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Journalists of varying stripes are sometimes accused of misrepresentations and distortions in their coverage of crime. One major criticism has been that news coverage frequently reflects biases in reporters’ and editors’ own worldviews. Another involves concerns about journalistic philosophy—in particular, the still widespread belief that the press can and should be objective—that may lead, intentionally or not, to distortions in the way that news is presented to the public.
The media have often been accused of circulating stereotypes through news coverage. For example, as Columbia journalism professor Helen Benedict has shown, news coverage of violence against women has often been sexist, portraying victims as either innocent virgins or promiscuous vamps. This portrayal can have troubling consequences for women attempting to prosecute cases of assault and may lead to blaming victims for the assaults they suffered. For example, in the well-known 1983 New Bedford, Massachusetts, gang rape case—on which the award-winning film The Accused was based—the character of media coverage of the victim as a single welfare-mother may have contributed to some people wondering, “Why wasn’t she home with her kids?”
In the New Bedford case, too, even further hostility toward the victim resulted from local reporters repetitively referring to the defendants as the “Portuguese rapists.” Since New Bedford, Massachusetts, has a long history of anti-Portuguese discrimination, these media references fanned defensive community reactions and also inflamed blaming-the-victim attitudes directed at the young woman who had been assaulted.
Not only ethnic but racial biases also surfaced in the well-known 1989 New York City “Central Park jogger” case when activists objected to local newspapers’ mistakenly coining the term wilding and to some journalists’ Darwinistic usage of “wolfpack” language to characterize a crime journalists assumed to be a gang rape.
The national media followed suit in assuming that the Central Park jogger was attacked by a group of youth. Yet in 2001, many years after the conviction of several minority and working class youth who served lengthy prison sentences, these young men’s sentences were commuted. In that year, a DNA match confirmed convicted rapist Mathias Reyes’ confession that he alone had brutally assaulted the young woman in Central Park. Apparently, biased race and class-based assumptions had led journalists, in conjunction with criminal justice officials at that time, to a rush of judgment. Thus, unless monitored, media biases and distortions can have worrisome consequences for the legal system and for public policy.
Beliefs in Objectivity
Many journalists, particularly in what have been called mainstream news outlets (as opposed to alternative newspapers, television stations, and other new forms of media), are committed to the concept of objectivity. They try to highlight two sides to every story and to hold to principles of value detachment. Yet many scholars and media critics assert that this common journalistic philosophy obscures what are actually unequal social relations; for example, as a result, an individual and a corporation may appear to have analogous power in a given news story. According to sociologist Todd Gitlin, such practices can even contribute to the decline of social movements, as he asserts happened through the media’s destructive effects on Students for a Democratic Society in the Vietnam era.
- Benedict, H. (1992). Virgin or vamp? How the press covers sex crimes. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Chancer, L. (1987). New Bedford, Massachusetts, March 6, 1983-March 22, 1984: The “before” and “after” of a group rape. Gender & Society, 1, 239-260.
- Chancer, L. (1996). O.J. Simpson and the trial of the century? Uncovering paradoxes in media coverage. In G. Barak (Ed.), Representing O.J.: Murder, criminal justice, and mass culture. New York: Harrow and Heston.
- Gitlin, T. (1980). The whole world is watching: Mass media in the making and the unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Clarke, J., & Roberts, B. (1978). Policing the crisis: Mugging, the state, and law and order. London: Macmillan.
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