Mass Media, Crime, and Criminal Justice

III. Organizational Factors Intrinsic to Media Production

A. News Themes

Some research also implies that organizational factors that are intrinsic to the media production process impact mass media organization coverage of crime. Research by Mark Fishman (2006) suggests that organizational imperatives of news media production can create perceptions of crime waves. To Fishman, a crime wave is nothing more than a sporadic “social awareness about crime” and is essentially a “thing of the mind” (p. 42). In essence, Fishman saw crime waves as nothing more than media waves of coverage on crime topics. Thus, it can be said that Fishman believes that crime waves do not represent an objective reality, but instead, a subjective reality created by mass media behavior.

Fishman (2006) arrives at these conclusions in a study of a “crime wave” against elderly victims in the 1970s in New York City. In 1976, three daily newspapers and five local television stations began to report heavily on crimes committed against the elderly. These reports focused mainly on incidents where young African American or Hispanic offenders were victimizing elderly white people in and around ghetto areas of the city. Fishman noticed that the trend in official police statistics concerning crime against the elderly did not match the trend in the media reports; official statistics suggested that some crimes against the elderly were decreasing and other crimes against the elderly matched the trends for crimes against the general population. But the media reports were suggesting that this type of crime was increasing.

What accounts for the massive disconnect between media reports and official statistics? Fishman (2006) suggests that the organizational realities of news production contribute substantially to this disconnect. He explains that when news organizations create the day’s news, media personnel have countless stories that can potentially be reported as news items. There are national, state, and local possibilities. They can retrieve stories from the Associated Press and Reuters news services. In addition, they have potential stories that local journalists have developed. There are also countless other types of stories that could be reported: arts and entertainment, business, crime, health related, politics, and sports, to name a few. Thus, the job of the news editor is to develop “news themes” around which potential news items and reports are organized. A news theme is simply a broad idea that a group of news items are associated with because of a commonality that runs through each of the stories. In other words, a news theme is a technique of packaging a group of stories, each as a single instance of something broader.

A news theme can be applied to (a) how the news organization organizes a single day’s coverage or (b) coverage over a longer time period (for instance, a week, a month, or even a year). The best illustration of the first scenario is a themed news package identified by Fishman (2006) that was developed by a television station in its coverage of elderly crime in NewYork City. He observed that the news station covered the following stories:

  • Police apprehend juveniles who mugged an elderly couple in Queens.
  • Police and citizens in Queens meet to discuss crimes against the elderly.
  • Feature segment on Senior Citizens Robbery Unit.
  • Police seize guns and drugs that were intended for warring gangs.
  • Two members of a youth gang are arrested for robbery at knifepoint.
  • ROTC cadet arrested in stabbing death of another cadet.
  • NYC audit finds city police have been mishandling funds.
  • NYC police union working on contract at the same time that laid-off firemen and subway cops will be rehired.

In this package, there are two broad themes: crime and budget issues. But there is also a more specified theme with respect to the coverage of crime: crime against elderly and crime committed by young people. In essence, the likelihood that a potential news item is covered often depends on whether the news item can be clearly connected to other marketable news items. Fishman (2006) concludes that the use of news themes produces a situation where a journalistic search for knowledge mutates into a process of not knowing. What he means is that the process of developing news packages strips the criminal event of its actual context and places the occurrence within a new symbolic context: the news theme itself.

In terms of the second scenario, Fishman (2006) suggests that news themes can also develop over a longer period of time. In his research, he noticed that when one news organization reports a story, other news organizations are apt to look for stories that tie into the previously covered story. Journalists get story ideas by watching or reading media reports from other news organizations. If journalists are able to find other instances that can be tied into the theme, the theme can be kept alive for weeks or months. Fishman found evidence of this in his study of media coverage of elderly crime in New York City. The majority of the coverage on crime against the elderly occurred over a 7-week time period. Prior to this massive media wave of coverage, news organizations had been covering crime against the elderly at a pace of one story every other week. In addition, the data indicated that the coverage that appeared in the news outlets that were examined did not coincide with actual events; instead, there was evidence that news organizations were responding to the coverage of other organizations.

The tendency to develop news themes is an organizational aspect of mass media production that influences media outcomes. News themes are functional for news organizations. On a daily basis, editors face a mountain of raw material in the form of information (press releases, news from the wires). They must sift through this mountain of material and produce a clear and concise plan to deliver information to the public. They have no limit to the information that is available, but they can only filter a limited amount of information to the public. News themes aid editors in the task of processing massive amounts of information down to a usable form; in essence, news themes facilitate efficiency.

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