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date: 22 February 2018

Neighborhood Context and Media Representations of Crime

Summary and Keywords

Neighborhoods are central to popular and news media portrayals of crime and theories of social control. By setting agendas and framing crime problems, news media in particular are an important part of the policy process. Media representations influence public perceptions and attitudes about crime as well as public responses to crime, which are known to vary across neighborhoods. Media representations of crime are thus likely to have important implications for the distribution of social control across neighborhoods.

Media and crime literature has focused primarily on the social construction of crime by examining victim, offender, and situational characteristics of crime. Concerns about over- or underrepresentation of racial groups or genders have driven attention to these characteristics. Research finds consistently, for example, that “normal crimes” and “deserving victims” are differentially present in media accounts of crimes. In addition to the normative consequences, there are methodological reasons for taking more seriously the study of neighborhoods for the broader media and crime literature.

Few studies have contributed to the understanding of neighborhood context in the study of media and crime. The findings of the research are mixed and are limited in a variety of ways, although there is evidence that disadvantaged communities and communities of color are underrepresented in news media accounts of crime. These findings confirm expectations from theories typically applied to individual characteristics. Research on the intersection of media, crime, and neighborhoods is of importance to the study of crime and social control, but can be expanded upon in a number of ways. Focusing research on qualitative differences across neighborhoods, expanding the scope of variables connected to common theoretical perspectives used in the literature, accounting for neighborhood dynamics, and drawing upon a wider array of variables connected to concepts of community power, interest group politics, and control of institutions are all recommendations for advancing this line of inquiry.

Keywords: media representations, neighborhoods, normal crimes, deserving victims, racial typification

Media, Crime, and Neighborhoods

The neighborhood is a central feature in popular portrayals of crime. The tenement houses and street markets painted a rich picture of the context in which Vito and his crime partners rose to power in The Godfather Part II. The same could be said for the front porches and alleyways between the houses that made up Compton, brought to life in Boyz in the Hood. When the camera introduced “Poot,” “Bodie,” and “Wallace” sitting on a couch in the middle of an East Baltimore housing development in The Wire, viewers were transported to a place that few of them ever experienced in real life. A long list of crime dramas (both fiction and fictionalized) took viewers to streets lined with triple-deckers and housing developments in Boston’s “gritty,” yet perversely glamorized, neighborhoods of “Southie” (Black Mass, The Departed), Charlestown (The Town), parts of Somerville (Mystic River), and Dorchester (Gone Baby Gone). Internationally, City of God painted a rich picture of crime and desperation in the lives of young people living in the favelas of Rio that echoed the themes of other crime dramas set in American cities and neighborhoods. More than just the physical setting, the styles, cultures, and conditions of the place were depicted. Based on these depictions, viewers came to know well—or rather to think they knew—the neighborhoods where street crime seemed to thrive, from Compton to Southie.

Neighborhood also plays an important role in news media representations of crime. The standard script of who, what, when, and how reporters use to describe a crime event sets it in a place as well—where. To be sure, the place is not always a neighborhood and other contexts are important, but neighborhoods are often the focus, especially when it comes to crime reporting in large cities. For large and diverse urban areas segregated by class, race, ethnicity, and other markers, the information is important to readers because it tells them about their proximity to the event or problems both physically and socially. Did it happen here, a common destination (e.g., downtown, business area) or over there? The neighborhood—like victim race and gender or victim-offender relationship—sends a signal about how concerned residents ought to be about crime. Neighborhood context might also send a message about residents’ responsibility for the event or problem in similar ways that offender status informs residents’ perceptions of whether this is crime among “us” or among “them.” All of which suggests implications for the way in which residents seek to respond to crime, and it is these issues that have sparked greater attention to the neighborhood from the media and crime scholarship.

The central premise of an emerging line of research on the media representations of crime is that crime is not portrayed or represented proportionally across neighborhoods. First, crime events must be selected by media outlets for attention. For example, studies show that large proportions of homicides receive little or even no attention from the news media. Next, crime problems or events can also be portrayed in various ways. The tone of the article, the level of detail, or the inclusion of certain kinds of information might vary across neighborhoods as it does across other factors more frequently studied (e.g., race, gender), which could differentially affect consumers’ views of crime and the neighborhoods portrayed. Finally, the neighborhood itself can be described differently or the crime event contextualized differently from the place. Crime may be explicitly presented as part of a pattern or trend (e.g., a neighborhood in decline) or an event outside the norm within the neighborhood (e.g., “these things don’t happen here”), although little is known about this in the media and crime literature (Wallace, 2008). Like research on media distortions of crime generally, it is contended that each of the potential types of distortion can have significant consequences for how we come to understand and respond to crime across neighborhoods.

Several areas are relevant to the nexus of crime, neighborhoods, media, and societal responses to crime: (a) the potential importance of media representations of crime to public responses to crime across neighborhoods; (b) the need for research focusing on neighborhood context and its potential contributions methodologically and conceptually to the study of media representations of crime; (c) a review of the limited research specifically focusing on media attention to crime across neighborhoods in urban areas; (d) an assessment of the theoretical lenses frequently applied within the literature; and finally (e) recommendations for advancing the study of neighborhoods to contribute to the broader media and crime literature.

Neighborhood Crime, Media Representations, and the Policy Process

The importance of media to public attitudes and the policy process around crime problems is well known. Media attention to public policy issues, including crime, has been central to setting agendas and framing public debates. Agenda setting is a complex process whereby social problems take on priority in public policymaking processes (Baumgartner & Jones, 2010; McCombs & Shaw, 1972). Stakeholders and claims-makers seek to focus attention on their priorities among the many potential problems that exist even within the crime policy domain. The media are a necessary tool and actively involved in this process. The priority given to specific crime problems and the ways in which they are framed in public discourse likely impact the ways in which the public and policymakers respond to them (Altheide, 1997). While there are many factors that influence agenda setting, framing, and policingmaking outcomes, neighborhood differences can play an important role in shaping the ways in which crime problems are presented to the public and the priority they receive from policymakers.

Another way that neighborhood context can influence policy outcomes is by the conception of major crime events as potential focusing or triggering events that can shape agenda-setting and framing processes (Baumgartner & Jones, 2010; Birkland, 1998). Birkland describes a focusing event as: “harmful” or demonstrating harm; “concentrated in a particular geographic area or community of interest; and that is known to policymakers and the public simultaneously.” While there have been a number of studies examining triggering events related to crime problems, most examine crime problems or events that play out in national- or state-level politics and policy (e.g., mass shootings and gun control, drunk-driving deaths and state legislation). Major crime events (e.g., homicides) that take place in a city have the potential to become triggering events, but these events can take on a greater meaning based on the neighborhood context in which they take place. The events can highlight a persistent yet perhaps undervalued problem in a neighborhood, while at the same time they can be used as a signal of a growing threat, real or manufactured. Hall and colleagues’ (1978) foundational study on the moral panic around “muggings” in London suggests, for example, that the media depictions of individual events and the general problem helped drive, and were driven by, social control agencies, such as the police. Although neighborhood context was only one part of the complex reasons for the shift in responses, it was a key factor in making sense and assigning meaning to the crime events. Research on neighborhoods and media attention is necessary to understanding the processes that allow crime events to gain differential prominence in the public attention and in the demand that public agencies respond.

Media attention can affect broad public attitudes and understanding about crime. Consumption of news media and other shows is related to assessment of risk and fear of crime under varying conditions (Chiricos, Padgett, & Gertz, 2000; Eschholz, Chiricos, & Gertz, 2003). Specifically, it is important to highlight that Escholz, Chiricos, and Gertz showed that perceived racial composition of the respondent’s neighborhood mediated the effect of media consumption and fear: when respondents perceived their neighborhood to have a higher proportion of black residents, the link was stronger. This follows from a good deal of racial or social threat literature demonstrating that racial composition of place is tied to residents’ assessment of risk and fear (Chiricos, Hogan, & Gertz, 1997; Pickett, Chiricos, Golden, & Gertz, 2012; Quillian & Pager, 2001, 2010) and levels of disorder (Sampson & Raudenbush, 2004). To the extent that neighborhoods are represented differentially in the media based on race and class composition, the public will develop a disparate view of crime and assessments of risk and fear. This is particularly important when it comes to people’s views of crime in neighborhoods other than their own, where they are unlikely to have other sources of information about the nature of crime. That media representations can influence levels of fear, coupled with the effect of racial and economic composition, means that it can have consequential impact on public responses to crime.

By helping to set the agenda, framing the problems in certain ways, and directly or indirectly influencing public attitudes and understandings about crime, media representations can have an effect on public responses to crime, which clearly vary by neighborhood as well. A long line of research suggests that social control outputs vary based on racial, ethnic, or economic composition of place over and above relatively objective measures of crime (Chamlin, 1989; Fagan & Davies, 2000; Jacobs & O’Brien, 1998). Research on neighborhoods specifically has informed longstanding normative debates about police responsiveness and fairness within highly disadvantaged communities of color, which simultaneously view police as both neglecting and harassing their neighborhoods. At the same time, media and crime scholarship has demonstrated the connection between media attention and public policy responses. Within large and diverse urban areas, media representations can help to motivate policymakers or agencies, mainly police departments, to take action in various ways. To the extent that crime representations distort public understandings of crime, they can influence the degree of public support for potentially misguided approaches to crime. If media representations accurately reflect or bring attention to hidden problems, they can help mobilize action to confront real community challenges. The question then becomes: to what extent and in what ways is crime portrayed differentially across neighborhoods in cities?

Research on Neighborhood Representations of Crime in the Media

Focused attention to the media portrayals of neighborhoods and the effect of neighborhood on media portrayals of crime is an emerging area of research that follows a long line of research examining the relationship of personal characteristics of victims and offenders and situational factors on a variety of media outcomes variables. Within the broader media and crime research, studies have demonstrated that “worthy” or “deserving” victims, usually operationalized as young, white, and female victims or victims engaged in nondeviant behaviors, receive disparate attention by the media (Chermak, 1994, 1998; Gruenewald, Pizzaro, & Chermak, 2009; Lundman, 2003; Peelo et al., 2004). Concerns about reinforcing stereotypes of black and Latino offenders have led the research in this area to test for overrepresentation of these groups in media portrayals of crime (Sorenson et al., 1998). Others have shown that victim–offender racial pairings can qualify the relationship between offender and victim characteristics independently (Gruenewald, Pizzaro, & Chermak, 2009; Lundman, 2003). Clearly, highly visible acts of violence or unique situations increase the newsworthiness of an event and thus the attention to it. The inclusion of neighborhood context makes both methodological and conceptual contributions to the broader study of media representations of crime that are important.

First, there is good reason to suspect that relationships between individual or situational characteristics and media portrayals may be spurious when neighborhood context is not taken into account. One example is questions about the over- or underrepresentation of different racial groups in news media, which is a central question in much of the media representations literature. To the extent that it is possible to analyze such relationships given the correlations between individual victim or suspect race and neighborhood racial composition, it is possible that when researchers find underrepresentation of black victims in the media representations, they are simply observing the implications of the fact that most black male victimizations take place in neighborhoods with a high proportion of black residents. Communities with high concentrations of disadvantaged people are stigmatized (Sampson & Raudenbush, 2004), just as young black or brown males are as individuals. For example, in a comprehensive analysis of homicides in England and Wales, Peelo et al. (2004) concluded that all three of the newspapers they examined “under-report marginalized groups as victims,” but neighborhood context can have this kind of effect as well. Gruenewald, Pizzaro, and Chermak (2009), on the other hand, found that “cultural typification” of homicide offenders in Newark shaped news media outcomes; such typifications are set in a specific neighborhood context and city context (e.g., majority-minority city). The same problems might apply to motive (e.g., retaliatory violence), victim behavior or lifestyle (e.g., participation in a gang or illegal drug markets), and other situational characteristics that researchers commonly test for associations with media attention. Like the study of crime causation, studies of the media that account for individuals and situations nested in place are important.

Neighborhood context can also alter the effect of individual characteristics and situations on media representations. For example, black offenders might be seen as an example fitting a “normal crime”—the kind of crime that appears to be frequent or fitting the norm and thus less newsworthy—but this status depends in part on the racial context of the place. The same individual characteristic likely becomes more newsworthy in the context of a neighborhood comprised mainly of white and middle-class residents because it represents an outsider or racial threat (Blalock, 1967; Blumer, 1958). In this way, this “symbolic assailant” (Skolnick, 2011) is not so newsworthy when crimes are perpetrated in places far removed physically and socially from white, middle-class neighborhoods. Researchers focused on neighborhood contextual variables would be able to situate the individual and situational characteristics that might change the meaning of crime and the characteristics present in the eyes of the media and the public.

Finally, there are also the presentations of the neighborhood itself where crime occurs and how the presentations vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. Following the approach used to study the relationships between individual or situational characteristics and media attention, several recent quantitative studies test the extent to which contextual variables of a crime incident generate various levels of media attention. A neighborhood context variable (e.g., concentrated disadvantage) might decrease the likelihood of a homicide’s gaining attention in the media or the volume of media attention. However, this approach does not allow researchers to examine differences that exist in how the neighborhood itself is presented. Qualitative research can present a rich picture of the language and themes used to describe the place in which crime occurs. For example, Wallace (2008) provided an insightful analysis of media content and how it contextualized crime events within place. This work demonstrated the common use of passages similar to “things like that don’t happen here,” which divorce the event from the place, protect the way the place is viewed, and shift crime problems to some “other” location. Quantitative research can build on this work by examining the determinants of neighborhood representations (e.g., presence of bystander comments, demonstration of community harm). How the neighborhood context is described or how the crime is attached to that place would likely have a differential effect on the ways in which media consumers see the place and the crime problems that exist there.

Given the methodological and conceptual need for research focused on neighborhoods and media, studies have incorporated neighborhood context variables into analyses of news media attention to crime. The studies have primarily focused on the presentation of homicides, and the most rigorous quantitative designs have linked specific homicide events to news media coverage, capturing both the incident circumstances and context. Due to the few studies specifically including neighborhood context variables, the following discussion reviews the studies chronologically in some detail before summarizing some of the general conclusions that can be drawn from this line of research. The work demonstrates that neighborhood context can be associated with media attention measures but neighborhoods or other contexts would need to be the direct focus of more studies to inform the nature and significance of the relationships.

Sorenson, Manz, and Berk (1998) conducted one of the first quantitative studies to include a neighborhood context measure in the study of homicide and media attention. The researchers included neighborhood median household income levels in their models regressing victim, offender, and situational characteristics on the presence of media attention. Several key findings are worth noting in detail. Homicides occurring in the highest income level (median income greater than $35,000) were about twice as likely to receive media attention than homicides in the lowest income level (median annual income less than $20,000). Homicides occurring in all other neighborhood income levels had higher rates of attention than the homicides occurring in the poorest neighborhoods, although the magnitude of the difference was not large. This finding is representative of the hypothesis that poor neighborhoods receive less attention for a variety of theoretical reasons related to “normal crimes” and community power. Perhaps more importantly, the study’s findings demonstrated the need for including context in analyses of victim and offender characteristics. Specifically, in discussing results not shown in the published paper, the authors reported that “interethnic homicides were not disproportionately covered once median household income of the victim’s neighborhood was taken into consideration” (p. 1512).

In a study from Houston (TX), Paulsen (2003) conducted an analysis similar to the Sorenson et al. (1998) study. The focus of the Paulsen study was not on neighborhood context, but neighborhood income levels were included in models examining a host of media attention variables. Neighborhood income levels had no bearing on the presence of coverage, but did have a small positive effect on word count and number of articles. To some extent, the finding that context shaped the volume of attention, rather than the presence of attention, implies that there may be qualitative differences in the presentation of the crime event as well, but this was not directly explored in the study. The study did not include other theoretically relevant neighborhood context variables, nor did it test for moderating effects, as the Sorenson et al. (1998) study did.

Lundman (2003) advanced this line of inquiry by using both income levels and racial composition to test the neighborhood context of homicide on several measures of newsworthiness. Neighborhoods with a higher concentration of black residents received significantly greater media attention in only one outcome: presence of front-page story. Income levels had no relationship to any measure and racial composition had no relationship to the dichotomous measure of attention or the total number of articles. Across several reported analyses, Lundman paid careful attention to victim–offender race–gender interactions, finding that black-on-white crime received significantly more attention than other race and gender pairings. It is important to recognize that Lundman did not report the findings pertaining to neighborhood context in these follow-up analyses so there is no indication if the results changed when the more complex relationships were used.

Using Chicago as their focus, Boulahanis and Heltsley (2004) continue the line of inquiry with some focus on neighborhood context. Their multivariate models predicting media attention outcomes included only racial composition (percent black, Latino, and white), but they found no significant relationships. However, later in the paper, they presented the results of bivariate mapping analyses that show patterns of crime reporting that increased with crime levels and with disproportionate attention in the northern parts of Chicago. This suggests some evidence of the effect of neighborhood context that would be of interest to research on media attention, although the study’s data could be analyzed in ways that test the relationships more effectively, as more recent studies have done.

Schildkraut and Donley (2012) conducted a comprehensive analysis of media attention to homicides in Baltimore. The study focused mainly on differences between situational and individual characteristics in actual homicide incidents and media attention, but did call into question the effect of neighborhood context with its findings. Neighborhood income levels appeared to have little effect on attention, word count, or article count. Although Schildkraut and Donley conducted a careful study linking incidents to media attention measures, the study could have expanded upon the neighborhood contextual variables to include a wider array of theoretically relevant context variables. Two studies have sought make this advance in the study of neighborhood context and crime.

Recent work conducted by Cronin, Mastrorilli, Rousseau, and Carr (2013) on neighborhood context of media portrayals examined measures of newspaper attention linked to specific homicide incidents in New York City in 2007. Individual- and situational-level factors, such as race, gender, and age, predicted media attention in expected ways. Among the neighborhood factors that demonstrated associations with news attention measures was the density of public housing and the number of homicides in the neighborhood. When homicides occurred within neighborhoods with high proportions of public housing, there was less media attention in the aftermath of the incident. Similarly, the number of homicides reduced attention to the event. Both results can be viewed from a “normal crimes” perspective (crime events happening in the usual place) and from theories that see isolated communities as deserving less attention from the broader public and the media.

The most recent and theoretically relevant study of the intersection of homicide, race, and media attention was conducted by Petersen (2016). Linking media attention outcomes to homicides from Los Angeles County, Peterson found a robust neighborhood effect related to concentrated disadvantage. Homicides that took place in disadvantaged neighborhoods were less likely to receive attention and had fewer articles written about them, after taking into account a host of other victim, offender and situational characteristics. Racial composition demonstrated no main effect in the models reported, but Peterson reported an interaction effect where racial composition (percent black and percent Latino) affect media attention outcomes when combined with disadvantage. Importantly, the study included neighborhood homicide rate, which demonstrated a positive but nonsignificant relationship with media attention. Finally, it would be important for the study of neighborhood context studies to see the extent to which including neighborhood context mediates or moderates individual or situational context variables. For example, Petersen’s study found no relationship between race and media attention, but the analyses do not show if this relationship existed prior to the taking into account of contextual variables.

Studies examining the connection between neighborhood contextual variables and media attention have begun to advance the crime representation literature, with some notable limitations that should inform future work. The studies include a limited number of neighborhood context variables and mainly include them as control variables for studies interested in under- or overrepresentation of personal characteristics in media. Income levels has been the primary variable studied, followed by racial composition. Petersen (2016) was the exception, expanding on income and race by considering the interactive effects. While race and economic variables are associated with other variables of interest to understanding neighborhood explanations of social control, studies focusing on this area should consider other relationships beyond race and economic status. Relatedly, with two known exceptions (Petersen, 2016, and Cronin et al., 2013) studies have not explicitly taken into account the volume of crime occurring in the context of the crime events being studied. Whether a study finds that income levels have no effect on crime (Lundman, 2003) or that they do (Sorenson et al., 1998), it is important to control for crime levels both methodologically as well as in the interpretation of findings. For instance, there is a difference conceptually and normatively between viewing crime as “normal” due to the actual volume of crime in a place versus viewing crime this way purely due to stigma associated with the race or class composition of the place. Finally, where common variables have been used in a variety of analyses, the findings are mixed. This can be due to differences in city or media market of focus (e.g., Los Angeles versus Newark) among a host of other confounding factors. There simply has not been sufficient attention paid to the neighborhood context to draw hard conclusions about its role in news media attention to crime.

Examining Theories Used in the Study of Neighborhoods and Media Representations

Research focused on questions concerning the nexus of neighborhoods, crime, and media draws from general theories of social control and media. Most of this research has tested hypotheses in ways that parallel the theoretical expectations linking individual and situational characteristics to media outcomes. Since research on individual victim and offender representations is frequently focused on normative concerns regarding the race, class, and gender implications of media distortions of crime, the lenses applied to neighborhoods have tended to apply related ideas about “normal crimes,” stereotyping, stigma, and “deserving” or “worthy” victims to the community level. To be sure, many theories of social problems and the media can be useful for designing studies and interpreting observations, but the following focuses on the theories commonly implied or explicitly used in the literature examining neighborhood contextual variables and media attention. The common lenses are useful for understanding neighborhood-level processes and they raise thorny questions about how to interpret certain relationships in the current methodological approaches.

The first lens extended from the research focused on individual and situational characteristics to neighborhood context is the “normal crimes” perspective (Sudnow, 1965). Applied to the media, the theory is built on the premise that media outlets seek readership and that presentations of extraordinary crimes accomplish that aim. It follows, then, that common victim and offender groups (or disproportionately common groups) are less “newsworthy” than less common groups (see Chermak, 1995; Paulsen, 2003; Sorenson et al., 1998). Black and Latino offenders—when known to reporters—would garner less attention since these racial groups are disproportionately involved in certain crimes as perpetrators. Common circumstances and motives are similarly seen as the usual, routine, or “run of the mill” events that do not necessitate greater attention from the media. Moving to analyses of neighborhood context, neighborhoods that are either seen as having higher rates of crime due to neighborhood stigma or because they, in fact, do have higher levels of known crime would been seen as “normal” or “typical” and thus less “newsworthy” to the media or the media’s audience. It is assumed that media outlets have less incentive to pay attention to crimes that occur in the “usual” places; the stories are something the readers are not interested in. From the normal crimes perspective, the expectations is clear that crime taking place in communities of color or neighborhoods with high levels of economic disadvantage are less newsworthy.

It is important to tease out the dual processes at work to produce similar expectations about normal crime places and media attention outcomes. One view sees neighborhood stigma as producing less attention, poorer quality attention, or negative attention because crime is simply viewed as more frequent in these places. This process is based mostly on the assumption that readers are not interested in an additional story about crime in a place that has many crimes. An alternative view sees neighborhood stigma as leading to differential media outcomes because the places are viewed as “less deserving.” This process is based on different assumptions about the status and power of neighborhoods within the city. Research done on individual-level characteristics has yet to sort out which perspective explains why certain characteristics are differentially covered by the media, and the early research on neighborhoods is even less clear as to whether neighborhood disadvantage and higher-crime neighborhoods are neglected in media attention because it is just normal or because they lack enough status or power to attract or control media attention.

There are also different expectations about the relationships between media outcomes and race and class composition of neighborhoods. Some perspectives applied to neighborhood stigma might predict that neighborhoods with high proportions of racial or ethnic minority groups will be viewed as the “usual” places for crime, but crime in these neighborhoods might also signal racial and economic threat following a group conflict and racial threat model (Blalock, 1967; Blumer, 1958; Quillian & Pager, 2001, 2010). Black and Latino perpetrators are overrepresented in media portrayals of crime, and these patterns are explained by notions that individuals of color represent a racial threat (i.e., “symbolic assailant”) that demands, in a way, attention from the media. The more extensive scholarship on individual characteristics views the media as reifying stereotypes about crime offenders and exacerbating biases held by the general public. Applied to the neighborhood level of analysis, the group conflict perspective argues that crime in disadvantaged communities of color symbolizes race- and class-based threats to dominant groups in society. Media outlets would be motivated to increase attention to this social problem and frame it in mostly negative ways rather than underreport it. Institutions of social control, such as the police, would also have incentive to share information about crime and disorder in these communities in order to secure resources or to maintain legitimacy among groups with great power (Chermak & Weiss, 2005; Hall et al., 1978). Following these ideas, crime events taking place in more middle-class or affluent neighborhoods would have less demand for attention or would be framed in different ways, such as representing a public health problem in need of a less punitive response. Quantitative research finds little support for this proposition, since the few studies of neighborhood context show negative relationships between income levels and racial minority group composition and media attention, suggesting that they receive less attention than they perhaps ought to. While a group conflict perspective might be better suited to explaining the quality of the attention or the tone of media representations of crime, the lens has not yet been applied specifically to the neighborhood context in this way. The inconsistent theoretical expectations and interpretations of key relationships currently examined in the emerging neighborhoods and media literature, as well as the limited application of a broad range of theories, are among the reasons for needed advances in the study of media, crime, and neighborhoods.

Recommendations for Advancing Research on Media, Crime, and Neighborhoods

The broad research on media representations of crime has informed our understanding of the impact on perceptions of crime, framing of crime policy issues, and public responses to crime. When media outlets play a role in misrepresenting the realities of crime, they can lead the pubic to accept a distorted view of crime and misguided responses. Research focused on the neighborhood contextual factors has added a new dimension to the study of media representations that is important to theory and policy and other public responses to crime. Specifically, the extent to which neighborhood crimes receive differential attention in quantity or quality can affect the city-level policy process in ways that would disadvantage some residents over others, potentially contributing to differential responses by social control agencies. Evidence of the differential attention across neighborhoods is mixed and only beginning to be the focus of media and crime literature. There are a number of ways to advance the study of the intersections of media, crime, and neighborhoods that would contribute to the broader literature on media and crime.

Research should focus more on differences in content of media attention across neighborhoods. Following the focus on race and class composition, are disadvantaged neighborhoods less likely to have certain characteristics (e.g., presence of victim family statements) or themes (e.g., discussion of neighborhood harm) discussed in the media attention, when it is available? We know that some differences exist based on race and other markers of social status, but we do not know the extent to which they are confounded by neighborhood. Another way to examine this issue is through qualitative analyses of media content across neighborhoods. Are victims and offenders represented with different tones or valences in neighborhoods that differ in terms of the crime levels, disadvantage, or other characteristics? How does neighborhood context shape the explicit discussion of motives or causes of crime? How is neighborhood crime linked to policy discussions or trends about crime when it occurs in different kinds of places? These are examples of central questions that qualitative research could inform and that might have implications for public opinion and policymaking processes.

Next, research should expand the scope of neighborhood contextual variables. Recent work has looked beyond neighborhood income levels or racial composition, which are both driven by key social theories and are important for public discourse. One way to build on the prior work on race and class composition is to consider the role of variation in neighborhood immigration populations. Petersen (2016) includes Latino composition, but this is not the same as studying immigrant enclaves of various origins and is viewed differentially by the broader public. Given the heightened public discourse about the intersection of new immigrant populations, crime, and other security threats in both the United States and Europe, this approach is significant and timely. Neighborhood racial and class isolation could also be explored with greater special complexity. Crime occurring on the “edges” of neighborhoods may be viewed as more newsworthy than crime that appears more isolated within highly segregated neighborhoods. Since the degree of segregation varies across cities, the findings pertaining to the relationships between racial or economic composition and media attention will depend on the degree of racial and economic segregation that exists.

Relatedly, the study of neighborhoods, crime, and media should pay closer attention to temporal changes in neighborhood characteristics. Several of the theoretical lenses applied to the limited study of neighborhoods imply different interpretations based on neighborhood dynamics. Following group conflict theory, the racial threat of a neighborhood is qualified by the magnitude of the shifts in the neighborhood over time, rather than the present racial composition. Here the hypothesized effect of a neighborhood with a high proportion of residents of color is different from one where there has been an increase or decrease in its composition. A related issue concerns changes in the economic status of the neighborhood. What happens to the media attention in or around neighborhoods undergoing “economic revitalization” or gentrification? The same kind of issue presents itself when considering the effect of crime rates on media attention. From the normal crimes perspective, high rates of crime make any given homicide or crime event less newsworthy. This effect may change when considering the recent trends in crime within a neighborhood. If crime has been on the rise, the next event might become newsworthy because it represents a noticeable pattern of an emerging social problem. Neighborhood dynamics have become a central part of the study of neighborhoods and crime and should also be used to test theories of media representations.

Fourth, research should continue to explore the central assumptions of the theories commonly used in the study of neighborhoods and media attention. Readership and profit motive are central to arguments about why media outlets view certain crime events or problems as newsworthy. This motivation may not always be the central factor; media outlets have a public interest motivation that might drive them to give attention and even high-quality attention to “normal crimes” in the “usual places.” They might also simply misinterpret the demands of their readers. Shows (e.g., The Wire), documentaries, or longer-format news stories (e.g., This American Life’s “Harper High School” episodes or the New York Times’ recent “Murder in the ‘4-0’” series) suggest that there may be some popularity to rich, relatively just, crime depictions in places that theory would suggest are not “newsworthy” or are subjected to misrepresentations of some kind. Case studies of media outlets have shed light on this assumption, and survey work with a focus on neighborhood variation could contribute a good deal to understanding the demand for crime stories. Electronic media and social media can provide avenues for testing the assumptions about how the neighborhood affects consumption of media stories. Are stories from the “usual” places actually less newsworthy among the public? Do news stories about these places receive fewer page views or shares within social networks? For questions about crime, media, and neighborhoods, these data are likely to be relatively available and useful for informing questions about demand for content.

Finally, research should begin to draw upon related theoretical perspectives. Perspectives drawn from political sociology, interest group politics, and institutionalism are connected to perspectives used in existing research but provide opportunities for other questions and the considerations of other variables beyond race and class composition. Does differential community organization increase or change the nature of media attention to crime? What role do policymakers and criminal justice agencies play in shaping the content of neighborhood crime stories to help maintain their political viability and legitimacy or to promote policies or practices? Do voting patterns and elections shift representations of crime in the media? All of these questions can help to clarify the role of the media in the city-level policy process.

There is little doubt that media portrayals of crime have significant effects on attitudes about crime and public responses to crime. One of the most significant questions in the criminology and social control literature concerns the differential responses to crime across neighborhoods. The media likely play some role in this process, but few studies have explicitly sought to test the ways in which media context shapes attention to crime. There is evidence of underrepresentation of crime in communities of color and disadvantaged neighborhoods, although more work needs to consider the ways in which crime is presented across place. Applying methods and theoretical concepts used more widely in neighborhoods and crime studies will advance this line of inquiry and inform the general research on neighborhoods, crime, and social control.

Further Reading

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