A new study claims to have discovered the five factors that make for the “perfect” tabloid murder story.
Forensic psychology researchers at the Department of Psychology at Middlesex University wanted to find out why some murders are so heavily reported in the UK tabloid press while others are largely ignored.
The research was based on in-depth questionnaires with ten journalists who have worked on tabloid newspapers for an average of 15 years, and was carried out by Jacqueline Gray, Joanna Adler and Anna Gekoski, a former tabloid journalist until she retained as a forensic psychologist.
According to the journalists who took part in the study the “perfect” tabloid murder involves one or more of the following five factors:
- ‘Perfect or ‘ideal’ victims, typically including children, attractive, white, middle-class women, the affluent, and celebrities.
- Unusual or novel features
- Killers at large/on the run
- Extreme brutality/sensationalism
- Serial killers
"There has been very little research conducted as to why some homicides are particularly newsworthy – keeping them on the front pages for months at a time – and why others are virtually ignored,” said Gekoski.
“In order to investigate this, we went to the source of decision-making about the newsworthiness of homicide in the tabloid press: journalists themselves. This is the first time this has been done in the UK."
Murders that involved so-called “undeserving” victims – or the "underclass" – in “commonplace circumstances” attracted little attention, including the murder of prostitutes, drug users or dealers, criminals and the homeless.
The exception was when they were murdered by serial killers
Gekoski added: "Consider some of the biggest homicide cases in recent times in terms of press coverage…We can clearly see how they all fit one or more of the five criteria described above and this guaranteed them extensive news coverage across all forms of media.”
Gekoski suggested there were sometimes exceptions, influenced by such factors as “a particular personal interest from a newspaper editor or homicides that tie in to current societal or cultural issues such as, for example, racism, paedophilia, or institutional failure”.
The researchers believe that “distorted reporting of murder” has “wide-reaching and damaging implications” such as enhancing fear of crime, creating moral panics and fuelling prejudice.
They also found, after speaking to the families of murder victims, that such reporting “may have profoundly negative effects on relatives of victims whose murders are not reported in the press or given very little coverage”.
“In such cases, families may feel that the lack of coverage implies that their loved ones’ lives were not worthy or important, leading to them experiencing feelings of anger, humiliation, shame, and pain,” said Gekoski.
What the journalists (not their real names) said:
‘Perfect’ or ‘ideal’ victims:
The best story will always be the worst story so if you have an angel killed by a devil in the most horrendous of circumstances the lines are clearly drawn for the reader; there can be no misinterpretation of the facts, no doubt that the victim didn't deserve it and the result is a real sense of loss and empathy because it could have happened to anyone, meaning it could have happened to them. (Natalie)
Unusual or novel features:
Basically anything that makes a murder different from the norm elevates its news value. On a basic level, a dull murder is gang-on-gang killers involving knives. These happen all the time. News is something which is 'new.' So on motive – crime of passion is always good … Method – the more elaborate the better. Relationship – the more sexual the better. Number of victims – the more the merrier.(Aaron)
Killers at large/on the run:
A story that gains momentum and builds up over time is also crucial. For example the case of Raoul Moat was on the face of it a tale of domestic revenge but the fact he was on the run for several days made it front page for a week. (Tom)
The way the murder was committed, especially if torture was involved or the death had some sexual aspect to it. Man shoots man dead is one thing, but man ties up another man, stabs him repeatedly, cuts off his ear and then slits his throat so savagely that his head is nearly hanging off – that's far more newsworthy. (Jake)
A serial killer is ALWAYS, ALWAYS a big story. Doesn't matter if they are young or old, rich or poor. Serial killing rarely happens and when it does the public lap it up. Serial killers are almost always boring people in their normal lives who wouldn't ordinarily be newsworthy – Peter Sutcliffe (unattractive lorry driver); Dennis Nilson (non-descript civil servant); Steve Wright (forklift truck driver) – yet they will all go down in history. (Aaron)
Examples of “undeserving” victims:
A thug killed by a thug. (Jake)
Scum killing scum. Two heroin addicts have a row and one stabs the other over a bag of heroin. (Sam)
Old drunken tramp kills old drunken tramp in rundown inner city. (Jake)
One prostitute dead is barely going to cause a ripple through a newsdesk. Three plus dead in roughly the same area and you have a story – a new Ripper headline. (Natalie)