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Making Headlines: Crime in the Media

The parade of crime stories in print and broadcast media, and the prominence which these stories are afforded over other news items, underlines the public fascination with such content as well as the media’s deliberate attempt to capitalize on this fascination. For example, everyone followed the arrest of Robert Pickton avidly as body parts were discovered on his property and as victims’ families came forward. The media covered every gory progression in front page headlines. Then, as the trial became more technical, public interest waned and updates were relegated to partial columns on inner pages. This essay looks at the methods behind crime story coverage as discussed in “Predicting Crime Story Salience: The Effects of Crime, Victim, and Defendant Characteristics” (Chermak, 1998) and Criminal Event: An Introduction to Criminology (Sacco, Kennedy & Plass, 1995).

Steven Chermak explores the effect of crime, victim and defendant characteristics of newspaper coverage of crime. Existing research identifies crime as “an important news topic, accounting for at least 25% of newspace.” (Chermak, 1998). Also previously determined is that murder commands more coverage than property crime or drug offences and that victims are more than often portrayed as young or elderly, while defendants are commonly Afro-American and/or female. (Chermak, 1998). Occupation is mentioned only when noteworthy (Chermak, 1998) as evident in Robert Pickton’s notoriety as a pig farmer. The undignified connotation of his occupation matches the heinous reality of his alleged crimes. Also supported by reactions in the Pickton case is Chermak’s conclusion that the number of victims is a main predictor of crime story salience.

Chermak notes that, of the thirty-six studies…published since 1975, only three used multivariate techniques to derive their results. In his research, Chermak uses several dependent and independent variables to fill in the gaps left by previous studies. His study focused on six newspapers which publish primarily local news. To ensure his sample accounted for cities of various sizes, Chermak classifies several newspapers into three categories based on their population: medium, large and extra large. Two papers were chosen from each category. The sample contained crime stories published on the fifth day of the month, during the first six months of 1990. Two dependent variables were assigned: column size and an attention score determined through predefined criteria. Four crime variables were added: type of offence, number of victims mentioned in the story, weapon use and the location of the offence. Sex, age and status were tagged as dummy variables. Chermak analyzed the impact of these variables on the column size and attention scores of the sample articles using multiple regression.

The findings of Chermak’s studies echo those of previous studies, however, Chermak accounted for a far wider range of variables, therefore arriving at more thorough conclusions. The most significant contributors to crime story coverage and prominence are the seriousness of the offence and the number of victims and the number of crimes in the incident. Additional observations found that female offenders garner more attention than male.

Sacco and Kennedy see the public’s interest in crime stories as a channel which “allows audience members to work out their own positions on moral questions of a general yet personal nature. Crime stories force audiences to consider the nature of human sensitivity and human competence. Sacco and Kennedy point out that there is little relationship between the amount of crime news and the amount of crime. They agree with Chermak on the type of offence being the strongest predictor of the quantity and quality of crime story coverage. They venture as far as to say that the media exaggerates offences which result in arrest. Crime reporting ignores the relationship between crime and broader social conditions. Sacco and Kennedy repeatedly mention the “biased nature of crime reporting” and the “judgements of newsworthiness” that overshadow what appears in the newspaper. Accordingly, interpersonal crimes garner more attention from the media as they strive to create “entertaining, dramatic, amusing and titillating” news that sells. It is precisely the aforementioned qualities that hold the public’s attention. The media presents crime as two opposing sides: good and evil. In many cases, criminals appear in these stories as dangerous psychopaths or insane people, even though most criminals would not fall into either of these categories. The media ensures that these stories are easy for the public to understand.

While the study by Steven Chermak approaches the matter of crime story coverage from a strictly analytical viewpoint, Sacco and Kennedy adopt a psychological and humanistic perspective. Chermak uses precise scientific methodology and research to develop his conclusions. There is very little for a reader to question or to speculate on without solid proof being readily available. In the case of findings by Sacco and Kennedy, a reader must explore his own feelings about crime in order to realize the truth. Both Chermak and Sacco and Kennedy conclude that serious and interpersonal offences engage the public more than white collar and drug crimes and both Chermak and Sacco and Kennedy state that the media understands these phenomena and exhorts its full potential.

(c) Kristy Kassie, September 24, 2007


"Predicting Crime Story Salience: The Effects of Crime, Victim, and Defendant Characteristics", Steven Chermak, 1998

Criminal Event: An Introduction to Criminology, Sacco, Kennedy & Plass, 1995

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