Television News Magazine Crime Stories:
A Functionalist Perspective
Maria Elizabeth Grabe
School of Journalism
Ernie Pyle Hall
[log in to unmask]
Submitted to the Mass Communication & Society Division of the
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication for presentation
at its 1996 annual convention.
Television News Magazine Crime Stories:
A Functionalist Perspective
This study is grounded in the Durkheimian notions that crime stories
are functional in constructing a society's morality, teaching it's members to
abide by certain rules, and promoting cohesion among members by making it public
when individuals have violated the common morality.
The content analysis focused on crime stories that appeared on
television news magazine programs. The study's primary goals were to
investigate the general prevalence of crime in the news, the demographic
profiles of television news victims and criminals, the prevalence of different
crime types, the reported motivations behind criminal acts, and the major crime
myths that underlie news stories about crime.
This study's focus on crime news is motivated by concern for the
relevance of crime in society and the relative lack of research on this aspect
of television news content. The injustice and human suffering which result from
crime have been well-documented and lamented. Yet, we have never been able to
eliminate the widespread occurrence of crime. Emile Durkheim (1933, 1938,
1951), Kai Erikson (1966), Michel Foucault (1979), and George Herbert Mead
(1918) provide a controversial explanation of the persistence and prevalence of
crime over the centuries. Unlike the popular belief that crime is a menace that
must be obliterated, these scholars argue that crime is an inherent part of a
healthy society. Crime functions on a number of levels to sustain social
structure by promoting social integration. In short, the existence of crime
provides society's members with the opportunity to publicly draw and recognize
the line between good and evil. Furthermore, crime serves as a force of social
cohesion. When the criminal is presented as violating the collective sentiments
of a society, its members unify in their condemnation of the criminal. Crime,
and the punishment thereof, can also be viewed as a form of social control,
where potential criminals are often scared into submission to society's rules
and regulations. The question remains whether mass mediated crime has the
functional potential Durkheim saw in non mediated crime. Contemporary mass
communication of crime stories may indeed play an important maintenance function
for society by communicating its values and rules to its members. Whether we
all agree with the value system that is maintained, of course, does not affect
the functionality of crime in aiding that system's stability.
Before the existence of mass media, societies relied on the public
rituals of torture and executions to demonstrate the notion of justice. In
fact, Erikson (1966) links the disappearance of public execution with the
development of the newspaper. Scholars like Brown (1969a, 1969b), Cawelti
(1975), Coser (1966), Frantz (1969), and Lane (1976) argue that crime is
particularly central to American society because of this country's historical
and cultural reliance on crime and violence to achieve goals. We should
therefore not be surprised to find an emphasis on the crime theme in our studies
of American mass media.
Beyond the research interest in the prevalence of crime in the mass
media, it is important to uncover the myths that underlie crime stories. Three
research findings pertaining to fictional crime can be discerned. Numerous
studies (Dominick, 1973, 1978; Estep & Macdonald, 1985) have found that in
television fiction, almost without exception, crime doesn't pay. While such
content analytical findings cannot provide evidence of the impact of such a
message on viewers, the mass communication of the message that crime doesn't pay
exemplifies Durkheim's (1933, 1938, 1951) reasoning that crime provides an
opportunity to publicly draw the line between good and evil, and at the same
time discourage those who contemplate criminal behavior.
Fictional television crimes are commonly portrayed as resulting from
individual causes such as material greed and psychological instability (Barrile,
1980, 1986; Haney & Manzolati, 1981). By ignoring possible structural causes
for crime, such as poverty or racism, the criminal is portrayed as the society's
irrational enemy who deserves little sympathy. Similarly, Durkheim (1933, 1938,
1951) theorized that criminal violations of public sentiments provoke a shared
outrage aimed at the criminal (and not the societal causes of crime) among
society's members which indirectly promotes social cohesion and integration.
Finally, scholars have found that both the fictional television
criminal and victim are Caucasian, middle to upper-middle class, middle-aged,
and male (Baker & Ball, 1969; Barrile, 1986; Dominick, 1973, 1978; Estep &
Macdonald, 1985; Gerbner, Gross, Signorielli, Morgan, & Jackson-Beeck, 1979;
Potter & Ware, 1987). According to Gerbner (1979), demographic profiles of
violent criminals and the portrayed repercussions of their actions may
demonstrate to society's members "who gets away with what against whom" (p.
181). For example, in television fiction Caucasian people are twice as likely
to kill with "good cause" and get away with it. Therefore, consistent with the
views of Durkheim and others, crime stories may provide a means of communicating
society's power structure to its members. It is therefore important to
investigate the demographic profiles of criminals and their victims.
Television news, as a genre, has been neglected in scholarly
investigations of crime stories. The bulk of research on televised mediation of
crime has focused on fictional portrayals of crime during prime time drama
series, daytime soap operas, and music videos. Studies of non-fictional crime
stories, such as those appearing on local and network television news, are rare.
The few studies that have examined crime-related news focused on newspapers, not
The distinction between fiction and non-fiction is a difficult one,
especially when it comes to crime. There is a historical trend toward blurring
the lines between crime fiction and nonfiction (Stevens, 1985). Perhaps this
tradition has its origin in the underground mass distribution of gallows
speeches prior to the 18th century. According to Foucault (1979), the
authenticity of these supposed last words of the condemned was in many cases
suspect. Stevens (1985) refers to the blurring lines between crime fiction and
nonfiction in his discussion of the news media's coverage of the Hall-Mills
Murder case in the 1920's. Not only were newspaper readers encouraged to write
their own solutions to the murder case, but the accused murderer also played
herself in a stage production of the saga. In recent times, made-for-TV movie
versions of highly publicized crimes keep alive the tradition of extending
non-fiction into fiction.
Despite the blurred distinction between fiction and news, our society
holds vastly different assumptions about the effects, functions, and
responsibilities of the fictional and non-fictional television worlds. For
example, there is greater concern about the possible effects of television
fiction, than television non-fiction, on individual and group (especially
children and criminal) behavior. As Klapper (1960, p. 139) remarks about
non-fictional portrayals of crime and violence, "Real violence is not
statistically observed [i.e., through empirical research] and its vehicles, far
from being castigated, are typically commended as educational." This
tendency remains prevalent today and one wonders if researchers' neglect of
television news coverage of crime reveals an underlying assumption that stories
constructed from portions of mediated "reality" are less lethal than fictional
story constructions. Whatever the reason, the accuracy and/or objectivity of
representation is a more common research motivation for studies on news crime
reporting than the potential effects of such content upon its audience and
Although researchers and the television audience may think of fiction
and nonfiction as two different mediated worlds, Gerbner (1980) argues that both
news and entertainment stories are social constructions. News stories are
assembled as selective inventions. Presumably true events are selected from a
pool of events and the narrative is invented to communicate meaning about the
chosen facts within a framework of society's learned knowledge. Fiction is
constructed as fictive inventions. Selected dynamics of human life are
dramatized to inform and reinforce society's existing framework of knowledge.
No part of either news or drama stories happens without a purpose and a function
which, according to Gerbner (1980), is ultimately to perpetuate the existing
social order. Whether non-fictional and fictional television views of the world
differ dramatically from each other is certainly an interesting question. But
an assumption that these television worlds have different effects on their
audiences or that they have different responsibilities and functions is not made
here. Thus this research project complements the large body of existing
research on television's fictional crime portrayals and the limited research on
television news crime reporting. Research on crime portrayals across all
television genres is crucial to a comprehensive assessment of the television
world's stories about crime, criminals, and victims.
The content of four different tabloid and eight highbrow or
traditional news magazine programs was analyzed. The analysis was conducted on
two levels. First, individual programs were analyzed to provide insight into
the general prevalence of crime in the programs during the six month period
under investigation. Second, individual program segments that featured crime as
a central theme, were examined in order to assess the demographic profiles of
criminals and victims and the narratives underlying the criminal act. Three
coders participated in the coding procedure which was completed over a one month
This study focused on news magazine programs because they feature
self-contained narrative segments and allow for relatively elaborate
storytelling. This news format is more appropriate for an investigation of
crime narratives than the short and fragmented stories featured in television
newscasts. In recent times the disappearing distinction between the so-called
tabloid and highbrow approaches to news reporting has enjoyed much attention
(Bernstein, 1992; Bessie, 1938; Bird, 1992; Briller, 1993; Brown, 1989; Chira,
1994; Cremedas & Chew, 1994; Kurtz, 1993; Reibstein, 1994; Rosenberg, 1989;
Ruel, 1994; Stevens, 1985; Walters, 1988; Weiss, 1989; Zoglin, 1993). For the
purpose of this study both tabloid and highbrow news magazine programs were
included in the investigation. The specific tabloid programs are: "Inside
Edition", "A Current Affair", "American Journal", and "Hard Copy". The specific
highbrow programs are: "Dateline NBC", "Prime Time Live", "Turning Point", "48
Hours", "Eye to Eye with Connie Chung", "60 Minutes", "Day One", and "20/20".
The news magazine shows were purposefully sampled from the larger
population of television news. Unlike most studies of this nature, which
typically use a composite month of television programming, all of the identified
news magazine broadcasts aired during a six month period (October 1, 1994 to
March 31, 1995) were recorded. An additional week of these television
broadcasts (April 1-7, 1995) was used in coder training sessions. Half a year
of television news magazine programs provided 272 hours of material, a
substantial yet manageable amount of television content for the analysis. It is
important to use an uninterrupted time period for the study because major crime
stories tend to evolve over several weeks and a randomly sampled composite month
of television content would only provide fragments of this evolving storytelling
process. Although this study is not directly concerned with how crime stories
evolve over time, there was concern about creating a sample which could only
provide fragmented episodes in a complex, interrelated, and evolving social
process. The six month period is also long enough so that prominent crime
stories were able to develop (e.g., the O.J. Simpson case, Susan Smith's murder
of her two infant sons, the Ferguson train massacre trial in New York City, and
two skinhead brothers killing their parents and brother). Such highly
publicized crime cases, together with lower profile stories represent the
typical course of crime reporting.
Coding was based on what was portrayed, reported, suggested, or
implied in the content of the news programs. Two different sampling units were
Sampling Unit One: The News Magazine Program
The prevalence of crime was assessed through items pertaining to the
number of program segments and crime segments in each news magazine program, as
well as the duration of crime segments (coding sheet 1). Items concerning the
positioning of the crime segment within the story line-up provided insight into
the prominence of crime in news magazine programs.
Sampling Unit Two: The Crime Segment
The second sampling unit concerned individual crime stories featured
as individual segments within news magazine programs. A crime story is defined
as a program segment which features one or more acts of breaking the law as
central to the narrative. Only a subset of all segments, based on this
criterion, was coded. Segments identified as "crime stories" by virtue of their
focus on crime were analyzed using the portrayed, mentioned, or inferred
criminal, victim, and criminal act as three separate recording units. Three
separate coding sheets dealt with the criminal(s), victim(s), and crime(s) of
each crime story. A crime story may have multiple crimes, criminals, and
victims, and in such instances, coders coded each crime, criminal, and victim
Coding sheet 2 was used to record demographic information about the
criminal. It focused on demographic variables, including gender, race, age,
class, occupational status, and criminal history of the suspect.
The criminal was identified as the person, group, or organization
suggested, suspected, accused, charged, or found guilty of a crime. Three
important aspects were considered when coding a criminal. First, the criminal
had to be central to the crime narrative. In other words, the criminal had to
make a considerable and critical contribution to the construction of the crime
narrative. Second, "suspect", "accused", "perpetrator", or "sentenced criminal"
were all coded as criminals. Once someone was identified as a criminal
(lawfully guilty or not) and presented as such in the story, he/she was coded as
a criminal. Third, this study included group and corporate criminality. In
such instances each of the identified members of the corporation or group
responsible for the crime were separately coded as criminals.
Similar to coding sheet 2, which pertained to the criminal, coding
sheet 3 was used to record the demographic information and criminal history of
the victim. In addition, coding sheet 3 focused on the physical and
psychological harm done to the victim as a result of the crime. The victim was
identified as the person or group which suffers due to criminal actions. Three
important aspects were considered when coding a victim. First, as with the
criminal, the victim had to be central to the crime narrative. Stories may
provide criminals without victims. In such instances only the presented
criminal was coded. Second, in cases of group victimization each central victim
appearing, inferred, or described was coded separately. Third, when animals
were presented as the victims of a crime, the "other" category was coded on all
items except those related to the severity of the victimization. Finally, in
order for someone to be coded as a victim, he/she had to be a direct or primary
victim of the criminal act. When acquaintances or family members of the primary
victim are portrayed as secondary victims (e.g., they lost the murdered family
member) they were not coded as victims.
Coding sheet 4 was used to record information about the criminal act
per se i.e., the location of the crime, the nature of, and motivation behind the
criminal, and the aftermath of the crime. The crime is the act committed by the
criminal, which establishes a relationship with a victim (except of course in
the case of a victimless crime). As with the criminal and victim, each criminal
act central to the crime narrative was coded. The outcome of the crime was
examined on a number of different levels. The prevalence of the "crime doesn't
pay" myth, the struggle between good and evil and the portrayed roles of the
criminal, victim, and law enforcement system in the struggle between good and
evil were scrutinized.
The operational definitions of crime, criminal, and victim used in
this study are not attempts to describe the "essence" of these constructs.
These definitions were merely useful within the parameters of this study, which
involves more inclusive treatment of crime portrayals than what is stipulated in
criminal justice definitions of crime.
A week before the coder training started, three coders were provided
with the code book. They were asked to read it closely and identify problems
they encountered in the content of the code book. During a practice coding
session the coding instrument was applied to program material. A few additional
items within variables were added to improve exhaustiveness. The additional
week of magazine program content was used as a final pre-test of the coding
instrument. Using the Krippendorff (1980) Canonical Matrix Formula, an
acceptable level of coder agreement (83%) was established at the end of the
training period. The same formula was used in a post hoc assessment of coder
reliability. Ten percent of the six month sample (3 weeks) was randomly
selected and coded by all three coders. Agreement between the three coders in
this study was .91.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
The research results are presented in five sections. First is an
elaboration on research findings related to the prevalence and prominence of the
crime theme in the programs under investigation. The discussion then moves to
the content of crime stories. Second is a presentation of results related to the
criminal act per se. Third is a discussion of results regarding the demographic
profiles of criminals and their victims. Fourth is an examination of results
related to the criminal's and victim's demographic profiles in terms of types of
crime and motivations behind the criminal act. Fifth is a focus on results
pertaining to the aftermath of the crime. The implications of narrative
elements found in the programs under investigation are discussed.
The Prevalence and Prominence of Crime
The results indicate not only that the crime theme is a popular
feature of news magazine content, but also that crime narratives are prominently
featured within the news magazine program's story line-up.
The prevalence of crime can be discerned in terms of two major
indicators: Frequency of crime segments within programs and the program time
devoted to crime. Table 1 presents the results related to the prevalence of
crime in news magazine programs. There were 713 news magazine programs in the
study. Five hundred and ninety two programs featured at least one crime story.
Thus, approximately 83% of the programs under investigation featured crime
stories. The total of 713 programs produced 2,783 individual story segments.
Approximately 38% of all segments (n = 1,066) were coded as crime stories (i.e.,
featured crime as central to their story plots).
The total duration of the programs under investigation (excluding
advertisements, program logos, and anchor dialogue not related to segments) is
16,322 minutes (272 hours). More than one third, or 38%, of this time was
devoted to crime stories. This leaves only 62% of news magazine content devoted
to the other major news topics (i.e., politics, economics, and human interest).
Despite the emphasis that news magazine programs place on crime and
victimization, FBI crime reports (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1994) reveal
that the U.S. crime rate is at its lowest level in 20 years. In 1992, 25.2
violent crimes occurred per 1,000 people and crime affected 23% of households in
It is noteworthy that this study's findings about the prevalence of
crime in news magazine programs are remarkably similar to existing, yet
relatively outdated findings on its prevalence in other media content. For
example, Graber (1980) found that more than one third of both NBC local (Chicago
area) television newscasts and the "Chicago Tribune" was devoted to crime.
Likewise, the crime theme has been found in 40% of all prime time fiction and
Saturday morning television programming (Gerbner, 1972). Crime dramas have
taken up 33% of prime time television programming (Dominick, 1973).
It is important not only to pay attention to the prevalence of crime,
but also to consider the prominence of crime stories within programs. In
television news, stories are typically organized in a descending order of
importance; the lead story enjoys more prominence than the final segment.
The results of this study indicate that when crime was featured, it
was with considerable prominence. To be precise, 73% of programs that featured
crime presented the crime story in the lead position (see Table 1).
Furthermore, of all programs that featured crime segments, 14.9% presented crime
stories as the second story, 7.9% featured crime as the third story, 3.9%
featured crime as the fourth story, and 0.3% featured crime as the fifth story.
This finding is consistent with Graber's (1980) study of local television
newscasts. She found that 40.8% of crime stories were featured in the local
(Chicago area) NBC television news headlines.
Durkheim (1933, 1951) argued that crime is a prevalent and functional
part of a normal society. Thus far, the prevalence of crime in television
fiction, and to a lesser degree newspapers, has been documented. Now this study
offers indications that the crime theme is indeed prevalent and prominent in the
nonfiction television news magazine genre. The fact that crime comprises a
considerable portion of mass media content is consistent with Erikson's (1966)
argument that in contemporary social life the mass media have replaced public
executions as the platform from which crime stories are created and
disseminated. These results also remind us that America's long cultural history
of crime and violence is still alive in the symbolic world of both television
fiction and nonfiction.
Table 1 about here
The location of the criminal act in terms of space and time, its
nature, and the motivations behind it, often reveal narrative structures that
reaffirm the social order. It is important to examine the narrative functions
of these story components.
The dangers of crimes were most prominently presented as lurking in
cities (76.1%) at night time (77.6% -- see Table 2). FBI uniform crime reports
(Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1994) similarly reflect that the crime rate in
metropolitan areas (6,272 crimes per 100,000 people) and large cities (5,317
crimes per 100,000 people) is noticeably higher than in rural areas (2,026 per
100,000 people). However, the uniform crime reports (Federal Bureau of
Investigation, 1994) reveal a less prominent difference than the results of this
study between night and day time crime occurrences. According to FBI statistics
59.7% of rapes, 58.9% of robberies, and 49.5% of assaults occur during night
time, while 40.4 % of rapes, 39.5% of robberies and 50.2% of assaults occurred
during day time.
America's long history of violence is also clearly reflected in the
content of the programs under investigation: The vast majority of crimes were
violent (88.6% -- see Table 3). The FBI's uniform crime reports (Federal Bureau
of Investigation, 1994) indicate a vastly different ratio between violent and
non-violent crime: Only 13.4% of crimes are violent, 86.6% of crimes are not
Murder was the most prevalent outcome of the criminal act in news
magazine programs. Seventy one percent of all reported crimes resulted in
homicide. By contrast, FBI (1994) crime statistics indicate that murder is the
result of 0.16% of all crimes, and 1.23% of all violent crimes committed in the
United States. The American gun culture described by Lane (1976) is clearly
represented in the content of this study's population: Most crimes were
committed with weapons (67.41%), including guns (see Table 3). Similarly, the
uniform crime report indicate that 58.6% of rapes, robberies and aggravated
assaults are conducted with weapons (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1994).
Interestingly, sex, property, and financial crimes rarely appeared in
the programs under investigation: Only 11% of all crimes were sex crimes, 10%
were property crimes, and 4.1% were financial crimes. FBI uniform reports
(Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1994) reveal a noticeably different
distribution of crime types: Sex crimes are less prominent (3.6% of all crimes)
than in the content of this study; property crimes are strikingly more common
(40.2% of all crimes); and financial crimes are remarkably similar (4.5% of all
Table 2 about here
From Table 3 it is clear that portrayals of individual causes for
crime (such as psychological instability -- 91%, revenge -- 55.2%, protection of
social status -- 26%, greed -- 17%, and drug abuse -- 13%, avenge justice -- 3%)
overshadowed structural causes of crime like poverty (1%). Barrile (1986)
reports similar emphases on individual causes for crime in television fiction
and calls it the "personalized" crime perspective. By virtually ignoring
possible structural causes for crime (such as poverty or racism) the criminal is
portrayed as society's irrational enemy who deserves little sympathy.
Similarly, Durkheim (1933, 1938, 1951) theorized that criminal violations of
public sentiments provoke a shared outrage aimed at the criminal (and not
societal institutions) among society's members, which indirectly promotes social
cohesion and integration and camouflages the need to change the status quo.
Table 3 about here
It is noteworthy that 97.7% of all crimes were fully explained in
terms of the above motivations (i.e., as a result of greed, material
desperation, protection of social status, psychological instability, revenge,
alcohol or drug abuse, and avenging justice). Although the FBI's uniform crime
reports (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1994) do not focus on causes for
crime, it is noteworthy that these reports indicate that 6.91% of murders are
motivated by greed; 4.93% of murders are committed because of revenge; and
26.27% of murders are committed due to drug or alcohol abuse. Compared to these
FBI statistics of causes for murder, the content of the news magazine programs
under investigation exaggerated greed and revenge as motivations for crime while
substance abuse was underplayed as a cause for crime.
The demographic profiles of criminals and victims contribute to the
communication of society's power relations on a number of different levels. The
demographic profile of the criminal provides an indication of who is the most
empowered and feared in society, while the victim's demographic profile suggests
who is most vulnerable and powerless (Gerbner, et al., 1972). Beyond the broad
demographic profiles of the criminal and victim individually, one has to
consider the demographic relationship between specific criminals and their
The prominent and clearly defined profile for the criminal is male
(85%), African American (53.3%), adult (68.1%), upper-class (50%), and
legitimately employed (66.7% -- see Table 4).
Table 4 about here
Rather than examining each demographic element individually, one can
argue that this race, age, social class, and gender information should be
examined as a whole because it constitutes a cohesive element of a narrative
structure. With the exception of one demographic element (race), the
demographic profile of the criminal reflects, as Gans (1979) describes, the
social group imposing the structure of social order. It is therefore intriguing
that African Americans, who are a relatively unempowered group, were associated
with demographic variables like "adult", "upper-class", and "male", which
personify the make-up of those at the crest of the social structure. Perhaps
one could interpret this presentation of African Americans as a
politically-correct, mass-mediated empowerment of this race group. Yet, I would
argue that the focus on African Americans (in combination with demographic
characteristics such as adult, upper-class, and male) as the group most likely
to commit criminal behavior, actually serves to present a threatening image to
white males who are in charge of imposing the structure of social order. In
this way the portrayal of the criminal's demography may contribute to the
marginalization of African Americans. Indeed, portrayals of the male African
American as the violent and irrational criminal echo the traditional view of
this race as the untamed and primitive savage. It is important to note that
African American criminals were also portrayed as the most prominent victimizers
of both Caucasians (58%) and people from their own race (67.7% -- see Table 6).
These portrayals have the potential to reaffirm Caucasian hostility towards
African Americans and ultimately serve to discourage the African American's
acceptance into higher levels of society's hierarchical power structure. In a
society that is built upon respect for rational thought, portrayals of the
lawless and irrational African American criminal hardly promote the social
integration of members of this race.
The demographic profile of the victim (i.e., Caucasian, 87.9%;
female, 53%; a young adult, 39.5%; upper-class, 40.6%; and legitimately
employed, 36.8% -- see Table 5) revealed from the programs under investigation,
reflects a relatively unempowered group that has been struggling to enter the
male status quo. Caucasian, young adult, upper-class, females who are
legitimately employed could be viewed as the group that most frequently competes
with males in the workplace. It is therefore noteworthy that this group was
presented as most likely to be victims of crime. One can certainly argue that
this portrayal serves the existing social order by mass communicating to
aspiring females that they are the group in society most likely to become
victims of crime. This interpretation of the victim's demographic profile finds
further support in other findings of this study discussed in the next section.
Unlike what is reported in the news magazine programs under investigation, the
FBI crime reports indicate that young black males are most likely to become
crime victims (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1994).
Table 5 about here
The narrative construction of the social pecking order through
portrayals of who victimizes whom involved demographic variables of class and
age. Adults, as members of the most empowered age group, were most likely
(79.6%) to victimize young adults and people from their own age group (81.4%),
while young adults were most likely to victimize youth (60.8%). Likewise,
criminals from the upper-class were most likely to victimize people from the
same class (86%) and the middle-class (56.6%). Working-class criminals tended
to be portrayed as victimizing people from the same class (75.6% -- see Table
Table 6 about here
The Demography of Crime
Associations between demographic variables, types of crime, and
motivations behind crime also carry the potential to contribute to the narrative
construction of society's power relations. As we have seen, young adult,
working women were presented as the group most vulnerable to crime. It is
noteworthy that working women (58.7%) were more likely than working men (29.40%)
to be victimized in the workplace. Furthermore, the group of working women that
was portrayed as victims was also more likely to be victimized in the workplace
(58.7%) than at home (31.4%). These portrayals send a message to women that the
workplace is a dangerous place.
Male criminals were more likely to victimize females (94.9% of female
victimizations) than people of their own sex (75.2% of male victimizations --see
Table 6). Weapons like knives and guns, as well as the male body itself, were
used in the process of victimization. Male criminals (72%) were more likely
than female criminals (32.7%) to use weapons during the crime and men (11.9%)
were responsible for more sex crimes than women (3.9% -- see Table 7). These
prominent portrayals of men using weapons and sex against their female victims
is a means of reaffirming the prevailing white male order.
Table 7 about here
The race variable also produced noteworthy results pertaining to sex
crimes, the use of weapons other than the body, and ultimately the communication
of power relations. Caucasians and males were most likely to commit sex crimes
(see Table 7). In fact, 20.6% of Caucasian and 11.6% male criminals committed
sex crimes in television news magazine programs, while African Americans were
most likely to be the victims (25.4%) of these crimes. These portrayals
therefore emphasized white male criminals using the physical force of sex to
establish their superiority over other races. The body and its sexual
imposition on women and African Americans was portrayed as the Caucasian male
means of dominance. On the other hand, human-made weapons provided the African
American criminals with the means to achieve dominance over their victims.
African American criminals, as a group, were most likely to use guns, knives,
and other weapons (83.1%) against their victims. These portrayals of the
African American as armed and dangerous deepen this group's marginalization and
perhaps even serve as a justification for police brutality against African
The association of the victim's and criminal's demographic profiles
with crime types provided further insight into the mass communication of
demographic diversity. Sex crimes, which are, not only serious offenses against
society's common morality, but also denote vulgar and deviant behavior, were
prominently associated with the working-class. Working-class criminals were
most likely (19.6% of them) to commit sex crimes and victims from this class
were most likely (20.1% of them) to be the victims of such violations (see Table
7). Material need was also presented as part of an unempowered existence. The
middle-class (20.9%), working-class (20.2%) and the youth (43.2%) were presented
as the groups who most frequently engage in property crimes, while middle-class
people (12.2% of them) were the major perpetrators of financial crimes. By
contrast, the upper-class was least likely (2.0% of them) to commit property
crimes. Through these associations of demographic groups with specific types of
behavior (e.g., the working class as committing sex and property crimes),
distinctions between demographic groups are drawn. When a society succeeds in
distinguishing between groups of people, social order is achieved and the
inclusion and exclusion of distinct groups in aspects of social life becomes
The relationship between the criminal's gender and the portrayed
motivations for the crime also presented insight into how society distinguishes
between demographic groups in order to establish power relations. Female
criminals were presented as more irrational than male criminals (see Table 8).
In fact, female criminals were more likely than male criminals to be portrayed
as committing crimes because of greed (29.4% vs. 15.6%) and drug or alcohol
abuse (86.7% vs. 13.3%). By contrast, the male criminal was motivated by more
reasonable needs (i.e., protection of his social status -- 27.9% vs. 1.8%).
These portrayals emphasize the view of women as unstable, substance abusing, and
pathologically greedy creatures. This image of women as greedy is further
encouraged by the fact that more female (19%) than male (8.8%) criminals were
portrayed as committing property crimes.
Table 8 about here
It is clear from this discussion that these narrative structures
involving the demography of the criminal and victim have functional potential in
perpetuating society's network of power relations. The following section
presents insights into the mythmaking that resulted from portrayals of the
aftermath of the criminal act.
The Aftermath of the Crime
The outcome of victimization was most often death . Only 10.7% of
victims escaped without any physical injuries, whereas 71.1% were murdered (see
Table 9). Approximately 93% of people who survived the victimization
experienced psychological injury as a result of the crime. Most often (in
86.5% of cases), the suspect was arrested, yet in most cases the outcome of the
criminal justice process after the arrest remained unknown. In only 17.9% of
cases the arrested criminal was shown to have been found guilty and in only
14.4% of cases was the criminal sentenced. This did not discourage
presentations of the criminal as guilty. Although most crime reports preceded
the criminal's day in court, more than 95% of the portrayed criminals were
presented as guilty (see Table 9). These character assassinations of alleged
criminals are also common in television fiction (Cromer, 1978). According to
Garfinkel (1956), mass mediated degradation ceremonies are used to publicly
deliver a curse upon the criminal and to call for all of society to witness the
ritual destruction of this person. Ultimately these degradation ceremonies
serve to promote social solidarity because the members of a society unify in
their outrage against the criminal's violation of their common values. The
criminal fulfills the important function of representing the evil force in
society's never-ending battle against evil. Therefore it is not surprising that
news magazine programs were quick to turn suspects into guilty and evil
Table 9 about here
Another function of the mass media's habit of presenting mere
suspects as guilty criminals concerns the role that society has assigned to the
justice system. The majority of society's members believe in the efficiency,
accuracy, and fairness of the criminal justice system. With few exceptions, law
enforcement is viewed as the protector of society's members, and the mass media
reaffirms this notion by portraying the officers of the system as effective and
fair in their efforts to guard common morality. It is noteworthy that in the
programs under investigation, law enforcement officers were cast as the good
force fighting against evil criminals in the classic battle between these two
forces (78% of cases -- see Table 10). The victim was in most cases (91.3%) the
helpless good person whom the criminal preyed upon. The criminal took the
prominent role of the evil force in 93.5% of cases (see Table 10). By
unambiguously assigning police officers to the role of the good force fighting
evil, criminals to the role of the evil force, and the victims to the role of
the helpless but good victim of evil, clear lines between acceptable and
unacceptable behavior are drawn. In this way the news magazine program
contributes to defining society's moral values.
Table 10 about here
This tendency to portray law enforcement efforts as swift, effective,
and fair is also common in television fiction. Knutson (1974, p. 29) argues
that in television detective series, police officers are presented as dedicated
protectors of morality. Haney and Manzolati (1981) did not find a single
instance where the "wrong man" was in custody at the end of the television
fiction show. This tendency to portray the police as infallible creates an
illusion of certainty and trust in the police force (Haney & Manzolati, 1981).
Portrayals of police efficiency also suggest that crime doesn't pay,
potentially discouraging us from criminal behavior (see Table 9). The content
of the programs under investigation clearly promoted the notion that the
criminal's arrest was inevitable (86.5% of cases). Therefore it was implied
that virtually all criminals were brought into the cold light of justice. In
addition to the emphasis placed on the police arresting suspects, the programs
unambiguously communicated that crime doesn't pay. The outcome of 73.6% of all
crime stories was coded as presenting the "crime doesn't pay" myth. It means
that even when criminals escaped (32.4% of cases) the long arm of the criminal
justice system, they faced alternative forms of punishment (i.e., personal
tragedy or victimization by another criminal), thereby reaffirming that crime
The prominence of narratives about police efficiency and the
portrayed unprofitable nature of crime serve social control functions. Public
displays of arrests are fear-provoking warnings against criminal pursuits of
self-interest. As Durkheim (1933) argued, they are a way of instilling the
paralyzing fear of retribution in the minds of those who contemplate evil.
Although many efforts have been made to study crime in television
fiction and newspapers, crime portrayals in television news have, thus far, been
neglected. This study's findings contribute to our knowledge about the mass
media's portrayals of crime.
The theoretical significance of this study lies in the functionalist
perspective that it brings to our understanding of the role that crime occupies
within society. Popular condemnations of humankind's long-standing fascination
with crime overlook the instructional value of mass mediated crime. Indeed,
this study's results suggest that there is reason to consider crime, and the
mass mediation thereof, as Durkheim did: A functional part of healthy societies.
This content analysis is not an attempt to offer "proof" of causal relations
between crime and the social functions it serves. Yet, by investigating
non-fictional mass media content, evidence of narrative patterns consistent with
three fundamental functionalist views of crime's role in society was found.
First, the results of this study suggest that crime stories provide a potential
means of negotiating a society's morality by drawing clear lines between good
and evil. Second, by frequently and prominently offering the criminal for
public scrutiny and by promoting outrage against the criminal's violation of the
public's common conscience, social solidarity and integration may be
perpetuated. At the same time the complex construction of crime narratives
involves the casting of demographic groups on different levels of the social
order, thereby teaching the dual reality of diversity and exclusion to society's
members. Finally, through the unambiguous communication of the idea that crime
doesn't pay, there is a tremendous potential for mass mediated social control.
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Table 1. Prevalence of Crime in News Magazine Programs
% Of Total
Variable Total Featuring Crime Featuring Crime
Programs 713 592 83.0
Segments 2,783 1,066 38.0
Durationa 16,322 6,168 38.0
Lead Positionb 713 432 73.0
Second Positionb 713 88 14.9
Third Positionb 713 47 7.9
Fourth Positionb 713 23 3.9
Fifth Positionb 713 2 0.3
Sixth Positionb 713 0 0.0
aDuration is presented in minutes.
bMany news magazine programs featured more than one crime story.
However, for this investigation of the prominence of crime in news magazine
programs, only the first crime story's position in the program line-up was
Table 2. The Time and Location of Portrayed Criminal Acts for News
Variable Frequency %
Type of Community
City 984 76.1
Town/Suburb 288 22.3
Rural Area 5 0.4
Unknown/Other 16 1.2
Day 132 10.2
Night 1003 77.6
Not Time Bound 152 11.8
Unknown/Other 6 0.4
Type of Location
Public Space 271 21.0
Private Space 914 70.7
No Specific Location 105 8.1
Unknown/Other 3 -
In Victim's Work Environment?
Yes, Direct 146 11.3
Yes, Indirect 71 5.5
No 352 27.2
Unknown/Other 724 56.0
Table 3. Types of Crime and Motivations Behind Crime for News
Variable Frequency %
Violent 1,145 88.6
Weapon Used 871 67.4
Sex 142 11.0
Property 129 10.0
Financial 53 4.1
Greed 223 17.2
Material Desperation 13 1.0
Protection of Social Status 336 26.0
Psychological Instability 1177 91.0
Romantic/Domestic Revenge 714 55.2
Alcohol/Drug Abuse 168 13.0
Avenging Justice 17 1.3
No Other Motive 1263 97.7
Table 4. The Demographic Profile of Criminals for News Magazine
Variable Frequency %
Male 1,378 85.0
Female 234 14.5
Unknown/Other 9 0.5
Caucasian 676 41.7
African American 863 53.3
Latino 62 3.8
Unknown/Other 20 1.2
Youth 57 3.5
Young Adult 419 25.8
Adult 1,104 68.1
Mature Adult 19 1.2
Unknown/Other 22 1.4
Upper 811 50.0
Middle 208 12.8
Working 559 34.5
Poverty Level 7 0.5
Unknown/Other 36 2.2
Legitimate 1,082 66.7
Illegitimate 88 5.4
Unemployed 100 6.2
Homemaker 9 0.6
Unknown/Other 342 21.1
Table 5. The Demographic Profile of Victims in News Magazine
Variable Frequency %
Male 639 41.2
Female 821 53.0
Unknown/Other 90 5.8
Caucasian 1362 87.9
African American 79 5.1
Latino 20 1.3
Unknown/Other 88 5.6
Youth 297 19.2
Young Adult 612 39.5
Adult 517 33.4
Mature Adult 37 2.4
Unknown/Other 87 5.5
Upper 629 40.6
Middle 389 25.1
Working 443 28.6
Unknown/Other 87 5.6
Victim's Employment Status
Legitimate 571 36.8
Illegitimate 2 0.1
Unemployed 10 0.6
Homemaker 494 31.9
Unknown/Other 473 30.6
Table 6. Crosstabulation of Criminal's and Victim's Class for News
Class Upper Middle Working
Upper 86.0 3.2 10.7
Middle 56.6 19.2 24.2
Working 7.4 17.0 75.6
Gender Male Female
Male 75.2 24.8
Female 94.9 5.1
Race Caucasian African American Latino
Caucasian 39.2 58.0 2.8
African American 29.7 67.6 2.7
Latino 40.0 10.0 50.0
Age Youth Young Adult Adult
Youth 5.1 60.8 34.1
Young Adult 0.5 19.9 79.6
Adult 3.4 15.2 81.4
Table 7. Associations of the Criminal's and Victim's Demographic
Profile with Types of Crime
Variable Sex Property Financial Weapon
Crime Crime Crime Used
Male 11.9 72.1
Female 3.9 32.7
Caucasian 20.6 19.0 41.1
African American 5.3 4.0 83.1
Latino 8.2 14.3 66.7
Young Adult 10.4
Upper Class 7.4 2.9 2.7
Middle Class 10.9 20.9 12.2
Working Class 19.6 20.2 3.1
Caucasian 10.4 72.5
African American 25.4 44.1
Latino 7.1 85.7
Youth 25.3 35.5
Young Adult 9.6 87.7
Adult 7.0 66.7
Upper Class 5.6 5.4 78.1
Middle Class 12.4 8.3 77.1
Working Class 20.1 16.1 48.6
Table 8. Associations of the Criminal's Gender with Motivations for
Greed Protect Social Revenge Substance Avenge
Variable Status Abuse Justice
Male 15.6 27.9 59.9 13.3 0.6
Female 29.4 11.8 23.5 86.7 5.9
Caucasian 31.2 12.0 22.1 21.6
African American 7.0 35.3 79.3 7.8
Latino 38.8 18.4 8.2 14.3
Youth 29.7 13.5 18.9
Young Adult 25.6 13.2 18.8
Adult 13.6 30.1 68.0
Upper Class 6.1 34.9 80.2
Middle Class 41.9 28.4 30.4
Working Class 31.2 5.8 11.0
Table 9. The Aftermath of the Crime for News Magazine Programs
Impact Frequency %
Killed 1102 71.1
Serious Injury 119 7.7
Light Injury 96 6.2
Unharmed 167 10.7
Unknown/Other 66 4.3
Psychological Injury 386 93.0
Criminal Arrested 1119 86.5
Criminal Found Guilty?
Yes 231 17.9
No 162 12.5
Unknown/Other 900 69.7
Yes 186 14.4
No 97 7.5
Unknown/Other 1010 78.1
Implied That the Criminal is Guilty?
Yes 1238 95.7
No 37 2.9
Unknown/Other 18 1.4
Implied That the Criminal is Innocent?
Yes 92 7.1
No 1196 92.5
Unknown/Other 5 0.4
Suggested That Crime Doesn't Pay?
Yes 952 73.6
No 86 6.7
Unknown 255 19.7
Suggested That Crime Pays?
Yes 224 17.3
No 678 52.4
Unknown 391 30.3
Punishment Other Than Criminal Justice System
Yes 419 32.4
No 828 64.0
Unknown 46 3.6
Table 10. The Role of the Criminal, Victim, and Law Enforcement in
the Struggle Between Good and Evil for News Magazine Programs
Portrayed Roles Frequency %
Good Force 12 0.9
Evil Force 1209 93.5
Helpless Victim of Evil 66 5.4
Unknown/Other 6 0.2
Good Force 20 1.5
Evil Force 43 3.4
Helpless Victim of Evil 1181 91.3
Unknown/Other 49 3.8
Law Enforcement System
Good Force 1008 78.0
Evil Force 16 1.2
Helpless Victim of Evil 1 -
Unknown/Other 80 6.1
Inadequate 188 14.5
 This study treats television and its portrayal of crime as
functional to maintaining social order. The goal is therefore not to argue from
a moral stance what is just, fair or objectionable, but merely what is
functional to maintaining the social system's order. See Merton (1949) for the
discussion of the functionalist approach to social science.
 For a critique of the theoretical assumptions of studies on the
effects of media violence see Gluckmann (1971) and Halloran (1978).
 In a rare attempt at examining the effects of fiction and
nonfiction, Atkins (1983) conducted an experimental research study exposing two
groups of subjects alternatively to realistic and fictitious television violence
in a laboratory setting. He found that realistic news representations of
violence had greater impact on aggressiveness than fictional portrayals of
violence. Although the results were, according to Atkins (1983) surprising, his
research project is an example of how fiction and non-fiction are perceived as
having different effects, functions, and responsibilities.
 The six month period under investigation started before the
beginning of the O.J. Simpson trial and ended before the end of the trial.
 This study's data collection method involved purposeful
non-probability sampling. Thus, inferential statistics are not appropriate as a
data analysis tool.
 Considering the race and age of criminals, the FBI's
demographic profile for criminals differs noticeably from what was found in the
content of the programs under investigation. In fact, according to uniform
crime reports (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1994) state prison inmates are
male (94.5%), Caucasian (49.1%), young adults (45.7%), and employed (67,3%).