Study Says TV Crime News Influences Safety Perception

by Alice Cherbonnier
     The disproportionate prominence of gore and violence on daily TV news broadcasts--following the “if it bleeds it leads” formula--inflates the public’s fears for personal safety. Crime is often a factor when deciding whether to move from Baltimore City to the suburbs, which are perceived as safer.
      These are among the many findings of an intensive public survey and TV news content analysis focused on the Baltimore region. The results of the study were made public at a press conference at City Hall on June 25.
      The seed idea for the research originated with the successful efforts of Rev. Norman Handy, now a City Councilman, and the Citizens Planning and Housing Association (CPHA) to have the City Council ban, in 1994, alcohol and tobacco billboard advertising from inner city residential communities.
      Rev. Handy and Mark Crispin Miller, Ph.D., former Hopkins writing professor who is now media studies professor at New York University, shared the view that images have immense power to influence behavior, for good or ill.
      “Most crimes are not newsworthy,” Dr. Miller said at the press conference. “A considerable proportion of crime stories are follow-ups about crimes committed weeks before. These stories are a highly charged, visceral experience for viewers. We’re riveted. You get a deep and stubborn impression of danger concentrated in the city, even though the crime might have been committed far away.”
      A chance meeting between Dr. Miller and Robert Embry, director of The Abell Foundation, occurred last June at the “CPHA Reunion” celebration held at the Pratt Library. Dr. Miller told Mr. Embry of his thoughts that Baltimore City’s loss of population and economic base might be traceable, at least in part, to the heavy emphasis on crime and tragedy on television news.
      Mr. Embry encouraged Dr. Miller to formulate a study proposal for the foundation’s consideration. He, Rev. Handy, and Janine Jaquet, research director of The Project on Media Ownership (PROMO), made the successful grant proposal to do a systematic study of the impact of TV crime reporting on the Baltimore region.
      The project was underwritten with a $62,000 grant from The Abell Foundation and gained additional financial support from The James and Patty Rouse Charitable Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Southern Management Corporation, and others.
      The research was to have three parts: a poll and focus group discussions conducted by an independent professional polling company, a content analysis of TV news programs, and an integrative analysis of the results.
      Dr. Miller, founder and director of PROMO, a research center based at New York University, directed the overall project. He hired Public Agenda, a respected non-profit, non-partisan public opinion organization in New York whose president is Daniel Yankelovich, to perform a telephone poll of 500 residents and conduct two focus group discussions, one in the city and the other in the suburbs. Mark Ionesca, who had been one of Dr. Miller’s students at Hopkins, was hired to do a content analysis of three weeks’ worth of television news programs broadcast on the five local stations.
      After analyzing the 23-page Public Agenda survey report, called “Crime, Fears and Videotape: A Public Opinion Study of Baltimore-Area Residents,” and comparing people’s opinions and beliefs with what they were actually being exposed to on local TV news, Dr. Miller then wrote the 24-page PROMO report, “It’s A Crime: The Economic Impact of the Local TV News in Baltimore--A Study of Attitudes and Economics.”
      The TV news content analysis found that crime coverage dominates the available news time, followed by human interest and “soft” news, and then weather and sports. Politics, education, the environment and business rate, on average, just seconds of attention.
      The Public Agenda poll revealed that 60% of area residents believe TV news is an accurate reflection of reality. Most of them say they are frightened of the city; 84% fear criminals will harm them or their loved ones. This concern seems driven both by personal experiences and by media coverage. Interestingly, however, 92% of respondents reported they feel safe in their own neighborhoods, where they get first-hand information about things going on.
      The number of the fearful is far higher than the number who have actually been victims of violence. Overall, the survey found crime was a great concern for the majority of respondents, despite the fact that the city’s crime rate has been declining for several years.
      In his report, Dr. Miller points out that the economic consequences of fear of crime are dire. Half of those who watch the newscast every day try not to shop or dine in the city. Seventy-three percent (73%) of these daily viewers say they are more careful about how late they stay in the city, compared to 54% of those who watch no more than twice a week. One logical conclusion: The more you watch TV, the more you fear.
      Many TV viewers have formed the impression that most criminals are black and most violent crimes are committed in the city. Yet the content analysis of the news shows found only 29.46% of crimes reported on TV took place in Baltimore City; 61% of the crimes reported took place in the suburbs, while 9.16% of crime stories were national or international. “Contrary to the perceptions of those polled by Public Agenda, then, Baltimore’s newscasts appear to over-report suburban crimes,” Dr. Miller writes. (In actuality, in 1996, there were 13,779 arrests in the City, and 20,287 in the suburbs.)
      Survey respondents, both black and white, overwhelmingly--81% and 83%, respectively--expressed concern over “the number of African-American males who commit crimes.” Yet the content analysis of crime reports showed “of all the suspects who appeared on camera, 81.1% were white, while only 18.9% were black.” TV reporters identified law-breakers or suspects as white 28% of the time, and as black only 6% of the time; the remainder were not described racially.
      Dr. Miller writes, “The disparity is striking--for it appears to be a total contradiction of the sad reality of crime in Baltimore.” State Police statistics for 1996 (the most recent year for which figures are available) show blacks committed about 82% of urban crimes, while in the suburbs whites committed 63%, and blacks 37%.
      Dr. Miller concludes that TV news in Baltimore under-reports both black and urban crime; yet many viewers, black and white, still perceive that TV crime news has a pro-white, pro-suburban bias.
      Dr. Miller suggests several interpretations for this inconsistency. One is that the TV stations prominently proclaim their pride about reporting news from “Baltimore,” creating a “powerful subtext” that might allow viewers to lump crimes together as “Baltimore” crimes, even if they didn’t occur in the city.
      Further, viewers come to their screens with preconceived perceptions and prejudices that determine how they see and interpret things. Under these circumstances, Dr. Miller writes, “any TV images of black criminality must necessarily be controversial...[for sensitive black viewers] those infrequent pictures loom too large--as they also do, ironically, for those white racist viewers who think all criminals are black and vice versa...”
      Since covering still more white or suburban crime (already proportionally over-reported) would not be likely to overcome built-in viewer assumptions and prejudices, Dr. Miller suggests that TV news report less crime overall, and cover more important news instead.
      This programming change, however needed, is unlikely. Journalistically, violent crime pays. It’s cheap to report and it grabs attention. Stations whose news shows stress crime-and-violence reporting can cut staff (fewer are needed because the visuals and story line are provided by the events) and improve ratings at the same time (the visuals are compelling for viewers--the “rubbernecking” effect).
      The media conglomerate owners of Baltimore’s TV stations, Dr. Miller charges, expect their stations first and foremost to improve ratings in order to justify higher advertising fees, resulting in higher profits.
      The profit imperative of the conglomerates, Dr. Miller charges, “has degraded TV journalism (and wiped out radio journalism) here in Baltimore.”
      Local TV station profits are flowing to the Hearst Corporation (WBAL, Channel 11), CBS (WJZ, Channel 13), E.W. Scripps (WMAR, Channel 2), and Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcasting (WBFF, Channel 45 and WNUV, Channel 54). The Sinclair stations, perhaps because they are more rooted in the community, report 4% less crime on WBFF, and twice the usual amount of political and government news on WNUV.
      Dr. Miller suggests possible actions the public can take to change how crimes are portrayed--from “shaming both the stations’ management and parent companies into doing a better job” to calling on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to track crime, hard news, and public affairs reporting, to pushing the FCC to revoke the licenses of stations that offend community sensibilities.
      Dr. Miller also suggests, as a long-term possibility, the establishment of a city- or state-based version of the FCC that would set standards for broadcasting. As the digital media age dawns, there may be a need for such oversight in many areas beyond television. Such a local mechanism, he writes, could “ensure that those commercial and TV stations making money here in our community observe a higher standard, and are accountable to those of us who live and work here.”
      TV stations might want to consider following the lead of Austin, TX’s top station, KVUE-TV, which has imposed editorial guidelines for crime reporting. Such stories, before they are broadcast, must be assessed using these criteria: does the crime have significant community impact? does action need to be taken by viewers? is there an immediate threat to safety? is there a threat to children? and, does the story lend itself to a crime-prevention effort?
      Since implementation of these guidelines, the station’s ratings have improved.
      In conclusion, Dr. Miller writes, “[T]he news teams here--despite their talent, and their good intentions--are doing us a grave disservice, by filling up their precious air-time, and our minds, with the sort of titillating items that generally merit only passing mention, as in the police blotter of a daily paper.”
      Ironically, the PROMO report and the press release summarizing its contents have been criticized by an unexpected source: Public Agenda. The firm issued a press release on June 24, under the name of Margaret Dunning, one of its vice-presidents, saying PROMO’s press release summarizing the study, about which Public Agenda was not consulted, “distorts Public Agenda’s findings by presenting them in a biased context and tone.” Ms. Dunning continues, “We do not believe the press release and the essay [the PROMO report, about which Public Agenda was consulted] represent our findings in a fair and balanced manner.”
      Dr. Miller said he was dismayed by this criticism because the PROMO report had been extensively revised under Public Agenda staff oversight. His report is even called “excellent” in one Public Agenda memo to Dr. Miller, and “quite good” in another.
      “There is no distortion whatsoever in the study,” he insisted at the press conference, “but I plead guilty to writing with an impassioned tone, and for good reason. I have been extremely angered about how local TV reports news.”

For information about Public Agenda, call 1-212-686-6610; about The Project on Media Ownership, 410-243-5945.
      Volker Kluepfel assisted in writing this story.

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This story was published on July 1, 1998.