It seemed like a noble goal.
A television news station in Charlotte, N.C., was mired in the No. 3 ratings spot for the market. Higher-ups decided the way to improve its standing was to hire fresh-faced reporters to go after stories that are important to the community.
But, some time later, the station is still languishing in third. Trying to solve the problem, a consultant was hired. And what was the consultant’s answer?
“He (came) to the conclusion that they don’t cover enough crime,” said Dwayne Smith, chairman for the department of criminology at USF. “(He said) they need to boost up their crime coverage, and he stresses especially violent crime, because that’s what catches people’s attention.”
Smith, who spoke Thursday before a group of senior citizens involved in the Learning in Retirement program at the College of Public Health, said for news media to compete in today’s market, editors and managers still have to follow the old adage “If it bleeds, it leads.”
“I don’t know if it’s a conscious editorial choice. But I know this: Increases in crime are deemed more newsworthy than decreases,” Smith said. “It’s easy to point our fingers at the news media and say, ‘Gosh, they’re just awash in this kind of thing.’ They’re awash in it for one basic reason: People watch it.”
Smith said this cultural fascination with crime, particularly violent crime, extends beyond the boundaries of television and print news. He said the most popular television dramas are crime-based.
Smith said the past decade has been telling. Crime across the United States has dropped significantly. Yet, during the same decade, media coverage of crime has risen hundreds of percentage points.
So what effect does this increase in crime culture have on Americans?
“It influences public policy,” Smith said. “It influences our reaction to crime.”
Smith said many people think crime is currently high. In fact, he said, crime rates are similar to where they stood in the 1960s and decreased throughout the 1990s.
Smith said much of the crime rate is due to social and economic factors. He said 1980 had the highest crime rate in recorded history. According to a chart presented by Smith, the period of the late 1970s and 1980s was unique in the history of crime. In fact, Smith said, that period was “the criminological equivalent of the perfect storm.”
“(In the perfect storm) you had three meteorological events that all converged at one time,” Smith said. “Well, think of social meteorological events. That’s essentially what happened during that period.”
Smith said he is concerned that, following a decade of decline, the crime rate may be on an upswing. He said there are several reasons for this assertion, but a big factor is that a lot of violent criminals incarcerated in the 1980s are about to get out of prison. Also, an economic downturn will affect crime.
Smith said there has been a lot of criminal turmoil in U.S. history, but the country has often adjusted. But, he said, a lot of how people behave toward crime is governed by how crime is reported in the news media. In fact, he said, many people carry around the perception that Tampa is one of the most violent cities in the United States when, in fact, it’s not.
“But it is the perception that many of us carry around,” Smith said. “The news media does have a role, I think, in both creating and potentially altering that perception.”