Violence: Comparing Reporting and Reality
An overview of reporting trends in crime news, comparison with actual crime rates and an analysis of how coverage affects public perception of criminal activity.
Newspapers are a primary source of information about local crime (Stempel & Hargrove, 1996). As such influential sources, newspapers are charged with the vast responsibility of bringing objective information to the public (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2001). Yet, how representative is our daily news of actual events in our communities? Do reporting trends mirror or shape reality? This fact sheet reviews reporting trends in crime news and what is known about the influence of this reporting/coverage on consumers.
Reporting Trends for Violent Crime
Reports of crime don’t match actual rates of crime.:
- From 1993 to 1994, public perception of crime as the most important problem in the U.S. jumped from a 9% endorsement to a 37% endorsement that remained considerably high for several years. The increase in perception may be due, at least in part, to the way in which crime news is delivered to the public; whereas perception of crime as a major problem rose, the actual crime rates did not (Lowry, Nio, & Leitner, 2003).
- Approximately half of crime news in New Orleans focused on homicide in 1981, while only 0.4% of the total crimes committed were actually homicides (Sheley & Ashkins, 1981).
- Among crime stories in Chicago’s The Tribune in the early 1980’s, 26% were about murder, while only 0.2% of crimes known to police were murder. Conversely, theft news made up only 3% of crime stories, but accounted for a dramatically larger percentage of reported crimes (36%) compared to homicide (Howitt, 1998).
- In Los Angeles, 80% of local murders were reported in the LA Times, while only 2% of local physical and sexual assaults were reported, misrepresenting the relative frequency of the types of crime that actually occured (Dorfman, Thorson, & Stevens, 2001).
- A content analysis of 175 crime-related articles in Time magazine, taken from selected years (1953, 1958, 1975, 1979, & 1982), showed that although 73% of the stories concerned violent crime, only a minority of crimes reported to police (10%) actually involved violence (Barlow, Barlow, & Chiricos, 1995).
- The least common types of homicides received the most news coverage in Los Angeles County from 1990-1994. Specifically, homicides of women, children, and the elderly, and homicides involving multiple victims were reported more often than homicides involving one young or middle-aged adult. Actual crime rates showed that the majority of homicide victims were males between the ages of 15-34 with only one victim involved. Furthermore, gender, age, socioeconomic status, and relationship biases were found in homicide coverage (Sorenson, Manz, & Berk, 1998).
- While only 6% of crime in Great Britain is violent crime, a study of 10 popular British dailies showed that more than 2/3 of the crime news is devoted to violent crime (Smith, 1984).
- Content analysis of all national British press and television news reports of child sexual abuse during in 1991, revealed a disproportionate amount of coverage focused on abuse outside the home.
- 83% of the news coverage focused on events surrounding a particular stranger abduction/murder case that occurred that year, rather than more general and common forms of child sexual abuse within families.
- Although sexual assault against children is most often perpetrated by someone the child knows, 96% of newspaper articles highlighted ways to protect children from stranger’s threats. Only 4% mention the more likely scenario of abuse by relatives (as cited in Kitzinger, 2004).
- 47 news items focused on strangers and staff in schools or community/residential homes, while only 2 items focused on family members.
Influence/Effect of Reporting Trends on Consumers
Disproportionate coverage or misrepresentation of particular types of victims and/or perpetrators results in the public associating crime with minority status:
- Undue association of crime with minority status leads to racial stereotypes and public perceptions of particular groups as “super-predators” (Sorenson, Manz, & Berk, 1998; Gilliam, Iyengar, Simon, & Wright, 1996; Rodgers & Thorson, 2001; Barlow et al., 1995).
- The content analysis of 175 crime-related articles in Time magazine, taken from selected years based on extreme unemployment rates (1953, 1958, 1975, 1979, & 1982), found that race, social status (lower, middle, upper class), and education level were among the least reported offender characteristics. While only 57% (n=100) of the articles referred to offender race, 74% of such race references involved non-White offenders, while only 28% of those arrested across the selected 5 years were non-White (Barlow, et al., 1995).
- Exposure to disproportionate news coverage is related to elevated levels of fear and perceptions of personal risk.
- Reporting salient rather than common crimes may convey a message that crime is more pervasive and relevant to a particular community. If the public interprets news reports as conveying that the community’s crime rate is high, they will likely experience higher levels of general suspicion, and perceive a high risk of falling victim to crime. This phenomenon was noted in a telephone survey of 365 Midwestern citizens (Reber and Chang, 2001).
- Local stories about crime are related to consumers’ fear of crime.
- Homicide stories in particular, show the strongest relationship to public fear in the local news (Liska & Baccaglini, 1990).
- Homicide stories located in the first sections of the newspaper appear to contribute to higher fear levels (Liska & Baccaglini, 1990).
- In a national sample collected in 1997, perceived risk of crime was related to local television news exposure (Romer, Jamieson, & Aday, 2003).
- For a sample of approximately 2,300 Philadelphia residents, exposure to television news was strongly correlated with the belief that crime is an important local problem (Romer et al., 2003).
Crime Coverage: Consumers' Desires
- Among 365 Midwestern community members, 75% expressed that the media gave too much attention to criminal activity. They reported that they wanted more “everyday” news of non-violent/non-criminal issues (Reber & Chang, 2001). 84% of the above community sample agreed that they want to know if various types of reported violence/crime are typical or rare occurrences (Reber & Chang, 2001).
- 127 newspaper readers expressed less interest in contextual information in experimental news stories compared to traditional news reports (Coleman & Thorson, 2002).
Newspaper coverage of crime is not reflective of actual crime rates. Biases of gender, age, race, socioeconomic status, and relationship status are documented in several publications. Evidence suggests that such biases influence public perception of perpetrators and victims. Repeated exposure to unbalanced information appears to lead consumers to perceive higher risk and feel greater fear of falling victim to violent criminal activity.
The consequences of skewed perceptions on public opinion and public policy decisions are documented, but more studies are needed to understand this phenomenon. For instance, how does disproportionate coverage of sexual assault affect society’s views toward victims? How does it influence how violence is understood? Further research needs to examine these issues in relation to crime and disaster. Journalists and editors may want to consider the effects of their coverage and the balance they wish to achieve with their stories.
Educating journalists on the impact of coverage and opportunities for providing balance and context in their stories may lead to more accurate information and careful planning in news coverage of crime and violence.
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