This essay explores the role and responsibilities of journalists when covering violent crime. It proposes that Journalists must internalize an ‘ethic of care’ in order to contextualize not only the victims of the crime, but the perpetrators themselves, all in an effort to help the rehabilitation and reintegration into society of both groups.
It looks at how other media models, namely those in some Scandinavian countries, where community reintegration and participation are core values, have fared in terms of social cohesion, by looking at their rates of rehabilitation of ex convicts, recidivism and crime itself. This is contrasted to our own North-Atlantic model, which emphasizes ‘individualism’ at all costs.
It was submitted for a Media Theory class at the culmination of the fall trimester, on December 5, 2013.
Pages: About 20.
Journalism, as a social institution, has as its mandate to maintain an informed society capable of self-governing. To do this, it fulfills many roles, the most salient one of which is being the ‘watchdog’ of a nation’s various institutions. It also links its audience to the underbelly of society by reporting on crime and court proceedings, rendering thus a monument to the so-called principle of a transparent justice system. However, if journalism seeks to fulfill its mandate by informing citizens of the realities of crime, it must do so diligently. Journalists must therefore understand that crime, like poverty, is a socially constructed phenomenon.
This argument is not meant to reduce the life-long debate surrounding the nature of man to a short, convenient axiom. It is not an attempt to justify or excuse man’s criminal behaviour. It is not even an exercise of casting blame. On the contrary, it is an argument that internalizes criminal behaviour as a responsibility concerning everybody in the society in which it happens, not just the perpetrator and the justice system with which he or she find themselves embattled. It also allows the citizens of that society to re-evaluate the cultural norms and political/social structures that are intertwined with the actions, behaviours and even mental state of people caught in the web of crime.
It should be clarified that while crime in general — from shoplifting to gang related crime — can arguably be said to have social roots like poverty, racism, pathological behaviour, war, etc., we are here discussing what sociologist Martin Innes calls “signal crimes.” Quoted in “Naming Names: Crime Coverage Rituals in North America, Sweden, and the Netherlands” by Romayne Smith Fullerton and Maggie Jones Patterson, Innes writes that signal crimes are “dramatic articulations of popular fears about the seeming encroachment of the forces of disorder, drawing upon diffuse and inchoate existential anxieties about the state of contemporary society” (Innes, as qtd in Patterson and Fullerton 3). In other words, these are crimes that, by virtue of their violent, oft-pathological and heinous nature, shake the very core of society and call into question (or ought to, at least) society’s role in such crimes, the effectiveness of the justice process, and the reasons why such atrocities happen. These are violent crimes that bring to mind the likes of serial killers and/or mass murderers like Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, the so-called Zodiac Killer — all in the United States — and others like Marc Lepine, Michael Rafferty, Paul Bernardo, Karla Homolka and Luka Magnotta in Canada.
Such significant and disturbing assaults on what is considered ‘good’ and ‘decent’ in the cultural psyche of a community, means that while perpetrators must be held responsible for their crimes — by paying a ‘debt’ to society, as it were — the people, institutions and/or system(s) that played a role in shaping their personalities must be held responsible too; they must be scrutinized so that they may be amended or reprimanded, if need be. Indeed, in a Financial Post article titled “Sobering Message in Mass-Killer Profiles,” socio-anthropologist and widely consulted expert on serial homicide, Elliot Leyton, explains that perpetrators do not ”form their missions in a private vacuum, bereft of all advice, for the larger culture encodes in them a respect for violent display…And the ready availability of stimulating materials in books and magazines, films and videotapes, teaches them to link their lust with violence” (Fotheringham). In an interview with Dr. Marlies Sudderman, a psychologist at Western University who specializes in child welfare, she further argued that though “(perpetrators) certainly have to be restrained, we need to look at investing money into child welfare, parenting programs, programs in schools for kids, early identification of family violence…(because) these are the root causes of crime.”
Therefore, it is argued here that journalists, when covering crimes and the consequent trials that surround them, have a moral obligation to explore their underlying causes rather than treat them as isolated occurrences between perpetrators, victims and the justice system. In doing so journalists take the general citizenry by the hand, into the world where criminals grew up. Journalists give citizens an insight into the ways familial abuse and faulty social programs can affect a person’s psyche. Thus citizens can exert pressure on the government to amend or reform the systemic problems that allow these things to occur in the first place. In other words, it is not about justifying crime or displacing blame; it is about ascribing responsibility to the responsible parties. Where this moral obligation is ignored, the news media fails to be a public trust for the betterment of society and instead polarizes it by creating a detached sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’ — that is, by portraying criminals as “others” that must be removed from ‘our’ community “by warehousing them with long, mandatory sentences” (Patterson and Fullerton, “In the Shadow of Giants” 7), rather than seeing them as sick individuals that require treatment.
In order to fulfill this moral obligation, therefore, it is argued here that journalists must learn to frame crime as a social construct, so that the public may understand it as such. The imperativeness of focusing on contextual information rather than on individual traits or deficiencies will then be explored. Finally, this paper will also argue that as professionals working with words, journalists must be completely aware of how practices like dubbing, the careless use of words and the lack of explanation of professional jargon can have prejudicial effects in the minds of audiences.
THE IMPORTANCE OF ‘FRAMING’
Like a photograph within a frame, a news story is defined and confined by the borders within which it rests. The frame, therefore, that is used when writing a story determines its narrative, the people interviewed, the focus points and even the words chosen to “promote a particular interpretation, evaluation, and/or solution” (Entman as qtd in Patterson and Fullerton, “Missing and Murdered Women” 902). Journalists covering crime stories have the responsibility to frame the story in a way that at the very least elicits curiosity from the audience: curiosity about the causes behind the crime, the ways from deterring it from happening in the future, and about ways to keep safe in their own lives.
Indeed, in The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel argue that:
The natural curiosity of humankind means that by reporting details of scheduled events, disclosing of wrongdoing, or outlining a developing trend, journalism sets people to wondering. As the public begins to react to these disclosures, the community becomes filled with the public voice…As these voices are heard by those in positions of power, they make it their business to understand the nature of the public opinion developing around the subject (167, added emphasis).
In other words, framing an issue correctly can push a society to exert pressure on its political and social institutions to change something which it finds defective. In covering crime — particularly, signal crimes — the imperative ought to be on finding ways to deter such atrocities from happening again rather than on the gruesome details of the specific crime. That is, a focus must be placed on the why rather than on the what. In fact, Kovach and Rosenstiel further argue that journalist must re-think the basic elements of journalism — the who, what, when, where, why and how: “If we think of who as character, what as plot, where as setting, and how as narrative, we can blend information and storytelling. News becomes not just data but also meaning. Doing so…requires more reporting and more curiosity on the part of the reporter” (198).
Through this curiosity journalists can bring to the foreground a deeper, contextualized narrative of the crime. Kovach and Rosenstiel call this “connecting the story to deeper themes…(that) are not stated by the journalist but are shown, or revealed, in how the journalist treats the material – the right quote, the right shot on TV, or the look two people give each other when they are not talking” (201). Yet, they also point out that the “right quote,” while necessary, is insufficient when tasked with portraying not only a crime — some ephemeral, isolated event in the grid of space and time — but the human behind it. They write:
Too much journalism fails to develop character. The people are card-board; they are names and faces fit into a journalistic template…Quotes are too often used as tools rather than as part of a deeper conversation between the subjects of a story and the audience…(That, ultimately fits the ‘criminal’ into a) rigid template for journalistic purposes but shallow, that turns him into a stick figure indistinguishable from any other…(202 – 203).
Therefore, the characters in a crime story must be developed methodically in order to capture their complexities. But, perhaps more importantly, they must be portrayed as members of a community who, through their criminal actions, signal a significant tear in the fabric of society, a deeper problem that must be treated; not as violent anomalies to be severed from the larger community. Unfortunately, to the detriment of society, this latter attitude is becoming more commonplace among journalists, particularly as the profession becomes more commercialized and pressures to sell news reduces reporters to pandering to society’s basest of interests through the sensationalism of crime and gore.
The now widely taught mantra in journalism schools of “if it bleeds, it leads” is a prime example of the kinds of pressures journalists face today to keep circulations afloat. As Seamus Dooley, Head of the National Union of Journalists in Ireland, pointed out in Patterson and Fullerton’s “In the Shadows of Giants,” “the change in crime coverage to a more populist mentality of sensationalism is brought about by the growth in competition” (18). As competition grows, the imperative turns slowly away from igniting significant public debate and more towards increasing a network’s or agency’s ratings. Kovach and Rosenstiel in fact argue that “we are seeing for the first time the rise of a market-based journalism increasingly divorced from the idea of civic responsibility…(as) the notion of citizenship and traditional community becomes in a commercial sense obsolete” (27 – 31).
Patterson and Fullerton discovered a similar trend in the Netherlands and Sweden, where traditionally the names of perpetrators have not been published, or have at most only been expressed as a first name and last initial (but for some exceptions they noted). As Thomas Brunning, general secretary of the Dutch Journalists Association, explained to them, the Internet has contributed to ethical standards slipping away: “Now you get this other system: that you have to explain, as media, why you don’t use the name or photo since it’s on the Internet” (Brunning as qtd in Patterson and Fullerton, “Naming Names” 18). Nevertheless, they found that despite “increasing technological and economic change, as well as pressure to conform to the ‘tell all’ model,” Swedish and Dutch journalists still operated under the North/Central European corporatist model, which has strong roots in communitarian, rather than individualistic, culture, as well as a deep-seated faith in the rehabilitation and reintegration into society of criminals. As such, the frames Swedish and Dutch journalists used when portraying crime, they found, were largely employed to “construct criminals as ‘one of us'” (Patterson and Fullerton 24) in need of treatment, instead of outsiders in need of social isolation. One way journalists can begin to embrace this rather difficult notion to comprehend, particularly those operating under the North Atlantic liberal, tell-all model, which is steeped in individualistic culture, is by applying what Garry Pech and Rhona Liebel call an Ethic of Care.
BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE ETHIC OF CARE
In Writing in Solidarity: Steps toward an Ethic of Care for Journalism, Liebel and Pech argue that “‘Care’ can be added to journalism’s normative goals. The result would be an institution committed not only to providing information to its community, but also to doing so in such a way that its practices promote solidarity and mutual concern among community members” (142). Moreover, they stress a crucial difference between “caring about” and “caring for.”
“Caring about” entails us being able to pay mind to and be concerned about issues or people external to us, but also to be capable of detaching ourselves from them in order to go on with our own lives. This human trait is arguably the greatest gift to the charity industry, which feeds on people’s ability to contribute money for ’causes’ and then feel good about letting someone else deal with them. On the other hand, explain the authors, “caring for” attaches us to the person or issue in a more substantive, human way, like the attachment of a mother to her crying infant. “Here, people enter, or try to, the lived reality of the one for whom they are caring” (144). It is empathy at its core. Moreover, when this feeling is inexistent, or even vacillating, in humans, argue Liebel and Pech, it is the “obligation (of social institutions), through their practices, to facilitate caring-for relations in their audiences or participants” (Liebel and Pech 145). Enter journalism.
As an institution with the mandate to inform society, but also of “creating community and later democracy” (Kovach and Rosenstiel 12), journalists must learn to question how much their stories — and the frames they are using when portraying criminals — contribute to the building of community and solidarity. This task is not easy, particularly given the assumption that journalists must remain neutral in their reporting by suppressing their own feelings and political views. However, the journalist as educator and creator of community must not relinquish him or herself to be a mere note-taker. Instead, they must be analyzers of reality and germs of public discussion guided by a “moral compass” (Kovach and Rosenstiel 231). This process of questioning and analyzing allows journalists not only to report facts pertaining to court proceedings or about the criminal himself, to an invisible, detached entity called an ‘audience,’ but to instead relate to it, become one with it, and inform it. “Journalists will need to have this sensibility, this capacity for emotions, feelings, and attitudes that serve to reveal the presence or lack of solidarity, as an important avenue of” promoting community and understanding (Liebel and Pech 152).
A practical manifestation of this, when covering crime, can take the form of the journalist reflecting “back to us and remark(ing) on the tendencies we have in such circumstances to distance ourselves in unacceptable ways from others, by making them the object of morbid curiosity, holding them up to ridicule, getting a perverse pleasure in viewing public agony (the “real” reality show) and so on” (Liebel and Pech 153). In other words, being capable of embedding an ethic of care in the coverage of crime can allow journalists to frame crime as an issue affecting a member of it and needing political pressure to keep from reoccurring instead of as a perverse problem outside of the responsibility of society.
CRIME AS A SOCIAL CONSTRUCT
Once journalists are able to transcend their own prurient obsession with the criminal by adopting an ethic of care — that is, an empathetic attitude, though always steeped in curiosity and with an eye to the overall effect on the community — they may then begin to (diplomatically) call into question the why behind the crimes. In doing so, journalists must look far beyond the ‘hard’ facts of the case and into the societal and political realities that constructed, or at least influenced, an individual capable of such violence. In a manner of speaking, as the institutions that represent the justice system begin ascribing responsibility for the ‘hard’ facts of the crime, so too the journalist begins ascribing responsibility for the contextual triggers of the social construct called ‘crime.’
Indeed, Dr. Sudderman said neglect and abuse are the “root causes” of crime:
As early as kindergarten, you can predict which children are at high risk to become aggressive. Intervention has to involve the families of these children, because typically…they are being poorly parented, they don’t have good attachment with their parents, don’t have stimulation, don’t have supervision: parents vacillate in many cases between not correcting behaviour at all or teaching proper behaviour and then being violent when that behaviour does not occur…If there is no intervention…those kids will go on to have fights at school, be labeled conduct disorder, be put on medication, they’ll have a youth record, have fights with girlfriends, etc…And if the abuse is very early and severe and persistent, it can be extremely difficult for people to recover from that, because their whole development — their brain, their personality — is then shaped by the type and duration of abuse…So even though physical and sexual abuse is actually going down with increased vigilance…neglect is still very poorly addressed.
Other factors like poverty, low education and even maternal smoking during pregnancy have been cited in numerous studies and articles as predictors of “which toddlers will be the most aggressive and which will be the most likely to stay that way” (Coyne 209, added emphasis).
Understanding and conveying these ideas through coverage should not be confused (willingly or not) with ‘protecting’ criminals or ‘taking it easy’ on them. It is about fulfilling the role of the journalist as community-builder, by pointing out the origins of such violent behaviour so that the proper measures may be taken to stop it from occurring in the future. Armed with an ethic of care and with sights set to contributing towards a harmonious, free society, journalists are thus morally obligated to explore what role society’s political and social institutions had in helping the child overcome his abusive relationship, the family’s economic struggles, possible racism, etc., and to what extent they failed in doing so.
Of course, it would be more than detrimental to journalism to blindly assume that every criminal has such a past, and that, by extension, society and its institutions are also responsible in every case. What is being argued here is that these questions must be asked by journalists in every case and, where found to be true, report it. The criminal thus becomes a more contextualized persona, with a past that explains his present. In this way, trends can be recognized by society and by those who study these trends, like sociologists, criminologists, even government officials, and thus begin fixing the cracks in the system through which these people fell. Dr. Sudderman says that “there are dangers in reporting specific crimes but not reporting what are the trends,” because then nothing gets done about it.
You have to have a balanced approach to things and say, ‘yes, there has been a crime, there are consequences to the victim, these are costs to society, and so on. But you (journalists) also have to…do background articles on what is a good way to prevent and deter these crimes. There is research on deterrence that is very interesting. The other thing about crime coverage, is that because there is better coverage of crimes now, and we can hear about and see crimes from all over the world, the impression of older people is that we live in a dangerous world when actually, if you look at the statistics, crime is going down in Canada.
All of this is lends context and complexity to the crime. “There needs to be focus on prevention rather than this stupid conservative idea of putting more people in jail where they can all learn from each other how to do crime better,” said Dr. Sudderman. “If you offer people counseling it’s a lot better than if you offer them other brutalizing experiences in prisons.”
She further argues that the child welfare system is in dire need of repair, as it grossly fails to offer children, particularly orphans, ‘cultural capital,’ which she describes as:
Your knowledge, your experiences, your patterns of living; it’s extended networks of people that are going to assist you if there is a problem; it’s someone counselling you from your community or acting as a role model…those kind of things are absolutely key (but lacking).
Journalists must be able to convey these truths about a criminal and society so that the latter can flex its communal muscles and demand the system (the whole) be amended to ensure similar individuals (the parts) are not set off again. It is an exercise of social ‘gardening’: the weeds, which are themselves a testament to the kind of care the gardener lends its garden, ought not to be recklessly and callously plucked off the ground — severed from the rest of the garden as if they were not plants; instead, they must be carefully dug out from deep beneath the soil that nourishes them — from the root — so that they may not spread.
However, much like a well-intentioned but novice gardener who briskly pulls at the root and breaks it half-way, so can journalists digging for context lack the tools to interpret it, leaving the violent and dramatic details exposed but their deeper implications unexplained. This begs the questions: How, then, can journalists cover crime and the humans who commit them not only ethically, but thoroughly? How can journalists be expected to delve into psychological, sociological and political matters in a comprehensive yet intelligible way for the common citizen? Those questions are perhaps better answered by looking at examples of how journalists fail to do so as a general practice, not only in crime coverage. These common practices are structured so, particularly because of the pressures brought on by the business side of news, which seeks to sell papers first.
AN OBSESSION WITH THE INDIVIDUAL, NOT THE MESSAGE/CONTEXT
Crimes, like most events in life, are inextricably linked to a myriad human faces. There are the victims of it, there are the friends and families of the victims, there are all those involved in the justice system, the journalists, the politicians and, of course, the perpetrator. As a rule, journalists are taught to always seek to tell a small story about a big issue through a human face that makes the link between the two. However, somewhere along the way, the focus appears to have shifted from connecting that face to the bigger issue, towards making the face the issue itself.
It is a pervasive practice which is tightly linked to the hyper-commercialization of news that was briefly discussed above. The pressure to sell papers and keep TV ratings high has meant the subtle — though gradually less so — shift towards more sensationalist language and frames. Other consequential practical pressures journalists face, such as the tight dead-lines brought on by the 24-hour news cycle, which itself is an offshoot of the rise of competition and technological advances, also push journalists to seek the most ‘quotable’ source, or the most controversial one, or the most colourful one, etc., and thereby miss the deeper significance of issues. In short, news tend to focus on the dramatic rather than the substantive.
Take, for instance, a recent Maclean’s article describing Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki’s apparent loss of faith with the progress of the environmental movement:
Suzuki says he used to think that his TV work was drawing attention to important issues, that the content was the star. Over the years, however, his view has changed. He’s been stopped too many times in the airport, or on the street, and complimented on a show he’s never done. He now realizes that for most viewers, he’s the constant — that rather than being the messenger, he’s the oracle (Gatehouse 68).
The article goes on to mention the decline of substantive news about “atmospheric CO2 concentrations reaching the highest level in recorded history, or UN warnings of a looming world-wide famine due to global warming,” for more sensational content, like the “senate scandal or Rob Ford video” (Gatehouse 68).
Another such example is given in Cheri Ketchum’s If a Radical Screams in the Forest, Will She be Heard?, which describes the way the San Francisco Chronicle covered a controversy over logging a redwood forest in northern California. It concludes that the frame used in coverage portrayed environmental activists as radical “tree-huggers,” and that while “individual corporations (were) not automatically framed in a positive light…the ideas behind capitalism itself and the values it supports (were) never challenged. Critiques (were) of individuals and their acts, not of the underlying instrumental logic that supports them” (Ketchum 45).
Using the example of Toronto mayor Rob Ford, who in 2013 admitted to having smoked crack cocaine while in office (after months of denying it), Dr. Sudderman says the coverage was once again focused on reducing a larger issue — of addiction — down to the actions of a ‘defective’ individual:
I was waiting in that coverage to have an earlier jump by journalists on what are the signs of denial. Eventually there was some hint at that, but it wasn’t well done. But there was plenty of opportunity to do so…Early on someone should have called the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health…or look on their website, and see what are the early signs of substance abuse and a pattern of denial, and whether there was common behaviour to go with that — someone could have done that early on.
Mental health stories, which many times includes criminals, are very complex and fragile. Even when some journalists have wanted to unearth the background of these stories, context has still suffered because “the people investigating it may not have sufficient mental health knowledge or consultation” (Sudderman).
In the case of Marc Lepine, for instance, who in 1985 entered Ecole Polytechnique, an affiliate of the Universite de Montreal, and gunned down 14 women, Dr. Sudderman found the reporting insufficient. Some reports did mention that his dad had been abusive to him and to his mother, she said, and yet others hinted at possible mental health problems. However, these facts came from interviews with his mother and were not given any context. Dr. Sudderman suggested journalists ought to be more willing to speak with psychologists and psychiatrists.
You can interview an expert in the area: make a list of the facts that are known. Any qualified psychologists, psychiatrist or social worker wouldn’t make any comments on an individual case…But you could ask, “if someone were experiencing these symptoms, could it mean that…” and they could give you a qualified answer.
The result of failing to provide such context for given facts are often callous comments like the following ones provided in an op-ed piece in the Montreal Gazette in 1999:
People like Mr. Todd are convinced that even the most evil people are merely victims of their circumstances or that material things made them do what they did. Marc Lepine wasn’t the only one raised in a dysfunctional home with an obsession for violent films and guns. Despite Mr. Todd’s lofty arguments, the bottom line is that Marc Lepine was a monster and a loser but not a victim.
What this does is merely sever the person from the community and place him outside as a “monster and a loser.” Dr. Sudderman suggested there were deep-seated problems beginning with physical abuse toward Lepine and his mother coupled with a misogynistic culture were triggers that set Lepine off, feeling threatened by the changing role of women in society as they become more empowered, but which were never properly explored because the focus was on this “monster.”
Other issues that either take away from the context or that misrepresent it altogether are related to the way journalists employ their words.
SLOTH IN JOURNALISM LEADS TO CARELESS WRITING
Journalists work with words. Everything from the word choice to the syntax of a story is imperative to the way it is finally understood. The words used are chosen according to the kind of frame that is employed. Therefore, the words used in a story can determine how we end up feeling about the characters in it and the issues they are talking about; they determine whether we “other” the characters or include them as one of “us.”
Patterson and Fullerton argue in Naming Names that North American journalists employ the North Atlantic liberal model of reporting, which epitomizes a skewed notion of individualism and thus removes any sense of communal responsibility for crimes. In doing so, journalists fail to keep the public informed about its ability to demand better crime policies. Indeed, the authors argue that:
This…’othering’ criminals has contributed to extreme criminal justice policies that extract the “others” from the community’s midst by warehousing them with long, mandatory sentences. Thus justice is seen to be done; the cancer is excised, but without any examination of its causes or possible prevention in order to benefit the larger society in the future (7).
However, if consideration is to be given to the widespread criticisms about the ineffectiveness of our justice system (and its imprisonment guidelines), such as the ones mentioned above by Dr. Sudderman, then it behooves the citizenry that journalists weigh “their obligation to inform the public against their concerns for criminals and their families” (Naming Names).
Patterson and Fullerton further note that in Sweden and the Netherlands, where the notions of rehabilitation and reintegration into society by criminals are culturally developed sensitivities, this consideration has been significantly internalized by journalists. “Many Swedish and Dutch news professionals feel strongly that it is unethical to publish or broadcast these names. National press councils in both countries codify this belief and enforce it among their members…(in order to) conceive of both accused and convicted people as a part of, not apart from, their community” (3).
In these instances, the mere withholding of names is an expression of the importance given to communal harmony over individual preferences. Internalizing this feeling, therefore, can lead journalists to consciously choose their words more carefully in order to portray crime as a societal issue and criminals — where shown to be the case — as victims of a larger political problem.
The importance of words is derived from both the meaning they connote and the reactions they elicit from people. If, as Kovach and Rosenstiel suggest, journalists are to elicit curiosity — not judgment — they must be aware of the implications the words they use have. This is particularly true when speaking of ‘dubbing’ — choosing what to call or nominate a person, event, or a type of crime.
For instance, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported a few days ago that a “controversial” Jewish group had left Israel because of persecution about its beliefs. The reporters were sure to include the fact that certain Israelite groups had dubbed this group the “Jewish Taliban.” The problem with this kind of reporting is not the lack of attribution or the editorializing of the news (since the reporters were sure to attribute the quote to someone else, thereby exonerating themselves from responsibility). However, the problem is much more subtle. It relates to how the citizenry, which relies on journalism to remain informed about events and issues in their society, is influenced in its thinking about certain subjects. In this example, the damage has been done, in a manner of speaking. Whatever the rest of the news is, the viewer has already been fed the idea that, at least in some parts, this group is synonymous with the “Taliban,” and is therefore automatically framed in a negative light, despite what the rests of the news may be. The viewers’ attention on the real issue (the persecution the group was facing and the consequent refuge they found in Canada) turns instead towards the sensational: the fact that a “controversial” group known, at least by some, by the same name as a terrorist organization, has infiltrated their borders.
When speaking of crime, this issue is dire, indeed, because it can determine from the outset whether society will see the criminal as an anomaly to “excise” from the community or as a member of a larger societal problem that must be addressed if it is to be prevented from reoccurring. Though somewhat dated, this issue is taken up by Hunter S. Thompson — an American journalist widely recognized for popularizing the term and practice of ‘gonzo journalism’ and for revolutionizing the profession — in the 1960 and 1970s.
In his book, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, one of the most widely acclaimed books delving into the life of the notorious north-American motorcycle gang (he lived among and followed the gang for a year, became friends with some and, near the end, was sent to the hospital after being beaten by them), Thompson describes how journalists use certain “key” words to exonerate themselves from any fault of bad reporting while still reporting potentially wrong information or even outright lies.
…(A)nyone who has worked on a newspaper for more than two months knows how technical safeguards can be built into even the wildest story, without fear of losing reader impact. What they amount to, basically, is the art of printing a story without taking legal responsibility for it. The word “alleged” is a key to this art. Other keys are “so-and-so-said” (or “claimed”), “it was reported” and “according to.” In fourteen short newspaper paragraphs , the Times story contained nine of these qualifiers. The two most crucial had to do with the Hollywood lead and the ” ‘alleged gang rape’ last labour Day of two girls, 14 and 15 years old, by five to ten members of the Hell’s Angels…” Nowhere in the story was it either reported or implied that the…charges had long since been dropped — according to page one of the report being quoted (34 – 35).
This type of careless, slothful reporting can also lead people to shut down and not want to talk to the media. “People get misquoted, they get quoted out of context, little snippets of what they say gets quoted, and then you’re vilified because you didn’t do a psychoanalysis in the media,” said Dr. Sudderman, explaining why psychologists are also loath to speak with journalists.
This paper began with the proposition that journalists must learn to report on crime in a way that captures the full range of its societal implications, in order to draw lessons about how to avoid future occurrences. But through the process of outlining these ideas, the importance of building a harmonious community has time and time come up. This is not a coincidence. The relation between journalism (as a social institution) and the way a society views and thinks about different issues — and thus determines its level of cohesiveness or conflict — is not one of correlation but rather of causation.
The media, in general, is the most effective way to build consensus among relatively distinct groups of people. Advertisement, political propaganda, public relations and, yes, journalism are all methods to create what many have called ‘manufactured consent’ — that is, the implicit, though artificially created agreement among various people about the way something should be. All of these media — whether through television, radio or print — are designed to promulgate private points of views upon the citizenry — the audience, as it were. However, unlike the other types of media, journalism tries to (or ought to) promote a point of view that is not particular to any one person or organization (as advertisement does, for example), but rather inclusive of all other points of view. In other words, journalism must create a sphere for public debate, wherein consensus based upon free and rational discussion can be agreed upon (created) collectively and consciously, not merely absorbed subliminally.
This is why it has been argued in this paper that when violent crimes tear the fabric of society and assault its sense of security and decency, journalists bear the responsibility to try to make sense of it all by exploring A) the general social causes of crime, which in many of these cases relate to familial abuse, social neglect and faulty social welfare programs of the state; and B) the specific life of the perpetrator, in order to see if any of these apply. As has been argued, taking these measures requires journalists to internalize an ethic of care as a modus operandi. That is, journalists must learn to frame crime stories from a point of view that seeks to understand why the perpetrators behaved in such a way, as opposed to the current dominant practice of exploiting what the gruesome aspects are, and then pass them off as facts. Taking such measures can help journalists fulfill their roles as germs of public discussion by getting people curious about what they can do for themselves, or demand from their government and other social institutions, in order to prevent future occurrences. In doing so, it has been argued, citizens can learn to see criminals not as aberrations to be casted into social isolation, but rather as ‘one of us’ who needs help and rehabilitation.
Lastly, it was argued that to make all this happen, journalists must put a stop to the general practice of focusing on people rather than on their messages or the larger issues they represent. Secondly, it was argued that journalists must be masters of their domain — of the written and spoken word — in order to avoid implanting negative ideas in people’s heads even if that is not the intention. This includes avoiding the use of key qualifiers like “allegedly” or “according to,” among others, when describing potentially controversial events in order to safeguard themselves when reporting potentially incorrect information.
Thus the criminal, though responsible for his actions, is seen with more depth than just a violent, indecent, abnormal “monster.” He is seen as a human being in need of treatment. And in doing so — in exploring the things in life that helped shape him or her into their current, violent selves — journalists provide a guide for how to amend that which is broken: a system perpetuating the conditions that lead to a life of crime in the first place.
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- Patterson, Maggie Jones and Fullerton, Romayne Smith. “In the Shadow of Giants: The Ethics of Crime Reporting Rituals in Ireland and Canada.” Presented at AEJMC Annual Conference August 2013.
- Patterson, Maggie Jones and Fullerton, Romayne Smith. “Murder in Our Midst: Expanding Coverage to Include Care and Responsibility.” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 21.4 (2006): 304 – 321
- Patterson, Maggie Jones and Fullerton, Romayne Smith. “Naming Names: Crime Coverage Rituals in North America, Sweden, and the Netherlands.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Renaissance Grand & Suites Hotel, St. Louis, MO. 10 Aug. 2011
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