News Coverage of Sexual Offending in New Zealand, 2003

Article excerpt

The objective of this study was to assess the extent and nature of newspaper coverage of sexual offending in New Zealand in 2003. All news stories relating to sexual offending published in three daily newspapers (The New Zealand Herald, The Press, and The Dominion) were coded on a range of variables including article type, topic and frame of article, any reference to treatment, sources quoted in the report, and the type of offence mentioned. Overall there were 377 articles relating to sexual offending in the three newspapers. Most articles were either descriptions of offences/court reports (31.6%) or were related to specific offences or offenders (35.3%), with few articles focusing on either treatment (3.2%) or education and prevention (2.4%). The most frequent source for the articles were police or legal representatives (N=220) with few articles drawing on the comments and opinions of either mental health specialists (N=56) or academics (N=12). Consistent with prior research on crime reporting, there were a disproportionate number of high profile cases covered in the news, with nine cases capturing 22% of the total news coverage on sex offending in New Zealand in 2003. Some implications of these findings for clinicians and academics are discussed.

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In a letter to the editor published in The Press, Marc Alexander (2003), MP for United Future, advanced the following opinion:

"Rehabilitation of sex offenders is mostly an attempt to remove an inherent part of their personality; and you have as much chance of doing that as removing the flour from a baked cake."

Alexander clearly believes that the rehabilitation of sex offenders is a futile task. Not everyone might agree with this point of view, and other news coverage of sexual offending might offer a different perspective. However, the kinds of opinions expressed and the way that sexual offending is presented in the mass media are likely to provide one, potentially important, influence on the public's attitudes regarding this important social issue.

A standard assumption of research in mass communications is that the media can exert an influence on people's beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors (Bryant & Zillmann, 1994). Different individuals, of course, will use media in different ways and media effects will be influenced by the nature of the topic that is being covered (Chapman & Lupton, 1994). However, politicians, policymakers, and public health advocates alike, recognize the power of the media in shaping public opinion on issues such as voting, the passage of new laws, and the implementation of public health campaigns.

A considerable body of research has been devoted to exploring how the news media, in particular, can influence social perceptions of reality (see Eveland, 2002; Heath & Gilbert, 1996; Protess & McCombs, 1991 for reviews). One prominent line of research has explored the "agenda setting" function of the mass media (McCombs & Shaw, 1972). Through the selection and placement of news stories the public learn about the importance of specific issues. News stories are also "framed" in specific ways (Entman, 1993). Some aspects of the issue may be given more emphasis while others are neglected or ignored. Frames, therefore, can be identified not only by what they might include but also by what is left out from a story or article (Entman, 1993). Frames, according to Entman (1993), not only define the nature of the problem and its causes, but also delineate specific solutions.

Newsmakers do not simply hold up a mirror to the events occurring in the world, and "tell it like it is". Rather, news stories are best conceptualized as highly crafted artifacts that shape events into a readily digestible format (McCombs, 1994). By framing issues in specific ways, the media can play an important role in influencing not only what issues are presented to mass audiences, but also how these are perceived, and what importance the public should attach to them (Entman, 1993; McCombs & Shaw, 1972). …