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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Media's Growing Obsession with Crime Reporting

We are seeing a spike in crime reporting in our newspapers and in our broadcasts.

Has the Great Recession of 2008-2010 caused an outbreak of banditry, looting and murder as a result of the rise in unemployment? In fact, the opposite is true: the rate for violent crimes and crimes against property are falling according to police statistics in the US and Canada. Yet, the media, (with some exceptions) in their quest for ratings and circulation, seem endlessly fascinated with the lurid and the grotesque.

According to a 2006 Project for Excellence in Journalism study, local television news ("American journalism’s beloved but disrespected middle child") is most complicit in this trend.

While tv management argues that they are only giving the public what concerns them, critics say that this is nothing but panic-mongering and pandering.

The PEJ study looked at 28 supper hour tv shows in three cities and concluded that both management and the critics are right - but only to a point.

What does seem clear is that supper hour tv news give its viewers a massive nightly dose of weather, traffic and crime. Crime accounts for 48% of all programming. Serious stories are avoided ("too complicated") and national and international news is briefly mentioned, if at all, in announcer "voice-overs."

A subsequent study conducted jointly by PEJ with the Committee of Concerned Journalists showed that crime reporting is an audience killer - stories with a lot of flashing police lights and yellow tape actually drive the audience away, and measurably so.

While American tv news seems to be moving away from this trend as a result of the PEJ/CCJ survey, local CBC television news seems to have grabbed on to this losing format. CBC Radio and TV News is now filled with weather, traffic and crime.

Two reasons for this: one, crime reporting is cheaper to do, at a time when newsrooms are getting smaller even as the "news hole" is not. The newspapers and broadcasts must be filled.

Two, the CBC has hired Frank Magid and Associates to redesign newscasts. Magid was one of the more successful originators of the "if-it-bleed-it-leads" approach to tv news in the US. But as local tv seems less interested in this format, the CBC seems to be happy to adopt it.

This does not mean that crime reporting should be avoided. Sometime, specific crimes say something important about our society.

But devoting editorial resources to a story that is waning seems odd to me. Dan Rather has been quoted as saying that crime reporting in America has gone up 800% while during the same period (post-1970) crime rates have declined on average by 4%.

In Canada, the Conservative government is about to introduce a "get-tough-on-crime-bill" in the House of Commons. The CBC appears to be doing its best not to serve its audiences, but to serve the political interests of the people who ultimately control the CBC budgets.


  1. Perhaps the TV news obsession with violent crime can be considered an American news export? I am often distressed at the level of reality-seeming, fictional crime-oriented programming in prime time. These extremely popular shows reinforce a feeling of danger in urban America. I refuse to watch them because it seems that the common story line is "he stalked her." In recent years we've seen a greater convergence between news coverage and entertainment. I think the crime stories are part of that trend.

  2. No question that commercial tv in Canada has been a virtual clone of their American cousins. But the CBC?

  3. There's a third reason. As a corporate entity, the CBC has a history of jumping on trends in the outside media and corporate world. Over the years these have included downsizing, creative renewal, using focus groups, the :concept" of corporate synergies, use of time and motion analysts. There are numerous other examples. Now it's increasing the percentage of crime reporting. Trouble is, the CBC has been behind the curve on trends. Typically, they adopt things as the rest of the corporate world is abandoning them.

  4. True enough Mike. As someone recently mentioned to me, the CBC always seems to adapt trends five years after every one else. This is just (imo) to demonstrate that they really are just another commercial broadcaster.

  5. crime is part of our world like political issues. You can't hide away from it. Whats wrong with being educated?