Crime reporting represents a significant component of newspapers in the western world. This is the case for both broadsheets and tabloids, although crime coverage in tabloids tends to be more sensational, in terms of the types of crime covered, as well as the use of emotive language and visual images. The most up-to-date research in the US and UK suggests approximately 25 percent of newspaper articles are dedicated to crime and justice stories (Reiner et al. 2003). Furthermore, studies have shown crime news stories are read and remembered by a greater percentage of readers than any other type of news story (Graber 1980).
Crime news in Europe can be traced back to reports of witchcraft trials in the late sixteenth century. Around the same time, specific pamphlets dedicated to crime news emerged, which included regular court reports written by court clerks. The amount of crime reporting increased in a variety of printed formats, as the commercial benefits of the genre became established. In the US, crime reporting was less common, although notorious crimes often warranted special reports from the courtroom. It was only in the 1830s, however, that crime news became a staple of newspaper reporting, with the advent of the penny presses, the overtly populist daily newspapers in the major eastern seaboard cities.
Although crime reports in different newspaper types and geographic locations can differ to some extent, they have many similarities. Newspaper scholars have acknowledged the influence of a powerful set of news values, which influence the types of crimes that are covered, and the ways in which the stories are told. The types of crimes most commonly featured in newspapers are those which display certain characteristics: serious; extraordinary; violent; sexual; include children as either the victim or the perpetrator; can be blamed on individual deviance, rather than cultural or political explanations; and include graphic or emotive visuals.
As reporting became more specialized, the crime beat established itself as a central feature of newsrooms, with trainee reporters frequently starting their journalistic life covering crime, honing their reporting skills while building relationships with local police officers. These loose relationships between reporters and police officers have become increasingly professionalized, with police forces developing media relations departments that work closely with the media, particularly during large-scale investigations. The relationship between the press and the police works on the basis of mutual reliance, with both sides requiring the support of the other in the course of their work. It also helps to explain the relative absence of reporting about courts and prisons, as equivalent relationships between representatives of these two institutions and the press rarely exist.
The most common characteristic of crime reporting is that newspapers tend to focus on the incident of the crime itself. If a report is particularly high profile, because it meets a number of established news values, coverage of the crime investigation will be included, and perhaps even the trial in the months that follow. Information about custodial sentences is rarely included, although executions are widely reported.
There are various explanations for the continued prominence of crime reporting in newspapers. One is the fact that crime news sells, with readers fuelled by a fascination that “it could happen to you”. Second is the instinctive appeal of crime news: the good versus evil composition of reports that mirror childhood fairy tales and follow the simple narrative structures of fiction. Some have argued that crime reporting provides moral boundaries for social behavior, exposing and demonizing criminal behavior. A final explanation for the amount of coverage is the institutional influence of the crime beat system, which provides a steady stream of easily investigated, well-sourced material.
Critics of crime news can be found in large numbers. The most common criticism is that newspapers focus on unusual crimes, raising levels of fear, particularly about violent and sexual crimes. Many scholars point to the invisibility of other crimes, such as white-collar crime or sexual abuse within the home. Similarly, critics bemoan the disproportionate focus on the victims, and the frequent absence of any contextualization about the motive of the offender. This lack of context can lead to increasing support for more punitive punishments in society.
In 1972, Stanley Cohen wrote Folk devils and moral panics, which described the amplification of fear, and the knee-jerk moralistic reactions that can arise when the press concentrate their attention on a specific type of crime or deviance. Media scholars have identified the same pattern in news reports over the past 30 years, from subjects as varied as pedophilia to carjackings. Moral panics are caused by disproportionate amounts of attention given to particular crimes, and certainly the amount and type of crime news appearing in newspapers is significantly different to the crimes reported officially. Violent crimes are far more likely to be featured than property crimes, such as burglary, and while murder is the rarest crime, it is the most likely to receive coverage. Criminologists complain frequently about the effect of the coverage, believing it leads to misinformation and confusion about current crime figures.
- Cohen, S. (1972). Folk devils and moral panics. London: Routledge.
- Cohen, S., & Young, J. (1981). The manufacture of news: Social problems, deviance and the mass media. London: Constable.
- Ericson, R., Baranek, P., & Chan, J. (1991). Representing order: Crime, law and justice in the news media. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
- Graber, D. (1980). Crime news and the public. New York: Praeger.
- Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Clarke, J., & Robert, B. (1977). Policing the crisis: Mugging, the state and law and order. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
- Reiner, R., Livingstone, S., & Allen, J. (2003). From law and order to lynch mobs: Crime news since the Second World War. In P. Mason (ed.), Criminal visions: Media representations of crime and justice. Cullompton: Willan, pp. 13 –32.
- Surette, R. (1998). Media, crime and criminal justice: Images and realities. London: Wadsworth.
- Tumber, H., & Schlesinger, P. (1994). Reporting crime: The media politics of criminal justice. Oxford: