There is a reciprocal relationship between crime and the media. For police the media is often an essential aid in solving crimes. On the other hand, the media uses crime reports to sell newspapers and attract listeners and viewers.
Police use of the media
Police investigations use the media to alert the public to criminal activity, and to call for witnesses and information about specific cases. Press conferences are sometimes held – especially in cases of missing persons. Police are careful about what details they release to the media, as sensitive information may assist criminals or endanger the public or witnesses.
Media use of crime
Crime news offers the media potent content as it is often negative, personal, visual, violent and emotional. As most members of the public don’t experience much crime first hand on a day-to-day basis they rely on the media for information. Yet the media’s crime coverage is highly selective.
More likely to drown
Most New Zealanders’ fear of criminal violence far exceeds their actual risk of becoming a victim. Random unprovoked murders or attacks are rare. In many cases of violent crime the victim and offender know each other. People are more likely to drown or be run over than to be murdered; and more likely to injure themselves at home, work or playing sport than to be injured by an assault.
Crime news and court reporting reinforce what the law considers to be good and bad, normal and deviant. The media also highlights unacceptable or abhorrent behaviours which are not always crimes – examples from the early 21st century were boy racers and teenage binge drinking. The media publicises and amplifies community concerns, and also what they perceive to be community concerns.
Crimes reported by the media
Aside from driving offences, around half of offences reported to police are property crimes (such as theft, burglary and white-collar crime). The media underreports these, and focuses on the 18% of crime that is violent. This includes assault, domestic violence, robbery, rape and homicide. The most heinous or bizarre murders get the most coverage. For example a stabbing will receive little media attention compared to a man who kills his family.
The meat of stories
In 1992 the chairperson of the Victims Task Force, Ann Ballin, outlined her thoughts on the way victims were used by the media: ‘Victims become the meat of stories and frequently are used not only for news, but entertainment value. In this way they are exploited unmercifully. In my judgement a person who is a victim should not be subject to media attention unless that is what they want.’1
The same pattern occurs with sexual offences. A 2003 study of three newspapers found that nine cases accounted for 22% of all reporting on sexual offences. Selective and disproportionate crime coverage, especially of violent crime, when crime rates were falling during the 2000s, raised questions of media ethics. The media can influence public fears about crime and attitudes towards punishment.
In a 1995 survey of 300 randomly selected people in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch most respondents felt that crime and reported crime were increasing. The perception was accurate, as violent crime rates rose until the mid-1990s. Over the 21st century crime rates decreased and police resolved more crimes, and did so more quickly, than in the past. Yet a 2006 study found that fears about public safety had risen since 2001.