Crime and the mass media

The word “ubiquity” refers to the quality of being everywhere. It captures succinctly the perception of a whole society being engulfed by crime—that is, if one goes by the early evening news on television. Crime reports bookend the rest of the news so routinely that crime is no longer “newsworthy” in the sense of being surprising or interesting. Is this the reality we live in, or is it something that is magnified by inordinate media attention?

Crime’s ubiquity in the mass media is rivaled only by the pervasiveness of accidents of all kinds—speeding buses, motorcycles, and overloaded trucks careening out of control due to malfunctioning brakes. Indeed, the only time crimes and accidents retreat from center stage is when disasters strike. Then, the networks launch an extended coverage of the death, destruction, and dislocation caused by typhoons, killer floods, earthquakes, landslides, and fires.

It is reasonable to ask if these events accurately sum up the substance of our everyday life as a nation. Having once read the early evening news for a TV station, I know it has not always been like this. I don’t recall that the news of the day unfailingly began with a litany of crimes committed.

Not certain if this is just a superficial impression, I decided to monitor for a week the news reportage of the country’s three biggest networks. What I found in all three channels was the same disturbing pattern of unrelenting “tabloidization.” I have shared this personal disquiet with some friends in the industry. Their uniform response is that this indeed is the reality.

As a sociologist, I am unmoved by such arguments. I am cognizant enough of the filtering power of the mass media to know that news reporting is inescapably a selective process. It is impossible, not to say unnecessary, for any news organization to report everything that has happened in the course of a day.  There’s always selectivity in the news. What to report, from what angle, what level of prominence to give to an event, or how deep or extensive one must go in the treatment of a phenomenon—these decisions shape the mass media’s representation of everyday reality. The networks cannot say they are merely being truthful.

Neither can they take refuge in the defense that the daily news they serve the public is what mass audiences prefer to watch, as borne by the ratings. According to this view, the extensive reportage of crime merely responds to the anxieties of the average citizen who, unlike the elites who live in gated communities and commute in private vehicles, is vulnerable to all kinds of threats to personal security and property. The news thus serves as a way of informing him of the threats around him and his loved ones, and, as well, of alerting the police to the environment in which criminals lurk.

I am sure there is validity to this argument.  But, I wonder if this is all there is to television news’ excessive focus on crime.  For something to be newsworthy, it somehow has to be different.  There is a sense in which the reporting of the same crimes day in and day out becomes so predictable that it is no longer news. So, what keeps people interested?

Two things, I think. The first is the treatment of the event—if it’s not anything new, then the reporting must be made entertaining. In our culture, the two tend to shade into one another. The second is that a crime may be so common as to draw no interest when taken in isolation. But, if placed in a series of other norm violations, it creates for the public the sensation of being swamped by rampant criminality, and for the authorities, an urgent call to action. Whether it is intentional or not, that seems to be the bent of our television news. But is it the reality? I hope not.

The point here is not to blame the media, but to get them to reflect on current journalistic practice. I don’t think the issue pertains merely to the state of editorial judgment. I am particularly concerned with the impact of current habits of reporting on our morale as a people, and with the need to explore alternative modes of presenting the news that depart from the standard ways of assigning meaning found in a moralistic society.

In his 1996 work “The Reality of the Mass Media,” sociologist Niklas Luhmann writes: “The effect of continually repeated items of information about norm violations might be the overestimation of the extent to which society is morally corrupt, especially if it is the behavior of prominent people in society who ‘set the tone’ that is reported most… Norm violations are especially selected for reporting when they can be accompanied by moral judgments … when they are able to offer an opportunity to demonstrate respect or disdain for people.”

Moralizing cannot be the function of the media, especially since they are not prepared to assume a corresponding obligation for society’s morals. Yet, moral talk is perhaps the easiest thing in the world to do, largely because, as Luhmann notes, “the media favor attributing things to action, that is, to actors.” In this, they only reproduce the facile moral sensibility of the uninformed. The few times they bother to delve into the complex circumstances behind an action, it is usually only “in order to shift credit or blame.”

It would be presumptuous for me to propose any specific recommendations on how the reporting of the news might be improved, except to say that every network can always profit from self-reflection. To those who worship at the altar of ratings and are afraid to deviate from proven habits, I can only repeat Luhmann’s reminder: “The organization fulfills its social function precisely by working differently.”