspiring journalists to consider when determining whether to cover and ultimately circulate any given news story. Curtis identifies impact, timeliness, prominence, proximity, conflict, bizarreness, and currency. These news values are included in one form or another in a vast array of news writing textbooks.

Impact refers to the degree to which the story will affect its audience. Most crime stories do not possess much direct impact for audience members. We read crime stories not to insulate ourselves from criminal threats as much as because we enjoy them. Weather and traffic reports are more likely to have direct impact on audiences than crime stories.

Timeliness refers to how recent the story is. The more recently something happened, the more newsworthy the story tends to be. Breaking news is more immediate rather than simply being timely. I often tell my students that timeliness is a print news value, while immediacy is something that only electronic news coverage can achieve. Most crime stories are covered in immediate or timely fashions. After the story has been broken, then journalists will often extend coverage and maintain a sense of timeliness by uncovering and reporting “new” facts or details over the days, weeks, or months that follow.

Prominence refers to the level of notoriety of those involved. Most crime stories do not involve notorious people, but sometimes those involved become notorious because of the continued coverage. Notoriety often becomes an effect of prolonged media coverage. The more notorious a criminal becomes the more likely that criminal will spawn non-news coverage like the examples I provided above.

Proximity refers to the local angle of the story. Most crime stories are covered on local and regional levels. We tend to remember collectively the national and international stories, but these stories make up a small percentage of all crime stories–even violent crime stories. Most crime stories, like any news story, have limited shelf lives and audience reaches.

Conflict refers to the distinct sides found regarding a given issue. Most, if not all, crime stories have two distinct sides that are linked together within the context of a common story. Put differently, most crime originates with some form of conflict so it’s only natural that this news value would be present within the stories we tell about crimes. This claim is supported by the fact that most criminals know their victims. Crimes involving strangers are exceptions rather than rules and due to this it’s more difficult to locate conflict in crimes that involve strangers.

Bizarreness refers to oddities in the news. Most crime stories do not satisfy this news value, but stories of the “dumbest criminals” are good examples of crime stories that operate in this sphere.

Finally, the news value of currency is the one that has always troubled me the most. This concept refers to the popularity of a type of news story, which is a bit more specific than a genre of news story (e.g. crime, weather, business etc.). In recent weeks, we’ve seen a rash of stories about zombie crimes and their links to drugs known as “bath salts.” Essentially the process happens this way: a story is covered somewhere and it gains interest by going viral through social media channels or being picked up off of the newswire so it can be rerun in newspapers in distant places. As journalists and editors recognize the public’s fascination with the story, they begin to seek out similar stories that often have a more localized angle (remember proximity).  This localization reinforces the topic’s importance to more distinct and disparate audiences. This news value troubles me because it highlights the degree to which news is often driven by perceived popularity rather than tangible impact.

Recognizing the application of these news values reveals the underlying formulas that drive news coverage, or what the CML might call techniques. The higher degree of news value a given story possesses the more likely it will be covered, and the more interest generated the longer that coverage will be extended. As the Infobia graphic shows 9 out of 10 crimes committed in the U.S. are property crimes yet these crimes generally go uncovered unless one of the sexier news values is involved. While property crimes are more likely to have some direct impact on audience members, these stories often fail to meet many of the other criteria that determine newsworthiness. Instead, something else must present to generate heavy or widespread news coverage.

For example, in the days after retired NFL football player Junior Seau’s suicide a story ran nationally that covered a property crime at his home–a bicycle was stolen and later recovered. When was the last time you read about a bike theft in your local newspaper, much less in a national newspaper? If this crime were committed at a less prominent person’s home, then it never would have been picked up. It’s likely the story would have gone unreported to anyone beyond the police station, but because the Seau story involved a prominent person and a current topic–there has been a rash of recent suicides among former NFL players–the story was covered nationally.

The point I am endeavoring to make is to agree with CrimeDime and Infobia by suggesting that news media inflate our awareness of certain crimes over others, and they do so for some easily identifiable reasons. Journalistic techniques encourage this and the for-profit system they are parts of demand it. It’s important for news audiences to recognize the ways that the system operates so they can carefully consider not only the stories that run, but why they run and how they are constructed. If we, as audience members, recognize this then maybe we can begin to understand the messages a little bit differently and we can insulate ourselves against potential media effects.

In my next installment, I will tackle questions surrounding media effects in a bit more detail by focusing our attention of the Mean World Syndrome that Infobia highlights at the conclusion of the infographic.