This House would restrict media reporting on violent crimes

Rarely a day goes by that the media does not report an incident of violent crime such as Grievously Bodily Harm, muggings or murder. These are reported via broadcast, digital media (internet website or social site) and print and the reporting is often in excruciating detail. There are some states, particularly those who censor the media more generally who restrict reporting violent crime. North Korea for example only allows the reporting of ‘positive’ news, this would obviously mean that there would be no reports on violent crimes occurring in North Korea – although there may be reports on other countries in order to highlight the difference between North Korea and the rest of the world.[1]  However North Korea is an extreme example where the state prevents all reporting. There are other examples where there are de-facto restrictions on reporting. For example in the New Zealand city of Gisborne the police in 2010 stopped telling the local newspaper about incidents of crime so that “people feel safer”, this does not prevent reporting of violent crime but restricts it and means it is not so likely to be prominent.[2] While there are few cases of bans on the reporting of the initial crime it is much more common for there to be restrictions on the reporting of crime once it reaches court, in the UK for example a judge can impose a ban on reporting until the proceedings of a case are over.[3]

Such a ban might potentially be very severe such as the North Korean one and prevent all reporting. Much more likely however would be simply restrictions on reporting, keeping the reporting to a brief statement of the facts in much the same way as occurs with restrictions on reporting court cases[4] and any appeal for information that has been given by the police and family of the victim. The restrictions could also be location based with local news providers free to report more on local crime than national news.

[1] ’10 Most Censored Countries’, Committee to Protect Journalists, 2 May 2006, http://www.cpj.org/censored/censored_06.html

[2] Greenslade, Roy, ‘New Zealand police censor crime news’, Greenslade Blog The Guardian, 2 August 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/greenslade/2010/aug/02/press-freedom-newzealand

[3] College of Journalism, ‘Contempt: Reporting Restrictions’, BBC Academy, http://www.bbc.co.uk/academy/collegeofjournalism/law/contempt/contempt-and-reporting-restrictions

[4] College of Journalism, ‘Contempt: Reporting Restrictions’, BBC Academy, http://www.bbc.co.uk/academy/collegeofjournalism/law/contempt/contempt-and-reporting-restrictions

 

Title 
Reporting on violent crimes compromises the integrity and fairness of law
Point 

Judges and juries have to be neutral when they preside in court, and no bias can enter the court’s discourse and deliberation if justice is to be done. This is especially true of violent crime, for two reasons. First, in such cases, the court is dealing with people’s lives, as violent crime convictions yield high sentences, and the court’s decisions often have a lasting effect on the physical wellbeing of both victims and perpetrators of such crimes. Second, the visceral nature of violent crime naturally causes an emotive response from people hearing about it, which can cause them to act less rationally.[1]

Opinion is thus more easily colored in deliberations over violent crime than with any other kind. In light of these facts it is necessary to analyze the behavior of the media when it reports on violent crimes. The media is a commercial enterprise. It prioritizes sales over truth, and always wants to sell the good story and to get the scoop. For this reason the media relishes the opportunity to sell the “blood and guts” of violent crime to its audience. Furthermore, the race to get stories first causes reporters and media outlets to jump to conclusions, which can result in the vilification of suspects who are in fact innocent. The media sensationalizes the extent of crime through its extreme emphasis on the violence; it builds its stories on moving imagery, emotive language, and by focusing on victims and their families. At the same time the media seeks to portray itself as being of the highest journalistic quality.[2]

This behavior on the part of the media is tremendously bad for the legal process. The media circus surrounding violent crime necessarily affects potential jurors, judges, lawyers, and the general public. This has been observed on many occasions; for example, after the OJ Simpson trial some jurors admitted that the pressure generated by the media added significantly to the difficulties of deliberation. The inescapable consequence of the media reporting on violent crimes is that people cannot help internalizing the public opinion when it stands against a person on trial. Thus court judgments in the presence of a media circus must be held suspect. By restricting reporting on violent crime, however, the pressure can be relieved and the legal process can function justly.

[1] Tyagi, Himanshu. “Emotional Responses Usually Take Over Rational Responses in Decision-Making”. RxPG News. 16 February 2007, http://www.rxpgnews.com/cognitivescience/Emotional-responses-usually-tak...

[2] Lee, Martin and Norman Solomon. Unreliable Sources. New York: Lyle Stuart. 1990.

Counterpoint 

Law should be just and unbiased. That is not a controversial position. However, it seems difficult to imagine that reporting on violent crimes has so tremendous an effect on the public that judges and jurors cannot be unbiased in their deliberations. Rather, the process of jury selection as it stands is designed to guarantee that there is no bias with both prosecution and defence being allowed to examine and object to a juror. Furthermore, most reporting on violent crime is about simple facts rather than any attempt to influence opinion on specific crimes. This is the essence of what news is, people have a right to know what is going on in their society, even if what is going on is brutally violent. 

Title 
Reporting generates a constant iteration of fear in the public, and precipitates a ratchet effect toward crime
Point 

Constant reporting on violent crime makes people more fearful. This not a deliberate effort on the part of the media to keep people afraid, but rather is a corrosive negative externality; violence sells, so media provides, resulting in the scaring of audiences. The result of the media’s reporting on violent crimes is a constant iteration of fear, which makes people wary of each other, and of the world.[1] Furthermore, such reporting creates a feeling in people of other individuals and groups most often reported as committing crimes as being “other” from themselves. For example, reporting on extensive crimes in inner-city areas in the United States has caused middle class suburbanites to develop wariness toward African-Americans, who are constantly reported in the media as criminals. This is socially destructive in the extreme. The heightened senses of insecurity people feel leads to vigilance in excess. This is bad for people’s rationality. All these problems yield very negative social consequences.

The constant reporting on violence leads to people demanding immediate law enforcement, and politicians quick to oblige, which leads to a ratchet effect, a precipitous increase in punishments for crimes. This results in a severe misallocation of resources; first in terms of irrationally high spending on extra policing, and second in terms of the excessive allocation of resources and authority to the state to solve the problems of crime through force. This is observed, for example, in the enactment of the PATRIOT Act, which was acclaimed in a state of fear after 9/11, and which gave extensive, even draconian powers to the state in the name of security. The media fuels this hysteria. Without its influence, cooler heads can prevail. The end result of all this is a treating of symptoms rather than the cause. Putting more police on the streets, and getting tough on crime fail to address underlying issues, which are often poverty and the social ills arising from it.[2] Citizens and governments should instead face the actual problem instead of choosing flashy option.

[1] Rogers, Tom. “Towards an Analytical Framework on Fear of Crime and its Relationship to Print Media Reportage”. University of Sheffield. http://www.shef.ac.uk/content/1/c6/10/39/11/8rogers.pdf

[2] Amy, Douglas J. “More Government Does Not Mean Less Freedom”. Government is Good. 2007, http://governmentisgood.com/articles.php?aid=18&print=1

Counterpoint 

It is better that people be afraid of what is really happening than to be blissfully ignorant and thus vulnerable. Crime can be frightening, but people need to know about it so they can prepare themselves to deal with it. Furthermore, if violence is growing within communities, there may well be a need for better policing, so calling for such provisions is not necessarily just treating the symptoms of social illness, but rather is holding society together and maintaining necessary order.[1] Fear may cause people to do irrational things, but so too can ignorance.

[1] Jones, Stephen. Understanding Violent Crime. London: Open University Press. 2000.

Title 
The state owes a duty of protection to victims, victims’ families, and those accused of committing crimes
Point 

Victims of violent crimes and their families face an emotional and vulnerable time in the wake of such crimes. People need time to recover, or mourn. The media’s fixation on violent crimes subjects these vulnerable people to the assault of reporters. In fact, there exists a perverse incentive for the media to badger families until they break down, as tears sell.  Such exploitation must be stopped, and the best way to do that is to deny the media the ability to report on such things. The media does not care about hurting feelings, and bad behavior on the part of reporters never hurts readership of media outlets, as is indicative of such tabloids as the National Enquirer. Outlets can always deflect any backlash that might occur for their excesses by cutting loose “rogue reporters”.

Furthermore, families and victims usually do not want the media's, and the nation’s eyes upon them. Rather they tend to seek support from family and community, not the faceless masses.[1] People generally want to mourn in their own way. They may not want to become part of a media-driven narrative, and certainly not to become symbols for a new social crusade to reform communities. Removing violent reporting removes these perverse incentives to irritate victims and families, and instead leads to more respectful and considerate treatment.

As for those accused of crimes, it can be hard for someone acquitted after a trial or accusation to get on with life. Some people may find themselves roundly accused by the media and public, even portrayed as monster, making it very hard to move on, even when their names are officially cleared. This is completely contrary to how the legal system should function, where acquittal is meant to deliver absolution. Allowing the media to construct narratives of guilt in the absence of evidence undermines the very fabric of justice. The media’s incessant coverage of violent crimes and its alacrity to make accusations and jump to conclusions can destroy someone’s life, more than even having to stand trial does. Justice must prevail and be fair to those to whom it judges in court, and this can only be done by not allowing the media to turn the mob against people even after their names are cleared.

[1] Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime. “Victims and the Media”. 2011, http://www.crcvc.ca/en/media-guide/part-1/victims-and-media/

Counterpoint 

Some journalists and media outlets are despicable in the way they treat people. Preying upon victims and their families is absolutely wrong, but a ban is not the way to solve this problem as it would simply move the media frenzy to whenever the ban on a case is removed and the details become public. Instead better regulation of the press is needed in such emotional cases in order to make sure that the media is respectful of families and also to make sure that those accused are seen to be innocent until proven guilty.

Title 
The contagion effect of reporting on violence leads to increased impetus for terrorist attacks and serial killings
Point 

The media has been consistently demonstrated through empirical evidence to aid in the exacerbation of premeditated violence. There is an observable contagion effect, as the media serves to spread the virus of violence. Studies have shown that the greater the level of media coverage, the shorter the lag time between initial crime and emulations of them. In the case of terrorism, there is a demonstrable clustering effect. The 1970s embassy takeovers in Middle East, for example, show how media coverage can encourage terrorists to emulate past actions that gained attention in the past.[1] People see success of certain kinds of attacks and seek to repeat them. For example, the successes of Fatah in Israel led to the formation of the German Red Army Faction that would be responsible for many terrorist activities.

In the case of serial killers and mass murders, the media generates the “hot death story” of the moment, leading to an observable clustering effect, much as occurs with terrorism. For example, the Virginia Tech shooter cited the Columbine shooters as his inspiration. Serials killers are often attention-seeking individuals who crave media attention, which they are obligingly given. An example of this is the Unabomber, who ramped up his parcel-bombing campaign as a result of the media attention given to Timothy McVeigh’s mass murder in Oklahoma City. The media not reporting on violent crimes means eliminating the problem of emulation, and stops feeding killers’ pathologies.

[1] Nacos, Brigitte. “Revisiting the Contagion Hypothesis: Terrorism, News Coverage, and Copycat Attacks”. Perspectives on Terrorism 3(3). 2009.

Counterpoint 

Terrorists and serial killers make up a tiny proportion of murders and violent criminals in Western countries. In the United Kingdom for example there have been less deaths due to terrorism between 2000 and 2010 than due to bee stings.[1] As a result the very few copycat attacks are not really the issue at all when the question of reporting on violent crimes in the media is under discussion. Talk about these rarities serves only to distract people from the reality that most violent crime is not so bizarre as these cases.[2] Rather, the need to report on violent crime stands for all the violent crimes committed in every society, and fears of terrorists and serial killers can do little to challenge that need.

[1] Anderson, David, ‘The Terrorism acts in 2011’ Report of the Independent Reviewer on the Operation of the Terrorism Act 2000 and Part 1 of the Terrorism Act 2006, June 2012, http://terrorismlegislationreviewer.independent.gov.uk/publications/report-terrorism-acts-2011?view=Binary

[2] Morton, Robert. “Serial Murder”. National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. 2005. http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/serial-murder

Title 
It is necessary for people to understand the extent of criminal activity in order for them to coordinate an effective response
Point 

People have a right to know, for the sake of their own safety, about violent crimes being committed. Otherwise they will be unable to prepare themselves adequately for the possibility of being attacked. However people cannot make rational decisions about how to react and respond to violence in society if they do not have an accurate picture of not only the frequency of crime, but also their nature. Everyone should take necessary precautions to prevent themselves being victims of crime, as part of this they should know what areas are for example safe to walk through at night. If there is little or no reporting of where and when crime occurs the public will not have this necessary knowledge to keep themselves safe. Local groups will also be less able to protect their neighborhoods. For example in Pimlico, London, local groups have set up patrols in order to deal with an increase in muggings, if these muggings were not reported such local action would not have been possible.[1]

[1] Davenport, Justin, and Moore-Bridger, Benedict, ‘Vigilante patrols set up to beat Pimlico prowlers’, London Evening Standard, 8 December 2011, http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-24019324-vigilante-patrol...

Counterpoint 

It is not necessary for people to know the extent of criminal activity in order to be able to take precautions, everyone regardless of whether they know the amount of crime in an area should take what precautions against being attacked that they can. For example they should stick to walking on well-lit streets at night. Local groups on the other hand do not need to be informed by the newspapers if there is crime in the area, they will already know because they live there how safe the area is. The police will certainly give residents the information if there is a threat to them even if they are not giving that information to the media.

Title 
To not promote the truth of events is contrary to the duty, and to the right of free speech, of a responsible media
Point 

The media has two jobs; first, it has a duty to report on what people care about, and second, it has a duty to report on things that seriously influence society. Muzzling the media’s ability to disseminate information by preventing reporting on violent crimes can only do harm to society. The media has a fundamental duty to report on anything that may influence the lives of the citizens it reaches. This is particularly true of the state-run media, which is meant to be free of political influence and is not as dependent upon ad revenues and thus not as prone to sensationalist reporting. Beyond its duty to inform, the media, like all bodies and individuals in society have a right to freedom of speech. This must extend to the right to report on things that are ugly and that frighten people. It is better that people be informed of the truth by a free media and be terrified than to leave people without knowledge of the real seriousness of criminality. Fundamentally, the right to freedom of speech and of expression must be protected. If the media should give way on the issue of violent crimes it loses all credibility as a genuine font of truth.[1] To protect the basic rights of citizens, the right of the media to report on violent crimes must be upheld.

[1] PUCL Bulletin. “Freedom of the Press”. People’s Union for Civil Liberties. July 1982. http://www.pucl.org/from-archives/Media/freedom-press.htm

Counterpoint 

There is no such thing as these two duties that the opposition asserts for the media. The media is a business like any other, because its business is information and news it will report on violent crime as it is something that the people care about so will purchase news about it, but it does not have a duty to do such reporting. Similarly there is no duty to report on things that influence the lives of the citizens of the state, again the media does so but only because it sells. Indeed large amounts of media do not report things that are either things that most people care about or things that seriously influence society. There are lots of magazines and newspapers on things like hobbies, such as toy models, but it is absurd to suggest that this is what most people care about or that the issues that affect toy model hobbyists influence the rest of society. It would be equally absurd to suggest that such a magazine or newspaper should have a section devoted to violent crime because that is what is important.  

Title 
The media’s reporting and investigating acts as a check on the behavior of the justice system
Point 

The state often does not want to deal with serious social issues in politically disenfranchised areas, where crime rates tend to be higher and the populations poorer This is because such areas cannot be counted on for electoral support as they often have low turnout rates and can be too complicated to be worth dealing with from a political perspective. Without the media, no one will report on criminal activity in these areas, meaning there will be no political will to reform them. This gives the police the opportunity to abrogate their responsibility to these communities.

In the absence of media reporting, authorities would also be able to hide the true extent of crime in misleading statistics. For example, police in parts of the United States have been caught publishing deliberately false crime statistics, often understating levels of violent crime in poorer communities.[1] The media has served to uncover the truth of these police abuses of the facts. Only with a free media can people truly be informed about what is happening in society, and that extends to information about violent crimes.

[1] Thompson, Steve and Tanya Eiserer. “Experts: Dallas Undercount of Assaults Builds ‘Artificial Image’”. Dallas Morning News. 15 December 2009. http://www.dallasnews.com/news/community-news/dallas/headlines/20091214-...

Counterpoint 

Political will to affect change in areas riddled with violent crime is not generated by media reporting on the violence. Rather, the way the media reports, prioritizing the sensational, blood and guts, aspects of crimes, results in frightened voters clamoring for something to be done. This usually just results in more policing and more draconian sentencing laws. Neither of which solve the underlying problems of poverty and poor provision of essential state services. Rather, they serve merely as stand-ins for real action, resulting in no efforts to genuinely reclaim troubled communities. By excluding media reporting on the most visceral goings on in these areas, namely violent crimes, politicians and the people affected can enter into rational dialogue that is not perverted by media sensationalism.

Title 
The mainstream media is essential for the accurate reporting of information; without it reporting on violent crimes, they would simply be reported by less accountable, less accurate freelance reporters and blogs
Point 

The media is regularly accused of being sensationalist and of hyping up the extent and gruesomeness of violent crimes. In some cases this may be true, but the media generally reports facts in a sober and informative, if also exciting, way. Without the mainstream media, however, news about violent crimes will still spread. The news will be disseminated within local communities and across the Internet via email and blogs. The result is lessening of journalistic quality, as bloggers are not bound by any exacting requirements in terms of the need for factual bases of stories.[1] The mainstream media provides a largely credible source of news that new media still lacks. In the absence of mainstream reporting, especially on such a hot button issue as violent crime, will only serve to spread disinformation, leading people to draw inaccurate conclusions and make decisions based on inaccurate knowledge.

[1] Rouse, Darren. “Is New Media a Threat to Journalism?”. ProBlogger. 15 October 2007, http://www.problogger.net/archives/2007/10/15/is-new-media-a-threat-to-j...

Counterpoint 

Bans and restrictions on the old media would equally affect the ‘new’ media of the internet age. Bloggers could just as easily be taken to court for their reporting as conventional journalists so the news would still be restricted. While individuals may still report crimes this would become limited to the local area where people do have a genuine interest in the crime rather than it being reported nationally. 

Bibliography 

Amy, Douglas J. “More Government Does Not Mean Less Freedom”. Government is Good. 2007, http://governmentisgood.com/articles.php?aid=18&print=1

College of Journalism, ‘Contempt: Reporting Restrictions’, BBC Academy, http://www.bbc.co.uk/journalism/law/contempt/reporting-restrictions.shtml

Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime. 2011. “Victims and the Media”. Available: http://www.crcvc.ca/en/media-guide/part-1/victims-and-media/

Davenport, Justin, and Moore-Bridger, Benedict, ‘Vigilante patrols set up to beat Pimlico prowlers’, London Evening Standard, 8 December 2011, http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-24019324-vigilante-patrols-set-up-to-beat-pimlico-prowlers.do

Greenslade, Roy, 2010, ‘New Zealand police censor crime news’, Greenslade Blog The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/greenslade/2010/aug/02/press-freedom-newzealand

Jones, Stephen. Understanding Violent Crime. London: Open University Press. 2000.

Lee, Martin and Norman Solomon. 1990. Unreliable Sources. New York: Lyle Stuart.

Morton, Robert. “Serial Murder”. National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. 2005. http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/serial-murder

Nacos, Brigitte. “Revisiting the Contagion Hypothesis: Terrorism, News Coverage, and Copycat Attacks”. Perspectives on Terrorism 3(3). 2009.

PUCL Bulletin. “Freedom of the Press”. People’s Union for Civil Liberties. July 1982. http://www.pucl.org/from-archives/Media/freedom-press.htm

Rogers, Tom. “Towards an Analytical Framework on Fear of Crime and its Relationship to Print Media Reportage”. University of Sheffield. http://www.shef.ac.uk/content/1/c6/10/39/11/8rogers.pdf

Rouse, Darren. “Is New Media a Threat to Journalism?”. ProBlogger. 15 October 2007, http://www.problogger.net/archives/2007/10/15/is-new-media-a-threat-to-journalism/

Shannon, Michael. “Ratchet Effect: How the Old Maximum Becomes the New Minimum”. Canada Free Press. 3 December 2010, http://www.canadafreepress.com/index.php/article/30681

Thompson, Steve and Tanya Eiserer. “Experts: Dallas Undercount of Assaults Builds ‘Artificial Image’”. Dallas Morning News. 15 December 2009. http://www.dallasnews.com/news/community-news/dallas/headlines/20091214-Experts-Dallas-undercount-of-assaults-6330.ece

Tyagi, Himanshu. 2007. “Emotional Responses Usually Take Over Rational Responses in Decision-Making”. RxPG News. http://www.rxpgnews.com/cognitivescience/Emotional-responses-usually-take-over-rational-responses_15883.shtml

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