Crime News on TV
Summary and Keywords
The discussion of crime news on television must begin with a basic cultural understanding that journalism is facing a time of dramatic change. Mitchell Stephens argued in his 2014 book Beyond News: The Future of Journalism that the news process remains challenging to define: “Journalism is the activity of collecting, presenting, interpreting, or commenting upon the news for some portion of the public” (p. xiii). In the case of crime news, a variety of historical developments changed the nature of newsgathering and presentation. Sociological and cultural theories help us understand the process, the content, and the effects. An examination of the various approaches to the study of crime news will extend cultural understanding to entertainment media and long-term societal implications of new technologies, such as social media.
The Origins of Crime News on TV
Early newspaper and radio news thrived upon the crime story narrative, so it should be no surprise that television news quickly adopted it as a staple. At the national level, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy marked the moment when network TV news emerged as what some called a main source for the public. Local TV newsrooms grew in the late 1960s at the same time that the nation was experiencing riots in major cities. In this time of social conflict, crime news coverage dominated portrayal of urban life.
In the United States in the 1970s, local “action news” formats, driven by live broadcast technologies and consultant recommendations designed to improve ratings, changed the nature of television news. Specifically, industry watchers perceived a shift from public affairs journalism about politics, issues, and government toward an emphasis on profitable live, breaking news from the scene of the crime. By 2000, NBC News Correspondent Jim Avila concluded, “The bar for local news has been seriously lowered over the past decade.” What he and other news people had not yet seen was that this change in content also would diffuse to national and international TV networks, as well as emerging cable and social and mobile media platforms. The decision to emphasize crime and mayhem over issues and substance, though, appears to be based more upon conventional wisdom about audience interests than research and data.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, violence often was seen within a political context. Twitter developed as a social media space for breaking news produced by traditional and new media voices. Periscope and other streaming video sources offered unfiltered views of crime news. Mass shootings at movie theatres, shopping malls, schools, and other public locations increased issue salience through media coverage. The Sandy Hook school shooting was an important U.S. event within the political context to change gun laws.
At the same time, police shootings sparked public outrage about gun violence and police responses. Twitter hashtags, such as #BlackLivesMatter and #SandraBland, were focal points for increased public interest. In some cases, TV news became the story, as journalists also were victims of gun violence. The mass media saturation of violence and crime news provided a broad context for politicians to take positions during the 2016 U.S. presidential election cycle—for and against gun control legislation. In early 2016, President Barack Obama sought to strengthen background checks and close gun-show loopholes in an effort to curb gun violence by restricting access to guns for those with mental health issues. By the time Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the close vote may have turned on TV news coverage of his portrayal of crime in the streets of Chicago and other major cities. At the global level, TV news coverage uses American news models to make crime a popular norm to attract and maintain large viewer audiences. Crime news on TV continues to construct and impact public perception of reality.
Digital Crime News
Local television news has been faced with an important challenge from new media technology—cable news channels, Internet websites, and digital satellite feeds available in their markets. The dominance local news broadcasts once held is slipping, as evidenced by declining local TV news ratings in most markets. Furthermore, as local television stations ignored issues and localism, viewers at the same time gravitated to the Internet. In response, local stations created web presences and emphasized the new medium. Among local television station websites ranked by adult share in 2001 included:
1. WRAL-TV.com, WRAL, Raleigh-Durham (19.4%)
2. Cincinow.com, WCPO, Cincinnati (15.8%)
3. 9News.com, KUSA, Denver (12.8%)
4. Newschannel5.com, WTVF, Nashville (12.8%)
5. Channel4000.com, WCCO, Minneapolis (11.5%)
6. WIStv.com, WIS, Columbia (10.9%)
7. 9Online.com, KWTV, Oklahoma City (10.9%)
8. KTVB.com, KTVB, Boise (10.7%)
It is noteworthy that some smaller markets took the lead in the digital media transformation. Many of these innovators continued to thrive in the early 21st century by also quickly adopting social media platforms and mobile media apps.
In early 2001, of 345 TV websites identified in a survey, more than half had attracted less than 4% of their markets. In Cincinnati, Denver, Des Moines, and New Haven, the top-ranking TV website had more visitors than the local online newspaper, and in many markets TV websites maintained leads over the local newspaper. A key factor was the availability of broadcast-quality streaming video on the sites.
TV’s emphasis on crime, dramatic video, and breaking news may or may not carry over to the online versions. The television program Cybercrime was one example of the movement toward the use of local television news values on websites. While television programs continue to show interest in crime coverage, some websites, such as crime.com, have transferred completely the genre of news to the web. One of the site’s pages features “amazing video,” “crime stories,” and “dangerous chases.” Crime coverage in cyberspace, however, may simply be a new way of communicating prejudice.
Local TV News
Critics of local television news would say that the reliance on crime and violent video is a turn-off for many viewers, but local TV news managers are quick to counter with the conventional wisdom that dramatic event coverage increases ratings. It is not clear whether alternative media will become a long-term challenger to local TV news, but it is true that most local TV stations are investing in their own websites. Additionally, many local stations have formed cable news partnerships to have more outlets for their product. This allows them to participate in the technological revolution.
Crime has been a staple in the definition of news for more than a century. It will continue to be considered newsworthy. In the foreseeable future, it is likely that crime coverage will continue to be important for local television news. The presentation of crime news, including the use of dramatic and violent video, will no doubt be an ongoing controversy.
At a theoretic level, scholars frequently turn to social theories, such as agenda setting, in which news content is seen as contributing to the identification and shaping of most important issues. Pavitt suggested that it is, “dependent on the news consumer’s need for orientation and the prominence given issues and events in the media” (Pavitt, 2016, p. 149). Crime video is dramatic and easy to use in television news stories—it plays to the framing of conflict. In the case of an arrest, for example, a prosecutor and a defense attorney will offer TV news reporter two different versions of reality.
TV Crime-Coverage Models
Broadcast managers are among those recognizing the limitations facing television when it comes to resisting the temptation to emphasize crime coverage. Surveys of local news directors found quality is limited by small staff sizes, limited resources, lack of ongoing training, and relatively little time within broadcasts for news reporting. Public affairs journalism takes additional resources, and more common crime content appears to drive local TV news ratings and profits. News consultants are understandably quick to support more of the breaking news format instead of more “risky,” difficult stories.
In one attempt to break out of the typical selection of crime news, KVUE-TV, in Austin, Texas, adopted five crime-coverage questions: “Is there an immediate threat to safety? Is there a threat to children? Does action need to be taken? Does the crime have significant community impact? Does the story lend itself to a crime-prevention effort?” This innovative approach, however, was not adopted as an industry standard. Still, some television managers have urged reporters to be more sensitive to the feelings of crime victims when asking for and conducting interviews. Similarly, there are relatively new concerns about how these stories affect news reporters, potentially rising to the level of post-traumatic stress.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism in 1999 studied local TV news over 3 years and found that stations emphasizing “quality”—defined as less crime coverage, fewer gimmicks, and more local issues—may build ratings. The stations had a willingness to be creative and to try new approaches that did not rely upon the old formula of emphasizing crime coverage. Stations that understand their local communities seem to do a better job of reflecting local values and providing coverage other than crime and violence. Similarly, Belt and Just (2008) found that during the 5 years they studied, conventional wisdom about crime and ratings was not supported by the data: in 33,911 stories from 154 stations in 50 TV markets, significant issue-oriented reporting appeared to do better in the ratings than crime or other news.
Key Research Findings
Academics have used a cultivation hypothesis in researching long-term effects of exposure to crime and violent TV content. Riddle et al. (2011) conducted an experiment that supported cultivation theory by finding that vivid memories of blood and gore magnified subjects’ real-world crime estimates, and indicating possible gender differences in retention of imagery.
Custers and Van den Bulck (2011) explored the relationship between viewing crime news and fearing crime. There appear to be different types of fear, as well as perception of risk. Viewing TV news may be considered an audience stimulus for responses, but so, too, are direct, personal experiences.
In their study of university students, Kohm et al. (2012) published cross-national data from the U.S. and Canada about cognitive, emotional, and behavioral dimensions of perceptions. While there were no statistical differences in concerns about crime, Canadian students appeared to have a high perception of the risk for violent victimization. Importantly, the data showed that local TV news salience and frequent use of social network sites did not predict fear. However, these variables did predict fear among U.S. students—even when controlling for residence in an urban low- or high-crime location. At the same time, viewing motives appear to offer a mixed explanation in the hampering or benefiting crime victims’ recovery processes.
Public Shootings and Other Breaking News on TV
Graber (2006) maintained that, “Media personnel are often the first to try to fit breaking events into a coherent story.” U.S. television news reporters frequently cover mass shootings, and Graber’s model helps describe what happens. Graber’s first stage in a crisis or disaster is typified by a “rush to the scene,” interruption of regular broadcast programming, and “a flood of uncoordinated bulletins announcing the extraordinary event.” This is followed by a second stage, in which “media try to correct past errors and put the situation into proper perspective.” The final stage in Graber’s framework suggests a media role in placing “the crisis into a larger, long-range perspective and to prepare people to cope with the aftermath.”
Shoemaker and Vos (2009) emphasized the importance of “raw” materials and sources in the newsgathering process: “News is constructed from a variety of raw materials, the most important of which is information from sources; reporters rarely use their own direct experience in covering an event.” In this view, journalists engage in a complex cognitive process: “Before a gatekeeper can decide whether a news item should pass through a gate, the gatekeeper must think about the item, considering both its individual characteristics and the environment in which the item resides.” Their model integrates a variety of cognitive and sociological theories to suggest the existence of a “source channel,” a “media channel,” and an “audience channel.” In this view, gatekeeping engages the audience through the gathering of information from “participants” and “observers.” Within an ongoing news cycle, three elements may drive coverage: the odd or unusual, threats to public well-being, and personal relevance.
Jamieson and Campbell (2001) noted that “hard news” emphasizes “ongoing” events during the past day, and crime stories fit this model. Violent crimes, such as murders, robberies, and rapes, are: definable events between individuals; dramatic, conflict-filled, and intense; disruptions to order and threatening to the community; short, simple, and verifiable stories; and visual and easily videotaped. Jamieson and Campbell (2001, p. 41) reduce the crime story to five characteristics:
1. personalized—through perpetrators and victims
2. dramatic—conflict-filled, controversial, and violent
3. actual and concrete
4. novel or deviant
5. linked to issues of ongoing concern to media
Local television news is seen as encoded to portray crime within a racial and economic context. Heider (2000) added that, by emphasizing crime, for example, in economically depressed neighborhoods, local newsrooms may reinforce stereotypes about minorities. Crime coverage, then, follows the structure and organization of police work that begins at the scene of a just-committed crime. Grossberg, Wartella, and Whitney (1998) observed that crime news “is organized in exactly the same way as the criminal justice system ‘organizes’ crime.” The argument is made that this organizational structure follows “routines,” and “the coverage tends to assume or take for granted the official organizational ideology.”
Local TV news emphasizes the earliest stage of crimes because “breaking news” from the scene is fresh, dramatic, and visual. Live shots, on-set debriefings, and other content may stray from scripted copy, which may lead to injection of reporter and anchor opinions. Mass media seem to be willing participants in creating social myths. In the words of Kappeler, Blumberg, and Potter (1993), “recurrent patterns” seem to “allow for an unprecedented amount of social attention to be focused upon a few isolated criminal events or issues.” Reality is socially constructed through brief and intense coverage.
Research on the social construction of reality by media draws from Berger and Luckmann’s (1966) seminal view that “all symbolic universes and all legitimations are human products; their existence has its base in the lives of concrete individuals, and has no empirical status apart from these lives.”
Lang and Lang (1984) added that viewers construct their own realities by interpreting news through a set of personal experiences. Tuchman (1978) goes further: “The act of making news is the act of constructing reality itself rather than a picture of reality.”
The framing of news may lead television reporters to search for crime news stories that are accompanied by dramatic video. A “common reality” may result from culturally shared meanings that emerge. Grossberg et al. (1998) view news storytelling as community shared meanings. Violent events, then, produce a crime scene that is made for television—emotionally charged sound bites from eyewitnesses or police, a mystery about what happened, a lot of activity by detectives, and other out-of-the-ordinary events captured on videotape. Baym (2000) adds that, in some cases, local television newscasts use We as a way of constructing “their authority to tell moralizing stories.” Anchors serve as both authoritative professionals and as the voice of the local community. Station resources like availability of live trucks, videographers, reporters, and engineers, affect the decision about how to cover a breaking event that is as large as a mall shooting, for example.
Police spokespersons, public information officers, and other authorities become the experts in setting the limits on which facts are viewed as important. So, while early in a breaking news story eyewitness accounts are important, norms of accuracy and the need to explain lead to a later emphasis on official sources. Those sources may have a calming effect on the public as the event evolves from moments of chaos toward a return to normalcy. Each event, however, has its own time frame. In this sense, local television news must yield to the conditions at the same time as it helps to frame the meaning of newsworthy events.
For example, consider a 2007 shopping mall shooting that happened in Omaha, Nebraska. A lone gunman entered a Von Maur department store and began firing a shotgun. As expected, local TV reporters rushed to the scene, but they did not know for hours that the shooter had turned the gun on himself. The shooter was white and a suburban resident, leading a reporter to conclude that, “no one would suspect anything like this.” The early December shooting led another reporter to say the holiday lights at the mall produced a “surreal” scene. “The bodies are still in there, as far as we know.” The shooting was the lead story that night on network television newscasts. NBC Nightly News began its newscast with the story labeled, “Gunman opens fire in mall in Omaha, Nebraska.” Anchor Brian Williams called it “an awful story,” as he introduced NBC reporter Jane Shamlian from the network’s Chicago bureau: “The following scene played out this afternoon in Omaha, Nebraska. People are Christmas shopping in a big shopping mall there, none of them, of course, with any reason to fear anything, and a young man opens fire. And tonight several people are dead.”
Shamlian: Brian, at the height of the holiday shopping season, a sniper took aim inside a mall, killing eight people before shooting himself. In an Omaha mall brimming with holiday shoppers, just before 2:00, the music of the season was shattered by gunshots.
Mr. Chuck Wright (Witness): I heard bang, bang, bang, again. I probably heard 12 to 15 shots.
Shamlian: Witnesses say a man dressed in camouflage positioned himself on a third floor balcony inside the Von Maur department store, pointed his rifle over the railing and started firing rapidly and randomly at unsuspecting shoppers and workers who filled the floors below.
Unidentified Woman: He just ran by me. That’s all I saw of him. I saw the gun more than I saw him. He had jeans on, or dark pants. That is all I saw.
Shamlian: People fell to the ground. More than a dozen were hit. The rest ran for cover, huddling under clothing racks, heading for cars and hoping they wouldn’t be caught in the crossfire.
Sergeant Teresa Negron (Omaha Police spokesperson): We sent every available officer in the city of Omaha that came to the mall in lights and sirens. Six minutes is the time that it took them to arrive here at the scene.
Shamlian: When it was over, among the dead the alleged shooter, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Tonight five people are still in the hospital, two of them critical. And our affiliate WOWT is reporting that the shooter was a 19-year-old with a pending court date who left a suicide note saying he was going out in style.
Williams: Janet Shamlian, starting us off from in--our Chicago bureau on this story tonight.
This was followed in the newscast by:
Brian Williams, anchor: This is, of course, a devastating story in the Omaha area tonight. Nightly News is not airing in that city so that they can stay with local news coverage. One of the local reporters who’s been covering this all day is Brian Mastre with our own WOWT in Omaha. Brian, we heard your anchors say earlier today this has changed Omaha forever. What more do we know about this young man?
Brian Mastre: Well, it’s just such a strange situation because you have the Christmas lights surrounded by a whole bunch of police lights and emergency vehicles in one of the up-scale malls in the center of the city. And only to find out that a man with the intention of shooting people at random went inside, went into an up-scale store, opened fire, walked through part of the mall, ended up at JC Penney’s, shot some more. At one point, Brian, he even shot a teddy bear.
Williams: Are witnesses reporting any more bizarre behavior—more bizarre obviously than a man opening fire—I heard somebody say he was heard talking to himself.
Mastre: Yeah, kind of muttering. They didn’t really understand what he was saying. But as we all know in these types of situations from covering them that they saw the gun, they saw the look in his eyes, and one woman said she saw the jeans, but she would never be able to pick out this guy. It was almost like the rage itself, they felt it and they just ran. And they ran behind closets into areas where they didn’t think he’d look, but they didn’t know if that next person coming in might be him.
Williams: All right, Brian Mastre, one member of our team at Omaha’s NBC station WOWT, following this story all day. We’ll continue to follow it overnight. We’ll have the very latest for you, of course, tomorrow morning on Today.
Local coverage of the events in Omaha continued for days, weeks and even years on the anniversary of the shootings. For the rest of the nation, however, the story faded in the 24-hour news cycle. Current research direction includes connections between mental health issues and crime, portrayal of race and coverage of mass shootings. When violence shifts from a school shooting to the framing as terror, a long-term narrative is likely to emerge within television news content. Coverage of terrorism, particularly since 9/11, has been treated as an ongoing TV news story, and it sometimes reflects crime and violence.
9/11 and Terrorism
After the September 11, 2001, attacks, the words “war on terror” emerged in the rhetoric of then President George W. Bush, and U.S. media adopted it as a catch phrase, shorthand for a sweeping set of military and domestic government actions. The social construction of the “war” may be seen as framing of violence. Before 9/11, terror was seen as affecting many nations and being about social conflicts. However, in the United States, 9/11 may have nationalized terrorism as isolated to the American effort to rid the world of al Qaeda and its progeny.
In the months following the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., Lule (2002) found that national news media in the United States played key roles in framing events, defining a social construction of reality, and influencing public opinion. The framing of news occurs when mass media select a relatively narrow slice of reality as newsworthy—specific people, facts, issues, and events. In doing so, TV news rejects a majority of other possibilities. The New York Times editorial page for example, could be seen as rooted in myth and storytelling about innocence, victims, heroes, and the future.
Framing as “an analytic technique” is central in the organization of events and issues. Researchers in 2004 found that frames may increase issue and or event salience through the selection of specific facts and omission of others from news stories. Frames may influence audience members’ issue perception and political evaluation. De Vreese (2004) suggested that, by sparking “trains of thought,” news is useful in the process of making subsequent political judgments. Framing by TV news may suggest norms of class, ethnicity, and gender, encourage or discourage media literacy among young people, offer adult context, and construct realities through political rhetoric. Edelman (1988) and other scholars explored a broad set of potential impacts.
Historically, research focused on government propaganda and counter-propaganda. Schudson (2002) argued that the 9/11 attacks forced the United States to develop and adopt language to describe terror. Political positions require development of cultural language. In the year following 9/11, academics like Carey (2002) and McChesney (2002) noted media use of vague language and lack of Middle East context, even though TV news had been powerful in defining events there since the first Gulf War in 1991. As was the case in earlier TV news coverage of war, media-selected experts were utilized. Karim (2002) argued that they owned “the dominant discourses on terrorism.”
TV news framing about terrorism may be understood from a cultural perspective. Carey (1992) linked culture to unifying media representations or “significant symbolic forms” and “expressive artifacts—words, images and objects that bore meanings.” Thus, “terrorism” is language in which “myth, ritual, … story, narrative, chronicle” helps strengthen social bonds. Karim (2002) noted that people using political violence may be “portrayed as criminals,” and this keeps public focus on violence instead of politics. Domestic propaganda about Islam may reconfirm Muslim stereotypes focused upon “violence, lust, and barbarism.”
TV news is ideal for framing myth and cultural ritual around events. TV news visuals take bits of social action and construct social meanings. Lenart and Targ (1992) explained how, by ignoring some facts and emphasizing others, the framing of political enemies is accomplished. Television news has a unique power to define events and make sense of political and social complexities. When it comes to difficult social issues, TV news video of people and events is a cultural lens through which broader public debate on politics and policy happens. TV news selects elite sources and then uses brief sound bites to construct social meanings. George W. Bush solidified an association between fighting a war in Iraq and the war on terrorism by telling news reporters in October of 2002: “They're both dangerous. We will fight, if need be, the war on terror on two fronts. We got plenty of capacity to do so.”
In this sense, TV news sound bites of presidential and administration rhetoric move statements from extreme to normalized over time within the culture. By October of 2003, it was acceptable to call the fighting “God's war against Satan.” By broadcasting political rhetoric without questioning it, TV news sensationalizes issues, attracts interest, and drives ratings-estimated audience size. Eventually, a phrase like “war on terror” becomes so culturally common that it can be used to promote news. ABC News, for example, on March 27, 2004, bumped a commercial break with this audience teaser read by the news anchor: “(Voice Over) When we continue, what some are calling mixed signals in the war on terror.”
Words are only part of what happens with TV news. There also are powerful images associated with nearly every story, such as images of Osama bin Laden or Saddam displaying and shooting weapons. These images have been frequently repeated on network news as file footage and may overpower the more carefully chosen words for a news report. The gatekeeping process of news, including news of terrorism, turns out to be a strange mix of news values, available sources, political concerns, nationalistic tendencies, economic realities, and cultural norms of interpretation.
Framing of terrorism, then, has at stake control of the political agenda. The framing of political enemies in media content, in part, appears to influence racial and cultural identities. The war on terror invites political leaders to assist, but also to manipulate, citizens in coping with their fears. The implicit message of TV news is to drive fears by reminding audience members that they desire security and safety, and that war and violence are justified to protect freedom.
The language of television news connects ideas, and it may manipulate how audience members choose to interpret social realities. As an example, Kuypers (1997) described coverage praising U.S. action while blaming stated enemies. Skillful manipulators use TV news as a propaganda tool. The control of TV news translates into a power to define language and events within a culture.
The increase in capital punishment in the United States since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 gave rise to media coverage at the state level, as the numbers of executions grew during the 1980s and 1990s. Local television newsrooms found dramatic and visual stories in coverage of executions. In Nebraska, for example, there were three executions of death row inmates in the 1990s. A first midnight execution at the state penitentiary drew supporters and opponents of capital punishment, and some news reporters reflected this as a “carnival-like atmosphere.” Officials responded to public criticism of the second and third executions by separating the crowds and moving the third execution to daylight hours.
Graber (2006) focused on the broader issue of media coverage of the criminal justice system. Crime news may account for more than 14% of all news across media—stories that may increase TV ratings. News values and organizational factors may help explain the appetite to present crime stories, including the resolution of social conflict through execution of convicts. Detweiler (1987) linked the showing of execution sites to journalists’ interest in raising public awareness of the capital punishment issue. Some journalists resist covering public demonstrations against the death penalty because they are designed to gain media attention.
Public opinion data show consistent support for the death penalty in the United States, although men or more likely than women to support it. Mass media are considered a main source of information that helps form views about the death penalty and crime in general. DeFleur and Dennis (1996) characterized the process as indirect, but long-term when it comes to how media coverage may help shape views.
Surrette (1992) saw public views of prisons and prisoners as an example of the social construction of reality, as news appeals to public voyeurism. The law-and-order news media perspective is reinforced by continuous interaction with police and authorities on stories that are covered and require official sourcing. Berger and Luckmann’s (1966) social construction theory emphasized symbolic meanings and social legitimation through construction of narratives. Likewise, Lang and Lang (1984) used social construction of reality as a research approach to understanding why television news emphasizes close-up visuals to create audience familiarity, a sense of participation, and increased perception of authenticity. These are important industry elements in TV, building perceived relationships with audience members. Pictures accentuate drama. Cohen, Adona, and Bantz (1990) concluded that television news “distorts” reality through simplification of complex social issues and magnification of conflict intensity by selection and editing.
Terror management theory has been used to explain themes of law and justice on television. Taylor (2012) studied death on TV. His research found that induction of mortality salience triggered a preference for law and justice themes on television. Trust in law enforcement showed no effect, but thoughts of death had unique effects. Entertainment programs that emphasized justice appeared to mediate anxiety related to death thoughts.
Depiction of crime and crime news, of course, also is frequently found within entertainment television programs. Kort-Butler (2012) studied superhero cartoons and found that depictions of criminality like those in news and adult shows also may be present in children’s shows. Three central themes—greed, self-interest, and criminal deviance from law-abiding norms—characterize a consistent dominant ideology. In a review of psychology and communication research, Comstock (2008) suggested that effects from violent media content appear to be strongest among certain social groups. Young people, for example, appear to be more vulnerable to television and film content, such as depiction of aggression and antisocial acts.
More broadly, researchers have observed a “CSI effect” on adult jurors. Heavy viewing of the forensic television genre of crime scene investigation appears to have an effect on juror decision making. Mancini (2013) found that heavy fiction viewers were more likely to vote to acquit defendants, but they were no more likely than others to mention DNA evidence.
Researchers have applied framing theories to crime news as a way to recognize dominant attributes. For example, McCombs and Reynolds (2009) reviewed studies examining themes of public order and free speech as “compelling arguments for their salience” (p. 7). In a more recent study, Parrott and Parrott (2015) found through qualitative content analysis research that fictional TV shows featured stereotypes and counter-stereotypes of mental illness. Television characters identified as having mental illness were more likely to commit crimes and violence, as well as to be victims.
In entertainment media, such as the acclaimed Marvel program Jessica Jones on Netflix, crime news may be portrayed as insignificant or in the background of what crime fighters know and do. Fiction requires viewers’ suspension of disbelief, and these portrayals of peripheral TV news—like the portrayals of ineffective authorities—need to be studied. It could be that entertainment media feed into viewers’ long-term cognitive structures about safety and security.
The concern about the amount and type of crime coverage on television must be balanced against widespread public concern about crime as an important issue. The public turns to local TV news as a key source for information, and the appeal of crime news will not go away.
To be meaningful, changes in the way local TV newsrooms do business must be substantive, and not just marketing ploys. Event-oriented crime coverage should be placed within a larger context of what it might mean to the community. Spot crime news coverage tends to be dramatic, and it can heighten fears, while such coverage does nothing to promote understanding of the causes of crime or the possible solutions. In-depth coverage that places a particular crime within a larger community context might help people engage in a discussion that leads to policy changes. In the end, the democratic model requires public participation in community life. The question for those interested in local television news is this: Can the change in the approach to covering crime satisfy both our social concerns and industry bottom-line pressures?
Entman and Rojecki (2001) have observed that media—news and entertainment in America—can be seen within a racial black–white context that influences public opinion, fails to explain policy choices, and maintains a form of racial segregation. At the same time, in areas like Central America, Martínez (2016) documented a history of violence in the culture. Television offers the public a glimpse into the world of crime and violence by showing dramatic images, but news coverage generally has been shown to fail to place events within a broader social context. It may be difficult and time-consuming to explore long-term political issues that offer no history of sustained media and public interest in the underlying causes of the televised events.
Research on crime news on TV makes linkages to genre, gender, sexuality, police, patriotism, and optimism versus pessimism. New technologies and new competition are dramatically affecting the local television news environment. Most stations have adopted the recommendations of TV news consultants to focus only on news and information that attract and maintain the largest audiences, as measured through TV ratings. This often leads to an emphasis on live, on-scene reporting, highly localized spot news, and health-related and other features. Crime coverage offers TV news reporters new and visual events that can be sourced through eye witnesses and police. The problem is that such coverage tends to be “episodic” and fails to place events within a larger context that would begin to explain why they happened.
Hard news coverage of dramatic and visual stories about violence in the community is easy within the extreme time constraints imposed by local television news formats—typically less than two minutes per story. These crime stories often fail to explain the larger context of violent events because data and issue evidence are complex and relatively boring to audiences compared to video of SWAT teams or crime scenes.
In contrast, a few news managers have attempted to chart a different course by offering alternatives and breaking out of rigid news formats. Stations leading newscasts with national and international stories that provided longer and more contextual coverage, however, failed to attract larger ratings, even when emphasizing interaction with viewers. These experiments were quickly replaced by the more typical action news and live news formats. Some select stations have been able to bridge crime news through public affairs reporting and investigative units that develop enterprise journalism.
One explanation for the persistent interest in crime news on television is audience fragmentation and commercial pressures. Webster’s The Marketplace of Attention (2014) noted that digital media division content may produce market segmentation, that contributes to social division. “In the extreme, they portend a society largely devoid of a common public sphere and polarized into isolated, even hostile, groups” (p. 19).
For television and crime news, National Public Radio’s Eric Deggans in 2014 saw a division between TV and social media. In coverage of cases, such as the murder of Trayvon Martin, editing of facts demonstrated ethical lapses, lawsuits, and staff firings. “Absent direct evidence, the struggle for answers often pushed journalists into a fight over the images of both victim and killer” (p. 195). TV news coverage of crime, it seems, has become problematic within difficult industry conditions—what Strangelove (2015) called a “post-TV” era: “These economic and political inequities provide fertile ground for a disruptive post-television culture to take root among the online audience” (p. 246).
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