Public Release: 

Unbalanced newspaper coverage of homicide

Teaching the public the wrong lessons

Economic & Social Research Council

Newspapers are failing their readers in coverage of homicide cases, according to new research sponsored by the ESRC. Better balance is needed by covering a wider range of cases instead of the current narrow focus on exceptional and dramatic stories, says a study led by Professor Keith Soothill and Brian Francis of the University of Lancaster.

Researchers looked at reporting of homicide cases in The Times and Sunday Times from 1977 to 1999, and the Daily Mail, Mail On Sunday, Mirror and Sunday Mirror from 1993 to 1997. They found that a minority of homicides are reported, that different newspapers cover different cases, and there is a substantial bias in the type of cases published. The proportion of homicides reported varies dramatically, ranging from more than 34 per cent in 1993 to lows of under 20 per cent in 1984 and 1997.

This, the report points out, is in the context of a steadily rising number of recorded homicides. Professor Soothill says: "The media has an important role in the development of the public's general knowledge of homicide. However, the public is learning the wrong lessons."

The authors are concerned that cases which attract media interest are the more untypical cases, whilst the more frequent dangers illustrated in others are neglected.

In The Times, for instance, between 1977 and 1999, just 13 cases contributed 2,860 stories out of a total of more than 15,000.

Professor Soothill says: "As a responsible and credible source, newspapers need to highlight real dangers rather than manufacture inappropriate fears."

Stories were matched to a Home Office database of England and Wales homicides. Researchers found only a minority of homicides are reported in national newspapers.

Between 1993 and 1997 they identified 2,685 homicide cases, of which 1,068 (38 per cent) were reported in at least one of the newspapers in the study. Of the 1,068 cases covered, only 376 appeared in all three newspapers, contrasting with 452 cases reported in only one of the three newspapers studied. Not all cases have an equal chance of being reported, and up to 12 factors influence whether they are likely to appear.

Motive and circumstances were the most important factors. Stories with a sexual motive were most likely to be reported (around 70 per cent in each newspaper), followed by cases with a robbery or theft motive, and cases which appeared to be irrational acts (both between 35 per cent and 40 per cent).

By contrast, less than one in five cases where the homicide stemmed from rage or a quarrel was reported. Other important factors included the number of victims, their age and that of the suspect, the method of killing and whether a homicide involved a female victim.

Homicides where the youngest victim was aged between four and 12 had the highest chance of being reported. Those involving victims between 31 and 40 had the lowest. Surprisingly, homicides of babies and infants under three were also much less likely to be reported.

The Times was more likely than the Mail or Mirror to report gun homicides. The Mail was least likely to report homicides where there was a homosexual relationship between victim and suspect, and The Mirror most likely to report arson.

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For further information contact Professor Keith Soothill on telephone 01524 594094, e-mail: K.Soothill@lancaster.ac.uk, or Iain Stewart or Lesley Lilley at ESRC, on 01793 413032/413119.

NOTES FOR EDITORS
1. The research report 'Homicide and the media: news coverage and the public portrayal of justice' was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Professor Keith Soothill is at the Department of Applied Social Science and Brian Francis is director of the Centre for Applied Statistics, both at Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YL.
2. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It has a track record of providing high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £53 million every year in social science research. At any time, its range of funding schemes may be supporting 2,000 researchers within academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences thereby nurturing the researchers of tomorrow. The ESRC website address is http://www.esrc.ac.uk
3. REGARD is the ESRC's database of research. It provides a key source of information on ESRC social science research awards and all associated publications and products. The website can be found at http://www.regard.ac.uk.

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