Thursday, April 9, 2009

Crime and Punishment Part II

While I was writing my rant about the Herald's treatment of crime and violence yesterday, Jasmatbhai Patel, the man beaten up for dinging someone's BMW, died in hospital. 'Christ, what an awful, pointless waste of two lives', was what I thought as I read the article; my mind boggled as I tried to comprehend what might motivate someone to beat someone to death, let alone an elderly man over a minor accident.

Sorry if my usual wry cynicism has been replaced by empathy. But this is exactly the point that I was trying to make yesterday. It's because of the strong emotional impact that these stories have that we - and by we, I mean the Herald, oddly enough - have to be particularly careful with how they are reported. There are many issues here; one is that, to me, 'level of emotional engagement' seems to be the appropriate criterion for an article appearing in Woman's Day, not a 'serious' newspaper. Another is that when everyone, including the people at the Herald, know that the media coverage of crime strongly, and often misleadingly, influences public opinion (and then leads to rubbish like the 'three strikes' law, not to mention people being afraid to leave their homes), crime reporting ought to be held to particularly high standards.

That's what I said yesterday - or, at least, that's what I meant. A couple of anonymous people had issues in the comments with what I said. One person, apparently mistaking EtH for a site that talks about every article the Herald runs, complained that if all my complaints were taken into account the Herald would come out as a wad of blank paper every day. (Some may claim that would be an improvement, har har.) I read over my article again and struggled to find the part where I argued that violent crime ought not to be reported - I merely claimed that it should be reported in a more considered and less sensationalised way. As to his/her question about what I want in a newspaper:
  • coverage of local politics and issues, which I generally feel the Herald does reasonably well, which is why I rarely write about it (sorry).
  • some critical analysis and investigation of national politics, which the Herald is generally terrible at.
  • coverage of world news more robust than stealing articles from the Daily Telegraph on Madonna adopting a baby.
  • a cryptic crossword.
Another person complained thusly:
Anonymous said...

"The first thing that ought to be said is that one's chances of being murdered are (and were even at the peak) pretty microscopic... murder probably deserves far less of the front page than it gets for that fact alone."

I see. Should newspapers across the world ignore them then, cos they don't happen that often? Should we have more stories about people going to the shops, because that happens quite a bit? Should all stories be given prominence based on 'how often they happen'?

This seems to be a rather creative interpretation of what I said. My point, I thought, was clear - I was talking about the link between people reading sensationalised reports of violent crime and believing in a (false) rise in murder rates - you never hear the Herald say that you're very unlikely to be murdered. Anonymous's claim that I am basically arguing that "all stories [should] be given prominence based on 'how often they happen'" seems like a fairly radical straw man argument to me - I don't know what else anyone thinks, but feel free to throw in your two cents. Let me re-iterate: I believe that violent crime ought to be reported differently, not 'not at all', precisely because of the powerful impact the reporting has on people - even grumpy old me.


  1. I tend to agree with you for my two cents worth. It is the way in which the media reports crime - sensationalised and disproportionately - which is of concern and which fuels public hysteria. I don't think the argument that 'if you don't report crime which happens infrequently you'll have to report things like shopping which happen frequently' is a logical or useful one. There are many other areas which are newsworthy which could be reoprted upon. Just take a look at the pathetic excuse for the 'world' section for example. At the end of the day blood, sex, and hysteria centred drivel are what sells, but only insofar as this is self-perpetuating. If the media lifted its game a little than the demand would perhaps likewise shift as well.

  2. Be that as it may, I thought Anonymous's comments were quite amusing.

    Hey, Ranch reports that she has 2 independent friends who are fb fans of you Jamesian. Whether that's because your blog has the momentum of a runaway freight train (what makes you so popular?), or just because Auckland's a very small town, I can't say...

  3. I don't mind the sensationalism really... I *prefer* my crime stories to have lots of blood and gore. There's gotta be some kind of entertainment value in it to make it worth reading about.

  4. Well put.

    And just to add, it's disproportionate public hysteria ("public outcry") which promotes racism and intolerance, and often leads to rushed/botched legislation that serves to take away certain civil liberties.

    Do we really need to be scared of terrorists and children?

  5. I'll quote what you said again:

    "The first thing that ought to be said is that one's chances of being murdered are (and were even at the peak) pretty microscopic... murder probably deserves far less of the front page than it gets for that fact alone."

    That says 'murders don't happen often and therefore shouldn't be on the front page'.

    And to take that to a logical conclusion: 'Only things that happen lots should be'.

    Which is precisely the opposite of accepted news values.

  6. "you never hear the Herald say that you're very unlikely to be murdered"

    I think that was the point of the murder rate story the other day.