Which Murders Matter in Mainstream Media? A News Anchor Reveals the Chilling Formula
The following is an excerpt from the new book Murder in the News: An Inside Look at How Television Covers Crime by Robert H. Jordan Jr. (Prometheus Books, November 2017), available for purchase from Amazon and IndieBound:
In June 1995, in preparation for my dissertation, I began a pilot study that was conducted at WGN-TV, using questionnaires. The aim of the study was to gather specific information from the pilot study population, information that dealt with news events to examine any preconceived notions of a prejudicial nature. In this instance the population was newsroom decision makers who determine which stories are covered.
On any given day in newsrooms in Chicago, key personnel make decisions, during breaking stories, on how various murder victims will be “treated” or given priority in subsequent newscasts. Assignment editors and producers are usually the gatekeepers who filter information and make decisions on the content of each newscast. At some point, either in a meeting or an impromptu conference, a decision is made to give a murder story a certain priority. That level of importance may be from presenting the story at the top of the show, along with “sidebar” associated stories, to placing the story after the second or third commercial break or even omitting it altogether.
These decisions are made, in most cases, quickly and matter-of-factly, as though there were unwritten rules that have established a protocol for making the murder of one person more important than that of another. (Likewise, the public seems to acquiesce to these unwritten conventions and seemingly understands why the particular determination was made.)
In presenting television news each day, journalists apply a variety of schemes for selecting from a pool of news stories they have gathered. Of particular interest, to this study, is the importance given to the victims of some murders while other murder victims receive little attention or go unreported altogether.
Studies of news reports have found that news selection involves more than an evaluation of stories according to their news merits. Some researchers have pointed out the role of ideology in decision making. Others have focused on the role of the news organization—its demands, limitations, and resource availabilities—in shaping what is aired. In addition, several studies have found that television news decision making is a group process instead of one made by individuals.
In the case of murder victims, the story usually comes to the attention of the assignment editor as a breaking story. This happens in a number of ways: from a phone tip, over the “wire” from other news sources, from the police radio scanner, or in another competitor’s newscast. (When this happens, everybody scrambles to try and play catch-up.)
If the station that breaks the murder is playing the story as the lead story, then chances are the other stations will do the same. But if a station has exclusive knowledge of a murder, then the status of the story will be automatically elevated because it is thought that sole “ownership” of a story is good for ratings—if the story is exclusive to that particular station and not seen on others. (There is no evidence proving this to be true.) Furthermore, viewers usually watch only one station at a time, and if they are watching a newscast on station “A” they don’t know what they are missing on station “B.”)
Generally, all television stations learn of a murder or murders at about the same time. And, for the most part, all stations seem to give the story the same kind or level of treatment. This accounts for the phenomenon of the same story appearing at the beginning or top of the show on all stations in the same city.
This means that personnel at several television stations are, somehow, using the same “yardstick” for deciding that the murders of some individuals are more important or newsworthy than the murders of others.
In Chicago, between four hundred and a thousand murders are committed each year. Yet television stations on average report no more than two hundred of these crimes. This means that a much greater percentage of murders go unreported than are reported. What happens to make the unreported murders less newsworthy?
Examples of these decisions are commonplace:
If a prominent doctor or lawyer or teacher is found murdered, he or she will get top-story billing.
But the murder of a homeless person or ex-convict or illegal alien may not get any news attention.
A white female, shot to death in an upscale suburb or in a popular location, will be the top story and receive heavy media coverage.
But a white female shot to death in public housing may go unnoticed.
A black teenage street gang member killed in a drive-by shooting on the West Side of Chicago will probably not get covered.
But a black teenage student shot to death on the way to school will surely make the news.
A woman enters a school in the North Shore (an area where many prominent Chicago suburbs are found) and shoots a student to death. Before the day is over the whole country will know what has happened.
But when a man, a week later, enters a school on the South Side (in a poor neighborhood) and shoots three people, it will be a big story for only a few days.
In each case a human being was murdered, a senseless loss of life. Yet news organizations routinely apply a sense of urgency to the murders of some people while little or no importance is given to the murders of others.
A clear example of this conscientious effort to highlight some particular murders is the case of O.J. Simpson. This flamboyant, sensational, and melodramatic story saturated the airwaves when it occurred. And now, more than twenty-three years later, it still commands a prime spot in newscasts. The O.J. saga met all the important foci of interest that set a story on the course toward becoming a high-profile case: race, celebrity, wealth, sex, violence, drama, and suspense.
These decisions to “play up” one story and downplay another are consciously made by the gatekeepers (assignment editors and producers) who are motivated by a give-the-viewers-what-they-want mentality. And in most cases they are right. The public does seem to find what it is presented with to be interesting (ratings show this to be true). At least in part, journalists’ news selection seems to be the result of schemes for deciding what news is and isn’t. And the story will be news for a week.
This has been an excerpt from the new book Murder in the News: An Inside Look at How Television Covers Crime by Robert H. Jordan Jr. (Prometheus Books, November 2017), available for purchase from Amazon and IndieBound.