Understanding how the media reports crime

The media, both in the mainstream and alternative sources, such as social media and weblogs, play a large role in how members of society are informed of events that may affect them directly or indirectly. Mass media has arguably become the main source of news, entertainment, recreation, and product information in the western world. For many people, the media informs them about events that affect their lives.

As a victim service worker who may be called upon to work with victims who are dealing with the media, or who may be called upon to work with the media directly, it is important to understand how the media works. While it can perform an important public service, media outlets are, first and foremost, a business. In the current global financial crisis, news media is a struggling business.

There are different types of media and coverage:

  • National media – Does not generally cover individual crime stories unless there is some unique or sensational aspect to it. A high-profile homicide case, like the Robert Pickton case, may garner national attention because it involved a serial killer, a large number of victims, allegations of police negligence, etc. The case of the alleged gang rape of a young woman in British Columbia at a party in which pictures were taken and posted on a social networking site also garnered lots of national media attention because of the number of alleged assailants and the involvement of photos being put on the Internet. When a case does spark national interest, the media intensity rises. Radio talk shows may begin discussing the underlying issues and television documentary shows may do stories on similar cases. This may or may not directly involve the victim, but its impact can be serious, especially if the coverage causes people to talk about the victims without all the facts, or a distorted view of the facts. National media also covers crime issues more generally, for example, if parliament is considering a justice related bill, national reporters may want to find victims who can speak to the issue (for example, a new law on street racing);
  • Local media – Cover most of the crime stories in a specific geographic area, usually a city or county. They often provide the most in depth coverage of crime that occurs, as well as limited coverage of items from the national media. Due to their focus on events, victim service workers will likely be in touch with local media more frequently than national media.
  • Web-based media – Weblogs, online sharing and social media websites are growing at a rapid pace. Many newspapers put their entire papers online and also do special stories that only appear online. The fact that information can be instantly published and broadly distributed has dramatically increased the speed at which news travels – instead of waiting for tomorrow’s newspaper, stories can be posted online in minutes or faster. In fact, news has become instantaneous and this was seen most recently in the Russell Williams’ sentencing hearing where reporters were tweeting details live from the courtroom and publishing information on their online blogs. Also, of concern from a victim service point of view is the posting of anonymous comments or remarks attached to online articles that can be hurtful to victims because they are uninformed or mean spirited.
  • Hard news – Is current news items that are covered as they are happening, or shortly after they have occurred. Hard news is time sensitive and delivered in a manner that suggests that the public needs to know about it when it is most current. The story may not be news in a day or so. A serious crime, an arrest or a verdict in a high-profile case are all examples of hard news.
  • Soft news – Often includes human interest stories that are not time sensitive. They may be features, follow-ups or more in-depth looks at hard news stories. An in-depth story about a victim or his/her family may be an example of soft news.
  • Columns/Editorials – Unlike journalists, columnists and editorialists produce columns and editorials that are not free from bias and they do not just report facts. Their work goes beyond a presentation of information and facts to give their personal opinions. If an offender was given a sentence that was perceived as too lenient, a columnist might write a column complaining about judges.

The Internet and the 24-hour news cycle have had big impacts on the way stories are reported and how quickly reporters must file their stories. Newspapers no longer have to wait for deadlines for the morning paper – they all have websites and stories can go up on the paper’s website as soon as they are done. Fewer and fewer people are getting their news from newspapers because it is all available online. People now have access to a wider range of news beyond the traditional news sources.

Twenty-four hour television news networks, like CBC and CTV, require a lot more news than the traditional newscasts that followed the noon, 6:00 and 11:00pm schedule. These networks are constantly reporting so they report on many issues of interest, need updates to ongoing stories faster, and to fill a lot of airtime when there may not be new developments.

Many media organizations now face declining revenues and changing demands. They are working with fewer resources and personnel which impact their ability to report the news. Often we see smaller media outlets being purchased by big companies, meaning there is less competition in the news business. Daily newspapers are depending on news services because they have fewer reporters. This means there are fewer voices in the media in general as the various outlets all report on the same stories, and in some cases, even all report the same stories.

According to the Canadian Newspaper Association, there are 95 daily newspapers in Canada; most of which are under group ownership and only four of which are privately owned2. Given the power of the media to sway public opinion and influence government policy, this is important to know. The choice of what stories get told and do not get told determines whose voices are heard and whose matter. The intensity of media coverage shapes public opinion, as is evidenced by the public outcry that occurred when it recently became known that Graham James had received a pardon, or that Clifford Olson was still receiving his pension benefits.

Complexity of what is covered or not

What crimes the media choose to cover and how they cover those crimes can influence the public’s perception of crime, including their belief about the amount of crime that occurs in neighbourhoods and cities. Editors and assignment editors make complex decisions about what crime stories they will cover (or not) and what the headline will be. Journalists and reporters, in partnership with their assignment desks and producers decide what information about those crimes they will include or leave out, what experts they may go to for input, what quotes from that expert they will include, and where in the story these facts and quotes appear. Other media managers decide what priority the piece will take within the newspaper or news broadcast. The process by which the mass media decides how they will or will not report about crime is very complex.

Focus of media on crime

Crime stories constitute the fourth largest category of stories for newspapers and television after sports, general interest and business which is an over-representation of the actual amount of crime occurring.3 Research suggests that over 50% of crime stories in a sample of Canadian newspapers dealt with offences involving violence but offences involving violence represent less than 6% of reported offences.4 This is likely a significant factor in the public belief that crime is on the rise. For example, Canada fortunately has a relatively low homicide rate. Every year, approximately, 600 Canadians are murdered and because murder remains a relatively rare event in our society, most of these murders will garner some media attention. So while homicide makes up less than 1% of crimes committed in Canada, it garners a significant amount of media coverage of crime.

The media is most likely to focus on stories that highlight the unique, the sensational, the extreme, and those that have the potential to impact the greatest number of people. For crime-related stories, the media are most likely to focus on events that have occurred multiple times, for example a number of assaults or break-ins that are centred in a small geographic area, or those that are very unlikely to occur. Homicides committed by young offenders are often front page news and may cause people to believe that youth violence is at significant levels, despite being incredibly rare. The reason they are so newsworthy is because they are so rare – they shock us, are unique and because of that, may dominate headlines for days and weeks, thereby giving the public a distorted view of how common these crimes are.

The media does not just decide what stories get that kind of attention, but what stories do not get that kind of attention. The murder of a homeless man is not likely to get as much media attention as the murder of a teenage girl from a middle class family. The media can focus on a story, thereby making it headline news, or ignore a different story, and the public will never know.

While focusing on the sensational and most violent crimes, it may seem the media ignores the more common types of crime that are more likely to affect individual readers or viewers, such as single instances of auto theft or break and enter. The media also rarely covers sexual assault and partner assault cases, which are largely crimes that impact women and children and are the focus of many victim service provision agencies in Canada. These serious crimes against women and children often remain hidden from law enforcement, which influences media coverage because they tend to cover crimes that come to the attention of the formal criminal justice system.

Stranger crimes get more coverage

The media also tends to focus on crimes committed by strangers rather than the more common crimes which are committed by someone known to the victim. The abduction of a child by a stranger will garner far more attention than the abduction of a child by a parent. The sexual assault of a woman in her home by someone who broke in will be more newsworthy than a woman who is assaulted in her home by her husband. While this may be explained by the fact that a single case of domestic assault is unlikely to have wide impact on the community, it also hides these crimes and creates the impression that these cases are not reported to the police or prosecuted, which may discourage other victims from seeing the merit in reporting their abuse.

This kind of coverage may give people a false sense of security. As parents, we tell our children to be wary of strangers, or to not to walk alone at night, but few of us are educated about the real dangers. The reality that victim service providers are well aware of is that people are more likely to be assaulted by someone they know and that we are at greater risk of violence in our own homes. The media’s focus on stranger crimes asserts the myth that many people have that if they avoid certain situations or doing what the victims did, they will be safe.

The “ideal” victim

Some media coverage reinforces the notion of the good or ideal victim, one who is more innocent than others. A woman who was sitting in her home at night watching television when the offender broke in would appear to be the “good or ideal” victim over the woman who invited the offender into her home, or met him while out at a bar.

Those who are ideal victims include children, some women and the elderly. Young men, the homeless, those with drug problems, sex workers, etc., may find it much more difficult to achieve legitimate victim status. In this sense, there is the danger of creating a hierarchy of victimization. Race, social class and status also play a role, and whether or not it is done intentionally, it is perpetuated by the media. Whether we agree or disagree with how the media chooses to report crimes and the impact it has on victims, as victim service providers, we have a role to assist victims dealing with the media and a unique opportunity to educate the media and the public about crime, victims and the impacts of reporting.

Service providers must also remember that the purpose of the media is to provide the public with the information they want about their community. The way an issue is framed by the media can lead the public to make judgments about some victims being more innocent or ideal than others. For example, the public will view a youth injured due to gang activity and violence very differently than an elderly person who is swarmed and robbed.

  1. Canadian Newspaper Association, FAQ about newspapers. Accessed online, January 20, 2011: http://www.newspaperscanada.ca/about-newspapers/faq-about-newspapers/faq
  2. Tammy C. Landau, Challenging Notions: Critical Victimology in Canada, Canadian Scholar Press Inc., 2006. p.20.
  3. Gebotys, Robert J., Roberts, Julian V., and DasGupta, Bikram. (1988). News Media Use and Public Perceptions of Crime Seriousness. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Journal of Criminology: 3-16.