Comment and insight on journalism issues from Press Gazette's guest writers

How 'distorted' reporting of 'perfect murders' impacts upon society

Earlier this month a study by forensic psychology researchers at Middlesex University - Anna Gekoski, Jacqueline M. Gray, and Joanna R. Adler - identified the five key factors that make for the ‘perfect tabloid murder’. Here, Dr Gekoski – a former tabloid journalist herself - explains the background to the research.

Think of the press coverage of some of the biggest homicide cases in recent times.  The murders of pretty, white, innocent schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman; the savage sexual murder of teenage model Sally Anne Bowman; or that of the bright, middle-class, landscape architect Joanna Yeates. 

Remember the reporting of the murders committed by Stephen Griffiths, who dubbed himself the ‘Crossbow Cannibal’, or the case of Raoul Moat, who went on the run after shooting three people.

All can be considered ‘perfect tabloid murders’, involving at least one of five key factors - serial killers, perfect victims, killers on the run, extreme violence, and unusual features - which made them front page stories.

Yet these cases do not represent the vast majority of homicides - the fatal street or pub fights, the ‘domestic’ killings of women by their male partners, or children by their parents – many of which receive minimal coverage.

Given this, we must ask ourselves: how does such ‘distorted’ reporting of murder, which concentrates on the least representative cases, impact upon society and individuals?

Such reporting may have various negative consequences, by fostering a public awareness of crime that is not based on reality, resulting in skewed opinions, attitudes, and behaviours.

It may increase fear of crime, reinforcing the image of a serial killer around every corner, or by suggesting that certain people are more likely to be victims.  It may also fuel prejudice when, for example, homicides involving black offenders and white victims are disproportionately reported, reinforcing traditional societal stereotypes. 

Such reporting may also lead to moral panics, such as that which ensued in the wake of the huge media coverage of the murder of schoolgirl Sarah Payne by a convicted sex offender.  This led to demonstrations and vigilante groups on the streets, and attacks on the homes of paedophiles, suspected paedophiles, and even paediatricians. 

These responses may, in turn, influence how criminal justice agencies treat incidents: channelling resources towards higher profile cases and leading to hasty policy change.

On the flip side, families of homicide victims have told us that when a murder is ignored  by the press, they feel as if the victim’s life was regarded as worthless.

As one woman, whose partner was murdered, said: “When nothing was said [in the press], I thought: Why isn’t he important?  Why doesn’t he matter?  He was actually a very nice person and nobody cares; he wasn’t young and pretty.”

Such findings might lead us to suggest that the press should report more equally on homicide cases. 

Yet is such a suggestion realistic?  For is it the job of the press to give a balanced and accurate representation of the reality of homicide?  Or is it the very essence of news to select events for coverage that are not the norm? 

As one journalist in our study said: “News is something which is NEW.” 

 

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