Does Local Television News Mislead the Public About Crime?

Crime news by Crime in America.Net

The report (link below) analyses the Los Angeles television and newspaper market regarding their coverage. As to television news they find:

“The most common topic by far was crime. One out of three broadcasts led with it. Nearly half of those were about murder, robbery, assault, kidnapping, property crime, traffic crime and other common crime. A fourth of the crime leads were about celebrity crime. And nearly a fourth of the crime leads were about crimes that didn’t take place in the Los Angeles media market.”

The writer points out that “When it comes to local news, more people” – 68% — “say they get that news from local television stations than any other source,” says a recent Pew poll.”

The writers are critical of the emphasis on crime news and question whether the stations are truely serving the public.

Our Comments:

The larger issue is quite simple; the news (and entertainment media) gives the public what it wants. This is not the first (and certainly won’t be the last) study of local news that documents “if it bleeds-it leads.” Some examples of common and misleading crime coverage we’ve seen includes:

  • Endless media accounts of sex assaults by strangers in a public place (i.e. alley) when the majority of sexual assaults take place indoors and the perpetrator is someone the victim knows.
  • After a violent crime, TV news will cover citizens upset and talking about leaving their community–the reality is that its day-to-day graffiti, vandalism and petty theft that cause most to flee.
  • Homicides get the bulk of coverage but the great majority of homicides involve people who know each other or people caught up in criminal or nefarious activity (i.e., drug dealing or purchasing). The odds of the average citizen being murdered in a stranger-to-stranger homicide are quite rare.

But the media is a business and a business is there to serve its constituency and that constituency wants news on crime. They want crime news because they believe that it has a potential impact on their lives or the well being of friends and family. The issue is placing the crime into its proper context and rarely are today’s reporters knowledgeable enough about crime to provide context.

We gave three examples (above) regarding context but there are endless others. All one has to do is view virtually any network crime show and they will enter into a Disney-like world where virtually nothing resembles real life (does anyone really think that crime scene investigators look that good–trust me–they don’t).

We within the criminal justice system came to grips with two acknowledgements many years ago:

  1. Media coverage is a business no different than any other business. Businesses exist to serve their audience and make money.
  2.  Repeat the point above.

Please note that most reporters are highly motivated by the ethics of their business. They devote countless hours to getting the story right and delivering it as accurately as they know how. We greatly admire most reporters (especially the crime reporters).

But the news business is a shell of what it used to be with endless cutbacks throughout the last 10 to 15 years (similar to the criminal justice system). The number of reporters assigned to news desks has been reduced by half and more.

It’s up to us in the criminal justice system to provide context through social media. The media won’t (can’t) do it so we need to provide context offered in earlier years by seasoned reporters who knew the crime beat better than their spouses (not an exaggeration).

There is no sense complaining about news coverage. It won’t change until the media figures out the landscape and solidifies itself after years of decreasing revenues. Don’t look for that to happen soon.

Crime in America.Net staff

See report at



  1. Very interesting article, thanks for sharing!

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