Media Beat, June 8, 1993
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

''Crime Time'' News Exploits Fears

"A scary orgy of violent crime is fueling another public call to action."

That's the way U.S. News & World Report began its cover story on "Violence in America" early this year. In typical fashion, the magazine spoke of "escalating crime numbers," "the wave of violence" and "the upward spiral" of violent crimes.

It's standard crime coverage: attention-grabbing, assertive, scary ... and inaccurate.

Crime is bad in our country, among the worst in the world - but the Justice Department's crime victimization statistics show there is no more violent crime today than 20 years ago. Last year, America's crime rate actually fell.

What has soared is crime coverage. From 1989 through 1991, the three nightly newscasts on network TV together spent 67 minutes per month on crime. By the end of 1993, "crime time" had more than doubled - to 157 minutes each month.

It's not just the quantity of television coverage, but also the pitch that has been revved up - as the line between tabloid and "quality" television disappears. The more grisly the footage the better. Aired and re-aired, it can make even the most distant murder seem like it's right next door.

The media's crime-coverage spree has hit home with the public. According to ABC polling data, only 5% named crime as our country's most important problem in June 1993. By February 1994, crime had skyrocketed to problem No. 1 - cited by 31% of Americans.

Myths and misconceptions abound. News reports emphasize the "random" nature of current violence, but only 13.5% of murderers are strangers to their victims, according to the FBI; half of all women murdered in our country are killed by their male partners.

The lurid media coverage pushes politicians to "get tough" on the crime problem. But getting tough is not the same as getting smart.

TV coverage of crime is not about solving problems; it's about grabbing and holding audiences with shock images. If television featured rational discussions, we might have learned by now that the widely touted get-tough "solutions" just aren't working.

Our crime problem would have been solved long ago if more prisons and stiffer sentences were the answers. The United States locks up a larger portion of its people than any other country in the world. Due largely to the "war on drugs," our prison population has almost tripled since 1980 - to nearly a million people. Yet there's been no real dent in crime.

With hyped-up coverage treating crime as a sudden crisis, the implication is that there might be a sudden solution - whether it's "three strikes and you're out" from conservatives or gun control from liberals.

But crime is a deep social problem that has developed over decades - and solving it will require confronting chronic issues like youth unemployment, urban decay, racism, child abuse and male violence.

Around the country, crime coverage on local TV news is often ghastly. Miami's Fox affiliate, which favors street violence with slow-motion footage and tabloid-style sensationalism, has been censored by some South Florida hotels for scaring the guests.

The Rocky Mountain Media Watch group recently analyzed five days of late-night news on Denver's three network TV affiliates and found that 54.5% of news time was devoted to crime - as were 11 of 15 lead stories and two-thirds of stories over two minutes. While news shows focused on flashing police lights and yellow crime-scene ribbons, issues like homelessness and poverty weren't even covered.

Last month, our associates at the media research group FAIR monitored a week of local late-night news on seven TV stations in Los Angeles. Crime coverage, mostly with action footage, made up half the news on several outlets. Meanwhile, key regional concerns were virtually ignored - such as a primary election for governor and U.S. senator that was only three weeks away.

To counter the "if-it-bleeds-it-leads" trend, local news programs in some cities have pulled back from sensationalizing crime. KIRO-TV in Seattle has pledged to cut all gratuitous crime coverage from its local newscasts. A dozen stations have followed the lead of WCCO-TV in Minneapolis by inaugurating "family sensitive newscasts" in the 5 p.m. slot. These broadcasts cover crime and violence - minus the gory visuals.

But the real issue goes deeper than how gory the crime coverage should be. It's whether news is about fostering debate on how to solve the problems of our communities - or about creating spectacles that grab our emotions, but keep us on the sidelines ... watching.

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