Covering sensational crime stories: what’s the best path?

The Daily News put the sensation in sensationalism with their page one headline.

This week there have been a couple of horrific news stories involving outlandish and upsetting activity. We’re talking major gross-out stuff here.

In Florida, in case you missed it, police were called to deal with two naked men along a causeway near Miami Beach, one of whom was chewing the face off the other. The attack was only stopped when the assailant was shot and killed by police.

More recently, in usually-staid Canada, the big, unavoidable story is that a disturbed individual in Montreal allegedly killed a man, carved him up and mailed body parts off. It’s quite sensational, with new developments every few hours, but here is an initial summary from the National Post.

There’s speculation that the Florida attacker may have wigged out on drugs, possibly LSD or something called called bath salts. That one was horrible, absolutely, but probably wasn’t premeditated or designed to draw attention. (And maybe people should be thoroughly warned to stay off the bath salts.)

This current Canada case screams “look at me!” – which is the question I want to ask in this post.

Would it be better if we stopped looking?

Not ignore the collection and reporting of basic information. But maybe tone the coverage down? Lose the voyeuristic drama?

There’s no shortage of coverage, which means if you want all the details, they are out there. I work part-time and generally focus on human interest material. So I don’t have to cover the horrible stories. But I’m also a concerned citizen and a consumer of news.

Fire safety teaches that a blaze cannot occur without fuel, oxygen and heat. Eliminate any one of those three elements and the fire goes out.

What if attention functions like oxygen for certain violent individuals? Would we be better served by downplaying their actions, prosecuting suspects quietly and locking the convicted away with scant fanfare? (Or treating them if they are mentally ill.)

It may be impossible to control public appetite for sensational content. But is it healthy to actually stoke those fires?

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

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35 Comments on “Covering sensational crime stories: what’s the best path?”

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  1. mervel says:

    I don’t think it is healthy at all, it creates numbness toward violence in general, and then we are only interested in sicker and sicker things.

  2. Walker says:

    Unfortunately, part of the absolute triumph of the marketplace in the world today is the willingness of the “news industry” to give the people whatever they think they want.

    Before the Republicans threw all constraint to the winds in trying to bring down Bill Clinton, there were things that would not be covered on the evening news.

    There was a time not so long ago when it was considered unseemly to doctors and lawyers to advertise, likewise drug companies. Etcetera.

    Now, it couldn’t matter less what we say here, everything is in everybody’s face all the time.

  3. My great grandfather kept scrapbooks of news clippings in that vein. My grandmother kept “Pop’s” scrapbooks and passed them on to my mother who kept them and passed them to me along with other family papers. The news media have always tended toward sensationalism because it brings readers. They need readers to stay in business.

    Does reporting stories like this fan the flames of sociopathic behavior? Along with the influence of violent video games I think the jury is out on that one. Some ‘experts’ will say yes but others point to societies like Japan where there is a lot of pretty lurid and violent entertainment but no corresponding increase in ‘acting out’ such things.

    As my great grandfather’s scrapbooks show it has been around for a long time. What’s changed is the public notice of it. Like a lot of things that people engage in but society frowns on, it is more mainstream now. Whether it has led or will lead to an increase in violence has yet to demonstrated.

  4. Ken Hall says:

    A numbness toward violence; I would agree. Let us take a look see. The US has been involved in 4 wars since I was drafted in 1964 Viet Nam, Iraq/Kuwait, Afghanistan, a return to Iraq and numerous military skirmishes too small to be considered Wars; resulting in the death of 70-75,000 Americans, 3-5,000,000 Vietnamese, several hundred thousand Iraqis in the first go a few hundred thousand Afghans and another several hundred thousand Iraqis in the second go plus many thousands of others from smaller go’s and UAV guided bombs and missiles. I am certain I missed several groups of folks we have had a hand in decimating; but, a few instances with similarities to “Silence of the Lambs” is far worse for us than blowing other people to smithereens. Foolish me that carnage is happening to them, in their backyards the only thing that matters to US is what happens in OUR backyard. I wonder if this thought process has anything to do with our decreasing favor throughout the world?

  5. tootightmike says:

    Find a positive and progressive story and follow it…

  6. Michael Greer says:

    James…. back in the day, we didn’t take “news” so seriously and reading the paper was quite an adventure. I remember working on an old house in Crary Mills…there were newspapers padding the old linoleum in every room…layers and layers of old faded newspapers. Each room had been done over in a different year so there was the 1917 room, the 1912 room, the 1924 room, and the 1935 room. we didn’t actually get much work done that week ’cause we spent the whole time reading stories to each other.
    What did I learn?… That the US Marines have been sent to some nations over and over and over, and that the result is a failed government in that nation that will lead to the Marines being sent.. I learned that bankers and industrialists will take fantastic risks that even the wall-paper guy wouldn’t do, and lose huge sums of money and jeopardize the jobs of thousands of workers…I learned that jealous husbands would get a gun and wait outside the theater to take the life of a lover…that wild animals wait around every corner to rip and maim the unsuspecting….that life don’t change.

  7. Pete Klein says:

    Same old same old except that every once in awhile you get more than usual of the same old same old.
    I’ve never bought into the idea that books, movies or video games cause anyone to commit murder. Life was pretty gruesome long before most people could even read.

  8. mervel says:

    Ken the mentality to easily kill, to be numb to it all as long as someone else is dying or killing; is reflected in those wars and the love of violence which our sick society clings too. They are all connected. The Roman crowds cheering on the tearing from limb to limb of individuals were the same people cheering on the Roman army.

  9. Dan3583 says:

    Every point above is valid. News is far more widespread than it used to be…like politics, all news is now local. I do fear the copycats, because it’s so easy to become (in)famous with our 24-hour cable news. I’ve never bought into the vilolent content begetting violence. We didn’t see much blood on TV when I was young, but, between the cops and cowboys, we sure knew somebody was getting blown away. One could argue that the lack of reality made it more likely that we would become desensitized. Death was kinda like going to sleep, with no trauma. We also played all kinds of shoot ’em up games, and I don’t recall as many crimes of violence when we were young.

  10. Gary says:

    “Before the Republicans threw all constraint to the winds in trying to bring down Bill Clinton, there were things that would not be covered on the evening news.” Why do so many people who post here have to attempt tp tie EVERYTHING to politics!

  11. Terence says:

    In the Montreal case, the killer is desperate for attention. After reading the first few stories, I realized several things: there is nothing I can do to help anyone in this case, and further details will only give me nightmares.

  12. Walker says:

    Sorry, Gary, I just was casting my mind back to the first time I could remember really seamy details coming out in major news coverage, and that’s what I came up with. It seems pretty clear to me that it wouldn’t have gotten that kind of coverage if the Republicans hadn’t been on a flat-out witch hunt at the time. I suppose there’s probably an earlier example, one that doesn’t involve politics, but I still can’t come up with it.

  13. Brian Mann says:

    Lucy –

    Actually, what you are proposing happens all the time.

    Horrific things happen in communities and it is covered up, by the press and by other institutions.

    The media lacks the ability or the courage to find and report the truth, and so it is never discussed.

    I grew up in an age when reporters didn’t talk about domestic violence, or child abuse, or sexual crimes.

    We didn’t follow up on rumors about predatory teachers or clergy.

    We didn’t talk about violence against gay people in schools, or bullying.

    Even now, journalists are often reluctant to investigate claims of horrific behavior in some communities — immigrant populations, Native American or first nations communities, and so on.

    Does the lack of scrutiny and public dialogue end the criminal, predatory behavior? No, quite the opposite.

    It’s tragic that we didn’t begin reporting aggressively, for example, on the residential schools scandal in Canada until far too late.

    It’s also unfortunate that the Canadian and American media haven’t been more aggressive talking about the repression of women in some immigrant communities.

    That kind of awareness and insight might have prevented, or at least mitigated, the horrific “honor killing” case in Kingston.

    The bottom line? There is no evidence that public discussion of dialogue increases criminal behavior. None. Zip, zero.

    It’s a shibboleth offered up by people who are bothered by hearing the hard, difficult truths about human nature.

    Meanwhile, there is plenty of evidence that sunlight and scrutiny reduces criminal behavior, both by institutions and by individuals.

    If there’s a problem in the journalism community, it’s not that we have tabloids. It’s that we aren’t aggressive enough in pursuing the truth.

    –Brian, NCPR

  14. Walker says:

    Good response, Brian. But I have trouble thinking that the world would have been a better place if journalists had covered John Kennedy’s affairs.

  15. Lucy Martin says:

    Interesting comments!

    Brian, I agree with some of what you say.

    Absolutely, the press frequently refuses to touch certain stories that cry out for public scrutiny and social remedy. I can think of several examples locally that would step on too many well-connected toes, embarrass the wrong people, etc. Or maybe that reporting just takes more resources than news departments under strain can manage these days.

    And I recently read what I’ll call a really good example of what Brian’s talking about (I think), in a NYT article expounding on the higher rates of rape and lower rates of prosecution in Native American communities.

    The article laid the problem out – with feeling – but without what I’ll call titillation.

    It seems like some crime stories (like the current one in Canada) are deemed safe enough to just pile-on.

    Lone whackos are not pillars of the community, after all. And do not reflect badly on most readers’ sins of commission. And then we all get to ask ourselves about sins of omission (should we have seen the signs?).

    I’m not sure it can be proven or dis-proven that extensive & sensational media coverage encourages more outrageous or copy-cat criminal acts. I suspect it does, but apart from anecdotal instances how can that be known or measured?

    Personally I’m with Mervel when it comes to over-hyping the sick stories:

    “I don’t think it is healthy at all, it creates numbness toward violence in general, and then we are only interested in sicker and sicker things.”

    And I’m not saying don’t report them. What I object to is making them front and center, dripping with lurid details, and assuring notorious fame for the perpetrator(s).

    Meanwhile, society’s real shockers (all too often) go unreported?

  16. Kathy says:

    When my kids were younger, (12 and under), I used to shield them from tragedies. In time, I learned it was not necessarily good. Granted, my 10 year old will not know of this horrific news story in Florida, but I’ve had to strike a balance since kids are more prepared than we realize.

    American history was brutal. I homeschool, so we’ve read the stories. If anything, it has taught me to not shield, but incorporate it into their life.

    That said, I think the media reports far too many detailed stories that are better off left unsaid. This Florida story did not need to be reported. We’ve taken our “rights” to new heights, thinking it’s our right to know everything and the media thinks its their right to report it.

  17. mervel says:

    But that is not what these articles are about. They are not following domestic violence, they are not following what our violence overseas really looks like.

    They are getting of on a sick thrill of the violence itself. On the other hand no I don’t think it creates more violence, I think it numbs is about caring about violence at all, it lets us accept another sicko thing. Why the intense coverage of that case of the man eating that other poor guy? Why the intense coverage of this other case in Canada with the dismembering?

    Its not about seeking the truth, its about pornographic coverage of violence.

  18. mervel says:

    Oh I agree with Lucy above.

  19. Kathy says:

    The bottom line? There is no evidence that public discussion of dialogue increases criminal behavior. None. Zip, zero.

    But then, there is no evidence that it doesn’t.

    Some may think this is a stretch, but the appetite today for reality TV is indicative of human nature’s desire, need, and addiction to sordid details. That should be enough to make us realize that in 5-10 years, we could very likely look like the spectators of the colloseum in Rome.

    I don’t say play ostrich, but knowing every sordid detail isn’t necessary. You can’t forget what you’ve seen or heard (ie; PTSD). Life is brutal. I think we can pick and choose what we need to know.

  20. Walker says:

    While we may (almost) all agree that the sensational coverage of this kind of material is (mostly) a bad thing, what are you going to do about it. Kathy, you made reference to the rights of people to read this stuff and the rights of news sources to publish it– are you really suggesting that these rights be restricted by law?

    It seems to me that there’s no going back on this stuff.

  21. Walker says:

    “Meanwhile, society’s real shockers (all too often) go unreported?”

    It’s a little hard to believe that anything goes unreported these days. Stuff may go unnoticed in the vast flood of information, misinformation and disinformation that is today’s media, but it is probably out there somewhere. The problem is finding it, and believing it (or not) when you do find it.

    It’s often said that everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts. But today any “fact” you may chose to believe is out there somewhere being earnestly promulgated as “news”.

  22. Brian Mann says:

    So there are two aspects to this that I think are just facts of life, realities, the sharp corners of an often uncomfortable world.

    First, mentally ill, violent people ARE part of real life. Terry Gross has a brilliant interview Friday with a woman who escaped a childhood with a violent, schizophrenic mother. My father was mentally ill and violent. It’s part of life. The fact that really unwell people do really ugly things sometimes, that’s life, and reporters report on life.

    Secondly, a free press will have a broad range of approaches to story-telling, from the prurient to the lofty. Thus has it always been. The London press had a field day with Jack the Ripper. The alternatives are much worse. The alternatives are silence, and cover-up and the Victorian-Edwardian averted gaze.

    Finally, to the suggestion that it’s just sort of a ‘we’ll never know whether this kind of news coverage causes more crime’ I say hooey and phooey.

    If you want to assert a causal link between a free, noisy, sometimes raucous press and criminality, find facts to support it.

    –Brian, NCPR

  23. mervel says:

    The Influence of Media Violence on Youth

    Craig A. Anderson1,
    Leonard Berkowitz2,
    Edward Donnerstein3,
    L. Rowell Huesmann4,
    James D. Johnson5,
    Daniel Linz6,
    Neil M. Malamuth7 and
    Ellen Wartella8

    + Author Affiliations

    1Department of Psychology, Iowa State University
    2Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin
    3College of Social & Behavioral Sciences, University of Arizona
    4Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan
    5Department of Psychology, University of North Carolina-Wilmington
    6Department of Communication and Law and Society Program, University of California, Santa Barbara
    7Department of Communication/Speech, University of California, Los Angeles
    8College of Communication, University of Texas at Austin

    Craig A. Anderson, Department of Psychology, W112 Lagomarcino Hall, Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011-3180; e-mail:


    Research on violent television and films, video games, and music reveals unequivocal evidence that media violence increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior in both immediate and long-term contexts. The effects appear larger for milder than for more severe forms of aggression, but the effects on severe forms of violence are also substantial (r = .13 to .32) when compared with effects of other violence risk factors or medical effects deemed important by the medical community (e.g., effect of aspirin on heart attacks). The research base is large; diverse in methods, samples, and media genres; and consistent in overall findings. The evidence is clearest within the most extensively researched domain, television and film violence. The growing body of video-game research yields essentially the same conclusions.

    Short-term exposure increases the likelihood of physically and verbally aggressive behavior, aggressive thoughts, and aggressive emotions. Recent large-scale longitudinal studies provide converging evidence linking frequent exposure to violent media in childhood with aggression later in life, including physical assaults and spouse abuse. Because extremely violent criminal behaviors (e.g., forcible rape, aggravated assault, homicide) are rare, new longitudinal studies with larger samples are needed to estimate accurately how much habitual childhood exposure to media violence increases the risk for extreme violence.

    Well-supported theory delineates why and when exposure to media violence increases aggression and violence. Media violence produces short-term increases by priming existing aggressive scripts and cognitions, increasing physiological arousal, and triggering an automatic tendency to imitate observed behaviors. Media violence produces long-term effects via several types of learning processes leading to the acquisition of lasting (and automatically accessible) aggressive scripts, interpretational schemas, and aggression-supporting beliefs about social behavior, and by reducing individuals’ normal negative emotional responses to violence (i.e., desensitization).

    Certain characteristics of viewers (e.g., identification with aggressive characters), social environments (e.g., parental influences), and media content (e.g., attractiveness of the perpetrator) can influence the degree to which media violence affects aggression, but there are some inconsistencies in research results. This research also suggests some avenues for preventive intervention (e.g., parental supervision, interpretation, and control of children’s media use). However, extant research on moderators suggests that no one is wholly immune to the effects of media violence.

    Recent surveys reveal an extensive presence of violence in modern media. Furthermore, many children and youth spend an inordinate amount of time consuming violent media. Although it is clear that reducing exposure to media violence will reduce aggression and violence, it is less clear what sorts of interventions will produce a reduction in exposure. The sparse research literature suggests that counterattitudinal and parental-mediation interventions are likely to yield beneficial effects, but that media literacy interventions by themselves are unsuccessful.

    Though the scientific debate over whether media violence increases aggression and violence is essentially over, several critical tasks remain. Additional laboratory and field studies are needed for a better understanding of underlying psychological processes, which eventually should lead to more effective interventions. Large-scale longitudinal studies would help specify the magnitude of media-violence effects on the most severe types of violence. Meeting the larger societal challenge of providing children and youth with a much healthier media diet may prove to be more difficult and costly, especially if the scientific, news, public policy, and entertainment communities fail to educate the general public about the real risks of media-violence exposure to children and youth.

  24. mervel says:

    There are numerous articles and research that show a link between gratuitous violence on T.V. and media and actual violent acts this is just one quick review.

  25. Kathy says:

    Walker, I think there are limitations to our rights. I question wanting to know everything and calling it a right.

  26. Walker says:

    Well, OK, Kathy, but how would you write a law limiting the public right to know about criminal matters?

    Plus, I thought conservatives were all about individual rights?

  27. mervel says:

    The issue is not journalism, the issue is a gratuitous love and exploitation of the violence and misery of random people who are not news makers.

    Sure we should not cover up John Edwards corruption. The press was on the verge of covering what this guy was doing up, he could have been the Democratic candidate, think of the disaster of doing that for anyone who cares about what the Democrats want. But why would a news story about a poor mentally ill man who dismembers people get front page play on CNN? Why would another poor mentally ill man who was eating someone else’s face get MORE play than President Obama? The reason is because porn sells, sicko stuff sells, this is not about journalistic freedom or Victorian Prudishness, which is so laughable on its face that this country we live in is in danger somehow of being too prudish.

  28. mervel says:

    And it does real damage to real people, teenagers are influenced by this sort of coverage and relishing of sick violence. But then again you know the journalist just reports the truth and it is not her fault what people do with it, just like they guy who sells the machine guns just sells them for freedom, he can’t control what people DO with the guns.

  29. Kathy says:

    Well, OK, Kathy, but how would you write a law limiting the public right to know about criminal matters?

    A Code of Ethics.

    Plus, I thought conservatives were all about individual rights?

    Liberals aren’t?

    I am for individual rights. But the limitations come from having a conscience. Something that isn’t too common these days. Too many crave sensationalism. And too many crave the status and ratings that come from reporting it.

  30. Walker says:

    Yes, Kathy, Liberals care about rights. That’s what the ACLU is all about. But conservatives are the ones always talking about rights.

    A Code of Ethics doesn’t define rights, and neither does having a conscience. Rights are defined in law, or they don’t exist. So if you’re against sensationalism in the news, fine, say so, but don’t bring the word “rights” into it unless you’re prepared to advocate legislation.

  31. Kathy says:

    Rights are defined in law, or they don’t exist.

    There are people who define their rights in over-reaching terms that you or I may not. Their interpretation of the right to know may be to know every detail. Journalists and reporters don’t have to give it to them.

  32. Pete Klein says:

    Every time someone uses an adverb or an adjective in a sentence, they are stating an opinion.
    To say that something is sensational, pornographic or gratuitous, they are stating an opinion – one they expect you to agree with.
    One may be of the opinion that the facts in a story are sensational, pornographic or gratuitous, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are facts of factually stated.
    If you don’t like reality, tough.

  33. oa says:

    Wait a minute. I wondered why this post came at this time last week–aren’t there sensational crimes every day, and aren’t they covered tabloid style every minute–but Lucy, you failed to mention why these particular stories took off. A tongue-in-cheek (I think) web meme calling them “Zombie attacks.”

    This may take the comment thread in a different direction. Not sure if it’s more serious, or less.

  34. Will Doolittle says:

    The story is sensational. A naked man whacked out on drugs was eating a man’s face. Find a way to make that matter of fact. Brian is exactly right. Coverage of the lurid is not a societal problem. Coverup of the disturbing (pedophile priests, corrupt politicians, criminally negligent military contractors and many more) is an enormous problem.

  35. mervel says:

    YET that is exactly what we have. Covering the sensational and the intentional glorification of violence has overtaken and replaced, coverage of the disturbing. The glorification of violence IS a societal problem and does lead to more violence, see the above studies.

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