Sian Murder Says a Lot about Media's Values

Article excerpt

Byline: Roy Greenslade

FROM the dawn of newspapers, murder has been a major component of the news agenda. It is unsurprising. In civilised society, the killing by one human being of another human being is an appalling act. It is the crime of crimes.

Shakespeare's reference in Hamlet to a "murder most foul" may concern only one "strange and unnatural" homicide, but we have come to see all killings with malice aforethought as the foulest of deeds.

This viewpoint is reflected in the coverage of murder by the media in general, and by newspapers in particular. The reporting of murders is a staple ingredient of papers, popular and serious. But that does not mean every murder gets equal coverage. While some appear on front pages, others slip under the media's radar and are given little, if any, space. Why should that be? The question was asked at Christmas, when Jo Yeates went missing in Bristol and immediately attracted wall-to-wall media coverage. That intensified when, following the discovery of her body, it was determined that she had been murdered.

It has been asked again over the past week since the disappearance of Sian O'Callaghan in Swindon and the subsequent finding of her body.

I am not doubting for a moment that these killings deserved to be covered and I mean no disrespect to their grieving families by raising the subject. But I am asking, just as many people ask me, whether there were special reasons why the deaths of these two such women were deemed to be worthy of front page coverage while others were not.

Let me begin to answer that by quoting some statistics. The latest available Home Office figures show that there were 619 murders in England and Wales -- 421 male and 198 female -- in the 12 months up to September 2010. This was, incidentally, the lowest total for 12 years. Though there were almost two murders a day, papers did not cover them all. Though more than twice as many men than women were killed, the female victims achieved a greater proportion of the coverage than males. So there is the first part of the explanation for what I call the media's hierarchy of death. Women get more coverage than men and, if they happen to be young and attractive, they will certainly get more space too. The pictures alone will ensure that.

Class makes a difference. The higher up the social scale, the bigger the headlines and the greater commitment by editors to invest resources in the story. The larger the reporting team that is assigned to cover the story, the greater the chance of more space being allocated to it. That is even truer if a highprofile feature writer is dispatched to provide "colour" or a commentary.

Then come the circumstances. If someone goes missing, and there is a police hunt, there is room for the story to be built up over a number of days, with attendant speculation as reporters, usually in cahoots with the police, construct theories about how the person came to disappear. There will, inevitably, be police-inspired media events, such as staged reconstructions and tearful appeals by the family.

I am not being unduly sceptical, nor am I questioning the motives of either the police or journalists. …