The Crime of Sensational Media Coverage
April 22nd, 2009
It’s the classic conundrum of what comes first — the chicken or the egg? When it comes to media and its coverage of violence, the answer to that question is never quite clear. While I do not buy into the media simply mirrors society theory, it’s impossible to gauge just how much crime the media is responsible for perpetuating. When does coverage of crime become premature? Why can’t mainstream media resist the pressure to exaggerate violence through ‘trends’ that reinforce conservative fear mongering? And why must crime reporting fall into the panic-inducing soundbites like “co-ed slain,” “bloody melee,” “gruesome discovery” and other worrisome rhetoric?
I raise these questions for two reasons, the first being the 10th anniversary of the Columbine shootings. For several days now, headlines re-hashing the Littleton, Colo. incident have surfaced over the web, television and print news. Of course, the media is also using this pseudo-event as a segue into re-reporting the shootings at Virginia Tech and a whole host of other teenage gun incidents. The other reason being what the media has dubbed the “Craigslist Killer.” It now takes just one murder to earn a catchy serial killer sounding nickname? Aren’t we jumping the gun a bit?
For those of you who don’t know the story, a woman in Boston was murdered after posting an ad on Craigslist for massage services, and police now believe the suspect may be responsible for a gunpoint robbery in Rhode Island after a woman posted an ad for dance services. One murder doesn’t constitute a sensational nickname. Forgive me for sounding morbid but the Boston Strangler and the Zodiac Killer had to commit their crime multiple times before becoming the tacit media whores they were. Today, the media is willing to lionize a one-murder killer for ratings and readership. Fortunately, the police believe they have the guilty party in custody but has anyone stopped to ask whether this over-dramatization could be breeding a serial killer? Fame, especially premature fame, is a dangerous drug to a narcissistic criminal.
The media’s overzealous need to link this to Craigslist brings me to another point: the media’s scapegoating of technology for crime. Coming from a Neil Postman influenced program at NYU, I’m typically the last one to defend technology but these media fear campaigns not only convince the masses to fear crime, but the computer as well. We’ve seen the scare tactics time and time again, with coverage of hacker culture, identify theft and the recent assault on MySpace, tying the social networking site to sexual predators. Technology certainly affords more opportunities for deviance but it’s not transforming everyday citizens into credit card frauds, hackers, pedophiles and killers.
Barry Glassner’s book The Culture of Fear highlights the impact such distortions can have on society’s perception of reality. You’ll often here the media argue that crime coverage is a deterrent and fosters awareness. I’d argue that law enforcement and jails do that. Beyond fear and false perceptions of reality, what is sensational crime coverage fostering?
For Columbine, coverage fostered nothing more than a wave of copycat crimes across the country among alienated youth looking to capitalize on the attention. An article appearing in Time magazine this week noted that, despite all the promises that media coverage of violence makes us more aware and more safe, gun control (lack there of) has spiraled out of control 10 years after the event. I’m not saying eliminate coverage of violence. I’m advocating that, since the media stopped practicing objectivity years ago, report on such events with the aim of influencing policy and changing a culture where buying a gun is easier than opening a checking account.