News flavor Fear factor

The media's crime obsession

KABB news: Purveyors of doom? (courtesy photo)
On New Year's day, KABB Fox 29 ran the following stories on the 9 o'clock news: "The first murder of the year," "San Antonio's murder rate down in 2003, and "The last murder of 2003." Given that a story about the declining murder rate was squeezed between two homicide stories, viewers should be forgiven if they mistakenly believed that the murder rate had increased.

KABB's obsession with crime is not unique. Last year, in an unprecedented five-year nationwide study, the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) concluded that crime is the most covered story on local TV news. Jason Salzman, author of Making the News, explains, "The vast majority of stories on local TV news are mayhem, that is, crime and disaster, and fluff. It is not in the public interest to dedicate the vast majority of the news segments to those stories."

Of all the stories relevant to local communities, why does local TV news focus on crime? Robert Huesca, associate professor of communications at Trinity University, says that "economics drives the coverage." In the 1990s, media concentration led to increasing economic pressures on local TV news programs to produce higher profits.

Crime reporting is cheap to produce and grabs the attention of viewers. The result is what Salzman calls "infotainment," adding that, "crime is dramatic, and it's easy to cover, while `media owners` can spend their money on celebrity anchors and double Doppler radars, and then just send out a rookie reporter to the crime scene."

"Any reporter who just fell out of journalism school can cover a crime scene, adds Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. "You roll up and there's a good visual -flashing lights, yellow tape - and a knowledgeable government spokesperson who can give you the who, what, when, and where. It's filler."

"If the people of San Antonio clock the local TV newscast, they will find that perhaps 90 seconds of those 30 minutes has to do with local news that affects their lives.

Barbara Renaud González
Because of the ease of covering robberies and shootings, crime coverage increased in the 1990s, while the actual crime rate declined.

Ryan King, research associate at the Sentencing Project, explains that, "Most people's interaction with crime is not on a personal level, but through the media. And if you turn on your television for the evening news and every night the lead story is a homicide or other violent crime, then it gives you the perception that there is a rampant crime wave."

The way local TV news media covers crime stories also perpetuates racial stereotypes. According to a study conducted by Dorfman and Schiraldi, people of color are over-represented as perpetrators and under-represented as victims in crime reporting, compared to actual crime statistics. Moreover, the local TV news rarely places crime in a broader social context. Crime is treated as the result only of individual choices, not social conditionslike poverty and high unemployment, that produce it.

Consequently, says Huesca, "the big losers in this media environment are minorities," while the local TV news' distorted view of our communities fosters popular support for "more restrictions on civil rights, more draconian prison terms, and, generally, more authoritarian policies."

Chicana columnist and author Barbara Renaud González argues that local TV news marginalizes stories that are relevant to the viewers. "If the people of San Antonio clock the local TV newscast, they will find that perhaps 90 seconds of those 30 minutes has to do with local news that affects their lives. What concerns the average citizen - public education, good jobs, healthcare, and the way international affairs affects them locally - is not there. The media simply does not examine the social forces at work that affect the daily lives of our community."

If you don't think that over-exposure to crime coverage has an impact, remember that in the U.S., nearly $100 billion is spent annually on advertising to influence opinions.)

Local television's profit-driven obsession with crime exaggerates fears and induces viewers to be afraid rather than informing them in ways that would enable them to participate in their communities and democratic processes.

"Television should not be just about profit," says Dorfman. "Because the public owns the airwaves, there is a responsibility back to the public who leases these airwaves at very low cost to TV stations that are making incredibly high profits."