Monday, April 13, 2009

Post No. 106: Local News Coverage of Crime


For years now, many in the media and journalism businesses have weighed in on the coverage of crime by local news outlets.

Many investigations and studies have been conducted, both in and out of academic settings.

In preparation for this post, we examined a number of them, and initially planned to provide links to some of them to probe further into the issues.

However, we chose not to do so, since we are certain that some of you would accuse us of projecting a particular bias, or advocating a particular position.

Do you feel that local news coverage of crime in your city or county, or those areas in which you previously lived, is fair and proportionate, too little, or too much?

How does one theoretically determine the amount of “fair and proportionate” coverage of crime?

Does the coverage of crime have an “effect” on the citizens who view and hear the stories of crime?

Does the coverage potentially portray certain segments of society, or parts of town, in an unfair light?

Should the decisions regarding the amount of crime coverage be left entirely to the management of the media and journalism vehicles? Should the owners participate in the process?

Should government intervene in any way?

Should someone or some agency total up all of the events occurring in a particular geographic area, determine the percentage of crime events, and present coverage equivalent to that particular percentage?

Should “ratings” based on the consuming public’s response determine the amount of coverage?

How can we in a “free society” ensure that we are receiving a “fair and balanced” coverage of local crime?

Do you believe that those in charge of certain news media outlets purposefully skew the amount of crime covered? Purposefully avoid covering crime? Why?

By the way, while we’re at it, how do you think that the national news and media outlets determine which missing young women to cover in their stories?

32 comments:

  1. As we've all heard, the slogan of the news--especially the local news--is "If it bleeds, it leads." Americans love crime stories. Just check out the latest slate of primetime dramas. Look at the "documentary shows" on MSNBC--crime stories; prison stories.
    People always say, "Why don't they show the good things that are going on in the community?" Because nobody would watch it, that's why. When "gangsta" is a preferred style, how can we say that any segment of the community is being treated "unfairly?"
    All of that said--I used to live in New York City; first in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn (pretty rough); then in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx (less rough, but not Scarsdale by a long shot); then on first the Westside and then the Eastside of Manhattan (not so rough at all.) The only time I got mugges in 20+ years was when I was living on the upper Eastside, about two blocks from home. Go figure.

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  2. Rodak: Thanks for promptly weighing in. Should this be left to ratings, or what the public loves? Perhaps the crime loving consumers are the most vocal. Should they determine the nature of the news covered?

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  3. This is one of those subjects that comes up on a regular basis. Fifty years ago I remember folks talking about "Nobody reads 'good news'." Several attempts were made at producing newspapers highlighting good things happening and they failed. There seems to be something morbidly attractive about the plights people find themselves in.
    On the positive side of this discussion, NBC nightly news now regularly solicits and presents situations where people or organizations are helping others. Maybe the tide is changing because we all are more cognizant of the multitudes of people hurting in the present economy.

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  4. Perhaps the crime loving consumers are the most vocal. Should they determine the nature of the news covered?

    With ratings, I don't think that "vocal" is the operative consideration. If we could get back to a situation where news shows didn't need to generate ratings, then perhaps thing could change. But that will not happen.

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  5. Thanks Dan. Welcome back. Let us pose this question. Let's say that 20% of the viewing audience likes or is fascinated by crime-related stories, but that they account for 80% of the viewing time or ratings. Should that viewing majority determine the tone of news coverage? Why doesn't the contingent which is tired of hearing about crime have equal if not more influence on the content decisions?

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  6. The squeaking wheel gets the grease, as the old saying goes. I think statistics bear out that people comment, respond or act to things they dislike more than to things they like. It seems we take for granted the good things and simply sit with our hands folded. We get agitated and reactive when something we don't like comes up. So, how do you get people to respond to the positive events in their lives? How can we help people realize the importance of participation in the things that are of value to them, rather than simply raising the roof when they are unhappy? For the most part, I think blogs such as this one are part of the positive process of encouraging people to voice their opinions on both sides of the issue.

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  8. Quite frankly folks, our biggest concern after reviewing the posted comments, and the numerous ones sent directly to us by e-mail, is the attitude that there is "little which can be done," which could potentially translate into acquiescence.

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  9. Just about all of the senior citizens in my neighborhood, and my parents, are afraid to leave the house. They have this impression that there is a war going on out on the streets, or that there is going to be a home invasion robbery or kidnapping any minute. Are the security services and alarm people profiting from this distortion?

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  10. There are lots of issues here. Crime stats are available with most Chambers of Commerce by area or zip code. The government publishes legal notices of crimes and court actions in just about every newspaper in the country. The media, as the others have discussed here, focuses on those more important crimes (murder, rape, serial burglary, etc.) Unfortunately, what is reported is a fraction of what occurs and the Government, the Chamber and City Developers like it that way. Look at how hard it is to get businesses to locate to Detroit (Murder Capital of America?).

    I haven't checked but my guess is you could get all the crime info you wanted on the internet, raising it to the TV news level would require the doubling of the time allocated. It would be about as interesting as the restaurant review report card going for 30 minutes covering every felony happening that day!

    Perhaps if they did report all, then the outcry for every citizen to arm themselves would drown out those who wish to disarm us. (Didn't mean to change the subject Log)

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  11. Would someone like to take a crack at some of the questions originally posed? We pretty know what "is." We're more interested in what "can be," that is if people are interested.

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  12. If it bleeds, it leads...unless you are a California resident, in which case car chases trump all...

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  13. We, at the http://liftyouup.blogspot.com, cannot understand why we want to spend our time to read all the bad news, rather using such time to read something more positive and inspiring story. This is crucial because it makes our healthy and happier. Do give it a serious thought.

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  14. Crime coverage should be enough to remind citizens of proper caution in daily life, but should not go into details to teach other crimals or crimal-to-be how to commit crimes.
    Too much coverage on crimes will mislead crimals to justify their behaviors.

    Hi, Logistician:
    I saw your message on my blog and came visiting yours. I found the discussions and subjects in your blog are decent and wide-spanned. I like to be a follower. Thank you.
    If you got time, you are welcome to share my simple life in Su-Zhou, China. I am from Taiwan, a country, but not treated as a country by China's political authority. Quite a long and sad political story ..

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  17. how do you think that the national news and media outlets determine which missing young women to cover in their stories?By covering those girls-gone-missing who come from the target demographic, without a doubt.
    But, that said, it must be remembered that presenting the news is a business, not a public service. What is presented must be what people will watch in large numbers and that sponsors will therefore buy spots on.
    The current state of news presentation is a product of the competition for market share which is cited by free-marketeers and political conservatives as the sine-qua-non of freedom and democracy. Deal with it.
    The only alternative to this of which I can conceive is government-run news agencies, funded with public money, which would not have to cater either to consumer appetites, or bean-counter's admonitions. But I think that we can all agree that we don't want our news coverage selected by the government.
    The bottom line is that people love to rubber-neck at car wrecks. The only way to reform the news is to reform the audience. But creation is in a fallen state. Salvation comes one soul at a time.

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  18. James Oh: Thanks for visiting our blog. We just took a look at your site again. You provide both English and Mandarin Chinese for your readers. We've been trying to establish a continuing relationship with a Chinese blogger for some time now, in an effort to gain a different perspective on societal issues. We hope that you visit often.

    Other readers: Check out Mr. Oh's blog. You might view things from a different perspective.

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  19. Thanks for visiting my blog by surfing next blog. You have a thought provoking blog but I'm too tired to produce an intellegent reply, except I also believe it is a shame that ratings show people want to watch sensationalism. By the way another way to find interesting blogs is to go to your dashboard and click on the highlighted word/s under Interests and you find people with the same interests as you.

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  20. June: Welcome to our forum. You raise a very interesting point. Not only might law-abiding citizens begin to think that a certain level of crime is the norm, but also impressionable youth who might start to emulate the criminals.

    We've been making an effort to get the views of more Chinese readers. We will visit your blog and we welcome your views here.

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  21. One very impressive experience of mine was when I saw a pocket-picker on spot in a bus doing his job. I tried to remind the lady whose bag was pocket-picked. I wondered why she did not scream or accuse the pocket picker. Then very soon, I had to get off the bus. I talked to other local Chinese friends about this bus trip. They told me better not to announce or stop the crime on spot. They told me lots of similar cases reported in the news paper, in which the stopper of the crimes got seriously injured. If the majority don't want justice, how can one person stand up.
    I think the crime coverage should reports more of heroic deed against crimes, instead of the bad consequece of the whistle blowers. Now the criminals learn how to scare the third party and the police away.

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  22. I'm a little late to the party...

    Do you feel that local news coverage of crime in your city or county, or those areas in which you previously lived, is fair and proportionate, too little, or too much?How would one know? Unless you are directly involved (police, criminal attorney, bail bondsman), you have to depend upon the local news reporting. I do know that not all reported crimes show up in the local media.


    Does the coverage of crime have an “effect” on the citizens who view and hear the stories of crime?Absolutely. Not on everyone, of course. But on many who may see themselves as potential victims (or relatives of same) or those that see themselves as, or are, community activists. I get concerned only if it is my neighborhood that is directly affected.

    Does the coverage potentially portray certain segments of society, or parts of town, in an unfair light?No, I think the fact of disproportionate crime in an area does that. It's not the media reporting the crimes, it's the number (and types) of crimes.

    Should the decisions regarding the amount of crime coverage be left entirely to the management of the media and journalism vehicles? Should the owners participate in the process?Yes, who else? Anyone else would border on, or be, censorship.

    Should government intervene in any way?Never. Not so long as we have a First Amendment and we had best keep that.

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  23. It is fascinating to us that so many of you focused on "crime" and the obvious concerns about crime, and not on the balance and proportionality issues.

    It seems to us that if there are 1,000 "newsworthy events" that occur during a day, and let's say that 100 of them involve crime, then ARGUABLY "some consideration" might be given to allocating 1/10th or 10% of broadcast time to crime coverage. Should it be exactly 10%? Not necessarily. On a low or insignificant crime day, you might have 6%, and on a significant or major crime day, you might have 14%.

    Such an approach, at least to we unsophisticates, would appear to be "fair and balanced." There are scientists and inventors right in your back yard, especially if you have colleges and universities nearby, who doing something of note and value to improve human life. Aren't their contributions at least worthy of consideration as opposed to some of the crimes reported? What about people who feed the hungry, or aid the disabled, or teachers who generate exceptional students.

    Although we do not have statistical empirical evidence to support the percentages, we'd be willing to wager a huge amount of money that the 20 minutes of news coverage by local affiliates (since the other 10 goes to weather and sports) is disproportionately devoted to crime.

    Here in our local market, roughly 75% of the local news involves crime. You can't tell us that out of 100, 1,000, or 10,000 newsworthy events, 75% of them involve crime. That's ridiculous. Is that fair and balanced?

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  25. You are ignoring all of the points I made in my previous comment--points which, I believe, sum up the prevailing situation. Back in the day, the three networks put on 15-minute and then 1/2 hour of national news and the local affiliates had 15 minute local news shows. In neither case were these required to be revenue-generating. With the advent of cable and the 24-hour news cycle, however, news shows on cable began to compete not only with the network news shows for market share, but also with the entertainment schedule. Network and local news had to expand to compete, and thus became much more expensive to produce. The news now has to pay its own way. It, therefore, needs to present that which people will watch. People like crime. Change the people and you will change the news that they watch. It won't happen the other way around. That's the bitter truth, as I see it.

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  26. This is a very complex issue and I don't feel that there is a right or wrong way to answer it. Watching the news can be depressing as crime stories seem to take up the bulk of the coverage but on the same note, I want to know what is happening to my fellow men and women, which areas are safe for my family and what elected officials are doing to ensure our collective well-being. That's why balance is the key and sensationalism is a no-no.

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  27. Here is my own very personal and totally predjudiced view of crime news: First off, I hate it. It is painful to contemplate people hurting each other. I view crime news much the way I do a roadside accident that I am forced to pass which is to say I avert my eyes and say a brief prayer for those involved as well as thanking God that I am not a party to it. Having said that I will admit that certain cases are pounded away so many times that they become unavoidable. This is not true for purely local crime stories, at least not very often. I'll admit that if there is a headline talking about a serial rapist on the loose I'll be more cautious about entering my car and even my home when alone. The problem with being a crime news avoider such as myself is that when I am called for jury duty I often have no clue who the defendants might be. The oddest outcome of my non-interest in crime news was ending up sequestered for 6 weeks at the Holiday Inn Coliseum in Manhattan on a mob case all because I had no clue as to who Frank Tieri was. It turned out he was not just an old man in a wheelchair but was the head of the Genovese crime family. Yikes. Listening to tapes of this elderly man ordering murders..not something that all the scenes of his grandaughters gathering around his wheelchair could eradicate. That was a bit of weird I would not have missed for the world and would NEVER want to do again.

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  28. As a former newsie, I have two things to add to the discussion. TV news managers justify crime coverage because audience surveys show people are interested in crime and safety.

    However, those responses may be driven by all the crime coverage they see on TV and in newspapers. The thing to keep in mind is that of all the types of news available to cover, crime, especially crime in the streets, is incredibly easy to cover. Most newsrooms have police scanners, so it's possible to know what's going on. When you're given an address and description of something going on at the moment, it's pretty easy to dispatch a crew.

    Does that mean it's valuable and important to the community at large? Not really. Each crime is merely a snapshot of an unfortunate event occurring at that time.

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  29. Doug:

    Welcome to our forum and thanks for providing some further insight into the reasons underlying crime coverage by news outlets.

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  30. "If it bleeds, it leads." That's the motto of many news rooms. We may have stumbled on the scientific (biological) reason for all of the negative, dramatic news events covered by the news media. Check out Post Nos. 137a, 137b, and the succeeding posts in the series.

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  31. This is a very complex issue and I don't feel that there is a right or wrong way to answer it. Watching the news can be depressing as crime stories seem to take up the bulk of the coverage but on the same note, I want to know what is happening to my fellow men and women, which areas are safe for my family and what elected officials are doing to ensure our collective well-being. That's why balance is the key and sensationalism is a no-no.

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  32. Thanks for visiting my blog by surfing next blog. You have a thought provoking blog but I'm too tired to produce an intellegent reply, except I also believe it is a shame that ratings show people want to watch sensationalism. By the way another way to find interesting blogs is to go to your dashboard and click on the highlighted word/s under Interests and you find people with the same interests as you.

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