Chap II de Victims, Crime and Society
Chris Greer (2007)
News media and the ‘ideal victim’
Newsworthiness, crime and criminal victimization
Newsworthiness, crime victims and the importance of the visual
Newsworthiness, crime victims and institutional failure
Under-representing victims of crime
Over-representing victims of crime
Misrepresenting victims of crime
• To problematize media representations of crime and criminal victimization.
• To discuss methods of researching criminal victimization and media coverage.
• To assess media representations of different forms of criminal victimization.
The definition of who may legitimately claim victim status is profoundly influenced by social divisions including class, race, ethnicity, gender, age and sexuality, and, as such, remains a point of contention and debate. Such debates are framed and inflected, to a significant extent, in the news media. This chapter, then, is concerned critically to explore how the status of victim, and different acts and processes of criminal victimization, are defined and represented in the news media.
It is now widely acknowledged that, across news and entertainment formats, media focus overwhelmingly on the most serious examples of crime and victimization, foregrounding images of violent and frequently sexual interpersonal offending (Marsh, 1991; Reiner et al., 2000a). By contrast, lower-level property offences that make up the significant majority of recorded crime (Maguire, 2002), and white-collar and corporate offences that place a major social and financial burden on society (Hillyard et al., 2004; Tombs and Whyte, 2001, 2003; Croall, this volume), are given sparse attention, if not ignored altogether. However, the mass media focus on violent crime is also highly selective. Ferrell (2005: 150) points out that news media representations highlight ‘the criminal victimization of strangers rather than the dangerous intimacies of domestic or family conflict’. Stanko and Lee (2003: 10) note that violence in the media is constructed ‘as ‘random’, wanton and the intentional acts of evil folk’. News reporting of crime and, further, of the particular types of crime on which journalists disproportionately focus, is selective and unrepresentative. News reporting of crime victims is equally so.
Critically exploring media representations of crime victims is important because, over the past few decades, victims have taken on an unprecedented significance in media and criminal justice discourses, in the development of crime policy, and in the popular imagination. Indeed, as Reiner and colleagues have noted, the foregrounding of crime victims in the media is one of the most significant qualitative changes in media representations of crime and control since the Second World War (Reiner et al., 2000a, b, 2003).
The chapter is structured into three main parts. First, it takes a critical look at some theoretical and methodological issues which are important when researching news media representations of crime victims and criminal victimization. Why and how these particular issues are important is illustrated by examining the portrayal of murder victims, where the influence of factors such as social divisions and inequalities and the determinants of news production is starkly illustrated. Second, it explores news representations of a range of different types of crime victim, focusing in particular on those groups and individuals who are variously over-represented, underrepresented and misrepresented in media reports. Finally, the chapter identifies significant gaps in the existing research literature, raises a number of questions for further reflection, and suggests some potentially fruitful areas for future research and investigation.
News media and the ‘ideal victim’
# Ideal victims a person or category of individuals who – when hit by crime – most readily are given the complete and legitimate status of being a victim, including those who are perceived as vulnerable, defenceless, innocent and worthy of sympathy and compassion.
# Hierarchy of victimisation describes a pecking order of sorts, representing the differential status of particular types and categories of crime victim in media and official discourses, including ideal victims (for example, some child murder victims) at the top of the hierarchy, and non-deserving victims (for example, habitually violent youths injured in a drunken fight) near the bottom.
The attribution or otherwise of ideal or legitimate victim status and related levels of media interest are clearly influenced by demographic characteristics.The cases of missing and murdered children discussed above indicate that both ‘class’ – or perhaps better, a middle-class notion of ‘respectability’ – and gender can be defining factors. Race, too, can be central. In 1993, black teenager Stephen Lawrence was fatally stabbed in a racist attack. At first, the police assumed that because the victim was a young, black male, the murder must have been gang-related (McLaughlin and Murji, 1999; Cottle, 2004; Heaven and Hudson, 2005). For a week after the stabbing in 2000 of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor in South London, news reports focused almost exclusively on the issue of community policing (Jewkes, 2004). It was not until later that both these individuals were recognized and reported as legitimate victims worthy of national media attention. Partly because of their race, and partly because of their gender, legitimate victim status was not automatic as it was for Holly, Jessica and Milly, but needed to be won. The murder of white London solicitor Tom ap Rhys Price in 2006 received 5,525 words in the national press, while the murder on the same day, of Asian London cement merchant Balbir Matharu, received only 1,385 (Guardian, 27th January 2006). For some, including the Chief Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair, the explanation was sad but simple. The British news media are institutionally racist in how they report murder. (1)
There was some limited media debate regarding the merits of this allegation. Overwhelmingly, though, the media response was hostile. Outraged newspaper editors reproduced high profile coverage of black and Asian murder victims – including Stephen Lawrence and Damilola Taylor – as ‘proof’ that they were not racist. The conservative Daily Mail, known for its ‘traditionally reactionary stance on race issues in Britain’ (McLaughlin and Murji 1999: 377), reprinted its infamous front page which risked legal action by sensationally naming and picturing the alleged killers of Stephen Lawrence beneath the headline – ‘Murderers: The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us!’.
In the end, little was resolved, but the brief bout of mediatized claim and counter-claim usefully illustrated the complexity of the problem. Demographic characteristics such as class, race, gender, age, and sexuality can at times determine news media interest in a fairly straightforward manner. But they can also cut across each other and interact with other variables in nuanced and unpredictable ways that do much to invalidate blanket claims that ‘the press’ or, still worse, ‘the media’ are institutionally prejudiced. The influence of victim demographics needs to be considered within the wider context of the news production process, the other elements of the case, and the prevailing cultural and political environment at that time. In order to unravel this complexity a little further, it is helpful to explore the concept of newsworthiness.
Stop now and try to think of some well-known victims of crime. How would you describe these victims? What are their demographic characteristics? Other than their victimization, do they share anything in common?
What do your recollections tell you about media representations of crime and criminal victimization?
Newsworthiness, crime and criminal victimization
There exists an extensive literature on the various criteria that make events attractive – or ‘newsworthy’ – to journalists (Chibnall, 1977; Hall et al., 1978; Katz, 1987; Ericson et al., 1989; Schlesinger and Tumber, 1994; Greer, 2003; Jewkes, 2004). Newsworthiness is shaped by news values – those criteria that determine which events come within the horizon of media visibility, and to what extent, and which do not. Since the first sociological statement of news values by Galtung and Ruge in 1965, numerous commentators have offered their own interpretation of the key determinants of newsworthiness. Three important contributions are summarized in Table 2.1.
# News values those criteria that influence, often implicitly, the selection, production and prioritization of events as news. Key news values include drama and action, immediacy, violence, celebrities, and sex.
Most accounts agree on certain criteria, which can be thought of as core or fundamental news values. With specific reference to crime news, most accounts highlight the importance of violence. The observation made by Hall et al. (1978: 68) three decades ago about the production of crime news still holds today:
One special point about crime as news is the special status of violence as a news value. Any crime can be lifted into news visibility if violence becomes associated with it … Violence represents a basic violation of the person; the greatest personal crime is ‘murder’… Violence is also the ultimate crime against property, and against the State. It thus represents a fundamental rupture in the social order.
|Three sociological accounts of ‘news values|
At the same time, specific criminal incidents – what Martin Innes (2003, 2004) calls ‘signal crimes’ – can have a lasting influence on crime reporting. ‘Signal crimes’ are those crimes which impact not only on the immediate participants (victims, offenders, witnesses), but also on wider society, resulting in some reconfiguration of behaviours or beliefs (Innes, 2003). For example, the murder of toddler James Bulger by two 10-year-old boys in 1993 (re)generated sustained debate on the concept of ‘childhood’ and its intersections with ‘evil and purity’, ‘guilt and innocence’, ‘care and control’ (James and Jenks, 1996; Goldson, 1997; Morrison, 1997; Scraton, 1997). The racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in the same year, and evidence of institutional racism in the police (mis)handling of the case (Macpherson, 1999; see also Chapters 5 and 10 in this volume), intensified interest in race and racism and their connection with ‘crime and victimization’, ‘law and order’, ‘policing and criminal justice’ (McLaughlin and Murji, 2001; Cottle, 2005). The sexually-motivated abduction and murder of 8-year-old Sarah Payne in the summer of 2000 by a convicted paedophile crystallized fears around the image of the predatory child sex offender and fuelled debate on ‘risk and dangerousness’, ‘surveillance and control’, and the suitability of new legislation, to be called Sarah’s Law, allowing limited public notification regarding the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders in the community (Silverman and Wilson, 2002; Evans, 2003). In the wake of these cases, further incidents of child violence, racist violence, predatory sexual violence were rendered more newsworthy still because they could be considered and constructed in relation to the defining incident at that time – the signal crime – which in turn could be revisited, reactivated and recreated in the media for a mass audience (Peelo, 2006). Thus, while violence endures as a core news value, its newsworthiness can be intensified considerably when focused through the lenses of celebrity, childhood, sex and race, among others – categories which are not in themselves new, but which have gained increased and lasting media currency due to wider social change and/or specific, high profile, signal crimes.
|Cops Losing Fight on Violent Crime, Sun, page 33, 27 January 2006|
# Signal crimes A term coined by Martin Innes which refers to those particularly serious or high profile crimes which impact not only on the immediate participants (victims, offenders, witnesses), but also on wider society, resulting in some reconfiguration of behaviours or beliefs (Innes, 2003).
Newsworthiness, crime victims and the importance of the visual
What is missing from traditional accounts of crime newsworthiness is sufficient acknowledgement of the ‘visual’. The rapid development of information technologies in recent decades has changed the terrain on which crime is reported. Today, crime stories are increasingly selected and ‘produced’ as media events on the basis of their visual (how they can be portrayed in images) as well as their lexical-verbal (how they can be portrayed in words) potential. Of course, television stations are primarily concerned with producing an ‘appealing visual product’ (Chermak, 1995: 110). But press representations too have become intensely visual phenomena, incorporating: photographs of victims, offenders, or loved ones; diagrams mapping out a route taken, a geographical area, a weapon, or a crime scene; graphic illustrations of offending rates, prison populations, and police numbers; satirical cartoons lampooning bungling criminal justice professionals; the list goes on (see Figure 2.2). These visual elements of the news product depict immediately, dramatically, and often in full colour what it may take several paragraphs to say in words. If the visual has always played an important part in the manufacture of crime news (Hall, 1973), today it has become a universally defining characteristic.
Where victims of crime are concerned, the potential to visualize a case can have a direct impact on its perceived newsworthiness. Steve Chermak begins his book Victims in the News (1995) as follows:
As the surviving family members begin to struggle with the realities of murder, they are asked by the news media to make a public obituary to the deceased victim. Journalists hope the family members can articulate their pain, suffering, and confusion in a newsworthy fashion so others can attach some meaning to the family’s loss. The newsworthiness of this crime increases significantly if members of the family weep on camera, provide a descriptive photograph, or express their pain dramatically in words.# Visualisation of crime news the increasing prevalence and importance of visual representations of crime news, crime victims and criminal victimisation in the information age, generally to enhance the immediate accessibility, human interest and overall communicative impact of the news product on media consumers.
The press conference has become integral, both to the police investigation and to the media coverage of murder cases. Indeed, today it is almost expected that victims’ loved ones will express their emotions and share their pain and suffering with media audiences, at once horrified and fascinated by the spectacle unfolding before them. As well as being assumed to increase the likelihood of public co-operation in a murder investigation, police are also aware that ‘emotional displays of this kind make a good story for journalists and thus the case may receive more media attention than it might otherwise do’ (Innes, 2003: 58). There is an important intersection here between the demographic characteristics of the victim and his/her relations, the availability or perceived suitability of loved ones to feature in press conferences, the overall newsworthiness of the case, and the amount of media attention it receives as a result.
The parents of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, Sarah Payne, and Milly Dowler all made emotional television appeals for the safe return of their children, and in some cases for information regarding the identity and whereabouts of their child’s killer. Because of the ideal nature of the victims and the drama of the story, media interest in these cases was automatic. The task for the parents of Stephen Lawrence and Damilola Taylor was not as straightforward. It was not until Damilola’s father travelled from Nigeria to make press and television appearances that this victim became newsworthy in his own right. And Doreen and Neville Lawrence campaigned tirelessly for justice, actively soliciting media attention and successfully raising the profile of the case when interest was sparse (Cathcart, 2000). Ultimately, in all of these cases, articulate and ‘respectable’ parents were not only able, but willing, and in some cases driven to engage with the media and withstand the potentially constant glare of its spotlight. Their suitability and capability in this regard made the stories more newsworthy and, crucially, kept the cases in the public eye. Those less able or less willing to engage with the media, or those whom the police consider less suitable for media exposure for whatever reason, may find that, deprived of new and newsworthy material, media attention quickly dries up. A police spokesperson said that Hannah Williams’ background made it difficult to launch a national media campaign around her. Hannah’s mother, it was claimed, a single parent on a low income, ‘wasn’t really press-conference material’ (Bright, 2002).
Even more powerful than press conferences, victim photographs familiarize media audiences, instantly and enduringly, with victims of crime in a way that words cannot. ‘Photographs’, Susan Sontag (2004: 2) argues, ‘have an insuperable power to determine what people recall of events.’ Gerrard (2004: 14), writing about the Soham murders, suggests that ‘We understand with words and stories, through the linked chain of events. But we recollect in pictures. Memory freeze-frames. Our lives are held in a series of vivid stills inside our head, and so it is with more public events.’ And in the words of one journalist, ‘If the public can see … a victim, it adds something. There is nothing to a name. When you see a picture, you see the life, the potential’ (cited in Chermak, 1995: 104). In missing persons and murder cases, victim photographs are rendered more poignant still by the understanding that those featured may be, or already are, dead. They present an idealized personification of innocence and loss. At the same time, they serve indirectly to highlight the monstrosity and evil of the offender, and to endorse the extent to which this monstrosity ‘should inform justice’ (D’Cruze et al., 2006: 22). In Western culture where ‘seeing is believing’ (Doyle, 2003: 138), photographs humanize crime victims, adding a sense of the ‘real’ to that which may otherwise remain abstract and difficult to latch on to or invest in emotionally.
Thus, it is not only what is known or imagined about victims, in terms of background, life history, future potential, but also how vividly that history and potential can be communicated to media audiences. In signal crimes featuring ‘ideal victims’, whose innocence is uncontested and whose potential is palpably felt, photographs may take on an iconic status, becoming an instant, powerful and lasting reference point. The photograph of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman posing in their matching Manchester United shirts, or the school portraits of Damilola Taylor or Sarah Payne are good examples of victim photographs which were used relentlessly throughout each case and its aftermath, and became deeply embedded in the popular imagination. The power of these images, the newsworthiness of the crime type, the social characteristics of the victims and their families, and the suitability and willingness of those involved to engage with the media coalesced with other factors to produce a compelling narrative that connected deeply and on a profoundly personal level with media audiences, and stayed with them. Another crucial factor in sustaining their high profile presence in the news media was that these victims’ cases featured evidence of serious failure by key institutions and agencies tasked with the role of ‘public protection’.
Newsworthiness, crime victims and institutional failure
A key element in the construction of a compelling crime narrative is the attribution of responsibility or blame (Chibnall, 1977; Sparks, 1992). Blame for serious and violent crimes may be individual and directed at offenders, or, less often, social and directed at society. Importantly, however, it can also be institutional. When there is evidence that official agencies and state bodies assigned to protect the ‘innocent’ have somehow failed in this task, the potential to develop and sustain a compelling narrative is increased considerably. Media interest in the deaths of James Bulger, Stephen Lawrence, Sarah Payne, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, and Damilola Taylor was maintained in part by evidence of serious institutional failings – variously implicating the police, the courts, the education system, even the core social institution of the family – which were portrayed either as serving to maintain the conditions that allowed the offence to occur in the first place, or as impeding the case’s investigation and prosecution afterwards. Now sensationally located at the heart of a scandal, the symbolic power of the victims extended beyond their individual cases and they became representative of wider issues and debates on public safety, social and criminal justice, or the nature of society itself.
When crime victims come symbolically to represent a problem that resonates with and potentially affects many in society – school safety, racist violence, knife crime – mediatized campaigns, particularly when launched in the victim’s name, are likely to garner high levels of public support. Faced with collective moral outrage and a sustained barrage of critical media coverage, agencies publicly implicated as part of the problem, or the authorities to which those agencies are answerable, are required to respond. In each of the cases discussed above, the response was some form of official inquiry which, in turn, led to recommendations for change in structures of training and accountability, professional practice and criminal justice and social policy. The murder of James Bulger is inextricably linked to the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act’s abolition of doli incapax – the centuries-old legal doctrine which maintained that children between the ages of 10 and 13 could not be held fully responsible for crimes committed because they are incapable of understanding the consequences and implications of their acts. The Macpherson Report (1999) investigating the mismanagement of the Stephen Lawrence murder case branded the London Metropolitan Police ‘professionally incompetent and institutionally racist’ and called for fundamental change to police training and accountability, and engagement with black communities across the UK. Sarah Payne’s abduction and murder by a convicted paedophile generated media debate and public outrage which informed the legislative changes embodied in the Sex Offences Act 2003. The murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman led directly to the Bichard Inquiry, which scrutinized the police’s ‘intelligencebased record keeping, vetting practices and information sharing with other agencies’ (http://www.bichardinquiry.org.uk/report/) and made recommendations relevant for police, social services, education establishments, vetting services and government aimed at improving national child protection. Most recently, the conviction of two boys in 2006 for the murder of Damilola Taylor comes after three trials and claims that crucial forensic evidence was missed during the initial investigation. An inquiry into these institutional failures was, at the time of writing, under way. The extent to which the changes or recommendations for change following these cases have been appropriate or adequately implemented remains a matter for debate (Haydon and Scraton, 2000; Bowling and Phillips, 2002; Foster et al., 2005). For current purposes, however, what is important is the role news media played in generating, sustaining and shaping the preceding debate. It would be overstating things to suggest that media representations led directly to the policy and legislative developments that followed. But they were instrumental in publicly defining the cases, rooting the victims’ images in the popular imagination, generating and focusing collective moral outrage and support for change, and, crucially, keeping the stories alive in both political and popular consciousness, in some cases, long after the initial investigation had closed.
Revisit your list of crime victims. Now, consider how you are thinking about those crimes? What is it that you recall about each case? Is it the details of the offence; the media coverage – television, radio, Internet, press; the images that were released during the investigation; evidence of institutional failure?
Do you recall different things about different cases?
Are you imagining the cases in words, pictures, or both?
The previous sections have discussed the significance of social divisions and inequalities, the contemporary nature of news production, and the wider criminal justice environment for the representation of crime victims in the news media. More specifically, it has sought to demonstrate the complexity of the interconnections between these factors and the impact they can have on the attribution of legitimate or ideal victim status, media interest, and the public construction of particular cases of murder. The second half of this chapter broadens out the analysis by considering news representations of a range of different types of crime victim under three broad headings: under-representing victims of crime, over-representing victims of crime, and misrepresenting victims of crime. It should be noted that these headings are not mutually exclusive: victims who are under-represented, for example, are by definition also misrepresented. The aim, however, is not to establish hermetically sealed categories of crime victim, but rather to stimulate critical thinking by demonstrating some of the ways in which crime victims and criminal victimization can be distorted in news media representations.
Under-representing victims of crime
Victims of street crime
Though it is true that some of the most serious examples of criminal offending grab the biggest headlines, images of street crime and anti-social behaviour maintain a constant and foreboding presence across news media. Given the newsworthiness of violence, it is not surprising that robbery and assault feature heavily. News reports and broadcasts are replete with images of anti-social and criminally violent behaviour. Elderly women are archetypal ‘ideal victims’ of street crime and may attract considerable media attention when they become victims.
|Tough on Crime? They’d Laugh if it Didn’t Hurt so Much, Daily Mirror front page, 12 July 2002|
The under-representation of young people as victims of street crime is even more pronounced for those who are non-white. High profile examples of racist murder and child killing, as we have seen, can generate enormous levels of media attention. And particular forms of criminal victimization may be reported in racialized terms which cast black youth as victims as well as offenders. The BBC News (30 September 2006), for example, ran a feature on gun crime which reported that 35per cent of UK shootings involve black victims, and that black youths are 30 times more likely to be killed through gun crime than white youths. Reinforcing Porteous and Colston’s (1980) findings, however, this coverage followed a series of incidents resulting in death and portrayed the problem as an issue of ‘race’ as much as an issue of ‘criminal victimization’. The everyday experiences of black people as victims of crime and racial prejudice seldom make the headlines.
For decades, black youth have been demonized in media discourses as the ‘criminal other’. Whether as pimps, rioters, muggers, Rastafarian drug dealers, gang members, or Yardies (Hall et al., 1978; Gilroy, 1987; Solomos, 1988; Alexander, 1996; Muncie, 2004), the association between race and crime has been forcefully established and remains resonant today. This association has more recently extended to Asian youth (Alexander, 2000). Once perceived as more likely to fall victim to street violence than perpetrate it (Muncie, 2004), participation in events such as the anti-Rushdie protests of 1989 and demonstrations against the first and second Gulf Wars have resulted in an intensified media interest in potential Asian criminality. An Independent article in 1995, warning of ‘an Asian crime “timebomb”, cautioned that ‘the country is on the verge of an outbreak of disorder caused by Asians … which could shatter the belief that Asians are more law-abiding than white or black people’. In a post-September 11th world of heightened ‘Islamophobia’, fear and suspicion of Asian youth are exacerbated by news reports which crudely, but commonly, marry the terms ‘Asian’ and ‘Muslim’, on the one hand, and ‘Islam’ and ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, on the other. Racialized discourses on asylum and immigration inflame tensions still further (Greer and Jewkes, 2005; ICAR, 2007).
Meanwhile, Asian youth ‘resistance’ against perceived or actual victimization by the state and wider society becomes ‘synonymous with criminality and upheaval, with the breakdown of perceived traditional values and the growth of a pathologised culture of alienation and confusion’ (Alexander, 2000: 7). The apparent news media obsession with the criminality of nonwhite youth displaces interest in their experiences of all but the most serious forms of criminal victimization.
This chapter has identified and explored some of the key influences that shape the representation of crime victims and criminal victimization in the news media. It has explored the relationship between social divisions, inequality and ‘ideal’ or ‘legitimate’ victim status, examined how changes in the media environment and the news production process have impacted on the representation of crime victims, and considered reporting of a range of different victim types who are variously over-represented, under-represented or misrepresented in news media discourses. These closing paragraphs offer a few points by way of summary, raise some questions which seem pertinent at the present time, and suggest a number of potentially fruitful areas for further research and investigation.
Alexander, C. (1996) The Art of Being Black. Oxford: Oxford University Press.