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This research paper provides an evaluation of quantitative news media studies of crime. The paper includes a summary of how scholars have approached the study of news media using quantitative content analysis over the last 20 years by identifying what type of news media have been studied, how they have been studied, sampling designs, types of analysis conducted, and how reliability issues have been addressed. In addition, gaps in the approach and specific suggestions for moving forward in this important research area are discussed.
Studying the presentation of crime and criminal justice in the news media is important for several reasons. First, most of the public has infrequent direct experiences with the criminal justice system. It is because of this limited direct experience with crime that the media have great potential to influence how the public thinks about it.
Second, the news media are critical to public debates about policy issues. The public is overwhelmed with the amount of information available on various issues and is ill-equipped to do the types of analysis that might lead to a critical understanding of these issues. What the media provide is a brief, limited discussion of the factors related to policy decisions. Policymakers recognize the significance of the media, providing reporters access to information, hearings, and individuals that can provide the context that guides these debates.
Third, although scholars have historically been interested in understanding the images of crime and criminal justice, this interest appears to have grown dramatically in the past 20 years. For example, research indicates that only 36 crime and media studies were published between 1975 and 1995 (Chermak 1998). In contrast, research conducted for this research paper identified nearly 100 studies published between 1990 and 2010 to examine. There are multiple factors that have probably contributed to the increases in research in this area, including the general awareness of the important role that media play in society, the increase in number of news outlets, and changes in how the public engages the mass media. Scholars appear to have taken note of these factors, and the end result has been a significant increase in research examining media, crime, and society.
In the sections that follow, quantitative media content studies are examined. In the next section, what has been uncovered in past research is highlighted. The methodology used to evaluate the quantitative media research is then discussed. The findings are then discussed and followed by a conclusion.
Prior Research Examining Crime News
This section reviews studies that have used quantitative content analysis to examine news media portrayals of crime. First, a brief overview of common theoretical approaches used by scholars to explain apparent discrepancies between the actuality of crime and news media representations of crime is discussed. Second, a selection of key findings from relevant studies are highlighted. Third, how past research findings vary across types of media and research designs is addressed.
In the past, scholars have relied primarily on two general theoretical frameworks to account for discrepancies between news media representations of crime and the actuality of crime captured in crime statistics. The first explanation suggests that crime news content is shaped largely by the structure of the dynamic news-making process and the need to efficiently package and sell news to audiences (Fishman 1980). Scholars have used this structural perspective to explain why extraordinary, and especially serious, crimes are overemphasized in the news. The second explanatory model maintains that cultural typifications, often based on shared expectations of “normal crime” participants and situations, influence crime story coverage decisions. This perspective explains why racial and ethnic minorities are often portrayed differently than whites as crime participants.
Crime is an everyday occurrence, and crime stories are a consistent feature of the daily news cycle (Chermak 1994; Graber 1980; Surrette 1998). The constant stream of potential crime stories requires reporters to make daily news selection decisions. Newsmakers select which crimes fill available news space and which crimes are ignored. To work most efficiently, “crime beat” reporters develop relationships with sources that provide reliable information about local crime (Chermak 1994; Ericson et al. 1989). Reporters’ close working relationships with police are especially useful because they permit access to official information about crimes from trustworthy sources. As police largely control the information released to reporters, official police sources maintain substantial influence on crime news coverage (Ericson et al. 1989).
Crime reporters also take cues from fellow newsmakers regarding which crimes stories are of most interest to audiences (Ericson et al. 1987, 1989). Understanding audience preferences is important to selling news (Chermak 1994; Sheley and Ashkins 1981). For instance, research has shown that media consumers are often most interested in “human interest stories” or stories with which audiences can sympathize. Such stories tend to simultaneously evoke sympathy for victims of crime and disdain for those that commit them. Newsmakers also consider crimes involving extraordinary or novel circumstances newsworthy and likely to catch consumers’ attention. Serious crimes, usually involving acts of street violence, are also considered particularly newsworthy and lead newsmakers to adopt the mantra of “if it bleeds, it leads.”
The first explanatory model suggests that organizational practices of news agencies and shared understandings of newsworthiness structure the news-making process and result in discrepancies between news media representations of crime and crime statistics. Moreover, it has been suggested that overemphasis on novel and serious forms of violence may lead to increased public fear of crime and perceived risk of victimization (Liska and Baccaglini 1990). Disproportionate amounts of coverage devoted to crimes against females or vulnerable groups, such as children and the elderly, create the false impression that these groups are the most likely to be targeted. This is especially true when crime stories fail to provide adequate context.
The second explanatory model suggests that news media rely on cultural understandings of “normal” crime elements and expectations of typical victims and offenders (Pritchard and Hughes 1997; Sudnow 1965). This perspective maintains that traditional indicators of newsworthiness, such as novelty and crime seriousness, may be less important for explaining why some crime participants receive disproportionate amounts of news attention. This perspective maintains that newsmakers rely on cultural scripts that outline typical victims and offender types and typical criminal situations in which they are most likely to be involved (Gilliam and Iyengar 2000). Crime scripts are rooted in gendered and racialized stereotypes of crime participants and the criminal behavior most associated with them. Negative portrayals of racial minorities as threatening predators may be linked to the dominant ideologies and worldviews of news agency personnel (Bjornstrom et al. 2010; Blalock 1967). Scholars have relied on this perspective, for instance, to explain why relatively rare forms of violence, such as female-on-male crime or white-on-black crime, receive disproportionately less news attention despite representing uncommon crime characteristics (e.g., Lundman 2003). In sum, the cultural typification perspective remains useful for explaining discrepancies between actual criminal participation of racial and ethnic minorities and news media portrayals of minorities as crime victims and offenders.
Key Findings Of Past Research
Drawing from these theoretical perspectives, prior content analyses of crime news have revealed that news media representations are often misaligned with established crime patterns. Most studies have focused on print news, though others have also examined television news (Entman 1992; Entman and Rojecki 2000; Graber 1980; Sheley and Ashkins 1981). While similar news-making processes dictate selection decision-making for print and television news media formats, representations of crime vary across formats (Ericson et al. 1991; Sheley and Ashkins 1981). Television news content, for instance, is focused more on capturing stories visually through dramatic imagery. Therefore, stories that can be told through brief video footage are often preferred. Selling television crime news is also much more competitive than selling newspapers due to the presence of rival news organizations contending for ratings, thus making marketability more important than newsworthiness (Sheley and Ashkins 1981). While newspaper editors have more flexibility in filling news space (Chermak 1995:122), telling crime stories in video segments that may last just minutes or less can be challenging.
One of the most consistent findings has been that violent crimes are overrepresented in news media (Chermak 1994; Ericson et al. 1991; Graber 1980; Surrette 1998). In one notable study, Graber (1980:39) found that murders made up only 2 % of Chicago crime and over 26 % of all crime mentions, while the more common and less serious crimes received substantially less coverage. The few studies that have compared news media coverage across multiple research sites have found that this finding holds across cities (e.g., Graber 1980). Furthermore, it tends to be the most heinous of violent street crimes that are likely to be covered and sensationalized. Relatively rare forms of serious violence, such as murders involving multiple victims or random victims, are considered particularly newsworthy (Hall et al. 1978). On the other hand, nonviolent forms of crimes (e.g., white-collar crime) receive less attention from the news media (Chermak 1995; Graber 1980).
As for portrayals of crime participants, females generally receive more news attention as crime victims compared to males. Other victims that can be portrayed as vulnerable, such as especially young and elderly victims, are also considered “worthy victims” and receive disproportionate news attention (Chermak 1994; Graber 1980). The opposite is generally true of offenders, as male offending tends to be overrepresented by news media. Victims involved in deviant lifestyles (e.g., gangs, drugs) may also be considered less worthy victims and receive substantially less news media attention (Chermak 1994; Pritchard and Hughes 1997; Gruenewald et al. 2011). Research has found that the race of crime participants also remains important. Past studies, for instance, suggest that whites are more likely to be portrayed favorably as victims, while victims of color are more likely to be portrayed less favorably and are generally overrepresented as offenders (Bjornstrom et al. 2010; Chiricos and Escholz 2002; Dixon et al. 2003; Entman 1992; Entman and Rojecki 1994, 2000).
Different research approaches have been used by scholars to analyze crime news content. These approaches can be distinguished by if, and how, they rely on outside sources of crime data. One approach, for instance, has been to study news media crime content for a particular period of time without comparing crime representations to actual crime statistics. This type of study is concerned with content-analyzing characteristics of crimes that are covered, thus ignoring crimes not covered by news media. Studies have compared characteristics and roles of crime participants across race and gender categories (e.g., Dixon et al. 2003). This research has found that racial-ethnic minorities are more likely to appear as dangerous offenders linked to street violence than as victims (Chiricos and Escholz 2002; Dixon et al. 2003; Entman 1992; Entman and Rojecki 1994, 2000). On the other hand, other racial minorities, such as Latinos and Asians, are often underrepresented as crime participants.
A second approach has been to compare news media coverage of crime to aggregate crime statistics in order to gauge the extent that news reflects the actuality of crime. Past research on news media coverage of crime has suggested that “.. .media crime reporting apparently bears little resemblance to the ‘reality’ of police statistics” (Sheley and Ashkins 1981:503). Official crime data sources aid in capturing general patterns of known crimes. Some scholars have relied on aggregate crime statistics, such as those from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, and local news media coverage in a particular city to study news portrayals of crime. Others have used police statistics from a single city. Graber’s (1980) seminal study comparatively examined Chicago police department crime statistics and local newspaper coverage (Chicago Tribune). In another important study, Chermak (1995) examined representations of crime victims in the news media for multiple cities and found that news media representations of crime are distorted in a number of ways. In particular, his research demonstrated how serious crimes and crimes against victims belonging to vulnerable groups received disproportionate news attention. Contentanalyzing crime stories from multiple print and electronic news sources, Chermak (1995) compared incident, suspect, and victim crime characteristics presented in Uniform Crime Report statistics. Overall, Chermak’s (1995) work revealed how these characteristics interacted to affect the newsworthiness of criminal events.
A third avenue of research has been to comparatively examine local news coverage of actual crimes. Though there have been exceptions (e.g., Sheley and Ashkins 1981), nearly all of these studies have focused on newspaper coverage of homicides. There are a number of benefits to conducting his type of content analysis (Pritchard 1985). One benefit is that it is possible to ensure that crimes are occurring within geographic locales that news organizations actually cover. Linking local coverage to local crimes guarantees apples are not being compared to oranges (Pritchard 1985:501). Another benefit to comparing local news coverage to actual crimes also helps to ensure that crimes actually occurred during the time period under consideration by content analysts. Most importantly, however, is that linking actual crime data with local news coverage allows content analysts to comparatively examine the similarities and differences between crimes that are covered with those crimes that are ignored (Pritchard 1985).
The vast majority of these “distortion analyses” have studied homicide (Gruenewald et al. 2011; Johnstone et al. 1994; Lundman 2003; Peelo et al. 2004; Pritchard 1985; Pritchard and Hughes 1997; Sorenson et al. 1998). In addition to being the most serious form of violent crime, studying homicide in this way has strategic advantages. In particular, police homicide data are likely to be reported and fully investigated. This process often creates lengthy, in-depth detectives’ records that identify characteristics of offenders, victims, and situations. These characteristics then become both “search words” when seeking news media coverage of each homicide and potential indicators of newsworthiness for newsmakers to use in their news decision-making.
Findings have emerged from this growing body of research that supports both the structural and cultural explanations of crime news media distortion. Similar to findings on crime news in general, past studies have found that homicides viewed as more serious or extraordinary, such as those involving multiple victims, tend to receive more newspaper coverage (Johnstone et al. 1994). In addition, victims perceived as “vulnerable,” such as young or elderly victims, are generally overrepresented (Sorenson et al. 1998). As for race, white victims are more likely to be covered than racial and ethnic minority victims (Johnstone et al. 1994; Peelo et al. 2004; Sorenson et al 1998). When black and Hispanic homicide victims receive news print coverage, then it tends to be less extensive coverage (Lundman 2003; Pritchard and Hughes 1997). Cultural typification explanations have also been utilized to explain discrepancies in news media coverage across race. While female homicide victims are also considered more vulnerable and newsworthy than male victims, recent studies have found that the victim and offender race may, in some instances, make female victim homicides less newsworthy (Lundman 2003). Other similar studies have found support for the claim that newsmakers rely on cultural scripts based on racialized and gendered stereotypes to evaluate crime story newsworthiness (Pritchard and Hughes 1997; Gruenewald et al. 2011; Lundman 2003).
This section discusses the basic characteristics of the sample of articles, presenting information about the frequency and types of journals that published media and crime-related content analyses, the types of media sources used in each study, the research methodologies employed, the level of statistical analyses, and finally reliability issues. Between 1990 and 2010, 95 articles were published that used content analysis of one or more media sources to study crime or the criminal justice system. Of those articles, only 25 % were published prior to 2000, while the remaining 75 % of the sample was published between 2000 and 2010. The identified articles were in 54 different journals, with Criminal Justice & Popular Culture publishing the most (n =7), followed by Justice Quarterly (n=5), Deviant Behavior (n=4), and Journalism Quarterly (n=4). The remaining 50 journals published less than four articles each over that 20 year period, 31 of which only published one article.
The topics explored in the 95 articles varied widely. Some types of crimes researched included homicide, terrorism, illicit drug use, domestic violence, identity theft, white-collar crime, carjackings, and school shootings. Other factors studied in relation to media coverage of crime included characteristics of victims and offenders such as their race/ethnicity, gender, age, and where they lived. Although the crimes and themes studied were not consistent, all used some type of media and content analysis to answer their basic research questions.
In order to identify the media and samples used in the studies, each article was coded for the media type, number of sources, sample dates, keywords used to identify appropriate content, and the subsequent sample size. These studies used a range of media types to answer their research questions. Data from newspapers were used in 77 % of studies, 28 % of studies used television news, and 7 % use magazines such as Time or Newsweek. In addition to media sources, 41 % of the articles supplemented their content analysis with non-news sources, such as police and court data, census data, survey data, and even medical records and coroner reports. Of all the articles reviewed, 85 % listed the number of sources they used for the content analysis. In 22 % of that subsample, only one media source was used, while almost a third of the articles used two or less sources. The vast majority of articles (78 %) used ten sources or less. When considering the full range of sources used, one article used 771 sources, skewing the average numbers of sources used to 21, even though the median number of sources used was 4, and the mode was 1.
Ninety-five percent of the articles specified the date range used to collect their sample. The earliest start date for materials used in the content analysis was 1892, while one study each collected data beginning in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Three studies began collecting data in the 1970s, 15 in the 1980s, 52 in the 1990s, and 16 after 2000. A little less than a third of the studies had a date range that was a year or less (31.1 %), 46.7 % took their sample from 2 years or less, and 81.1 % of the articles took their sample from a time period that was 10 years or less. The average time period from which a sample was drawn was 2,303 days (63 years) and the median was 1,096 (3 years). The minimum number of days was 3, while the maximum was 14,608 days or 40 years.
Within the identified sources, 59 % of all articles in the sample reported using some form of keywords or phrases to search for materials. Of that 59 %, 36 % did not list the keywords or phrases used. Of the remaining 64 %, the average number of keywords or phrases used was 47, with a median of 2 and a mode 1. In addition, only 28 % of all studies also used some type of random sampling to select media content, while the rest collected data on a universe of coverage. Sampling techniques used included simple random samples, stratified sampling, and constructed weeks. The units of analysis varied across study, some of which included newspaper articles, television news stories, quotes, and crime events. Almost all articles (97 %) reported their sample size. The smallest sample size was 23 and the largest was 55,000. The mean sample size was 1,771 and the median was 474. Thirty-seven percent of the studies had a sample size of 200 or less, and three quarters had a sample size of 1,000 or less. Within each sample, the number of variables used in each study ranged from 1 to 51, with an average of 11 and a median of 9. A little more than 40 % of the articles collected data on more than 10 variables. Some of the variables of interest included source type, crime type, location in paper, number of stories per crime, article or report length, and victim, offender, and incident characteristics.
Specific to the types of analyses presented in each article, the highest level of analysis for 26 % of the articles was multivariate, while 28 % analyzed data at the bivariate level, and 45 % presented information using only univariate analysis. Types of multivariate analysis included binary and multinomial logistic regression, OLS regression, path analysis, Poisson regression, negative binomial regression, and time series analysis. In addition, 19 % of the studies supplemented the empirical component of the research with a qualitative component. Importantly, only 41 % (n =39) of the studies reported measuring reliability. Of that 41 %, all but one of the authors provided the actual reliability statistic. The lowest reliability score reported was 0.10, while the highest was 1.00. The average reliability score reported was 0.88 with a media score of 0.89. The types of reliability scores reported included Cohen’s Kappa, Scott’s Pi, intercoder reliability, coefficient of reliability, and Cronbach’s alpha.
This descriptive information produces an idea of the type and frequency of articles being published that use a content analysis of media to look at one or more aspects of crime and the criminal justice system. In the next section, the implications of this data on the current and future field of crime and media research are discussed.
After reviewing previous research that has studied media coverage of crime and criminal justice, this research paper discussed preliminary findings from a study of all peer-reviewed articles published on these topics between 1990 and 2010. This study focused only on articles published about media organizations in the United States. It is important to note that books, edited volumes, and book chapters were excluded from the analysis. There were several critical findings that were discovered. First, the use of quantitative content analysis has grown dramatically. There are several explanations for this growth, including that several disciplines, including criminal justice and criminology, have increasingly relied on quantitative methodologies and access to media content is virtually uninhibited because of open source databases and newspaper retrieval services. Second, most of the studies have been published in the past 10 years. This provides evidence that the field has embraced these technologies and there are much higher expectations regarding the level of sophistication with media analysis. Third, it is interesting that most of the studies focus on a single type of medium (either newspaper or television) and articles are selected from a narrow range of sources. This is somewhat surprising because access to a broad range of sources is relatively easy because of the existence of multiple media databases. Fourth, it is also important to note that almost 75 % of the articles relied on simple statistics rather than multivariate analysis. Although quantitative content analysis has grown dramatically, there still appears to be a lack of sophistication and rigor regarding statistical analysis. Finally, less than half of the articles reported basic reliability statistics.
This is an important study that should open up dialogue about the use of different statistical techniques to study crime and justice in the news. Future research should look more closely at the variations in coverage by discipline, topic, and media source. The vast majority of articles using multivariate statistics use what has been referred to as “media distortion analysis” – where the researcher compares an “objective reality” to a “media reality.” Other studies of basic content issues, however, continue to rely on simple univariate statistics. Although these studies provide some general understanding of the coverage of key issues in the media, future research will have to consider how such statistical techniques might be more broadly used.
Media studies are critically important and engage various issues and different disciplines in interesting ways. This study provided evidence of this impact and revealed a wide variety of disciplines that have examined how news media cover crime-related issues. The good news is that scholars are looking to various types of methodologies and techniques to study these issues more closely. The downside is that there remains much room for improvement. It seems vital that future research continues to consider how different methodologies (both quantitative and qualitative) and statistical techniques can be used to further the understandings regarding images of crime and criminal justice in the news.
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