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Representations of crime in the news

Have you looked at the news today? How much of it was ‘about’ crime? Perhaps when you looked at the news there were reports of allegations of crimes which have been detected but not yet solved. Maybe there were reports of defendants being convicted of offences in court. And perhaps there were reports about crime in general or specific crimes being a social problem requiring responses from government or police.

‘Crime’ occupies a prominent place in public discussion of society. When we seek to inform ourselves about the world, we may look to the media. And when we do that, we see that ‘crime’ takes up a lot of column inches.

There is a big literature on media representations of crime. If you are interested in following this up you can find some useful summaries in Muncie and McLaughlin (2001) and Williams (2012).

Even if all crimes were ‘known about’, which they are not, it would still not be possible to report on them all. It follows that reporting of crime cannot be ‘neutral’. It is informed by editorial values. These are in part, commercially driven – news is selected in order to sell; and they may also reflect certain broader social considerations. So, crime reporting may:

  1. Focus on non-typical offending, because that seems more newsworthy

  2. Overlook certain non-obvious, unspectacular offending, on the basis of its low news-value

  3. Involve the simplification of complex human stories to render them into ‘news’ form

  4. Present offenders as somehow different from ‘the rest of us’

These reporting choices have implications:

  1. The focus on non-typical offending, and the overlooking of the non-obvious and unspectacular can mean that crime reporting can disproportionately emphasise, for example, serious violent offending. Other, less visible offending may go underreported. Consider, for example, the coverage given to instances of industrial pollution, or to employers’ failures to provide safe working environments, or to so-called ‘white collar’ offences, including financial wrongdoing in corporate contexts.

  2. The simplification of complex stories means some perspectives may get greater prominence than others. So, you may read more about the police view of a convicted offender’s conduct than you read about the offender’s explanation.

  3. The presentation of offenders as different suggests a questionable dichotomy between ‘law-abiding’ people and ‘criminals’. It may be comforting to think that offenders are a ‘class apart’ but any claim to that effect does not stand up to serious scrutiny. The chances are that even if we have not broken the criminal law ourselves, we will all know somebody who has. What is especially interesting for us at this point is why some of that offending is treated as newsworthy, and some of it is not.


Muncie, J and McLaughlin, E (2001) The Problem of Crime (2nd ed, London: Sage)

Williams, K (2012) Textbook on Criminology Oxford University Press

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This article is from the free online course:

From Crime to Punishment: an Introduction to Criminal Justice

University of York