3. Media and Crime
In this section, we examine some of the ways in which crime and justice are constructed in media representations. A key concept in media studies, framing, is explained first. It is followed by a summary of some examples of ways in which criminal offending and offenders, victims of crime, and criminal justice personnel and their actions are framed in media coverage.
Think of a picture in a frame. The frame sets the limits of what you can see, and you do not necessarily know the context outside of what appears in the image within the frame. You do not have access to the broader background. For example, you do not know if there were more people present than those you see within the frame. You rely on the facial expressions of those in the picture to understand how it felt. Likewise, in media framing, the media offer the audience a snapshot of events and there is always something left out of the frame. As Entman (1993, p. 52) states,
To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.
Altheide (1997, p. 651 – emphasis in original) further clarifies: “Frames are the focus, a parameter or boundary, for discussing a particular event. Frames focus on what will be discussed, how it will be discussed, and above all, how it will not be discussed.” Fleras (2011, pp. 36-37 – emphasis in original) adds that framing is not neutral:
More specifically, a media gaze reflects a tendency by a mainstream media to frame the social reality from an institutional point of view (i.e., predominantly straight, white, middle-aged, middle-class, male) as natural and normal, while dismissing other aspects as inferior and irrelevant, in the process drawing audiences into seeing like the media as if this seeing did not involve any perspective or bias.
Some of the ways in which stories can be framed to give them greater salience in newspapers is to cover them in the first place; to cover them intensely/repeatedly; to place them on the front page, at the top of the page; to use bold headlines; to include colour, photographs or other visuals; to have longer articles; and to use language that evokes emotion. (Carter, 2013; Conlin & Davie, 2015; Gilchrist, 2010; Sommers, 2017; Wong & Harraway, 2020; Wortley, 2002).
Framing can also be episodic or thematic (Carter, 2013; Clark, 2014; Lee & Wong, 2019; Schulenberg & Chenier, 2014; Surette, 2015). Episodic frames discuss crimes as individual events generally unrelated to other events or any broader context. Episodic frames are the most commonly used type of framing in crime reporting. They are simple and easy to understand. For example, a man killed his wife. He was upset about their impending divorce. He used this weapon. The police have arrested him. In contrast, thematic frames discuss events in their broader context. An instance of a man killing his wife could be discussed as part of a broader pattern of violence against women in society or, at the very least, as the culmination of a pattern of abuse within their relationship. Such a story is more complex and meaningful in terms of understanding why such events take place in our society (Fairbairn & Dawson, 2013; Lee & Wong, 2019). Research on media coverage of domestic homicides suggests that the media rely on episodic formats, blame victims for the incident (e.g., arguments they had with the perpetrator, what the victim did to provoke the attack, promiscuous behaviour, why the victim did not leave), provide excuses for perpetrators’ behaviour (e.g., mental state, financial problems, intoxication, unable to control their emotions), but fail to convey the broader context (Fairbairn & Dawson, 2013; Lee & Wong, 2019). Domestic homicides are generally deemed less newsworthy and tend to receive less coverage and less salient coverage than non-domestic homicides (Wong & Lee, 2018). Fairbairn and Dawson (2013) compared Canadian news coverage from the late 1970s to coverage at the turn of the 21st century and found some improvements over time in the frequency of reporting on a history of intimate partner violence preceding domestic homicides. However, only 18% of stories reported on this background factor. The authors contrasted that number with Statistics Canada figures suggesting that 56% of male-perpetrated homicides followed a known history of abuse (Fairbairn & Dawson, 2013, pp. 165-166).
Crime, Criminal Offenders, and Deviant “Others”
Following the idea that news stories are selected based on the newsworthiness criteria stated above (see Figure 1), a clear tendency emerges with respect to crime news: the rarest crimes receive the most coverage, while the most common crimes rarely receive coverage. As such, violent crimes, and especially murders or violent crimes committed by women, are vastly overrepresented in crime coverage as well as in entertainment media, whereas the much more prevalent property crimes are underrepresented. In addition, crimes that are particularly dramatic, sensational, or bizarre are more likely to be covered in the media. This situation leaves the audience (who rely on media for information) with a distorted picture of crime that is practically the opposite of the reality of crime occurring in our society—Surette (2015) calls this the “backwards law.”
Not only is the crime portrayed in the media out of proportion to its actual occurrence in society, but there is also an emphasis on particular groups of offenders and victims. Visible minorities are more likely to be portrayed as offenders than White people; however, they are less likely than White people to be portrayed as victims or as law enforcement personnel (Intravia & Pickett, 2019; Jiwani, 1993; Schissel, 2006; Wortley, 2002). Also, the concept of the racialisation of crime raises the idea that when racial minorities are responsible for crimes, the cause of their criminality is linked to their cultural origins, whereas White people’s crimes are not blamed on their Whiteness (Chan & Mirchandani, 2002; Wortley, 2002). Race, in fact, is rarely explicitly stated in media coverage; therefore, it may be more noticeable when it is mentioned, particularly in contexts where the racial identification matches racial stereotypes (Coogan, 2012; Faucher, 2008; Freng 2007).
For example, Carver and Harrie’s (2017) comparative analysis of two shooting events that occurred in 2014 demonstrates that similar incidents may be framed differently in media coverage due to the racial and/or ethnic backgrounds of those involved. Justin Bourque shot at RCMP officers in Moncton, killing three, as retaliation against the government. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who disapproved of Canadian military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, killed a guard at the War Memorial in Ottawa, then stormed Parliament and shot a police officer. Although both incidents meet the legal definition of terrorism, only the actions of Zehaf-Bibeau were described as terrorism in media coverage. Bourque was described as a “criminal,” a “gun-nut,” and “anti-establishment,” and his religious affiliation was only mentioned as a means of humanising him by discussing his childhood (Carver & Harrie, 2017). On the other hand, Zehaf-Bibeau’s conversion to Islam was repeatedly emphasised, and words such as “radicalised,” “jihadist,” and “extremist” were used (Carver & Harrie, 2017). In this case, his religion was used to portray him as a criminal “other” within the pre-existing framing in the media linking terrorism to Islam and the Middle East.
Another common media frame is the gangster. Media tend to portray gangs as having well-established leaders and being highly organised and hierarchical, violent, and sophisticated in the drug trade, all of which is at odds with what is known about most gangs (Gushue et al., 2018). It may serve police interests, however, to portray gangs as more organised than they actually are when it comes to seeking more resources in their fight against gangs. Gushue et al. (2018) examined the Vancouver Sun’s coverage pertaining to Jamie, Jonathan, and Jarrod Bacon from 2004 to 2015. The coverage generally portrayed them as sophisticated and powerful gang members who posed a significant public safety risk due to their dangerous enemies. The most commonly occurring keyword in the coverage was “brother,” and the coverage portrayed the brothers as a family, not as individuals. Information about different brothers was mentioned in articles about a single brother, even when this information was irrelevant. Shows of family support were also emphasised, creating the image of a Sopranos-like crime family (Gushue et al., 2018). Almost all the coverage of the Bacon Brothers came after the October 2007 “Surrey Six” slaying, although almost all of Jarrod and Jonathan’s charges occurred before 2008 and Jamie’s role in the 2007 slaying was comparatively minor (he pleaded guilty to being involved in the planning, but not in carrying out the murders). They may have been considered more newsworthy due to a lack of fit with the stereotype of ethnic minority youth gangs than due to their actual criminality: they were from a homegrown “normal” family, and they fit into the popular narrative of “crime families.”
The framing of issues along lines of race can also be observed in the media coverage of opioid overdose deaths, as can the framing of issues along lines of class. Webster et al. (2020) argue that White and middle-class people who become addicted are portrayed as innocent victims, and efforts are made within the coverage to distinguish these users from “street users.” According to Johnston (2020), the focus of the coverage is on “normal,” White, middle-class young people from “good families” who overdose. These stories include photographs and interviews with family and friends. These young people are portrayed as innocent victims of evil drug dealers and foreign drug manufacturers. On the other hand, such coverage ignores the severity of the problem among the Indigenous and middle-aged population. Opioid addiction in Indigenous communities is presented as a chronic community issue, and few personal stories or photos are used. Such coverage reinforces the colonial narrative of the “degeneracy of Indigenous peoples” (Johnston, 2020, p. 123) and positions government responses as superior to those suggested by the Indigenous community.
Just as media portrayals of offenders rely on stereotypes, so too do portrayals of victims. Nils Christie (1986, p. 18) argued that there are certain types of people who “when hit by crime – most readily are given the complete and legitimate status of being a victim.” He was referring to being given this status at the societal level, but we certainly see the ideal victim stereotype play out in media as well. He described an ideal victim as one who would be perceived as weak, was confronted by a “big and bad” offender, was engaged in respectable activities, could not possibly be blamed for their victimisation, was unacquainted with the person who harmed them, and has sufficient social power to have their victim status recognised and to receive sympathy.
Kilty and Frigon (2016) examined the extensive media coverage of Canadian serial killers Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo’s three known victims: Tammy Homolka, Leslie Mahaffy, and Kristen French. Although all three victims were young White women, Kristen French, who was kidnapped while walking home from school, most closely conformed to the ideal victim stereotype. During the period they studied, the authors found over five times more articles about the murder of Kristen French than about the murder of Tammy Homolka, who was related to her attackers. There were also about 20% more stories about Kristen French than about Leslie Mahaffy, who was coming home past curfew on the night she was abducted by Homolka and Bernardo.
In contrast to these young White victims, some victims do not receive nearly as much, if any, media coverage of their assaults, sexual assaults, disappearances, and murders. A shameful number of Indigenous women and girls have gone missing and been murdered in Canada over the last several decades, which led to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry and subsequent report (see also the case study in the Feminist Criminology chapter). The media have been slow to cover these cases, and the coverage has been underwhelming (Cripps, 2021; Gilchrist, 2010; Hugill, 2010; Jiwani & Young, 2006; McDiarmid, 2019). In examining the coverage of the missing and murdered women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, in particular those linked to the Pickton farm, Jiwani and Young (2006) explained that these victims did not conform to the ideal victim stereotype: they were minority women in the wrong place at the wrong time and engaged in activities that would not be considered “respectable.” The authors’ examination of the limited news coverage (128 stories) of these cases found that the framing of these stories told viewers that these are stories about: 1) missing women who were mostly Indigenous drug-addicted sex trade workers, 2) one deviant man’s (Pickton’s) actions, 3) inadequate and ineffective police action, and 4) a horror story about a pig farm and contaminated meat. Such frames offer very little understanding of what happened and why. The authors describe what was virtually absent from the coverage: the larger structural context of these women’s lives, colonialism, racism, sexism, residential school trauma, the condition of the women’s homes and communities, and the broader issue of violence against women (see also Hugill, 2010).
Gilchrist (2010) examined press coverage of six missing and murdered women, none of whom were known to be involved in the sex trade, and none of whose families believed had run away. Three of them were Indigenous women from Saskatchewan, and three were White women from Ontario. There were 3.5 times fewer stories about the disappearances and deaths of the Indigenous women. The White women’s cases were not only mentioned much more often, but they also included lengthier articles, were more likely to appear on the front page and in the front sections of the newspaper, the headlines referred to them by name, they included emotional messages from family and friends, and they were accompanied by more and larger photographs.
Cripps (2021) examined the media attention given to two cases of sexual homicide: one in Australia (Lynette Daley) and one in Canada (Cindy Gladue), both involving Indigenous women. Neither case initially received much media attention, but when the cases went to trial, the media began to cover the stories of these two women’s deaths. In particular, the presentation in court of Cindy Gladue’s preserved torn vaginal tissue as evidence elevated the media sensationalism surrounding the case while reducing this victim’s humanity by focusing on the size of the tear rather than the loss of her life. The way in which the media framed these deaths was in line with dominant racist, sexist, and colonial discourses about Indigenous women and dangerous lifestyles that include violence. Victim-blaming discourses were included in the coverage, such that any empathy the public may have felt for the women was somehow muted. In the case of Cindy Gladue, the media were much more likely to include information from the perspective of the offender than from Gladue’s family. Including information from victims (or in the case of homicide victims, from their family and friends) contributes to the social construction of victims as “grievable” (Cripps, 2021, p. 317).
The term “Missing White Woman Syndrome” has been specifically examined in American research, though not in Canadian research to our knowledge, to refer to the phenomena described above (Conlin & Davie, 2015; Moss, 2019; Sommers, 2017; Stillman, 2007). Certain people who go missing are more likely to have their cases reported in the media and more likely to receive extensive coverage. The intersectionality of race, gender, and class appears to enter into the differential valuation of various victims (see also the Feminist Criminology chapter). The message the media send with such discrepancies in coverage is that some lives are more valuable than others and the audience will care more about certain victims than others. It also signals to perpetrators which targets are easier (Sommers, 2017) and that some victims are more deserving of our collective sympathy and (search/police) resources (Stillman, 2007). These signals were also evident in the Bruce McArthur case, where relatively little coverage was given to his first seven victims (male victims, all of whom were linked to Toronto’s Gay Village and of South Asian or Middle Eastern origins), but the increased coverage of his eighth victim (who was White) led to McArthur’s arrest (Bouchard et al., 2020).
As noted above, the police and media have a mutually beneficial relationship that allows the police to be primary definers of crime news. Their views will be presented first, more regularly, and with authority. Those who come into conflict with the police may have a difficult time having their views represented in mainstream media.
However, in recent years we have seen instances in which the hierarchy of credibility shifts away from the police, particularly when police misbehaviour is captured by “citizen journalists” and disseminated to the public. Images and video of the taser death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport, for example, came from cellphone camera footage recorded by bystanders (Goldsmith, 2010). Similarly, research on media coverage of the G20 protests in Toronto in 2010 found that, prior to and during the Summit, the police were the primary definers and were successful in defining the protesters as the problem (Schulenberg & Chenier, 2014). However, “Post-summit, the pendulum dramatically shifts to protesters as victims and police officers as villains. No citizens are quoted by the media, who suggest the police did a good job or provided assistance” (p. 278). Police came to be defined as the problem. This shift resulted from several individuals posting videos to YouTube in which police behaviours were depicted as “brutality” and in violation of civil rights. See this link for an example of coverage of these protests and the portrayal of protesters and the police.
Such shifts in representations of police mis/behaviour may also depend on the political orientation of the news outlets publishing the information. For example, Chama (2019) compared the views of readers of two New York tabloids on their representation of instances of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement more generally. The New York Post, criticised for being highly sensational and displaying conservative bias, was felt by readers to offer a generally more unfavourable portrayal of BLM. The newspaper blamed the movement for confrontations with the police and tended to portray Black people as criminals, White people as victims, and police as good people who were justified in their actions against Black people. The New York Daily News, while also quite sensational, was seen by readers as offering more positive representations of African Americans and a more positive view of BLM while portraying police as racist and dysfunctional and questioning police behaviour.
We can also see negative and distorted images of police in entertainment media, where police have little influence over media content. Surette (2015) describes three main stereotypes of police that have been developed in crime films over time: “lampooned police” (satirical representations of police as bumbling and incompetent), “G-men” (professional and efficient crime fighters), and “cops” (hypermasculine aggressive crime-fighting soldiers, with sub-types emerging as time moves forward). As with most stereotypes, these representations fail to capture all or even most police officers’ realities and come with negative consequences such as discrediting police as incompetent or creating a restrictive image of policing that excludes women. Huey and Broll (2015) interviewed 31 Canadian police investigators about the ways in which certain aspects of their job were portrayed in television crime shows. While some acknowledged that the media portrayals of police work did contribute to their career choice, they also admitted that the reality of their work had little to do with the sanitised, glamorous, exciting, or “sexy” image of police investigations seen in shows such as CSI. The officers interviewed talked about bad smells, maggots, combing through trash, being sleep deprived, being covered in grime from blood and fingerprinting dust, having to wear masks and other protective equipment, and being sweaty and uncomfortable. These behind-the-scenes aspects of the reality of police work may not be as appealing to the media audience without first being “cleaned up” by the media producers.
fitting a story into a ready-made social construction such that it is easy for the audience to understand and interpret
the idea that the way in which media present crime and justice issues is the opposite of the way in which these phenomena occur in real life
the assumption that the crimes committed by racial minorities can be explained by their race
the socially constructed victim who is seen as weaker than their attacker, blameless, and with whom the audience will readily sympathize
ways of talking about victims and victimization that place at least part of the responsibility for the harm done to the victim on their own behaviour or attributes (e.g. how they were dressed, what they said, where they were, what they were doing, which measures they took to defend themselves, etc.)
researchers generally attribute this term to Gwen Ifill, PBS news anchor, referring to the far more frequent and intense news coverage of instances where white women or girls go missing compared to instances where the missing persons are not white or not female