Mass Media, Crime, and Criminal Justice

B. Reliance on Official Sources of Information

Another important organizational tendency of news organizations that influences crime coverage is their reliance on official sources of information over unofficial sources. Kevin Buckler, Timothy Griffin, and Lawrence Travis (2008) note how research suggests that news media personnel and government agencies/agents are “coupled.” This means that both have an interest in the coproduction of crime information presented to the public. Whereas the news media’s interest is in the actual production of news as a tangible output, government agencies and agents have a public relations interest in mass media production. The clearest example of this is the relationship that has developed between public information officers in police departments and crime “beat” reporters. News reporters rely on official sources for information, and those official sources often filter the information released to the press in an attempt to manage public understanding about official agencies of social control. The reliance on official sources of information about crime thus places the news organization in quite a conundrum. News media are supposed to perform a “watchdog” function, but reliance on official sources of information limits the capacity to do so in the context of crime coverage.

The research by Buckler et al. (2008) documents the extent to which news organizations and official sources of information are coupled. They examined the use of sources in crime coverage in two major papers, the New York Times and the Washington Post. They found substantial use of official sources of information in quotations and references to persons in crime stories, whereas unofficial sources (professors, nonacademic researchers, etc.) were used much less frequently.

Other scholars focus on how news organization reliance on official sources of information can impact the content of news media coverage of crime and criminal justice. Katherine Beckett’s (1995) analysis of news organization coverage of the war on drugs focuses on how the use of different types of sources of information was related to how news organizations framed the war on drugs. She found that the news media heavily relied on official sources of information and that most often these official sources advocated a “get tough/law and order” approach to handling drug offenses.

Similarly, Michael Welch, Melissa Fenwick, and Meredith Roberts (1998) focus on the differential content between official sources (e.g., state-managers) and professors/ nonacademic researchers (e.g., intellectuals) in feature crime articles that were published in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. They examined quotations along two different topical dimensions: crime causation and crime control. They found that quotes used by journalists taken from state managers were more likely to focus on the potential solutions to crime (e.g., crime control), whereas quotes used by journalists that originated from professors and nonacademic researchers were more likely to focus attention on the causes of crime (e.g., crime causation).

There were also notable differences between state managers and professors/nonacademic researchers within the “crime causation” and “crime control” categories of quotations. In terms of crime causation quotations, state managers were more likely to attribute the causes of crime to utilitarian explanations (individuals motivated by material and personal gain), whereas professors and nonacademic researchers were more likely to attribute crime causation to social conditions and personal pathology.With respect to crime control quotations, state managers were more likely to advocate for hard controls (e.g., expansion of enforcement, more incarceration), whereas professors and nonacademic researchers were more likely to advocate for soft control (e.g., rehabilitation, social reform, decriminalization).

Collectively, what this body of work suggests is that the ideas about crime and its control presented to the public may be slanted toward “crime as personal choice” understandings of the causes of crime and “get tough” solutions for the crime problem. But the influence of organizational factors of mass media production does not necessarily lead to a conclusion that such an outcome is purposeful or direct. The logic is not that mass media organizations are extensions of the government and look to force-feed the message of government officials to the general public in an effort to manipulate the public. Instead, the logic is that any bias or slanting of mass media content is more indirect and is the result of organizational imperatives to create news output in a fast, efficient, and cost-effective manner.

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