Garrett Kennedy discusses whether the way the media report crime is always the full picture.

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CRIME is a problem to which Ireland is not immune. It’s in the news every day, we see it on the streets, we hear about it from our neighbours and friends, some of us are even directly impacted by it. It can sometimes be hard to tell whether the perception of crime being rife in the country is actually an accurate portrayal. Our perception of it is easily influenced through media analysis.

Indeed, it is worrying how sharply people’s perceptions of crime contrast with the reality. In 2012, polls in Northern Ireland showed that 60% of people thought crime was rising in the region despite the fact it had fallen for the previous two years. A factor in this is how crime is reported.

The key problem with crime reporting is that there is an often misplaced importance on some of the details. Context can be laid to one side for what is more likely to grab attention, though this is obviously more common among tabloid style sources. They often focus on gory details that are likely to shock readers and attract attention rather than ones that are more important. Alas, tabloids are known for having a lack of attention to detail and often skewing the facts and as such it is hard to see how much can be done to address that problem.

“There is an unwillingness to properly contextualise stories rather than any sort of malicious marketing that creates the problem but it remains a problem nonetheless.”

What is more worrying though is how this issue does not end with the broadsheets. More reputable sources often have similar problems. The matter of reporting as such has more to do with pragmatism than nastiness. There is an unwillingness to properly contextualise stories rather than any sort of malicious marketing that creates the problem but it remains a problem nonetheless.

Crime is typically reported as a single incident, barring a few specific exceptions. Without the uniqueness of the particular context being emphasised every time, we are liable to recognise patterns which do not necessarily exist in reality.

Those at centres for homeless people are told stories by the homeless about how they got to where they were, what their lives are like now, and what they were like growing up. Interestingly most of the stories seem to ring not too differently. Many are born into areas with virtually no social or economic mobility. Many of them had parents who were unemployed, drug users or simply negligent. Most of them left school and began taking drugs in their early teens.

While this is of course not directly related to crime, it serves to highlight patterns of disadvantage. It shows that for many people, present circumstances result simply from what they are born into, it is not necessarily a road they chose to venture down. We are often a reflection of our environment and in this case, that largely seems to be true. It is a systemic problem rather than a personal one, and one that cannot, and should not be ignored.

Of course, there are reasons for not adding a full and conclusive context to every report. For one thing, offering a full context for every single incident is probably a bit much to ask. Journalists only have a certain amount of time for each assignment and readers do not want to read a lengthy biography in every article. Because of this, it seems somewhat inevitable that corners have to be cut.

“When crime is so often inextricably linked to socio-economic background and other systemic problems, the branding of criminals as bad or ‘other’ seems quite unfair.”

What we need to address is which corners it is best to cut in order to give the most reasonable and explicable analysis of an incident. Obviously, there is no easy answer for this. However, a good place to start is emphasising that we need to do more to explain not just what happened in a particular incident but also why it happened.

If ample context is not supplied, then we are liable to fill in the gaps ourselves and this is where the bigger problems typically begin. Lack of context can lead to looking at the individuals involved as statistics rather than real people and the detachment that comes with that dehumanisation is both dangerous and scary.

When crime is so often inextricably linked to socio-economic background and other systemic problems, the branding of criminals as bad or ‘other’ seems quite unfair. Similarly, not offering a proper context in the reporting of incidents can also be harmful to the victims as it can lead to us failing to properly empathise with them.

The way we report crime is in dire need of reform, whether that be in terms of releasing fewer gory details or offering better context. It is not an easy problem to fix but it is one that without real effort will likely continue to worsen.