Women Perceive Crime Stories as More Disturbing Than Do Men. (Research in Brief)

Article excerpt

Newspaper readership as a percentage of the population has been declining since the 1960s. According to the Newspaper Association of America, daily newspaper readership has declined from 80.8 percent in 1964 to 58.3 percent in 1997, the last year the figures were comparable. (1) Women readers have been particularly affected, and the gap between men and women readers has widened. In 1964, about 2 percent fewer women read newspapers than did men. By 1997, the gap had grown to 7 percent.

Researcher Kristin McGrath found the gender gap in newspaper readership was widening because women do not consider newspapers relevant and approach news differently than do men. (2) Specifically, she recommended content and tone changes to represent women's interests better. Anthony M. Casale, president of American Opinion Research, also pointed out "women are less likely to be newspaper readers, yet are more interested in local news and are more concerned about the safety and health of their families." (3) To counter this trend, many newspapers have been reaching out to women in an attempt to retain and increase their readership, but the gap persists. (4) Providing more thorough coverage of issues that interest women could be a way to inform and attract women to newspapers.

Further, space for expanded coverage to attract women readers is at a premium during these difficult economic times. Online newspapers, however, have a nearly unlimited newshole. Moreover, they can provide hypertext links to information that goes beyond the basic story and provides the depth that women readers may seek. Reporters often have gathered this information but could not include it in a story because of limited space in a printed newspaper. Wire stories often include additional information, graphics and sidebars, as well.

The main purpose of this study is to examine empirically the role of gender in reader perceptions of expanded coverage of an issue. Specifically, the study will look at men's and women's perceptions of crime stories and ex crime also has been a major matter of public concern since the 1960s. (5) Newspapers devote considerable coverage to crime news, and some critics and readers have called it excessive, noting it often does not mirror reality. (6) Further, critics contend the coverage is shallow and does not include all of the factors involved, including background. They contend the coverage can give the public an incomplete and misleading picture of crime, which can erode their already low perception of media credibility. (7) Moreover, studies have found media coverage increases public concern about crime and can foster fear of it, especially among women. (8) Some studies have found that women who are least likely to be victims of crime are the most fearful of it. (9) Thus, crime is an appropriate topic to examine for expanded coverage, including links, and for the role of gender.

Method

An experiment was conducted in June 1998 with prototype Web pages containing crime stories and links for a generic fictitious newspaper, The Daily Journal. The study was conducted in a medium-sized Midwestern city, and each participant was asked to read the four main stories, all concerning crime, and anything else that interested them. The participants were students and people of various ages recruited by the university's research center. They were given unlimited time to read the prototype.

The main stories and the link stories were taken from the online archives of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Kansas City Star, modified and trimmed to similar length. The topics were key crime issues in the state at the time--concealed weapons, date rape pill, methamphetamines and sentencing for crack and powdered cocaine. Four types of links were used--background, chart, opinion and human interest. They were selected because these types of information are easiest to obtain in newsrooms, and they provide important additional information for crime stories that critics say is needed. …