Mass Media, Crime, and Criminal Justice

B. Market-Based Criteria and Media Assessments of “Newsworthiness”

Media scholars typically argue that media corporation personnel make decisions about media content on the basis of the market model. They suggest that mass media personnel perceive that the general public is interested in crime; thus, the topic of crime is used as a method of attaining ratings and high sales of their products. While the elements of this model are certainly applicable to various forms of entertainment media, the tendency by mass media to use market-based criteria in decision making is most clearly evident when news reporting of crime is considered. In this regard, mass media personnel make assessments as to the “newsworthiness” of potential news items, and newsworthiness assessment is a function of market-based criteria.

With respect to news reporting of crime, the concept of newsworthiness can be assessed in a variety of ways. Media researchers have consistently found that compared to other types of stories (e.g., business, foreign affairs, politics), crime stories occupy a prominent position in news reporting (Lipschultz & Hilt, 2002). Thus, one way of assessing newsworthiness is to compare media coverage of crime to media coverage of other topics of interest. Using this standard of newsworthiness, researchers generally conclude that journalists view crime events as quite newsworthy, in comparison to other story types.

But the main way that researchers assess the issue of newsworthiness is to compare the coverage of crimes with certain characteristics against coverage of crimes with other characteristics to determine whether there are differences across criminal events with respect to the intensity of coverage. In this respect, the notion of newsworthiness is synonymous with the intensity of the coverage. If a particular crime is covered more intensively than others, it can generally be said that the crime receiving more attention is deemed more newsworthy than the less covered story. Some researchers look at whether a particular crime receives any coverage as a way of understanding intensity of coverage. Others examine whether a story about a particular event was published on the first page of a newspaper or was the main story on a television news program. Some measure intensity of coverage by the number of words published or the amount of time devoted to a news item.

In terms of identification of the circumstances that would produce the most intense coverage, most commentators use the crime of murder to illustrate how marketbased criteria impact journalistic decision making. Journalist Pat Doyle of the New York Daily News (1995) suggests that a murder incident makes for a good human interest story when the murder (1) involves a socially prominent or respectable citizen who is involved as either a victim or an offender in the story; (2) the victim is an overmatched and innocent target; (3) the method of murder is either shocking or brutal or involves multiple victims or offenders; and (4) the narrative generates mystery, suspense, or drama. In addition, Steve Chermak (1995) argues that the decision criteria used by journalists to assess the newsworthiness of crime stories include (1) the relative violent or heinous nature of the offense, (2) demographic characteristics of the victim and offender (age, gender, race, social status), (3) the uniqueness of the event, (4) characteristics of the incident producers (the news agency and staff), and (5) event salience (e.g., whether the offense is a local crime).

David Prichard and Karen Hughes (1997) looked to synthesize these various perspectives into a concise theory to explain journalistic newsworthiness assessments pertaining to crime. They establish four different “forms of deviance” that they argue lead journalists to intensively cover certain types of homicides. First, they argue that the greater the statistical deviance from the norm, the greater the likelihood that a homicide will receive intense media coverage. In essence, they theorize that there are typical crimes (like theft), and there are atypical crimes (like murder). Typical crimes are less likely than atypical crimes to be covered. Similarly, there are typical and atypical offenses within certain categories of crime, such as homicide. Based on the statistical deviance hypothesis, atypical homicides (for instance, a stranger homicide) will receive more coverage than more typical homicides (for instance, those involving acquaintances or family members).

Second, they theorize that the higher the degree of status deviance, the greater the likelihood that journalists will intensively cover a criminal event. They define status deviance as the extent to which a person or a group of persons is different based on established social benchmarks. For instance, Prichard and Hughes (1997) wrote that in society, wealthy white males have more status than poor African American women. Thus, a crime committed against a wealthy white man would violate the established social benchmarks more than a crime committed against a poor African American woman.

Third, they hypothesize that the higher the degree of cultural deviance, the greater the likelihood that the criminal event is intensively covered. A crime is considered to be culturally deviant when it is unclean, unhealthy, or perverted when measured against mainstream social norms. They suggest that crimes that are linked to involvement with drugs can be considered culturally deviant. In addition, they suggest that a crime committed against a particularly vulnerable victim (an elderly victim or a child, for instance) is the type of crime that is most culturally deviant. The conceptualization of culture deviance by these two authors suggests that any crime involving certain circumstances that leads the average person to be repulsed to the point of experiencing negative emotional states (for example, anger, revenge, etc.) could be construed as culturally deviant.

Last, Prichard and Hughes (1997) identify the notion of normative deviance as a criterion that journalists use to assess the newsworthiness of a criminal event. Normative deviance is conceptualized as involving gradational levels of offense seriousness as determined by the level of punitive consequence dictated by statute. At its most basic level, the normative deviance hypothesis is an acknowledgment that society implements a gradational approach to sanctioning based on determinations of seriousness of the offense. Therefore, it is expected that crimes that are most serious (based on statute) will be judged by journalists to be the most serious; thus, the crimes and circumstances of crime that receive the most stringent punishments will be covered most intensively by news organizations. Even though Prichard and Hughes focus on the conceptual distinctions of these four types of deviance, they are not mutually exclusive. There can be overlap when applying these concepts to journalistic determinations of newsworthiness of crime events.

Croteau and Hoynes (2001) established the foundation for understanding what it means for a mass media organization to be what John H.McManus (1994) refers to as “market-driven.” The perspectives of Doyle, Chermak (1995), and Prichard and Hughes (1997) facilitate an understanding of the criteria that journalists use to make assessments about the newsworthiness of a particular criminal event. But it is important to keep in mind that the processes that each body of work identifies are intricately connected. Journalists use newsworthiness criteria as a method of making a judgment concerning the types of news items the general public is interested in consuming. In essence, the development of newsworthiness judgments is based on shared understandings of what is marketable to the general public.

The research of Prichard and Hughes (1997) most powerfully illustrates the importance of market-based criteria in journalistic decision making. In their qualitative interviews with journalists in Milwaukee, they quote one journalist as saying,

This is just a guess [but] I don’t think we sell so many papers in the central city. But we do sell a lot of papers in the suburbs. So it is important that we give something to our readers that they can relate to as opposed to something that does not affect them. (p. 63)

The journalist was discussing why crime in the suburbs receives more coverage than crime in the central city, even though there is more crime in the central city. Another journalist stated, “In a mass-circulation paper, you need to consider what the reader wants” (p. 63). Another stated, “If the reader can say ‘that could have been me that was killed,’ then that has more news value” (p. 63).

While the connection between the market-based tendencies of journalism and use of newsworthiness criteria to cater to market demands is rather easily understood, precise propositions about what journalists and news editors view as a newsworthy crime story are not nearly this straightforward. Most of the perspectives about criteria of newsworthiness (for instance, the perspectives of Doyle, Chermak, and Prichard and Hughes discussed above) focus much attention on obvious factors about newsworthiness (heinous methods, multiple victims or offenders, well-respected people) and do not provide very specified direction about other factors (for instance, characteristics of the news producers and demographics of the victim/ offender) that have been mentioned as those that influence news coverage of criminal events. In fact, the best-developed theoretical framework that has been set forth to date for understanding journalistic decision making (Prichard and Hughes’s 1997 article on “Patterns of Deviance”) makes competing predictions about newsworthiness criteria. For instance, the statistical deviance hypothesis predicts that homicides involving female victims will be most newsworthy, whereas the status deviance hypothesis predicts that crimes with male victims will be most newsworthy.

Sociologist Richard J. Lundman (2003) attempts to better understand how race and gender typification impacts journalistic assessment of newsworthiness. In his analysis of how gender and race affect newsworthiness of homicide cases, Lundman provides a framework for understanding the impact of demographic characteristics of the offender and victim on these decisions. He suggests that typification, or stereotypes, associated with gender and race provide journalists with templates, or “ready-made scripts,” for potential stories. In other words, according to Lundman, the more closely a crime story fits existing stereotyped understandings of race and gender, the more likely the crime will be judged to be marketable.

With respect to race, Lundman (2003) argues that homicides that involve an African American offender and a white victim will be perceived by journalists as more newsworthy because such a crime can be framed in the context of white fear of minority offenders. He also suggests that crimes involving a male offender and a female victim will be viewed by journalists as being highly newsworthy because these crimes can be covered by using “male sexism” and “male aggression and female submission” frames of reference. The logic of this argument is that the common understandings about gender and race (e.g., the stereotypes) that exist in society are more acceptable and easily understood by the market audience. Likewise, audiences are viewed as likely to reject “confusing” stories that do not conform to the dominant, easily understood, gender and race typification. Journalists are not likely to devote time, energy, and attention to stories that they believe the market audience will reject.

Research on news media decision making in the reporting of homicide cases suggests that market concerns do appear to impact the decisions of journalists and news editors in ways predicted by the literature on newsworthiness criteria. Prichard and Hughes (1997) examined newspaper coverage of 100 homicide cases in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that occurred in 1994. They found that homicides involving white participants, female victims, and victims that were either children or elderly received the most attention in the Milwaukee Sentinel and Milwaukee Journal.

In an analysis of media coverage of 249 homicides committed in Houston, Texas, in 2001, Kevin Buckler and Lawrence Travis (2005) discovered that homicides that involve female victims received substantial coverage, and they found that crimes involving minority offenders and nonminority victims received more intense coverage. But they also determined that circumstance characteristics of the crime increase newsworthiness as well. They found that intensity of coverage increases if the crime involves multiple victims, if it is a stranger homicide, if it involves the use of an unusual weapon, and if there is a robbery motive.

Lundman’s (2003) analysis of how gender and race impact media coverage of homicide in Columbus, Ohio, found that compared to the most common occurrence (black male offender, black male victim), situations involving a black male offender and a white female victim and situations involving a white male offender and a white female victim receive more intensive coverage.

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