About News

Crime Stories Are Everywhere, but You Really Can Go Outside

Source: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay

The news media love crime stories, which, of course, is the fault of the audience for giving them clicks and ratings.

But some commentators on the press offer unreservedly brutal words for how journalists do crime coverage:

  • Tauhid Chappell and Mike Rispoli of Free Press wrote for Nieman Lab in 2020: “Crime coverage is terrible. It’s racist, classist, fear-based clickbait masking as journalism. It creates lasting harm for the communities that newsrooms are supposed to serve.”
  • Kelly McBride of Poynter told an online seminar in 2021 that years from now, “newsrooms will issue apologies for the harm they caused” with their crime reporting. For good measure, she called it “journalistic malpractice.”


The failures begin with too much trust in the crime accounts offered by law enforcement. I’ve written about this previously.

But it’s more than that. Fair questions surround the news media’s pattern of reporting on crime primarily in the form of individual, perhaps sensationalized breaking news reports, and whether the emphasis on crime causes news consumers to become more fearful about their communities than they need to be.

I have previously defended so-called “episodic” coverage of violent crime because it often focuses on the human toll, and the public having its guts wrenched by that is the first step toward action and resolution. Still, those news organizations that decided they needed to revamp their police reporting almost universally have decided that means more big-picture stories on causes, effects and solutions.

A good example of such deep-dive crime reporting is under way in Birmingham. The Birmingham Times and AL.com have partnered to produce a periodic “Beyond the Violence” series exploring a dramatic rise in Birmingham homicides so far this year. The city is on pace to surpass its record high of 141 in 1991, according to AL.com.

The partnership allows each organization to benefit from the reporter specialties and connections of the other and produce more “expansive and comprehensive information than if either publisher went alone,” said Birmingham Times Executive Editor Barnett Wright, whose organization focuses heavily on Birmingham’s predominantly Black neighborhoods. It also means a wider audience than either could reach alone.

In-depth reporting like this offers a chance to perform the vital public service of putting crime frequency into accurate perspective. Substantial research shows that the frequent presentation of crime by the media – not just the news media but also by the entertainment media, especially TV shows – causes the audience to think their community is more dangerous than the numbers say it really is. Academics have a name for this: “Mean World Syndrome.”

“Mean World” effect has significant bad consequences: minority communities get unfairly associated with rampant crime; residents flee those communities; residents elsewhere won’t go there, thus those communities see diminishing social and economic gains. Politicians use fear to win votes. Gun companies do the same to sell more weapons. Citizens feel the need to buy. Anxiety abounds.

Social media also play a role. AL.com’s John Archibald researched this during his year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. “(Social media) algorithms that keep popular crime news in news feeds for long and recurring periods of time contribute to the culture of fear and polarization,” he said. “…The viral nature of crime news and the fact that algorithms often re-post old crime stories in feeds gives an outsized perception of the amount of crime that occurs nationally.”

That amount is going down. Violent crime per person in the U.S. has declined almost 50% since its peak in 1991. In Birmingham, the homicide trend is alarming but other violent crime (rape, robbery, aggravated assault) is down 21% from mid-October 2021 to the same point of 2022, according to online statistics from the Birmingham Police Department. Property crime is down 1%.

The veteran Wright, whose newsroom generally does not publish breaking crime news, knows the challenges of keeping crime rates in perspective. “What gets more clicks: A story about an alarming homicide trend or a story about overall crime being down? The question is will the media convey the downward trend? This is why I believe the BT/AL.com project is so important. We’re going beyond just the daily reports of homicides.”

Amen to that.

Still, I’d never suggest that local news media across the country should stop treating major violent crimes as news. I would suggest, though, a de-emphasis on smaller crimes and greater emphasis on trends, causes, solutions and stories that protect the public. Add in accountability stories about law enforcement performance and constant numerical perspective on the prevalence of crime.

In other words, it’s not crime reporting. It’s public safety reporting.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.