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Crime Coverage: Race and Class factors in reporting

January 6, 2011

I was asked to give a presentation today to a group of Calvin students on how crime coverage in news media influences public perception. What follows are the points and examples used in that presentation.

There is the old TV news statement, “If it bleeds it leads,” a statement that tends to be misunderstood. In conversations with people over the years of doing local news analysis people would often say that crime was big new because that is what viewers wanted. However, this is just not the case and there is no evidence to support such a notion.

The reality is that news entities, particularly broadcast news do lots of crime stories for a variety of reasons. First, most news stations have police scanners in the newsroom and are monitoring police activity in order to have reporters on the scene as crimes are unfolding.

Second, crime coverage is easy to produce. The story is sort of there for reporters to just fill in the blanks. You have police line and other visuals that make it a compelling story, plus you have built in people to interview – police, witnesses, victims and sometimes suspects.

Look at this example of a crime story from channel 8 a few years ago. The story is typical in that it is short and does not provide much context for viewers, which often can lead to confusion, stereotypes and maybe even fear.

After viewing this story can you honestly say you knew what it was about? What value does it provide for public safety? How do you perceive the suspect in this story and the role of the police?

Race and Crime

A third aspect of how crime coverage is produced that is worth mentioning has to do with location and representation. More often than not crime coverage is presented as an urban issue, which statistically is somewhat misleading……..However, it is more convenient for the 3 Grand Rapids-based TV stations to report on urban crime since they are also in the city. News stations have time constraints, so reporting on urban crime is also a practical matter.

However, this focus on urban crime can lead to misinformation, particularly when it comes to racial representation. From 1998 through 2006 GRIID used to monitor 4 and a half hours of local TV news. We published numerous reports on race representation and in all of those reports we looked at race representation in crime coverage.

Statistically, the racial make up of people who were the subjects of news stories generally were 90% Caucasian, 6-8% African American and the rest of the percentages were made up of Latinos, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans and Native American. However, when we looked at the representation of crime suspects in news stories the percentages changed drastically and were generally 45-50% Caucasian, 35-40% African American and 10-15% Latino. Here Caucasian representation dropped from the overall news representation, but for African American and Latino the numbers go way up.

How do these dynamics influence public perception? If viewers disproportionately see African American and Latino crime suspects in high numbers, but little non-crime representation from either group, does that increase the chances that people may perceive African Americans and Latinos as more likely to engage in criminal behavior?

When it comes to specific stories, there can also be a bias in reporting, particularly how a story is framed. Look at this story from several years ago by WZZM 13 and think about how the story is framed as well as their use of police footage in the story.

Does the reporter treat the comments from the African American leaders differently than the police chief? Do you think that the police footage used was edited? If it was edited, was that the decision of the police or the news station? How does the use of the police footage influence public perception about crime and who commits it? Lastly, how does the community benefit from viewing this kind of footage?

Street Crime vs Corporate Crime

Another area that should be discussed when the issue of crime coverage is raised has to do with the difference between White collar crime or Corporate crime and street crime. Both are very real, but more often than not people don’t think of corporate criminal acts when they think of crime.

The fact that corporate crime is not often the subject of news coverage says something about how reporters, editors and news directors internalize the values of a system, which do not question this clear class difference. This is not to say that corporate crimes never get reported (think of Enron), but they do get reported less frequently and are often framed differently.

According to the information compiled by the group Corporate Crime Reporter (CCR), corporate crime should be equally (if not more so) a focus of news coverage. The research of CCR shows that on average street crimes cost society around $4 billion dollars in the US each year. Comparatively, corporate crime costs us all hundreds of billions of dollars. Think about the 2008/09 Wall Street Bailout, which cost taxpayers $700 billion and counting.

Some will say that another major difference between street and corporate crime is that corporate crime is not violent. Again, the CCR research shows that roughly 16,000 people are killed each year from street crime, but 56,000 Americans die every year from either on the job or from workplace caused illness (such as asbestosis).

Lastly, there is the issue of access and influence. People who commit street crimes do not tend to have access to people in power – lawyers, judges, law-makers. People in the corporate world and even those who commit corporate crime do have access to political power, so much so that they have even been able to re-write laws that actual favor the kinds of practices that most of American society would consider criminal.

If news agencies were to begin to adopt a similar approach to reporting on corporate crime as they do with street crime, imagine what that might look like. Would we see lead stories about landlords who exploit tenets? How about a crime watch style of story where we are all told to be on the look out for some guy in a business suit, because he might be responsible for toxins in your food or water. And how about violent crime coverage such as profiling or investigating into private contractors that are making billions by profiting off of war? Would the TV stations use graphics with the outline of a body to convey the brutal nature of such crimes?

Several years ago the Project for Excellence in Journalism published a report that demonstrated that not only are viewers sick of so much crime coverage, they actually wanted more stories about positive things happening in their communities. Crime coverage does not need to continue to be reported on the way most of it is done now and the burden of proof lies at the feet of news agencies to demonstrate to all of us what the public benefit is to such reporting.




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