Impression of crime and society

In what ways does crime reporting give us a distorted impression of crime and society? What are the social consequences of that distortion? The debate over crime reporting in the media has become a controversial issue as the pattern of such reporting has itself changed over the last 30 years. Not only because there is an over-reported coverage with a lack of depth in its contents, but also because of its symbolic representation of class, race, gender and patriarchy, which results in a social inequality, stereotype and public anxiety. Some sociologists even argue that crime reporting encourages further crimes by providing information to those potential criminals.

In the 1970s, crime reporting was mainly concerned with murder, jewel thefts, and petty crime, but since the late 1980s, an increasingly competitive market that pushed news media to win readers has generated revised editorial ambitions. News media have increasingly become part of the entertainment industry instead of providing a forum for informed debate of key issues of public concern. That is to say, journalists are more concerned about reporting stories which will interest the public than stories that are in the public interest. This results in people nowadays finding they are surrounded by a net of news covering drugs, terrorism, child abuse, rape, muggings, fraud, and football hooliganism.

Bob Franklin's Newszak and News Media laments the triumph of "the trivial over the weighty", as the "intimate relationships of celebrities from soap operas, the world of sort or the royal family are judged more 'news worthy' than the reporting of significant issues and events of international consequence." He criticizes the coverage of celebrities within news and current affairs as being evidence of a decline in hard news values as a result of the ascendancy of infotainment, and the decline of the press as an independent source of information. Indeed, everyday there are also many ordinary people in trouble, but they rarely receive such prominent coverage.

American studies covering a wide range of newspaper markets demonstrate that crime news doesn't offer a realistic picture of real crime – "interpersonal crimes, particularly those involving violence, are consistently over-reported in relation to official statistics, whereas routine property crimes are under-reported." According to the US media researcher Doris Graber, an "exaggerated picture is presented of the incidence of the most violent kinds of crime while the incidence of lesser crimes is minimized".

By comparing the reporting of street crimes officially recorded by the Chicago police with coverage of such crimes in the Chicago Tribute, Graber found a significant difference – a ratio of 1:13 between newspaper coverage, and records in the police index. For instance, murder, which constituted 0.2 per cent of all crimes recorded in the police index, constituted 26.2 per cent of all crimes reported in the Tribune; whereas non-violent crimes, such as theft, constituted 47 per cent of all crimes on the police index, but only four per cent of those appeared in the Tribute. According to Sanford Sherizen's study in 1978, a similar result shows that whereas 70 per cent of all murders were reported in Chicago newspapers, only five per cent of rapes and less than one per cent of almost all other crimes became news.

The unbalanced and biased coverage of crime not only happened in the US, but also can be found in Britain. For example, the threat posed by males in relation to their officially recorded crimes has also been over-represented. In 1995, for example, official homicide statistics indicate that only 13 per cent of female victims were killed by a male stranger, while Carter's research on the British tabloid press sampled over two months illustrates that during that period, 40 per cent of all news of sexual violence fell into this category. Therefore, the newsworthiness and news values that determinate reporters could be: "the more prevalent the crime, the less it would be reported, with the exception of murder / manslaughter …

The only other crimes that appeared more frequently that expected were those which were (or could be written as) humorous, ironic, and / or unusual or in which the situation was sentimental or dramatic, especially in terms of the participants". Besides, the highly selective coverage in reporting crime does not offer any significant background explanation either, especially in reporting incidents such as sexual violence. Journalists tend to over-simplify in their writings – they typically support calls for greater repressive social control, such as an increased number of police, tougher sentencing and so forth, rather that agitating for wider socio-economic reform, which is needed to tackle the root causes of sexual violence.

Apart from this unbalanced crime coverage in terms of its angles, structures, styles and tones, more significantly, crime reporting draws on traditional notions of appropriate gender roles in the representation of violence against woman. Those notions are rooted in patriarchy, which is the systemic institutionalization of women's inequality within social, political, economic, and cultural structures. According to feminist scholars, this coverage is the product of a male perspective that perpetuated stereotypes and myths about women while ridiculing and trivializing their needs and concerns.