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Criminology in The Media

During the 2000s and 2010s, Criminology became one of the most popular course choices for students at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, with specialisms arising and expanding all the time. In this article, Professor McLaughlin and Dr Greer of City University London take a closer look at an emerging criminology specialism – murder news. They go on to discuss how a full understanding of this field of study will require researchers and professionals who are able to think creatively and also work across traditional disciplinary boundaries and subject areas, as well as a deeper comprehension of crime reporting in the news. 

Few aspects of 21st century public policy are as important as the challenges faced by any attempt to reconcile demands for the rule of law, social order and community safety, with the protection of human rights, civil liberties and democratic values in an age of global insecurity. The importance of these challenges is reflected in the fact that today virtually every university in the UK administers over-subscribed criminology-related study programmes. This growing popularity can find its roots in the establishment and expansion of criminology as a serious and distinct academic discipline, as well as in the increasing centrality of crime and justice as issues of public and political concern.

Criminology research specialisms

As part of this expansion, criminology has established particular research specialisms that are currently reflected in a plethora of peer-review journals and international conferences. These include everything from research on ‘cops, courts and corrections’ to cybercrime, forensic science, globalisation and international terrorism. Students studying at postgraduate level are now faced with a dizzying array of course options as the horizons of academic criminology continue to expand.

Media Criminology

One area of criminological interest that is experiencing intensified and sustained attention is ‘media criminology’. With the proliferation of 24/7 global media in recent decades, and the intensified interest of crime and justice in everyday life, understanding the connections between crime and the media has never been more important.

The dominant public and political concern is that media representations of crime and control are irresponsible, and that this irresponsibility has negative consequences for society. Across entertainment and news media, crime representations are seen variously to glamorise, sensationalise and distort. At one extreme, media are blamed, often quite simplistically, for causing crime and are considered a key causal factor in the shift to a ‘violent society’. At another extreme, they are also accused of amplifying fear of crime and, as a result, legitimating ever-tougher crime control policies.

Media criminologists are informing public debate by looking beyond soundbites and generalisations to facilitate a more measured debate on the complex relationships between media and crime in all their various forms. Key areas of research interest include the commodification of crime news as a marketable product, the mechanisms through which media representations of crime are produced and transmitted, and the influence of media consumption on fear of crime, criminal behaviour, policy making and public opinion.

Murder news

Despite all of this focus on media criminology, murder news – a form of media reporting to which we are sensationally exposed every day – remains distinctly under-researched. Whilst the vast majority of murders in the UK are overlooked entirely by the news media, the right type of murder case can generate global and sustained media interest (who can forget the impact of the OJ Simpson case or the attacks on the Twin Towers?) The ideal murder case is a valuable news commodity, but in order for this commodity to sell, it must possess certain characteristics and stimulate particular emotional reactions.

Criminology students and specialists at City University London are working to better understand the highly selective reporting of murder in the UK news media. What are the characteristics of particular murder cases that trigger media interest? What precisely are the emotions that news producers are seeking to arouse when reporting murder? How is murder communicated to a mass audience in an increasingly competitive and crowded information marketplace?

It is more than simply a question of the class, race, gender or age of key protagonists, though of course these are important. It is more than simply a question of the nature of the violence used, though of course this can be a defining indicator of newsworthiness. In order to fully comprehend the reporting of murder we need to do more than read eye-catching newspaper headlines. Researchers need to go backstage to engage with every stage of the reporting process, from news gathering, selection and production, through transmission, to consumption and interpretation.

Research requirements

The requirements of this type of research include developing an understanding of the contemporary working life of crime reporters; assessing the relationship between crime reporters and their news sources; comparing and contrasting the different editorial frames used by newspapers in their coverage of the same murder case; and exploring the different ways in which consumers engage with and understand murder news. At City University London a focus is also placed upon developing research methods to analyse the increasing use of powerful visual images in media representations of murder.

Postgraduate study at the University is taught by specialist scholars from across the criminological discipline. This diversity of interest and expertise allows both for a breadth of criminological study and research specialisation. In this way, the University plans to fulfil one of its current priorities – to produce the next generation of criminologists in the UK who will fully explore the relationship between media and crime, and understand further the media’s reliance on ‘killer’ headlines.

Next: Search for Criminology PhD courses

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