Crime and the News

Keylist

Posted to HotWired 27 Mar 98

In the survey reported here (and cited in Pasty's news troll, just above), a full 64% of those polled reported a high interest in news about crime.

One wonders: why?

I have long held the belief that the daily dose of crime served in traditional media news reports serves primarily as a distraction, as news which won't offend their advertisers yet still apparently qualifies as 'news'.

That is to say, I have held the belief that crime reportage exists not because the public demands it but rather because news executives select it.

The survey suggests that I am wrong, and that the prevalence of crime reporting really is a case of 'giving the public what they want'. This indeed could be supported further if it could be shown, for example, that ratings increase when crime stories are featured, or decrease when other stories are featured.

But even in the face of such statistics, I still think crime reporting serves as a way for news agencies to avoid tackling more difficult topics.

For one thing, the alternatives to crime reporting are for the most part dull and uninspired. Compare, say, a shocking murder scene with a talking head droning on about the state of the economy, and people will opt for the more entertaining of the two every time.

Additionally, the steady diet of crime reporting likely has, if not an addictive quality, at the very least, a habit-forming quality. People want crime news because that is what they expect of news broadcasts; when answering the survey they are not indicating their preferences so much as engaging in a collective definition of 'news'.

That said, I think also that there is a deeper psychology at work here which I can't quite wrap my mind around. Part of it is on par with the attitude of motorists who slow down at accident scenes, an indication of a morbid curiosity about evil and death.

And part of it I think may have to do with personal fears and trepiditions, the idea that 'it could happen to me'. The need for crime reporting, then, would be based on the fear individuals have of crime, a fear which is, in circular fashion, fostered by that same prevalence of crime reporting.

Survey after survey reports that people tend to believe more crime exists than is actually the case, and that crime is increasing when it is in fact on the wane. I think most people by now ought to be aware that their viewing habits are changing their perception of the nature and magnitude of crime. Yet they continue to watch, knowing at the same time thier attitudes are being changed by their perceptions. Again, why?

Media, and especially broadcast media, are insidious. By the constant repetition of images and ideas, they change their viewers' perceptions such that what the viewer believes (and senses and feels) is in accord with what is shown through the media. This curious adaptability of the human mind is especially useful in nature, when adapting to one's environment is critical to survival. But when the reality being offered is distinct from reality, adaptability becomes a dangerous impairment.

So maybe people demand more news on crime because they view it as a growing and serious problem, one which could strike in their very home at any time, where this view of crime, mistaken though it is, is fostered by continuing and dramatic news reports on crime.


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