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Homicide in the media: what you're afraid of is not what's really going on

By Keith Soothill - posted Wednesday, 19 February 2003

At a time when many parts of the world are living in fear of a war in Iraq and the possibility of terrorist attacks, the question of which fears are appropriate and which are inappropriate is a very real issue. However, I am concerned with the same question that arises more routinely in the reporting of homicide in newspapers throughout the world. Newspapers are essentially in the business of selling newspapers. While they proclaim that they try to highlight issues in a responsible way, some newspapers are increasingly becoming instruments of ghoulish entertainment and manufactured hysteria. Elections are a time when "law-and-order" issues tend to come to the fore and there is even a greater danger of distortion and misrepresentation.

In the United Kingdom there has been increasing concern over the role of the media in criminal cases, particularly those of homicide. In fact, there is a dearth of information about the situation in the United Kingdom and we wanted to try to rectify this by studying several national newspapers over a period of time. Hence, our research focuses on homicide - which includes both murder and manslaughter. While there is a local market for homicides - some types of murders interest local readers more than others - there are some important lessons to be drawn from our work that are almost certainly relevant in the Australian context.

In brief, we have to recognise that the media has an important role in the public's general knowledge of homicide but our research suggests that the public is learning the wrong lessons.


First, of course, I need to acknowledge that some of this has been said before, especially by researchers in the United States. The extra ingredient in our work is that we have compared what is reported in newspapers with the actual number of homicides that have been committed. This is important because it enables us to identify the distortion that occurs. The nature of the distortion is of two kinds. News coverage can endorse the invisibility of certain groups (in other words, the lack of interest in their murders may reinforce the belief, among other members of these groups, that they are not regarded as full citizens) and can enhance the visibility of other groups (the solving of some crimes becomes much more important than others).

So where does our evidence come from? We looked at the reporting of homicide cases in three national daily and three Sunday newspapers - The Times and Sunday Times ("broadsheet"); the Daily Mail and Mail On Sunday ("middle-brow") and the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror ("tabloid") - for a five-year period in the 1990s. For The Times and the Sunday Times - regarded as the paper of record - we also took a 23-year period (1977-1999 inclusive) to consider changes over time. This latter part of the study produced some dramatic results. Out of a total of more than 15,000 stories, just 13 homicide cases contributed 2,860 of these stories. Thus, a sizeable amount of news space was devoted to these top cases. The cases tended to be the sensational ones involving children or young women being killed by strangers. These are the cases that are raising fears among the populace. However, these fears are inappropriate because, thankfully, few children and few women do, indeed, get killed by strangers. In contrast, domestic killings and acquaintance killings (particularly of young males by young males) should be exercising our concern much more than is reflected in the newspaper coverage. In other words, in our national newspapers the focus is largely on the killing of young women or children by strangers.

The detailed study of the reporting of homicide in three national newspapers over a five-year period and comparing them with Home Office figures for homicide officially recorded produced some startling discoveries. The official figures identified 2,685 homicide cases, of which 1,068 (38 per cent) were reported in at least one of the newspapers in the study. Of the 1,068 cases covered, only 376 appeared in all three newspapers, contrasting with 452 cases reported in only one of the three newspapers studied. It is clear that cases do not have an equal chance of being reported, and up to 12 factors influence whether they are likely to appear.

Motive and circumstances were the most important factors. Stories with a sexual motive were the most likely to be reported (around 70 per cent in each newspaper), followed by cases with a robbery or theft motive and cases which appeared to be irrational acts (both between 35 per cent and 40 per cent). Other important factors included the number of victims, their age and that of the suspect, the method of killing and whether a homicide involved a female victim.

Homicides where the youngest victim was aged between four and 12 had the highest chance of being reported. Those involving victims between 31 and 40 had the lowest. Surprisingly, homicides of babies and infants under three were also much less likely to be reported.

Different newspapers have their idiosyncrasies. The Times was more likely than the Mail or Mirror to report gun homicides. The Mail was least likely to report homicides where there was a homosexual relationship between victim and suspect, and the Mirror most likely to report arson.


In short, we found that a minority of homicides are reported, that different newspapers cover different cases, and there is a substantial bias in the type of cases published.

The variation between the reporting of different national newspapers was unexpected. However, of course, all newspapers were attracted to reporting the unusual stories. So, while there is a core of similarity, each newspaper is developing a particular prism for its readers - overall, however, the readers are developing a view that bears little resemblance to reality.

So what to do about it? Is this just another saga of media-bashing? I think not. There are lessons to be learned. Some parts of the media are better than others. While our local and regional newspapers were not part of this study, their coverage seems much more balanced - most murders in a local area are likely to be covered by a local newspaper. Fears will be raised by newspaper reporting but they are perhaps more proportional to the threat. In contrast, the concern about our national newspapers in Britain is that they can be a source of a nationally manufactured hysteria. They sometimes raise and sustain inappropriate fears.

However, what's the problem if most people have a more measured diet of homicide reporting from their local newspapers? The danger, of course, is that politicians at Westminster tend to construct their political agenda from reading the national newspapers and not the local newspapers. This affects the working of the justice system. Police resources are increasingly being driven by implicit and explicit media demands. The police are being pushed to focus disproportionately on certain social groups. At an election time we always need to be aware of the danger that the media may not always have all our interests in mind.

The author wishes to express his gratitude to the Home Office for allowing use of the Homicide Index. Thanks also to the ESRC who funded the research project ('Homicide and the Media', R000 22 3061) and to colleagues, Elizabeth Ackerley, Brian Francis, Jayn Pearson and Moira Peelo.

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About the Author

Professor Keith Soothill is Professor of Social Research, Department of Applied Social Science, Lancaster University, UK.

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