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Mass Media and Crime


Only in the twentieth century did journalism attain the status of a profession, with professional schools, organizations, honors, norms, and the means of disciplining transgressors. Early conceptions of the journalist as an objective conduit of facts about the world have given way to more complex models of journalism in which the role of institutional imperatives and individual biases are recognized as highly influential, if not decisive, factors shaping the content of news (Bennett; McManus; Winch).

Various elements of the criminal justice system are among those most likely to influence journalism. Public interest in crime news is generally high, so there is a commercial incentive for newspapers and broadcasters to provide such information. Crimes are usually good stories; they can be told as morality plays, dramatic confrontations, and human-interest stories even when their value as hard news is not high. Demand for crime news produces close relationships between police, judicial officers, and reporters. The information resources controlled by police, such as the identity of suspects, the status of cases, and the evidence assembled, are highly prized by reporters. Attorneys and (less frequently) judges may offer valuable information about ongoing (and even long-past) trials. Reporters do their best to cultivate close and reliable relations with the police, the courts, and the prosecuting attorneys on their beats. If a reporter is not on good terms with these people, he or she risks losing information necessary to tell a coherent or interesting story. A reporter may not be alerted to new discoveries of evidence, new legal strategies, or impending changes in the dates and times of public hearings. Often there is no source of this information other than the police, courts, and prosecutors.

Reporters control resources of their own, prized by the criminal justice system. The threat of adverse publicity can be potent, especially for elected officers of the court and (in some jurisdictions) police chiefs or sheriffs. Truly virulent public attacks on the police or the judiciary are rare, however, since the relationship between journalists and these institutions is ongoing and valuable; no newspaper or broadcast outlet can afford to burn such bridges. Apart from publicity, journalists can enhance the overall legitimacy of the justice system by covering its activities. Public confidence that the police are behaving appropriately or that the judicial system "works" can be maintained simply through routine coverage of crime. Stories that challenge that confidence may be presented as aberrations from an otherwise upbeat routine.

Pritchard and Hughes demonstrate the practical result of these dependency relations. They studied the newspaper coverage of a year's worth of homicides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with attention to the factors that determine whether a murder will merit coverage or not. They found that "reporters tended to take cues for evaluations of newsworthiness from race, gender, and age" (p. 52), information about both victims and suspects usually available from official sources. Deadline pressure seems to encourage reporters and editors to use such attributes to calculate the extent and nature of "deviance" the murder involves. While conventional wisdom describes newsworthiness in terms of "statistical deviance" (i.e., departure from the usual, as in "man bites dog"), Pritchard and Hughes show that "status deviance" (i.e., the death or suspect-status of high status citizens) and cultural deviance (i.e., murder of the "especially vulnerable," such as women, children, and the aged) explains the decision to cover or ignore a homicide (p. 52).

Pritchard had earlier (1986) demonstrated that coverage of homicides in Milwaukee was a strong predictor of whether or not the prosecuting attorney would plea-bargain the case. Murders that received more coverage in the newspapers were less likely to be bargained than low-publicity crimes. Pritchard notes that this finding is consistent with earlier research (Alschuler; Jones) regarding the decision-making of prosecutors that indicated that political considerations (e.g., fear of being seen as "soft on crime") exercised strong influence on prosecutors' decisions. Further, Pritchard, Dilts, and Berkowitz demonstrated that prosecution of pornography offenses in Indiana in the mid-1980s was influenced by the relative priority of pornography on the agendas of citizens and of the local newspapers.

The cumulative impact of Pritchard and others' work is to illustrate that reporters and editors are most likely to report crimes based on certain attributes of the victims and suspects, and that prosecutors monitor press coverage and choose which crimes to prosecute aggressively based in part on the level of press attention the crime has received. Since the criteria of reporters tend toward coverage of white victims and victims who are either female, very young, or very old (or some combination of those attributes), the least likely crime to be covered is one in which the victim is a black adult male. Thus the least likely crime to be aggressively prosecuted is one committed against a black adult male.

Defendants and defense attorneys are less likely to benefit from these relations of dependency. A guilty criminal defendant has no interest in sharing details of a crime, of course, and innocent defendants have no details to offer. Even if defendants do have valuable information, they are unlikely to have valuable information on a regular basis for years to come, the way police and judicial officers do. Defense attorneys are a bit more likely to be valuable sources in the future, but not nearly as likely as prosecutors. There is much more crime in the world than there is coverage of it, so most defense attorneys most times will not be defending newsworthy clients. But all newsworthy prosecutions are performed by a handful of offices, from city attorneys to federal prosecutors. Given a choice between developing close, mutually rewarding relationships with defendants or prosecutors, a working reporter knows where his or her professional future is most safely insured. Robert Shapiro, a prominent defense attorney (and member of O.J. Simpson's "Dream Team") noted that "[t]he defense lawyer who has never dealt with the press, or has no pre-existing relationship with a particular reporter, is at a severe disadvantage. In order to overcome this, the lawyer must cultivate a line of communication with the reporter so the client's point of view can be expressed in the most favorable way" (p. 27).

One effect of crime coverage on the judicial process that has received considerable research attention is the influence of pretrial publicity on jurors. Partly due to the pattern of dependency relations described above, it has been noted that most coverage of crime is detrimental to the defendant, including the publication of information inadmissible at trial (Imrich, Mullin, and Linz; Dixon and Linz). Does this bad publicity produce predispositions in jurors one way or the other? A variety of experimental and quasi-experimental research studies have demonstrated consistent support for the hypothesis that at least mild antidefendant bias can be the result of exposure to pretrial publicity (Constantini and King; Dexter, Cutler, and Moran; Greene and Wade; Kramer, Kerr, and Carroll; Kerr, Kramer, Carroll, and Alfini; Moran and Cutler; Ogloff and Vidmar; Otto, Penrod, and Dexter). Judicial remedies such as voir dire, judges' instructions, and continuances are not guaranteed to overcome these effects (Kramer et al.; Carroll et al.; Vidmar and Melnitzer; Dexter et al.; Kerr et al.). Bruschke and Loges, however, found that the conviction rate for federal murder defendants whose cases received no discernible print coverage did not differ significantly from the conviction rate of defendants whose cases received high amounts of print coverage. In fact, Bruschke and Loges found that the highest conviction rate was observed among those who had between one and five stories written about their case. Once convicted, however, defendants with the most publicity received substantially longer prison sentences than those with little or no publicity.

The effect of pretrial (and during-trial) publicity on public opinion and jury bias can lead to policies such as gag rules (prohibiting trial participants from publicly discussing the case), restriction of court access to the press—particularly TV cameras—and changes of venue. Salwen and Driscoll point out that support for media regulation may spring from a "third-person effect" in which a person believes that others are prone to media influence while he or she is much less prone to the same effect. Studying public opinion regarding conflicting evidence and arguments during the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, Salwen and Driscoll found that there is a significant tendency for survey respondents to estimate higher media influence for others than for themselves, but that this belief is not strongly associated with calls for regulation of the press, particularly among well-educated respondents. While education in general may reduce one's willingness to endorse media regulation, it is not clear whether judges subject to the third-person effect might be more willing to impose restrictions given their unique role in the judicial process, despite their high levels of education. McLeod, Eveland, and Nathanson (1997) found that support for censorship of rap lyrics thought to incite misogyny and violence was associated with a third-person effect, although their college-student sample made it impossible to control for education.

Another approach to the study of news content and its effect on public opinion is framing. "Framing essentially involves selection and salience. To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described" (Entman, 1993, p. 52, emphases in original). Research into the methods journalists use to reconstruct reality into "the news" has focused on the use of framing devices to turn events into coherent stories (Kahneman and Tversky; Graber; Sniderman, Brody, and Tetlock). Entman (1994) has argued that by showing visual images of black suspects and defendants in the grasp of white police officers, television news frames blacks as both more dangerous and under more direct physical control than whites (who are less likely to be shown in the physical grasp of an officer—especially a nonwhite officer). Dixon (1998) finds that black suspects are disproportionately shown on the news (compared to their proportion of arrested suspects in crime reports). The concept of framing suggests that such patterns of representation increase the salience of connections between blacks and crime in general, and thus perpetuate stereotypes of both black criminality and white authority.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawMass Media and Crime - Journalism, Entertainment, Conclusion, Bibliography