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COVERING CRIME IN CONTEXT

Ask people what they dislike about local television news and they'll often say there's too much crime and violence. They frequently complain that the coverage they see is negative and sensationalistic. What viewers may not be aware of is the effect that kind of coverage has on them. Research shows that many viewers overestimate the amount and types of violence in their communities and know little about efforts to prevent violence. This story from Ike Seamans of WTVJ-TV in Miami provides a comprehensive look at the issue.

With that in mind, NewsLab recently collaborated on a project to illustrate a different approach to reporting on crime and violence--one that explores the causes and consequences, putting context around stories that often have none.


The Project
Working with freelance journalist Jane Ellen Stevens, NewsLab revoiced and revised a series of crime stories provided by local stations in California for the purpose of this experiment.

The stories were changed to include information about the cause of the crime or violent incident, as well as a look at how future such incidents could be prevented.

Changes were made only if the additional information could have been developed by a reporter working on deadline, and if including the information did not make the story much longer.


The Questions

  • Context: Ask how often this type of crime or violent incident occurs. This helps viewers understand whether they should be concerned about this in their community.

  • Consequences: Ask how this type of crime or violent incident affects family members and the community, both economically and emotionally.

  • Risk factors: Ask about factors that violence epidemiologists have identified as being linked with the particular crime or violent incident.

  • Resources: Include information about organizations that are working to prevent similar incidents of crime and violence.
Story Example: Fatal Crash
A car accident has claimed the life of a popular teenager. This is the original report. (Note: we have revoiced this story.) You will need the free Real Media player to view this story. Click here to download.

The story was modified to provide more context, and to include information about risk factors and consequences.

Context: How common is this type of death? (Source: Pacific Center for Violence Prevention or U.S. Fatality Analysis Reporting System Web sites.) This question puts the accident into the context of a problem that needs to be addressed if more deaths and injuries are to be prevented.

Risk factors
: Where was the underage driver drinking? (Source: police) This question raises the issue of where teenagers are getting alcohol.

Consequences
: How was the student who died actually killed? (Source: police) This question explores what happens, exactly, when you don't wear a seat belt.
The revised version of the story includes the answers to these questions.


Story Example: Hate Crime
Three teenagers have been arrested for spray painting hate-related graffiti at a synagogue and a high school. This is the original report. (Note: we have revoiced this story.)

The story was modified to provide more context, and to include information about consequences.

Context
: How often do hate crimes occur in this community? (Source: local police.) This question puts this incident in the context of a problem that is rare and dealt with decisively by police, educators and religious leaders.

Resources
: What is the city doing to prevent hate crimes? (Source: mayor at news conference)

Consequences
: How much will it cost to clean up the graffiti? (Sources: temple president, school administrator) This question gets at both immediate and long-term costs.
The revised version of the story includes the answers to these questions.


Story Example: Internet Threats
A boy has been arrested for making threats over the Internet against students and teachers at his middle school. This is the original report that aired not long after the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. (Note: we have revoiced this story.)

The story was modified to provide more context, and to include information about prevention and intervention.

Context
: How many violent incidents have occurred at this school? Has anything like this happened here before? (Source: school principal.) This question can put the incident in a local context.

Context
: Is juvenile crime in general going up or down? (Source: US Department of Justice report) This question puts the incident in a national context.

Risk factors
: What happened when the boy was arrested? (Source: local police) This question offers a glimpse into the boy's background.

Resources
: What could be done to help kids before they get into trouble? (Source: school principal) This question shifts the focus of the story to the need for more counselors.
The revised version of the story includes the answers to these questions.


Story Example: Teenage Shooting
A boy has been shot to death after an argument between two groups of teenagers. This is the original report that aired not long after the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. (Note: we have revoiced this story.)

The story was modified to provide more context, and to include information about risk factors and prevention.

Context
: How many teenagers are killed by guns? (Sources: U.S. Department of Justice report, San Francisco Department of Public Health) This question can put the incident in both a local and national context.

Risk factors
: What type of gun was used? (Source: local police) This question establishes that a particular type of gun--the handgun--figures in most injuries and deaths.

Resources
: What could be done to prevent kids from being killed by guns? (Source: Million Mom March policy director, who works in San Francisco)

Consequences
: Why isn't the same attention paid to death like this as there was to the deaths at Columbine? (Source: Berkeley Media Studies Group) This question gets at the emotional impact of the death on the community.
The revised version of the story includes the answers to these questions.


Additional Resources
See NewsLab's guide to Internet resources on covering criminal justice for links that can add context to your reporting.

Consult Jane Ellen Stevens' handbook, "Reporting on Violence," for more background and examples.


Page Last Updated
January 15, 2009
 

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