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date: 24 January 2018

Crime News in Newspapers

Summary and Keywords

Crime news is an abundant staple in modern media coverage. Nowhere is this more evident than in the newspaper medium, which often faces fewer constraints with respect to space and time compared to other formats (e.g., television), thereby enabling more stories to be generated. As most people will rely on the news format for their information about crime, it is imperative that such stories be presented factually and within the scope of their magnitude. Yet as research has indicated, this often is not the journalistic practice as it relates to crime news. Instead, there is often a disproportionate amount of crime presented in the news, with specific attention dedicated to the most serious of crimes, such as homicide, even though these occur least often. Still, the focus of such reporting is often centered upon the most extreme and sensational cases, further distorting the reality of crime. A number of factors influence these selection decisions, including (but certainly not limited to) victim characteristics and agenda-setting practices by news organizations. The way in which these stories are constructed and framed also contributes to the creation of social problems as they are perceived by members of society. Consequently, there are broader impacts of the coverage of crime news in newspapers, particularly as it relates to audience effects.

Keywords: crime news, newspaper coverage, newsworthiness, crime victims, media coverage of crime, media framing, agenda setting, fear of crime

The Prevalence of Crime News

For up to 95% of the general public, the mass media serve as the primary source of information about crime (Graber, 1980; Surette, 1992). Accordingly, understanding the way in which crime news is presented is especially important given its potential influence over audiences. This point further is highlighted by the finding that up to 50% of news coverage is devoted solely to stories about crime (Chermak, 1995; Graber, 1980; Maguire, Sandage, & Weatherby, 1999; Surette, 1992). Therefore, the manner in which these stories are presented can have an impact on audiences’ perceptions about the prevalence of crime (Chermak, 1994; Surette, 1992). These changes in public opinion about crime also may have far-reaching implications, particularly related to policy decisions (Chermak, 1994; Surette, 1992).

Despite the fact that property crimes are considerably more common, violent or personal crimes are covered more frequently by the mass media (Chermak, 1995; Gruenewald, Pizarro, & Chermak, 2009; Meyers, 1997; Paulsen, 2003; Pritchard, 1985). In fact, researchers have estimated that upwards of 40% of crime stories presented focus solely on violent crimes (Chermak, 1995; Graber, 1980; Humphries, 1981; Paulsen, 2003; Pollak & Kubrin, 2007). Such a finding, however, is not solely indicative of more contemporary media. In one study examining newspaper coverage between 1893 and 1988, it was found that violent or sensational crimes accounted for the majority of stories (Marsh, 1989).

Despite the abundance of coverage allocated to stories of the most serious and violent of crimes, not all cases will receive coverage (Chermak, 1994; Pollak & Kubrin, 2007; Weiss & Chermak, 1998). With the newspaper medium in particular, the ability to cover all crime events is limited by time or space constraints (Schildkraut & Donley, 2012). Accordingly, in order to capture (and keep) the audience’s attention, newsmakers often will focus on the most extreme cases. These cases are considered to be “high amplitude” (Johnstone, Hawkins, & Michener, 1994) and are described by Chermak (1994) as “those which deviate most from what is statistically normal” (p. 580). In addition to a greater likelihood of being covered, these cases also often garner more prominent coverage in the form of more articles, longer word counts, and better placement within the paper (see, e.g., Chermak, 1994; Paulsen, 2003; Schildkraut & Donley, 2012).

Some instances of homicide, despite being one of the rarest forms of crime, will receive no coverage at all. Schildkraut and Donley (2012), for example, found that 60 cases out of 223 (or 27%) occurring in 2010 did not receive a single mention in The Baltimore Sun’s coverage of local homicides. Paulsen’s (2003) study examining homicide in Houston, Texas, over an eight-year span yielded a coverage rate of just 69%. Homicides occurring in larger cities, such as Chicago (Johnstone et al., 1994) and Miami (Wilbanks, 1984), often yield low coverage rates (26% and 60%, respectively). Conversely, areas in which homicides are less common, such as Indianapolis (Weiss & Chermak, 1998) and Milwaukee (Pritchard & Hughes, 1997), often are found to have higher coverage rates (92% and 100%, respectively), likely due to the fact that these crimes are considered more statistically rare.

Even still, not all cases that are highly sensational in nature will garner equitable media coverage. This is particularly evident when looking at specific phenomena within the broader category of homicide, such as terrorism or mass killings. Both are highly sensational in nature, due in large part to their extreme statistical rarity. Still, that has not been sufficient to guarantee that a case will receive coverage. In an analysis of 412 terrorism incidents between 1980 and 2001 (just prior to 9/11), only 228 events were covered in the New York Times (Chermak & Gruenewald, 2006). A separate analysis examining 91 mass shootings between 2000 and 2012 revealed that 23% of cases received no mention in the same paper (Schildkraut, 2014; Schildkraut, Elsass, & Meredith, 2017). More broadly, a study examining the media coverage of mass murders between 1976 and 1996 found that newsworthiness of cases varied across space—that is, while nearly all mass killings were covered by local sources, a much smaller proportion of cases were successful in garnering national attention (Duwe, 2000).

Some crime events are statistical outliers when it comes to media attention, and the intensive and abundant coverage also can heavily influence audiences’ perceptions about all crime in general or related to a more specific subsection. These events are what some researchers referred to as “archetypal,” in that they become the standard to which all other events are compared (Muschert & Larkin, 2007). The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, for example, can be considered an archetypal case based on the amount and prominence of the coverage it received (see, for example, Monahan, 2010; Powell, 2011). Even nearly 15 years later, 9/11 continues to be a standard to which all other attacks are compared and serves as a cultural referent for all terrorist events.

Similarly, the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School can be considered the archetypal case for both school and mass shootings as the discussion about these types of attacks transcends campus walls (Altheide, 2009; Larkin, 2007, 2009; Muschert, 2007; Muschert & Larkin, 2007). In the first 30 days after the shooting, for example, the New York Times published 170 articles about the shooting (Chyi & McCombs, 2004; Muschert & Carr, 2006; Schildkraut & Muschert, 2014). Within a year of the attack, approximately 10,000 articles had been published in the nation’s 50 largest newspapers (Newman, 2006). Despite the fact that other shootings, such as those at Virginia Tech (2007) and Sandy Hook Elementary School (2012), were more lethal, neither was successful in garnering the same amount of media attention as their infamous predecessor (Schildkraut, 2012, 2014; Schildkraut & Muschert, 2014). Further, there remains a larger sample of crimes that will not garner significant or even repeat coverage, leaving news consumers with the impression that some are more important than others.

As noted, even when a crime event does receive coverage, the amount of coverage may vary in respect to prominence. This may be influenced by a number of different factors, including perpetrator characteristics (e.g., Duwe, 2000, 2005; Lundman, 2003; Schildkraut et al., 2017; Weiss & Chermak, 1998), newsworthiness of the victims (e.g., Paulsen, 2003; Schildkraut & Donley, 2012; Sorenson, Manz, & Berk, 1998), and event-level characteristics (e.g., Duwe, 2000, 2005; Schildkraut & Donley, 2012; Schildkraut et al., 2017; Sorenson et al., 1998). Prominence of coverage can be measured in several ways, including the number of articles a case receives, the word count or story length of the coverage, and its placement within the paper. Paulsen (2003) notes the importance of celebrated coverage—that is, those stories that are covered within the first 15 pages of the newspaper, with events printed on the front page considered the most newsworthy. Further, the frequency at which a story is covered (over how many days) also may be considered an indicator of newsworthiness (Lundman, 2003).

One consideration for the prevalence of news coverage of crime, particularly within phenomena and between cases, is that their portrayal in the mass media often is at odds with their actual statistical likelihood of occurring (Marsh, 1989). Homicide, for example, accounts for just 0.1% of all offenses known to law enforcement in a given year (U.S. Department of Justice, 2013). When examining just violent crimes, this rate increases, albeit slightly, to just 1.2% of known offenses (U.S. Department of Justice, 2013). Yet the amount of coverage, as highlighted here, provides readers with the impression that these events are occurring far more commonly than the statistics would indicate. Furthermore, many of these stories omit key information, such as just how frequently these events occur in relation to national crime statistics (Schildkraut, 2014). Providing such information, however, is instrumental in providing a basis of comparison upon which audiences can build their understandings about certain types of crime.

Newsworthiness of Victims

As noted, one of the many contributing factors that determine whether or not a case receives media attention is the newsworthiness of its victims. While numerous researchers have found that cases involving multiple victims or circumstances considered atypical in nature (e.g., Chermak, 1998; Johnstone et al., 1994; Paulsen, 2003), one key study examining disparities in coverage of Los Angeles, California, homicides highlighted the concept of the “worthy victim” (Sorenson et al., 1998). According to the researchers, these individuals were “[w]hite, in the youngest and oldest age groups, women, of high socioeconomic status, [and] killed by strangers” (Sorenson et al., 1998, p. 1514). Cases involving individuals who embody these any one of these traits are more likely to be covered in the news media; any combination of factors will increase not only the probability of media attention in general but also the prominence and prevalence of the coverage.

The question of whether the effect of the newsworthy victim holds in a more homogeneous population also has been considered by researchers. Weiss and Chermak (1998), for example, examined the newspaper coverage of the 106 homicides occurring in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1995. This city provided a unique opportunity to reexamine the disparity of coverage patterns by race because 75% of the victims in the study were black. Interestingly, however, this did not minimize the importance of the criteria Sorenson and colleagues (1998) had established. In fact, it was found that females, whites, and individuals killed in multiple victim situations garnered more words and articles, on average, as compared to males, blacks, and single victims (Weiss & Chermak, 1998).

Schildkraut and Donley (2012) also considered the newsworthiness of victims in a more homogenized setting. They examined coverage in the local paper of 223 homicides in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2010. Interestingly, their sample had an even greater concentration of non-white victims—in fact, approximately 91% of the individuals murdered were black, and 92% were males (Schildkraut & Donley, 2012). Nearly 75% of the cases in both groups were covered in The Baltimore Sun (Schildkraut & Donley, 2012). When looking at specific predictors of the coverage, however, the findings were mixed in support of Sorenson and colleagues’ (1998) model of the worthy victim. Specifically, though no characteristic (e.g., race, gender, age) of the homicide victim or of the location or event (e.g., median income, identification of a suspect, weapon selected) predicted whether or not the case would be covered, longer articles were written about the white victims and older victims garnered more articles. Additionally, while older victims garnered more front page and celebrated (in the first 15 pages) coverage, female victims actually correlated with less celebrated coverage (Schildkraut & Donley, 2012). In sum, the authors suggested that greater consideration be given to the context and content of the crime rather than a sole focus on demographic correlates of coverage.

Similarly, Gruenewald, Chermak, and Pizarro (2013) specifically sought to examine how newsworthiness varied among minority homicides and between male and female victims. Examining homicides in Newark, New Jersey, over a 10-year period, the authors found that when considering whether or not a case would be covered, the age of Hispanic victims was a significant predictor, in that older Hispanic victims were more likely to be mentioned in one or more articles, though age did not have a significant effect on the amount of such coverage (Gruenewald et al., 2013). Instead, when black victims were perceived to have exhibited deviant behavior, meaning that they had a prior criminal record or participated in drugs, gangs, or another form of illegal activity, their murders garnered fewer articles and fewer words than those victims who did not exhibit such conduct (Gruenewald et al., 2013). For male victims, as compared to females, the engagement in deviant behavior also resulted in significantly fewer articles and words as well as a decreased likelihood of coverage in the first place (Gruenewald et al., 2013). Female Hispanic victims also garnered significantly more articles and word counts as compared to other racial groups (Gruenewald et al., 2013). Accordingly, support for differences within the coverage of minority homicide victims, as well as compared to white victims, was found by Gruenewald and colleagues (2013).

These findings are not solely indicative of American media. One key study by Peelo, Francis, Soothill, Pearson, and Ackerly (2004) examined the newsworthiness of nearly 2,700 homicides occurring in England and Wales over a four-year span. More victims equated to more coverage, such that the likelihood of a homicide being covered increased with each additional victim (Peelo et al., 2004). The presence of a female victim also was statistically significant in explaining an increased likelihood of coverage (Peelo et al., 2004). Interestingly, while younger victims between the ages of 4 and 14 increased the likelihood of coverage, homicides involving the youngest victims (infants) were less likely to garner media attention (Peelo et al., 2004). At the same time, older victims (over 60) also were more likely to be covered in the papers examined (Peelo et al., 2004). These findings about age not only support Sorenson and colleagues’ (1998) but also highlight the curvilinear relationship between age of homicide victims and their likelihood of coverage.

Gilchrist (2010) expanded the body of literature on studies of newsworthiness beyond the mainstream American media by examining representations of missing women in Canada. There are, however, several additional noteworthy contributions of her study. First, Gilchrist (2010) compares a subset of the population—Aboriginal women—to white women to determine how media attention differs between groups. Additionally, she compared local coverage of these cases, examining the largest paper of record in the city where the case originated rather than relying on national sources. Finally, she utilizes a mixed methodology, combining quantitative and qualitative methods to understand the content differences in addition to the statistical differences (Gilchrist, 2010).

The comparison of Aboriginal and white women in Canadian newspapers yields several important findings. When first considering the article counts, stories that specifically discussed the cases of white victims were printed nearly three and a half times as frequently as stories about Aboriginal victims (Gilchrist, 2010). Specifically, when focusing on articles that simply mention the victims, this disparity increases to more than six to one for whites (Gilchrist, 2010). Disparity in coverage also was evident across the word counts of these respective stories. On average, approximately 45,000 words were printed for each white victim, yet Aboriginal victims received just under 10,000 words in text (Gilchrist, 2010). Average story length also tended to favor white victims, as Aboriginal women received 1.4 times fewer words per story (Gilchrist, 2010). Additionally, there were fewer front page stories for Aboriginals than for whites, with 25% to 37%, respectively (Gilchrist, 2010).

The qualitative examination performed by Gilchrist (2010) also further highlighted the disparity between perceived worthy and non-worthy victims. Headlines, for example, appeared to be more personally directed at the victims, such as specifically including their names, when the victim was white as compared to Aboriginal victims, who often were referred to in generic terms such as “woman” or “teen” (Gilchrist, 2010). Articles about the white victims were more biographical in nature, whereas the stories about the Aboriginal women were less detailed (Gilchrist, 2010). Although for both groups of victims positive characteristics were offered, these tended to be minimized or neutralized among the Aboriginal women (Gilchrist, 2010). Qualitative differences even were found among the types and placement of photos included with the stories, with those offered for the white victims being much more favorable than those for the Aboriginal women (Gilchrist, 2010). Altogether, the disparities in coverage of these two groups of victims highlighted commonly held perceptions about Aboriginal victims while subsequently emphasizing the worthiness of white women as victims.

Finally, coverage disparities also have been found to be evident between sources, even when discussing a highly sensational event. Muschert (2007), for example, found disparities among the victims of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, such that not all victims garnered the same amount of attention in the media. Specifically, Dave Sanders, the only teacher killed in the attack, was more prominently featured than any other victim (Muschert, 2007). Several students, including Rachel Scott, Cassie Bernall, and Isaiah Shoels, also garnered more attention than other students killed in the attack (Muschert, 2007).

Schildkraut (2012) similarly compared the coverage of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings in two national news sources—the New York Times, which takes a hard news approach, and the New York Post, which utilizes an infotainment format (see also Kellner, 2003). Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark, the two students killed at the first shooting in the West Ambler Johnston dormitory, were the most covered of any of the 32 victims (Schildkraut, 2012). At Norris Hall, the site of the second shooting, Holocaust survivor and professor Liviu Librescu was the most covered individual in both papers (Schildkraut, 2012). Interesting, however, was the disparity in how the two papers covered each of the victims. Each of the 32 victims received at least one mention in the New York Times. Conversely, only 2 of 5 professors and 7 of 27 students received even a single mention in the New York Post. In sum, even in the most extreme examples, disparities in coverage patterns among the victims is evident, which also can impact perceptions about such events.

Claims Making and Agenda Setting

The media, as Cohen (1963) has noted, “may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling people what to think about” (p. 13, emphasis added). This is accomplished through the process of agenda setting, which enables the media to highlight certain attributes of a given story and lend backing to a particular claim offered (Entman, 2007; McCombs, 1997; McCombs & Shaw, 1972; Weaver, 2007). As Sacco (1995) explains:

The ways in which the news media collect, sort, and contextualize crime reports help to shape public consciousness regarding which conditions need to be seen as urgent problems, what kinds of problems they represent, and, by implication, how they should be resolved.

(p. 141)

In this capacity, the mass media have an important role as they not only reflect what is occurring within society at a given time, they also have the ability to shape perceptions about issues and events taking place (Barak, 1994; Gans, 1979; Tuchman, 1978).

In order to understand the process of agenda setting, one first must understand who has the ability to shape a particular agenda—this responsibility falls to a group known as the claims makers. Claims makers conceptually can be divided into two groups—primary and secondary. Primary claims makers are those individuals who have exclusive or intimate knowledge about a particular issue (Best, 1989; Ogle, Eckman, & Leslie, 2003; O’Neal, 1997). Included within this group may be victims, witnesses, or experts in a specific area who are able to offer a different insight into the problem at hand (Best, 1989; Ogle et al., 2003). Conversely, secondary claims makers are further removed from an issue, instead often interpreting claims made by the primary group (Best, 1989; Ogle et al., 2003; O’Neal, 1997). They also may help to disseminate these same claims to the general public (Best, 1989; Ogle et al., 2003; O’Neal, 1997). To this end, the media serve as an example of secondary claims makers.

One of the main goals of agenda setting as posited by McCombs (1997) is to achieve consensus among the public about the importance or salience of a particular issue or topic. One way in which such is accomplished is through the presentation of the matter by and through the media. News producers call attention to issues that either may directly or indirectly affect a particular community by highlighting certain stories or issues as important or, to be more precise, as more important than others (Barak, 1994; Entman, 2007; McCombs, 1997; Reese, 2007). Over time, more coverage (in terms of time and space) can be allocated to highlighting this particular issue (Entman, 2007; McCombs, 1997; Reese, 2007). Subsequently, this increases the public’s interest in the matter, thereby making it a priority for such consumers (Entman, 2007; McCombs, 1997; Reese, 2007). At the same time, in response to such concern or attention to the issue, policymakers may offer proposed solutions that simultaneously can be pushed through as part of the respective agenda (McCombs, 1997).

What is perhaps most noteworthy about the idea of agenda setting is its related limited focus. Rarely does the news or public agenda focus on more than a few key issues at a time (McCombs, 1997; see also Baumgartner & Jones, 2010; Downs, 1972; Henry & Gordon, 2001; McCombs & Zhu, 1995; Peters & Hogwood, 1985). This is due, in part, to the fact that few issues are able to command the attention necessary to maintain its prominence on the agenda (McCombs, 1997); it also may be due, in part, to the public’s inability to broaden its focus beyond a limited scope. With this in mind, those issues that threaten society’s perceived stability (Gans, 1979) or that are the most serious or atypical in nature (Barak, 1994; Sacco, 1995) will be the focus of the media and claims makers alike. While this may seem to be a limitation, it is a benefit for the public at the same time because it allows a more complete, robust discussion to take place about the problem. Still, the media must be mindful of the way in which they portray such issues because that presentation has the ability to impact how the public perceives and understands the matter (Barak, 1994; Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007).

Furthermore, not only do few issues have the ability to capture public attention as it relates to agenda setting, even fewer have the ability to keep it long term. McCombs and Zhu (1995), for example, found that issues related to politics, government, and money have an average agenda lifespan of between three and a half and four years. Other issues on the public agenda, such as education, the environment, and welfare, average less than five months of attention (McCombs & Zhu, 1995). Even when considering crime news, and the most serious of crimes at that, the issue-attention cycle remains low. In fact, researchers (e.g., Chyi & McCombs, 2004; Muschert & Carr, 2006; Schildkraut, 2012, 2014; Schildkraut & Muschert, 2014) examining the average lifespan of mass shootings in newspapers have found coverage to be limited to just 30 days at most.

The process of events being introduced to the public through the media, gaining public interest, and then subsequently fading from the audiences’ radar while simultaneously being replaced with another story is what Downs (1972) refers to as the “issue-attention cycle.” Interestingly, there seldom will be overlap of two similar stories, even when the issue remains unresolved after being replaced with another story. As Downs (1972) further points out, “[p]ublic perception of most ‘crises’ in American domestic life does not reflect changes in real conditions as much as it reflects the operation of a systematic cycle of heightening public interest and then increasing boredom with major issues” (p. 39). Such a cycle, while being driven by the media, also may be indirectly impacted by politicians and pundits alike (Baumgartner & Jones, 2010).

The organizational structure of the media, particularly in how it varies across different agencies, will largely influence the way in which the agenda is set (Berkowitz, 1987). Often, the mass media will rely on public or political officials (including members of the law enforcement community) as their sources of information. In turn, these individuals step into the role of a primary claims maker with support from the media as secondary claims makers (Berkowitz, 1987). The role of the media, however, often is considered to be less passive than others who are highlighted as secondary claims makers. Instead, their role is considerably more active as news producers must consciously decide what stories to cover and which aspects of the topic to highlight once they do (Barak, 1994; Gans, 1979; Tuchman, 1978; Weaver & Elliott, 1985). At the same time, some elements of agenda setting may not be regarded as deliberate because they are an unintended outcome of simply reporting the news (McCombs, 1997).

Media Framing

One way in which the agenda by claims makers can be translated to audiences is through the manner in which the news stories are framed. The concept of framing first was introduced by Erving Goffman (1974) as a way to explain how members of society understand the world around them. Later research has applied his concepts to the media and its agenda-setting capacity, which particular emphasis placed on how political agendas are presented or communicated to members of society (e.g., Entman, 2007; Gans, 1979; Reese, 2007; Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007). As Tankard (2001) explains, a media frame is “a central organizing idea for news content that supplies context and suggests what the issue is through the use of selection emphasis, exclusion, and elaboration” (pp. 100–101). Media framing then has become a way for taking complex social issues and presenting them in a manner that makes them accessible and relatable to the intended audiences (Gans, 1979; Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007).

Entman (1993) has noted that framing can be thought of as “communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation” (p. 52). Reese (2007) further suggests that as certain aspects of a particular news story and its “reality” are emphasized, different media frames may surface. These ideas form the basis for understanding notion of content bias. Content bias has been described as patterns in framing that result from the influence of social institutions, media routines, or media hegemony (Entman, 2007; Reese, 2007; Shoemaker & Reese, 1996).

Much like the media itself, framing is not restricted to either a macro-level or micro-level construct; instead, it can address issues across both (Scheufele, 1999). More specifically, Scheufele (1999) notes that macro-level constructs, or those that rely on social and cultural processes, are used to explain how the media present the news so that it resonates with audiences. Conversely, micro-level constructs, or those that rely on individual participation for the construction of meaning, can help to understand how the audience uses the information presented to form impressions (Scheufele, 1999). This does not require, however, that the audience be familiar with a particular construct. As Scheufele and Tewksbury (2007) note, the members of the audience typically will be provided ample information about the topic through the media.

Framing of a news story, or more specifically a set of stories about a particular phenomenon, is rarely static. Instead, the movement between levels of space (e.g., whether a story is told at the local, regional, or national level) over time allows the media to change the presentation of information over a continuum, a process referred to as “frame changing” (Muschert & Carr, 2006, p. 747; see also Chyi & McCombs, 2004; Muschert, 2009). Muschert and Carr (2006) explain that the media can influence perceived public reality by changing the frames of the news coverage during an event (see also Muschert, 2009). The change in frames helps to highlight different features of a particular news story that the media select as important and ultimately newsworthy (Altheide, 2009; Cerulo, 1998; Chyi & McCombs, 2004; Muschert, 2007). This enables the media outlet to keep the audience hooked by providing fresh content or different ways in which to consider the issue (Altheide, 2009; Chyi & McCombs, 2004; Muschert, 2009). Ultimately, the saliency or importance to the public agenda of an event or issue is measured in the amount of news coverage it receives, and throughout their lifespans events will be reframed to keep interest piqued (Chyi & McCombs, 2004).

Creating Social Problems

The manner in which the public agenda is set by claims makers, coupled with the manner in which such stories are framed and disseminated, can lead to the creation of social problems. Social problems, according to Spector and Kitsuse (1977), are “the activities of individuals or groups making assertions of grievances or claims with respect to some putative conditions” (p. 75). These concerns may be real or perceived, but in either instance they have the ability to be shaped in the public agenda by claims makers or those people with the power to define them as problems (Best, 1987). Once they have convinced others that a problem exists, they are then able to offer a solution to the issue or, at the very least, a policy aimed at deriving such a solution (Best, 1987). The process of creating social problems in this sense is three-fold: (1) the problem is given a name; (2) examples are incorporated to help understand the problem; and (3) statistics are used to understand the problem’s magnitude (Best, 1987, 2006).

When giving the issue a name, claims makers are able to define the social problem so that people can easily identify it (Best, 1987, 2006). This also enables people to understand if the problem is new or if it has been in existence for some time and is simply reemerging (Best, 1987). In either sense, however, the problem is given a sense of originality that enables the public to be concerned over the issue at hand (Best, 1987). In some cases, claims makers purposefully will be vague in their definitions or highlight a problem without a precise explanation, thereby furthering the appearance of originality for the public (Best, 1987). This typically is accomplished by presenting the material in generalities rather than specifics, even when such hard-and-fast facts are available.

Examples also are used when construction social problems in the public domain (Best, 1987, 2006). While examples may generally be used in the discussion of a particular issue, claims makers often will focus on the most serious or extreme examples to highlight the seriousness of the problem (Best, 1987; see also Barak, 1994). One key example of this is the continual reference to 9/11 by President George W. Bush while campaigning for a war on terrorism. Examples such as this are relatable to the very people a claims maker is trying to convince of the problem and offers a point of comparison as to the importance of the issue (Best, 1987).

Finally, statistics or numeric estimates may be used to underscore the magnitude of the social problem at hand (Best, 1987, 2006; see also Barak, 1994; Sacco, 1995). Such figures enable claims makers to offer a context in which the social problem exists such that, in most instances, the larger the numerical estimate, the greater the problem (Best, 1987). By extension to this rationale, the social problem subsequently will receive more attention by the claims maker, the public, and the media (Best, 1987). Statistics further may be used to justify a particular stance of a claims maker on a particular issue or policy resulting from the social problem (Best, 1987), such as gun control, get-tough-on-crime strategies, or increased law enforcement patrols in areas of higher crime. One problem with the purported statistics, however, is that instead of offering context through which to understand the problem, they instead distort the issue’s actual prevalence (Best, 1987). Thus, not only does the process of claims making shape public perceptions of these social problems, but the broader reach extends to policy implementation, including such responses aimed at increasing social control, prevention, and awareness (Barak, 1994; Best, 1987; Sacco, 1995).

Audience Effects

Fear of crime resulting from the consumption of media has been the focus of a considerable body of research for over 40 years (e.g. Chiricos, Eschholz, & Gertz, 1997; Doob & McDonald, 1979; Heath, 1984; Jewkes, 2015; Liska & Baccaglini, 1990; Weitzer & Kubrin, 2004). The relationship between the media and fear of crime, as noted by one study, is predicated on “characteristics of the message, of the audience, and of the dependent measure” (Heath & Gilbert, 1996, p. 384). As such, research has focused not only on examining the different effects between media types (e.g., television vs. newspaper) but also across macro-level units (e.g., neighborhoods vs. cities or, in the context of news, local vs. national coverage). Jewkes (2015) notes that such examinations are important because the media can impact audiences both spatially and culturally. While spatial proximity focuses on how physically close the consumer is to the event, cultural proximity focuses on the importance and relevance of the topic to an audience (Jewkes, 2015). In order to get a complete understanding of how the media impact fear of crime, both must be examined.

Two studies (Heath, 1984; Liska & Baccaglini, 1990) specifically have examined the effects of crime presented in newspapers on fear of crime. Heath (1984) found that the most sensational stories have the greatest impact on readers. Liska and Baccaglini’s (1990) work had similar results, noting that stories about homicide are the most strongly correlated with fear of crime. It is important to note that while homicide makes up the smallest percentage of crime occurrences, it often constitutes the greatest focus of news stories (Liska & Baccaglini, 1990). Additionally, when these stories are not local to the reader, this can make them feel safe by comparison, as opposed to an abundance of local crime news, which increases fear of crime (Heath, 1984; Liska & Baccaglini, 1990). As Heath (1984) summarizes, “the worse things are elsewhere, the better we feel about our immediate environment” (p. 270).

Several studies (Callanan, 2012; Chiricos et al., 1997; Kohm, Waid-Lindberg, Weinrath, Shelley, & Dobbs, 2012; Romer, Jamieson, & Aday, 2003; Weitzer & Kubrin, 2004) also explored the effect of newspaper readership on fear of crime, but did so by comparing it to the television medium. Although older respondents were found to have significantly lower levels of fear, respondents who were female and black, or who were in locales where crime rates were perceived to be increasing, expressed higher levels of fear across both newspaper and television consumption (Callanan, 2012; Chiricos et al., 1997; Romer et al., 2003; Weitzer & Kubrin, 2004). Additionally, Callanan (2012) found that with high levels of television news consumption but not newspaper readership, increased fear of victimization and crime among Hispanics and respondents who had previously been victimized was present (see also Kohm et al., 2012). Television news was found to have a more significant impact on fear of crime than newspapers (Callanan, 2012; Chiricos et al., 1997; Kohm et al., 2012; Romer et al., 2003; Weitzer & Kubrin, 2004), particularly when the news was local (Romer et al., 2003; Weitzer & Kubrin, 2004). In sum, the effect of newspaper coverage of crime has been found to be both significant and far-reaching.

Primary Sources

There is no shortage of literature related to the study of crime news in newspapers, and the particular angle of this topic one wishes to cover can ultimately influence where such a search begins. Several staple pieces should be on any project list, including Harris’s (1932) early work examining how crime news is presented in newspapers and Schudson’s (1978) later work reviewing the history of American newspapers. Other key figures in this body of research include Graber (1980), Chermak (1995; see also 1994, 1998, and work with various colleagues), and Tuchman (1978). Edited volumes also can benefit an individual seeking to understand this topical area as it unites multiple articles covering an array of subtopics in one key work. Examples of such books are Barak’s (1994) Media, Process, and the Social Construction of Crime: Studies in Newsmaking Criminology and Reese, Gandy, and Grant’s (2001) Framing Public Life: Perspectives on Media and our Understanding of the Social World.

For studies examining the newsworthiness of crime victims, a standard work that provides a good starting place is William Wilbank’s (1984) book entitled Murder in Miami: An Analysis of Homicide Patterns and Trends in Dade County (Miami) Florida, 1917–1983. This work is one of the earliest media distortion studies available and serves as the basis for a number of other studies, including Gruenewald, Pizarro, and Chermak (2009), Johnstone, Hawkins, and Michener (1994), Paulsen (2003), and Schildkraut and Donley (2012). These latter articles build upon Wilbank’s work by exploring the newsworthiness of victims across different locations and time periods. Several of these studies specifically focus on disparities in coverage and newsworthiness among white and non-white victims.

In terms of general collections, scholarly research about the presentation of crime news has been found to transcend multiple disciplines, including communications and journalism studies, sociology, and criminology and criminal justice. Accordingly, there are a number of journals that provide a good starting point for finding resources related to the presentation of crime news. Several communications journals in which such research appears include Journalism & Mass Communications Quarterly, Communication Research, Journalism Quarterly, and Journal of Communication. Sociology journals, such as Social Problems, Sociological Forum, and American Journal of Sociology, also have published studies on the presentation of crime news in newspapers. Similarly, this type of research also has appeared in criminology and criminal justice journals including, but not limited to, Journal of Criminal Justice, Justice Quarterly, Homicide Studies, and Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture.

Further Reading

Barak, G. (Ed.). (1994). Media, process, and the social construction of crime: Studies in newsmaking criminology. New York: Garland.Find this resource:

Chermak, S. M. (1995). Victims in the news: Crime and the American news media. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.Find this resource:

Gieber, W. (1964). News is what newspapermen make it. In L. A. Dexter & D. M. White (Eds.), People, society, and mass communications (pp. 173–191). New York: Free Press.Find this resource:

Graber, D. A. (1980). Crime news and the public. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Harris, F. (1932). Presentation of crime in newspapers. Minneapolis, MN: Minneapolis Sociological Press.Find this resource:

Humphries, D. (1981). Serious crime, news coverage, and ideology: A content analysis of crime coverage in a metropolitan paper. Crime and Delinquency, 27, 191–205.Find this resource:

Lundman, R. (2003). The newsworthiness and selection bias in news about murder: Comparative and relative effects of novelty and race and gender typifications on newspaper coverage of homicide. Sociological Forum, 18(3), 357–386.Find this resource:

Marsh, H. L. (1991). A comparative analysis of crime coverage in newspapers in the United States and other countries from 1960–1989: A review of the literature. Journal of Criminal Justice, 19(1), 67–80.Find this resource:

Pritchard, D. (1985). Race, homicide and newspapers. Journalism Quarterly, 62(3), 500–507.Find this resource:

Pritchard, D., & Hughes, K. (1997). Patterns of deviance in crime news. Journal of Communication 47(3), 49–67.Find this resource:

Reese, S. D., Gandy, O. H., & Grant, A. E. (Eds.). (2001). Framing public life: Perspectives on media and our understanding of the social world. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Find this resource:

Sacco, V. F. (1995). Media constructions of crime. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 539, 141–154.Find this resource:

Schudson, M. (1978). Discovering the news: A social history of American newspapers. New York: Basic Books.Find this resource:

Surette, R. (2015). Media, crime, and criminal justice: Images, realities, and policies (5th ed.). Stamford, CA: Cengage Learning.Find this resource:

Tuchman, G. (1978). Making news: A study in the construction of reality. New York: Free Press.Find this resource:

Williams, P., & Dickinson, J. (1993). Fear of crime: Read all about it? The relationship between newspaper crime reporting and fear of crime. British Journal of Criminology, 33(1), 33–56.Find this resource:


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Callanan, V.J. (2012). Media consumption, perceptions of crime risk and fear of crime: Examining race/ethnic differences. Sociological Perspectives, 55(1), 93–115.Find this resource:

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Chermak, S. M. (1995). Victims in the news: Crime and the American news media. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.Find this resource:

Chermak, S. M. (1998). Predicting crime story salience: The effects of crime, victim, and defendant characteristics. Journal of Criminal Justice, 26(1), 61–70.Find this resource:

Chermak, S. M., & Gruenewald, J. (2006). The media’s coverage of domestic terrorism. Justice Quarterly, 23(4), 428–461.Find this resource:

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Graber, D. A. (1980). Crime news and the public. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Gruenewald, J., Chermak, S., & Pizarro, J. (2013). Covering victims in the news: What makes minority homicides newsworthy? Justice Quarterly, 30(5), 755–783.Find this resource:

Gruenewald, J., Pizarro, J., & Chermak, S. (2009). Race, gender, and the newsworthiness of homicide incidents. Journal of Criminal Justice, 37(3), 262–272.Find this resource:

Harris, F. (1932). Presentation of crime in newspapers. Minneapolis, MN: Minneapolis Sociological Press.Find this resource:

Heath, L. (1984). Impact of newspaper crime reports on fear of crime: Multimethodological investigation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47(2), 263–276.Find this resource:

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Humphries, D. (1981). Serious crime, news coverage, and ideology: A content analysis of crime coverage in a metropolitan paper. Crime and Delinquency, 27, 191–205.Find this resource:

Jewkes, Y. E. (2015). Media & crime: Key approaches to criminology (3d ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

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Kohm, S. A., Waid-Lindberg, C. A., Weinrath, M., Shelley, T. O., & Dobbs, R. R. (2012). The impact of media on fear of crime among university students: A cross-national comparison. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 54(1), 67–100.Find this resource:

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Lundman, R. (2003). The newsworthiness and selection bias in news about murder: Comparative and relative effects of novelty and race and gender typifications on newspaper coverage of homicide. Sociological Forum, 18(3), 357–386.Find this resource:

Maguire, B., Sandage, D., & Weatherby, G.A. (1999). Crime stories as television news: A content analysis of national big city and small town newscasts. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture 7(1), 1–14.Find this resource:

Marsh, H. L. (1989). Newspaper crime coverage in the U.S.: 1893–1988. Criminal Justice Abstracts, 21, 506–514.Find this resource:

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Muschert, G. W., & Larkin, R. W. (2007). The Columbine High School shootings. In S. Chermak & F. Y. Bailey (Eds.), Crimes and trials of the century (pp. 253–266). Westport, CT: Praeger.Find this resource:

Newman, K. S. (2006). School shootings are a serious problem. In S. Hunnicutt (Ed.), School Shootings (pp. 10–17). Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press.Find this resource:

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