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How the media represent crime, and particularly crimes involving violence, has been the subject of innumerable scholarly and popular treatments. Ray Surette and Gregg Barak are among the many criminologists in the United States who have noted how journalists, nationally and internationally, believe that crime stories sell. This belief is even more the case when crimes involve heinous acts of brutality. Thus, a hefty proportion of all news is devoted to crime news; among all crime news, cases involving violence comprise well over two thirds of all news stories. Indeed, in a study that used Lexis/Nexis to identify the top 10 crime cases in U.S. newspapers between 1985 and 1995, eight of these incidents involved violence, that is, murders, rapes, and assaults. This entry focuses on how journalists select which of all violent crime cases they will cover in myriad news outlets, including politicized and celebrity violent crimes, and briefly discusses other approaches to studying media and violence.
Selection Criteria: The Novel and the Routine
In a classic study on the social construction of news, sociologist Gaye Tuchman argued that journalists are interested in cases that involve both routine and novel events. Covering violent crimes that have been committed is a regular feature of crime news, but what is literally new also affects journalists’ selection criteria: Some cases are perceived as more circumstantially unusual than others, providing news pegs that are used to justify high levels of coverage. For example, in one sense, it has been routine for journalists to cover serial killers; the history of this coverage goes back to Victorian times and to the notoriety of cases such as that of Jack the Ripper. However, more recently, some cases have elicited more intensive coverage than others. The serial killings committed by Jeffrey Dahmer in Wisconsin attracted an unusual amount of notoriety. Here, the news hook may well have been that this particular serial killer targeted gay male rather than female victims. Analogously, the case of Eileen Wuornos in Florida may have elicited especially high levels of media coverage because this story had two unusual features. Wuornos had worked as a prostitute and allegedly murdered a number of her customers. Consequently, in this case, too, not only were men the victims, but the perpetrator was a woman. These angles may have made covering these serial killers both routine and novel by Tuchman’s usage. Moreover, once media saturation of this crime occurred, not only did newspaper and television coverage ensue, but also popular cultural representations in other mass media— for example, television movies—followed suit.
Coverage of Politicized and Celebrity Violent Crimes
Some violent crimes may attract media attention because they are perceived as having symbolic political implications. Reporters in New York City in 1989 stated that their intensive coverage of the now well-known “Central Park jogger” rape case ensued from this horribly violent crime having occurred in a landmark New York City location. Yet The New York Times later reported that over 20 rapes had taken place during the same week that the young female jogger in Central Park was attacked and beaten nearly to her death. Why did only this one case garner ongoing local and national coverage? Cynical observers argued that, whether or not journalists admitted it, the case reflected sociological biases. Rather than the news peg being location, critics at the time protested that high-profile coverage was due to the Central Park jogger being a White investment banker allegedly attacked by a group of working class minority youth; in most of the other cases, victims were young women of color. Consequently, debate took place, even in the media itself, about whether violent crimes that receive coverage in the media reflected journalists’ own racial, class, and gender-related biases.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, a number of other violent crimes received national and even international attention as they became symbolic not only of individual but also of broader social problems. In 1991, in Los Angeles, media attention to the Rodney King case simultaneously gave voice to an individual who had been beaten by members of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and to collective concerns many young minority males felt about racial profiling and police brutality. That same year, a trio of cases involved charges of violence brought against people well known on the basis of their family connections or sports-based celebrity. In 1991, rape charges against William Kennedy Smith and Mike Tyson brought the issue of date rape to mass cultural consciousness. (Although both rape cases went to trial, only Tyson was convicted in February 1992.) Finally, in 1994, football star and movie celebrity O. J. Simpson was accused of and later tried for, but acquitted of, the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman. The Simpson case became symbolic of two social causes. Parties sympathetic to the prosecution believed that the Simpson case symbolized domestic violence in particular and the cause of violence against women in general. On the other hand, parties sympathetic to the defense believed that Simpson had been the victim of racial biases on the part of the LAPD. Although journalists dubbed this case “the trial of the century” as though it were unique, a more convincing interpretation is that the enormous coverage given the Simpson case was the culmination of a decade when high profile violent crime cases involving issues of gender, race, class, and celebrity were preoccupying cultural attentions. These cases may have become a way of talking politics in the American context and may have been selected not only for their routine and novelty, but also because they provided mass-mediated vehicles of public debate.
Other Approaches to Studying Media and Violence
Other work in the area of media and violence has focused on reception studies. This approach involves studying how diverse audiences—of different ages as well as genders, races, and classes—interpret images of violent crimes presented to them in multiple media. Still other approaches to the study of media and violence have focused on narrative analysis of trials and on in-depth case studies of particular instances.
- Barak, G. (Ed.). (1999). Representing O.J.: Media, criminal justice, and mass culture. New York: Harrow and Heston.
- Chancer, L. (2005). High-profile crimes: When legal cases become social causes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Gans, H. J. (1979). Deciding what’s news. New York: Vintage.
- Surette, R. (1998). Media, crime and criminal justice: Images and realities. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
- Tuchman, G. (1978). Making news: A study in the construction of reality. New York: Free Press.
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