Crime News



Photo by Reuter's News Service

Lecture 2

hat Makes Crime News?



Not every crime which takes place results in a news story. In fact, almost all crimes go unreported by the media. Before looking specifically at the types of crimes the media does select, it will be helpful to understand what types of events are "newsworthy." Not everything that happens in the world is "news."

Newsworthiness is a concept used to explain why one story is covered and another ignored, and also to explain why some stories rise from local to regional or perhaps even national or global news coverage. Gaye Tuchman's (1978) Making News best covers this concept. While the news media are part of capitalist money-making businesses, it is too simple to equate newsworthiness with ratings, profits, or greed. Journalism and journalists work within a cultural world that has its own values. Journalists "know" what a major story is, although they might find it difficult to explain it to you.

For one, what is news depends upon the targeted market. National news stories and local news stories are quite different. CBS, NBC, CNN, ABC News and are looking for stories of national and international import while local news concentrates on state, city, and regional news. Similarly, print and electronic journalism may cover different stories. Given the time constraints of TV, fewer stories are covered and with less depth than in newspapers.


The national news media were studied by Herbert Gans in his book, Deciding What's News? His analysis is based upon a review on what appeared on the CBS and NBC evening news programs and in TIME and Newsweek. Below are a number of his general findings about what types of events make the news. As you review them, try to think about which may be related to crime.




Who Makes The News?


News, both national and local, tends to focus on certain individuals and certain types of events. For an individual to makes the news their actions must be deemed significant enough to merit audience interest. "Known" individuals more frequently make news than unknowns.
* 1. Leading political officials frequently are deemed newsworthy. Examples include the president at the national level, governors at the state level, and mayors at the local level. Anything and everything the president does is potentially news. This includes vacations and state dinners.
* 2. Presidential candidates are also newsworthy, particularly as election years near.
* 3. Leading federal officials frequently make the news. Leaders in Congress and heads of government agencies are frequently reported on or serve as news sources. Sources are persons reporters rely upon for information and quotes regarding topics the media are covering. However, it is important to note that when the media report on things political, they rarely allow politicians to speak directly to the people without commentary. In fact, most TV news stories on politicians include the reporter's words more than the politician's.
* 4. When someone with high name recognition is alleged to have violated the law, the story is frequently reported. While ordinary citizens arrested for minor crimes like drug possession or soliciting a prostitute are rarely reported, when a celebrity is involved the story often gets covered. The higher the profile of the individual and the more serious the offense, the more likely the story is to receive broad exposure. The Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson cases are dramatic examples. The only reason that the Chandra Levy case dominated the news in the months before the 9/11 attack was that a congressman had had an affair with here. (this demonstrates the increasing tabloidization of the major news media in our society)
* 5. Heads of organizations or their spokespersons are often called upon to give responses when events affect their constituents. According to Herbert Blumer, it is such individuals who create "public opinion." Reporters rely upon people they deem to be "reliable" news sources in preparing their stories. For this reason, almost all law enforcement agencies have a designated media spokesperson, while individuals officers may be instructed to avoid the media.
* 6. The deaths of known people are newsworthy and much more so if they die as a result of violence.



Unknowns have a much harder time making it into the news, but still occupy about one third of all TV news air time. Ordinary people are not usually newsworthy. However, they can become newsworthy if they take on certain roles or end up in particular circumstances. Examples include the following:


* 1. Protesters, strikers, or rioters. These kinds of mass actions are frequently reported.
* 2. If they are victims. Sometimes news reporters and their cameras go right into the homes of families of murder victims, hostages, etc. There is considerable debate about whether the media respects the privacy of families in times of grief and anguish. Certainly, the emotional release of victims on camera plays well on TV.
* 3. By becoming a law violator one runs the risk of media exposure. The more outlandish the crime the greater media attention it gets. In Martin Scorsese's film "King of Comedy" an unknown becomes famous overnight by kidnapping a Johnny Carson type in order to get on his show. The news media ultimately turns him into a celebrity. In real life, an excellent example is Bernard Goetz. He was turned into a national celebrity before he even turned himself in to the police. The media (in the absence of a real person) created a Charles Bronson "Death Wish" vigilante "reel" character that captivated the public. Once he was discovered the media followed his every action for months.
* 4. By participating in unusual activities; "man bites dog" stories. Participating in bizarre fads, cults, or unusual hobbies can make an individual newsworthy. A news story featured a man who filled his house with mold in order to prevent a lightning strike. He stated that since his house had never been struck by lightning, the precaution was working. When a Santaria cult in Miami was arrested for sacrificing a goat, they stated they were just having an outdoor "barbecue." A Tampa Zoo elephant that had squashed to death its trainer was said to be showing "signs of remorse" and was spared from execution. Charles Kuralt's "On the Road" featured these type stories. America's Funniest Home Videos" makes 15 second celebrities of those who have accidentally had slapstick accidents befall them. 
* 5. Unknowns make up the anonymous masses who participate in polls, surveys, etc. However, poll results are frequently used to show the mood of the country on an issue. The volatility of many such polls demonstrates the moodiness of Americans.




What makes the News?


Certain types of events dominate the news.


* 1. Government conflicts - e.g., president v. Congress; democrats v. republicans
* 2. Government decisions and proposals. New laws and impending legislation are covered. Major Supreme Court decisions are followed by the media. If the issue is particularly divisive like abortion or civil liberties, the decision may be anticipated by the media.
* 3. Government personal changes. Examples include hiring and firing of president's staff or shifts in heads of agencies.
* 4. Protests - Both violent and nonviolent may be covered, although if violence erupts at a protest coverage will almost always result. During the 1960s and through the early 1970s, one form of protest after another appeared on the nightly news. Civil rights marches, college protests, anti-Viet Nam war marches, women's rights campaigns all received coverage. Scenes of police arresting and beating protesters and marchers resulted in poor media relations for law enforcement. Of course, protesting organizations have realized they can affect media coverage by acting up most vociferously when the TV cameras are present. The protests at the world economic summits come to mind.
* 5. Crimes, scandals, and investigations - At the national political level, examples include Watergate, Iran-Contra,  and Clinton's female troubles. Insider stock trading, the meltdown of Wall Street firms such as Enron, and federal campaigns against the Mafia also come to mind. Finding that people in positions of trust have violated that trust makes their deeds newsworthy. For this reason white collar and government crime is more prevalent on national news than street crime.
* 6. Disasters - This includes actual and averted ones, and both natural and accidental disasters. Floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, plane crashes and fires are examples. Disasters allows opportunities for heroism. Firemen, disaster crew workers, and ordinary citizens who respond heroically become newsworthy in such situations. 9/11 made NYPD and NYFD into international heroes.
* 7. Innovations - In particular, first and last time events are deemed socially noteworthy. The First black or woman to be admitted to a segregated school or club is newsworthy. A factory closing or the last time a train takes a cross-country journey may be reported.
* 8. Ceremonies - These may include holiday traditions, centennial anniversaries, or the deaths of major political leaders. If a leader is assassinated, their funerals become national ceremonies through media coverage.


Toward a New Journalism-2003


The news media are the country's primary providers of adult education, day in, day out, teaching millions of people about what is going on in the world. One of their courses is "News and Democracy." According to a mostly unwritten professional creed, journalists aim to turn readers into informed, participatory citizens who will use the news to protect and advance democracy.

An excellent idea. It's not working.

The worthy ambition runs smack into a marketing imperative. News consumers seek mainly to "keep up" with events beyond their immediate environments. They pay closer attention to wars, disasters, and major scandals than to politics. News corporations have become evermore desperate to attract readers and viewers, whose numbers have been dwindling for more than a generation (or else they have so spread out over print, broadcast, and Internet sources that current ways of counting them are obsolete). News executives have consequently compelled journalists to cut back on political news, replacing it with "soft" but often popular "service" stories on health, lifestyles, family, and home.

Whether dwindling supply is decreasing demand, or vice versa, only a loyal hard core of "news buffs" closely follows the citizenship information that journalists have long considered an essential component of a healthy news diet. But even if more of the audience were there, the political news that journalists report would do little to help citizens participate in their democracy. Even the most activist citizens would not get far in the halls of Congress with what they learn from the news. That is because most journalists' focus is on high-profile tales of what a tiny group of senior elected representatives do for, and to, the news audience, mainly because journalists depend heavily on credible sources that can guarantee enough stories every day to fill their newspapers and television-news programs.

The White House and government agencies are the most dependable suppliers because they have the power and resources to create events that become stories. Even a routine presidential ceremony or speech is almost always news. High opposition leaders (a Tom Daschle, say) may also become key news suppliers -- but only when they are in opposition. The resulting conflict makes for drama, but the participants need to be people with whom the broad audience is already familiar.

The product is what I call top-down journalism. Look sometime to see how many front-page stories start with "President Bush said today ... " or words to that effect -- or how often all presidents are credited with policies formulated by their staffs. It's like putting the editor in chief's byline on every article in a newspaper.

In their dependence on top-down news, journalists often become unintentional publicists for the government. And the top-down pattern extends beyond political news. Just note the amount of news about the war on Iraq we get from generals and ex-generals.

Telling people what their top elected and appointed officials are doing and saying is important, but it is hardly the only information people need to participate in politics. Top-down news may even discourage participation because the news constantly demonstrates the clout of top officials and the relative powerlessness of individual citizens. In addition, over the last 30 years, the polls have shown that a majority of respondents distrust their political and other leaders. As de facto publicists for those leaders, the news media may be stained by that mistrust.

Even when journalists are trusted, they cannot require, and have little success persuading, citizens to inform themselves. And when people are upset or otherwise motivated enough to become politically active, they don't necessarily look for news that could be useful to them. Many rely instead on facts they choose to remember or beliefs unsupported by any facts. Over the years, antipoverty officials were unable to persuade voters that welfare benefits were not a humongous item in the federal budget -- those measures actually came to about 1 percent of that budget. Right now, many people do not see any difference between Iraqis and Saudi members of Al Qaeda.

I do not blame journalists for this state of affairs. Unlike teachers, their audience is voluntary. They are corporate employees, and most of the time they really don't have much choice. Top-down news is clearly the most inexpensively and efficiently gathered news. Moreover, despite the limits under which they work, journalists are critical to democracy. A modern society needs to know, constantly, whether it is functioning. When journalists report what has gone wrong -- say, a disaster -- they also try to report on whether survivors are being cared for and routine is being restored. Top-down news, which usually reports that the leadership is in place and at work, contributes not just to the appearance of normality, but to restoring that normality.

Without the news media, rumor would supplant fact. Without journalists standing by, public officials would be free to do what they wanted, including dipping into the public till. When journalists are around, public figures normally refrain from racist remarks; armies generally do not commit atrocities. Above all, investigative (or watch-dog) reporting sometimes helps to remove dishonest public officials and abolish unfair public policies. Journalists' mere presence doesn't guarantee a democratic dream world. But at least sometimes, it can prevent undemocratic nightmares.

Would America be a more democratic society if the news media were able to better supply information

citizens need? I share many journalists' faith that it would, but faith is not enough. We need to make political news more attractive as well as more relevant to news consumers' roles as citizens.

Some believe that the Internet holds the key, and perhaps it can help. But I'd sooner place my bet on trying out some different news recipes and looking for new ones than on hyping evolving technologies. Here are some ideas -- some that have been tried, some that should be, and some that are not yet practical. But then being practical is not my purpose. Practical is what helped get us here.


  • "Localizing" national and international news. Because people are generally most interested in local situations, one way to attract them to national and world news is, whenever possible, to spell out the local implications. Journalists in regions with large numbers of older residents can report on the national politics of Social Security and Medicare by detailing the consequences for local residents. News media in communities with branches of Korean or Japanese factories, and those trading with Southeast Asian countries, can inform their audience about what is going on in the Asian economy by its connections to the local one. True, localization has been a steady part of news coverage for decades. But localized stories often have a sidebar, second-class, afterthought feeling to them. Making them the main event, using them to bring the national news home to the news audience but vividly explaining the global context, might give national and even international news the luster and a little more of the attention they deserve.

  • Participatory news. Top-down stories treat the citizenry as passive spectators. They need to be balanced with bottom-up stories that assume citizens are actual or prospective participants in the democratic process. Instead of just including the best sound bites from the celebrity speaker at the antiwar rally, look for the protesters who have never been roused to activism before, and find out what compelled them this time, and how they mobilized themselves to get there that day. Report what strategies citizens used to organize for, and make, a presentation at the state house, or how they persuaded the mayor to adopt some of their suggestions. Tell viewers and readers what their fellow rank-and-file, unorganized citizens write about in the e-mail messages and letters they send to elected and appointed officials, and what they gripe to each other about regarding politics over the back fence or at the office water cooler.

    Journalists should devote far more detailed attention to undecided voters, why they are torn, why they feel that none of the candidates reflect their views. And where is the thorough post-election analysis of the citizens who ultimately did not vote? Sitting out the election may indirectly have determined the results, and might influence what candidates do not run in the future or what issues are never raised.

  • Advocacy journalism. A touchy one, this, I realize. But advocacy journalism need not be partisan journalism, though there might be a bigger place for that too. Remember the old local "action line" columns that helped citizens obtain proper treatment and sometimes redress from public officials? How better to convince citizens that corporate media are looking beyond their boardrooms than to revive and broaden such forums? Imagine a weekly television program that helps cheated people get satisfaction from a major carmaker or aims its cameras at the IRS official who must rule on a frequently filed kind of income-tax appeal. Bringing together investigation with the proverbial "news you can use" stories like those would combine suspense and substance.

  • Analytic news. Would some people be more attentive to the news if journalists could try to explain events and circumstances better? Take the homeland-security and other Congressional hearings. Who calls them and what criteria are used to pick speakers? And what do the hearings contribute to the final actions that committees take? How do the lawyers and lobbyists hanging around the hearings affect those final actions?

    Could journalists identify some of the underlying causes of disturbing conditions? For example, why federal bureaucracies fight; why the CIA and the FBI were at each other's throats instead of gathering intelligence that might have prevented the 9/11 tragedy?

    When journalists have time for more than description, they should help people understand why the crucial American and foreign political and economic institutions work as they do. Then readers and viewers might not so often be attracted to simplistic or conspiratorial explanations.

  • Economic news. The little economic news to be found is mostly about business and for investors. The Dow Jones industrial average is a list of stocks, not an economic indicator. I'd like to see more reports on how the lack of job security and stagnant incomes affect people's political thinking, whether economic inequality is widening or narrowing racial chasms, whether, or how, a hamburger flipper or a manicurist thinks about Fed pronouncements on interest rates. If they don't think about them, why not? How would inflationary pressures or a recession affect their region, their kind of work, their dreams for getting a community-college degree and moving on to something better?

  • Multiperspectival news. The news is mostly about mainstream (read middle-class white) America and its leaders looking at a diverse country from a single standpoint. Journalists need to tell the mainstream more about Americans who work blue- and pink-collar jobs. We need to hear more from young people about what they want, what they fear, what they think about the middle-aged and old people who are running the country. Why aren't foreign journalists -- and from all over the world -- invited to report American politics, adding their perspectives to our understanding of American democracy?

  • More opinion. People are supposed to use the news to make up their minds about the issues of the day -- and more opinions, as well as stories about other people's opinions, might help. But more important than quantity is a greater ideological range of opinion. For commercial reasons, news-media commentary is dominated by centrists and conservatives; only public-opinion polls offer much evidence that liberal ideas are still standing. Extreme ideas may be important even if only a minority of people hold them. A reader shouldn't be able to predict in advance every viewpoint he or she will see on the viewpoints page.

  • Political humor and "news fiction." Research tells us that young people often get their news from the monologues of late-night comedy hosts like Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Jon Stewart. What if the news media reported the best of the monologue material as well as the currently circulating political jokes and connected them with the news stories that inspired them?

    Why not occasionally illuminate fact with fiction? What about complementing a political drama series like The West Wing with news about the White House -- and showing people how and why reality departs from plot? The West Wing did that with an episode soon after 9/11, but that was a hastily assembled rarity. Even docudramas can be enlightening, but only if they come with warning explications about when and why the writers have replaced fact or uncertainty with fiction.

    News organizations are finely tuned assembly lines. Their executives don't like change, and neither do most journalists, who are as set in their ways as the rest of us. It will take new crises and opportunities, and a somewhat differently trained crop of journalists, to redefine and reinvigorate the news. Maybe they'll find ways to get the TV-news audience to take its thumb off the channel-changer, to make economic reports less dry and news writing more conversational.

    Better journalism will cost more, but money has been tight even in good times. News chains and media conglomerates expect profit margins of 20 percent or more. If news is essential to democracy, other business models should be considered. Maybe news should be assigned the status of a utility and not that of the commercial cash cow it now often is. We should examine nonprofit or limited-profit news organizations, special tax write-offs, and even carefully controlled government subsidies.

    Then again, perhaps people will not really inform themselves until they need the news as badly as they need a grocery store or a school; and perhaps they will not aim to become informed citizens until they find it desirable or necessary to seek drastic changes in government policies. Maybe the demand for a very different journalism will only come with the demand for a different America.

    Herbert J. Gans is a professor of sociology at Columbia University. He is the author, most recently, of Democracy and the News (Oxford University Press, 2003) from which this article is adapted.
    Section: The Chronicle Review
    Volume 49, Issue 31, Page B16




    Is the news media politically "liberal?"


    This is one of the most frequent criticisms of the news. Rush Limbaugh rarely uses the word "media" without the prefix "liberal," despite the fact that he uses media technology to broadcast to millions his one-sided "opinions" every day. Does the media want to see conservative candidates and political officials disgraced? Is it pro-Communist? Does the media attack law enforcement or crime control conservatism? Many presidents, including both conservatives and liberals (e.g., Nixon, Reagan, Clinton) have frequently blamed their problems on the media and the failure to get balanced coverage.

    Those who work in journalism hold a spectrum of ideological views. On the whole, journalists are more liberal politically than an average cross-section of Americans, but the same could be said for college graduates. However, most journalists attempt to recognize their own political biases and keep them from directly impinging on their stories. Journalism schools teach objective reporting; verifiable facts only are to be reported. News stories are probably more shaped by "news values" (to be discussed) than political ones. Some news reporters, however, are open and adamant about their political views. They may become known as the house radical or conservative at their news organizations. Sometimes, they are called upon to give commentaries or write editorials rather than directly present news. George Will, Bill Moyers, Robert Novak, and Tom Braden come to mind. This practice was much more frequent in the age of radio, but has only recently returned to TV with shows like "Crossfire" and entire cable networks dedicated to news talk such as MSNBC. On the whole, most journalists will swear to being ideologically neutral when it comes to reporting the news.


    However, more importantly journalists are interested in telling a good story (one that has high appeal to the public or is felt that public ought to know). A good story results if something that was otherwise secret can be uncovered and the persons trying to keep it secret are exposed as liars. If the liars are government officials or corporate heads, the newsworthiness of the story increases. Journalists are taught never to simply believe the "official" story as presented by government leaders. One must probe deeper to find out if this is the actual truth. Reporters still owe much to the "muckraking" tradition. 60 Minutes' reporters have specialized in the exposé. Mike Wallace seems to relish showing people's faces on camera as they twitch while telling outright lies. This technique has made the show one of the highest rated on TV for more than 30 years.

    It appears that TV news is liberal because it is in the business of exposing fronts, lies, and propaganda. Rarely is any politician allowed to speak through the media without commentary by reporters. If the government officials under scrutiny are conservatives, a logical response is to claim that the media is siding with liberals. In one sense, the media can be viewed as a centrist institution. Extremists at either end of the political spectrum are likely to be scrutinized. Media is inherently liberal only in the sense that it upholds absolute honesty and not political ideology as a value. The news media may, in fact, be the ultimate democratic institution. Secrets must never be kept from the public. Keeping secrets, even when done on behalf of national security (except in wartime), is seen as evil by the media. Law enforcement agencies that attempt to hide internal affairs investigations rather than releasing findings to the media may end up having their report "leaked." As a result of the media's attitude toward secrets, government has a built in distrust of the institution, and attacks it frequently.

    January 17, 2005


    The Depressed Press



    Washington — America's quality media are now wading through the Slough of Despond. Our self-flagellation, handwringing and narcissism threaten our mission to act as counterweight to government power.

    Hear the wailing: The bloggers are coming! The Bible-thumpers are cursing our secular inhumanism! The plumber judges are plugging our leaks! The Yahoo president ducks our questions and giggles at our gaffes! News is slyly slanted as bias rears its head!

    Cheer up. Despite the recent lapses at CBS and previous mishaps at The Times and USA Today, here's why mainstream journalism has a future.

    1. On the challenge from bloggers: The "platform" - print, TV, Internet, telepathy, whatever - will change, but the public hunger for reliable information will grow. Blogs will compete with op-ed columns for "views you can use," and the best will morph out of the pajama game to deliver serious analysis and fresh information, someday prospering with ads and subscriptions. The prospect of profit will bring bloggers in from the meanstream to the mainstream center of comment and local news coverage.

    On national or global events, however, the news consumer needs trained reporters on the scene to transmit facts and trustworthy editors to judge significance. In crises, large media gathering-places are needed to respond to a need for national community.

    2. On resentment of media elitism by awakened cultural and religious voices: They're not crazies. Their opinions on stem cells and same-sex marriage are newsworthy and not an assault on church-state separation. Protests at "wardrobe malfunction" and campaigns against state-sponsored gambling are neither bluenosed nor repressive.

    But there is no need for sensible seculars in mainstream media to feel an urgent call to get right with religion. It's O.K. to say "Merry Christmas" at the end of a newscast without worrying about equal greeting for Ramadan and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and all the rest.

    3. On judges jailing journalists for refusing to reveal sources: Mainstream media have good reason to be angry about being unfairly jumped on, and no reason to be depressed and docile for fear of seeming self-interested. If the press can't promise sources that we won't rat on them, coverage would cease to be robust and uninhibited; government and corporate corruption would go unreported.

    But why should mainstream media be alone in resisting this nationwide judicial assault on the people's right to know wrongdoing? Where is the legal profession, which should not only see danger in an unrestrained judiciary, but would be next in line to lose much of its own privilege of confidentiality with clients? Where are consumer groups, often reliant on whistleblower revelations in newspapers? And where are the preachers who may be threatened with contempt of court for not testifying about penitents engaged in peculation?

    4. On mainstream media's feeling that President Bush doesn't give a hoot about what we say or write: That's his loss more than ours. He may deliver an uplifting second Inaugural Address, but still does not appear thoughtful or adept at answering questions.

    The reason: Bush holds quarterly, rather than the traditional monthly, news conferences. This lack of regular rehearsal costs him familiarity with issues, and costs his administration the discipline of deadlines for suggested answers. As the debates showed, Bush gets better with practice. He is not as good as he thinks he is when winging it.

    5. On widespread suspicion of political bias in news coverage: Here's the good news: Bad news is newsier than good news. Even when media try to be "fair and impartial," they can be expected to annoy rather than please the party in power. That's because clean government needs a snooping adversary, not a cheerleader; the Outs need help from the press to hold the Ins accountable.

    Today that media bias is undeniably liberal. That's natural when conservatives are the Ins; five years ago, the bias often ran the other way. As future elections near, that tilt must disappear from news pages to let the voters do the tilting. Some mainstreamers flopped on necessary election evenhandedness in 2004 and should be grimly thankful for a corrective kick in the teeth from other media, bloggers and righteous right-wingers.

    Get out of that Slough, counsels Worldly-Wiseman: Pulitzer-quality journalism lies just ahead.


    Behind the Great Divide


    NY TIMES 2/18/2003

    There has been much speculation why Europe and the U.S. are suddenly at such odds. Is it about culture? About history? But I haven't seen much discussion of an obvious point: We have different views partly because we see different news.

    Let's back up. Many Americans now blame France for the chill in U.S.-European relations. There is even talk of boycotting French products.

    But France's attitude isn't exceptional. Last Saturday's huge demonstrations confirmed polls that show deep distrust of the Bush administration and skepticism about an Iraq war in all major European nations, whatever position their governments may take. In fact, the biggest demonstrations were in countries whose governments are supporting the Bush administration.

    There were big demonstrations in America too. But distrust of the U.S. overseas has reached such a level, even among our British allies, that a recent British poll ranked the U.S. as the world's most dangerous nation — ahead of North Korea and Iraq.

    So why don't other countries see the world the way we do? News coverage is a large part of the answer. Eric Alterman's new book, "What Liberal Media?" doesn't stress international comparisons, but the difference between the news reports Americans and Europeans see is a stark demonstration of his point. At least compared with their foreign counterparts, the "liberal" U.S. media are strikingly conservative — and in this case hawkish.

    I'm not mainly talking about the print media. There are differences, but the major national newspapers in the U.S. and the U.K. at least seem to be describing the same reality.

    Most people, though, get their news from TV — and there the difference is immense. The coverage of Saturday's antiwar rallies was a reminder of the extent to which U.S. cable news, in particular, seems to be reporting about a different planet than the one covered by foreign media.

    What would someone watching cable news have seen? On Saturday, news anchors on Fox described the demonstrators in New York as "the usual protesters" or "serial protesters." CNN wasn't quite so dismissive, but on Sunday morning the headline on the network's Web site read "Antiwar rallies delight Iraq," and the accompanying picture showed marchers in Baghdad, not London or New York.

    This wasn't at all the way the rest of the world's media reported Saturday's events, but it wasn't out of character. For months both major U.S. cable news networks have acted as if the decision to invade Iraq has already been made, and have in effect seen it as their job to prepare the American public for the coming war.

    So it's not surprising that the target audience is a bit blurry about the distinction between the Iraqi regime and Al Qaeda. Surveys show that a majority of Americans think that some or all of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Iraqi, while many believe that Saddam Hussein was involved in Sept. 11, a claim even the Bush administration has never made. And since many Americans think that the need for a war against Saddam is obvious, they think that Europeans who won't go along are cowards.

    Europeans, who don't see the same things on TV, are far more inclined to wonder why Iraq — rather than North Korea, or for that matter Al Qaeda — has become the focus of U.S. policy. That's why so many of them question American motives, suspecting that it's all about oil or that the administration is simply picking on a convenient enemy it knows it can defeat. They don't see opposition to an Iraq war as cowardice; they see it as courage, a matter of standing up to the bullying Bush administration.

    There are two possible explanations for the great trans-Atlantic media divide. One is that European media have a pervasive anti-American bias that leads them to distort the news, even in countries like the U.K. where the leaders of both major parties are pro-Bush and support an attack on Iraq. The other is that some U.S. media outlets — operating in an environment in which anyone who questions the administration's foreign policy is accused of being unpatriotic — have taken it as their assignment to sell the war, not to present a mix of information that might call the justification for war into question.

    So which is it? I've reported, you decide.




    Why is Crime Newsworthy?


    In this section, we will compare the perspectives of three scholars, who offer quite different opinions on why crime is newsworthy. Chosen for discussion are Hans Schneider, Jack Katz, and Neil Postman.


    Schneider in his essay "Crime in the News Media" takes a position that ultimately can be traced back to the writings of Emile Durkheim. Durkheim was a functionalist sociologist who argued that even deviants and criminals had a "positive" function within a society. They are "needed". Even if we locked up or executed all of our current criminals we would probably discover a whole new set of offenses and offenders to stigmatize as deviant. Media reporting on deviant behavior allows "law-abiding citizens" to reaffirm to themselves and others that they are better than the criminal class. They have managed to live their lives without resorting to crime. Durkheim also argued that deviants were an asset for socialization. Youngsters could be warned of the punishments that awaited them if they strayed from the straight and narrow path. Media coverage of executions, sentences meted out, and court convictions puts the citizenry on notice that criminals will pay for their crimes.


    Schneider argued that the media focused on violent crimes because these are more serious. The types of incidents most likely to be covered by the (local) media are violent crimes between strangers. Non-stranger violence is much less likely to be covered (e.g. family violence, etc). The media focuses on the criminal act itself, its detection, followed by prosecution and conviction, thus creating morality tales. There is little discussion or analysis of the underlying causes of crime (e.g., social conditions, offender's background) or the inner workings of the criminal justice system).



    Jack Katz in his essay "What Makes Crime News?" interprets the social significance of crime news very differently from Schneider. In fact, rather than interpreting reports of deviant behavior in a Durkheimian fashion, Katz argues that the public may, in fact, be identifying with the criminals rather than their victims or the police who are trying to capture them.


    Ordinary crimes, including even armed robberies and other serious felonies, are often ignored by the news media. There has to be something unique about a particular crime for it to garner media attention. (e.g., unusual victims such as small children being caught in the crossfire of drug gang-related shootings.) Many crime stories reported by the press features crimes that are vicious, audacious, or ingenious (e.g., the slayings of Ron Goldman and Nicole Simpson, Bill Murray's "clown" bank robbery in "Quick Change," setting up a fake bank money machine to get people's ATM card numbers). Crimes committed by women, children, or homosexuals are all considered a bit unusual.


    People often are surprised by what their fellow human beings might do. Could they ever dare to be so bold themselves? Certainly, personal competence is the issue that is being discussed in all of these accounts.


    Another relevant issue that makes certain crimes newsworthy is whether they represent a "threat" to the community or society. Do some crimes tear at the very moral fiber of society. (e.g. counterfeiting endangers our entire economic system. Rampant counterfeiting could certainly not be tolerated.)


    Also, when crimes occur at what are expected to be "safe" places (e.g., a college campus, McDonald's, Disneyland, etc.) these are worthy of news media attention, because they demonstrate that no place is safe. Children being victimized at day care centers is another example of a safe haven that has been violated. Foreign tourists (good will ambassadors of their home nations) attacked by Florida youth criminals became an international story.


    When victims of crime are members of the elite, it demonstrates that no person can avoid being touched by crime. Drug sales going on right outside the White House are news because they show that the problem is impacting the very core of our society. President Bush's staff had a drug buy intentionally set up outside the White House, so he could hold a bag of cocaine up on TV, indicating that drugs had infested the heart of the nation.


    The class of the offender is important as well. White collar crime such as ABSCAM, the savings and loan crisis, or Enron are newsworthy because of the upper class backgrounds of the offenders, not for the crimes they've committed.


    Crimes are particularly newsworthy if the facts of the case can be made to fit into several of Katz's categories at once. For example, the Lindbergh kidnapping of the 1930's was dubbed "crime of the century." It had an infant as its victim, a national hero as the victim's parent, a German perpetrator (in a era of growing antiNazi sentiment), and charges that the state falsified evidence. The Patty Hearst kidnapping, Watergate, and the Stuart murder in Boston are also good examples of extremely newsworthy stories. The O.J. Simpson case (the new crime of the century) hit more news value "hot buttons" than any crime story in the history of journalism.


    Katz makes several other important points in his essay. He disagrees with those who argue that crime news dominates the media. It sometimes appears that way because readers/viewers tend to show greater recall of crime stories than many other categories. One study which compared UCR statistics to front-page crime coverage, found crime had risen 300% with virtually no increase in coverage.


    Similarly, Katz questions whether media consumers are fooled into thinking that serious crimes are predominant in comparison to minor crimes. He would disagree with Gerbner's cultivation theory. Is the public as skeptical of crime news as the criminological establishment? Katz thinks they might be.



    Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, has a chapter entitled "Now...This." "Now...This" is a frequently heard phrase in TV news, particularly local TV news. The local news broadcast includes not only news, but weather, sports, community events, and commercials; all fit into 30 or 60 minutes. The meaning of "now...this" is to indicate that what you have just seen or heard has absolutely no relevance to what you are about to see next. "Now...this" is a conjunctive phrase joining items that have no rational reason for being joined; they simply follow one another in time. Thus, TV news represents the coming to fruition of what modern artists labeled as Dadaism or surrealism, and a psychiatrist would attribute to a schizophrenic mind.


    With the average length of a story in TV news being 45 seconds (2 to 3 minutes represents a feature), the world is being delivered to the audience in fragments. How can one possibly be expected to react seriously to such tidbits of information? After witnessing the bodies of the latest murder victims, we are then subjected to a discussion of whether Vinny Testaverde is finally overcoming his color blindness or Trent Dilfer will learn how to throw the football out of bounds.


    The news itself begins and ends with music. Music is the traditional sign that a program is entertainment rather than serious. No music (e.g. a newsflash) indicates that what you are about to hear is truly alarming. Obviously, according to Postman, the nightly news broadcast is not meant to be alarming. Newscasters themselves also try to keep alarm to a minimum by never becoming emotionally aroused or flustered. The same bland delivery tone is used throughout. Only in unusual cases does the newscaster react to what he/she is presenting. For example, Frank Reynolds, an ABC anchor during the Reagan assassination attempt, screamed at his reporters to get the story right when one minute they reported James Brady to be dead, while the very next report said he was still alive.


    Crime news as entertainment leads us to a discussion of the media and profits. Crime stories certainly sell, whether on TV news or in newspapers, true-crime and fiction books, and Hollywood TV and film crime dramas. In our society, crime is entertainment!


    However, I believe it would be a mistake to simplistically assert that crime news is covered because it increases profits. Yes, TV news shows are all closely monitored and ratings compared. Also, anchors and reporters apparently sometimes are hired and fired to increase ratings. However, journalism is a profession, and as a profession, reporters come to intuitively understand which stories are newsworthy and which are not. News values play a more important role. In next week's lecture we will analyze further how these values lead to a focus on certain kinds of crime, and the creation of "crime waves," and start to compare media crime to real world crime statistics.



    Additional Readings:


    1. Attacks on Florida Tourists by Cecil Greek

    2. What Makes Crime News? by Jack Katz



    Class Assignment:


    Go to the Network TV News Archives. Choose a year and a crime-related topic for key word search. Report back to the class using forum discussion feature of Campus on 3 stories covered by the national media on the topic.


    Discussion Questions:

    Question 1. How has coverage of crime by journalists changed over time, according to Surette?

    Question 2. Why did attacks on European tourists in Florida become such a major media concern? What might Jack Katz say about such news coverage? Do you agree or disagree with the article's hypothesis? What other factors might be considered?

    Answer these questions on the course Campus site under Communication: Discussion Board: Week 2


    Copyright 2003 Cecil Greek


    Course Home Page

    Page last updated Monday, April 21, 2003
    Copyright 2001
    Cecil Greek