Portrayal of U.S. Cities by Daily Newspapers
Artwick, Claudette Guzan, Gordon, Margaret T., Newspaper Research Journal
A quarter of a century ago a metropolitan daily editor offered this advice to the urban press, "We must take care not to present a distorted picture of urban society, while we continue to report honestly what is going on in our communities."(1) Violence and conflict during the civil rights movement challenged the press to maintain balance and perspective in reporting the urban crises of that era.(2) At that time, many blamed the press for contributing to the difficulties facing American cities.
Today, the reality of cities is perceived as a continuing urban crisis,(3) and the press is still blamed for fueling the problems. Urban mayors criticize the media for their "unmitigated, negative images of American cities,"(4) while citizen focus groups blame the press for making the city "look like there's a war going on out there."(5) Critics contend that by emphasizing crime, congestion, unemployment and problems in government, business and education, the news media contribute to building unfavorable images of cities.
This study addresses that allegation by exploring local news reporting and by asking the question:
How do metropolitan daily newspapers portray their own cities?
Previous studies show a heavy emphasis on crime news in U.S. newspapers. Doris Graber's 1980 research found 23 percent of stories in three Chicago newspapers devoted to crime.(6) And in a more recent study of 26 newspapers nationwide, Allen Liska and William Baccaglini found an average of 9.5 crime stories per issue.(7) Media critics allege that the representation of crime in the news does not reflect reality. Garrett O'Keefe and Kathaleen Reid-Nash found media crime coverage to be highly disproportionate to the frequency and types of actual reported crimes.(8) Margaret Gordon and Linda Heath compared newspaper stories on rape to data in Uniform Crime Reports and Victimization Surveys, and found major differences between the news reports and the police statistics. Women escaped rape in one fourth of reported statistics, while in newspaper stories, fewer than one in ten victims escaped.(9)
In addition to misrepresentation, newspapers are often charged with sensationalism. This can include both subject matter and presentation style.(10) In other words, some stories are sensational because of the events they report, for example, a serial murder. Others are presented sensationally through language and visuals. However, research shows that subject matter has a greater impact on inducing fear in readers than does presentation. Heath found that readers' perceptions of crime were related to the sensationalistic nature of the crime itself. "The unexpected, the quirky, the heinous crimes that are reported in newspapers increase fear of crime among readers in that crime locality, even if the reporting style itself is non sensational."(11)
Hence, prior studies indicate an emphasis on crime news in metropolitan daily newspaper coverage, often providing an unrealistic representation of crime in urban areas. In addition, research has shown sensationalistic subject matter to have a negative impact on readers.
The first stage of this research examined these issues through two focus group sessions in Seattle, Washington.(12) In discussions of the media, participants expressed concern over what they perceived as "oversensationalism of everything," saying they know that "life isn't really like that." Lack of context in stories left participants confused about how seriously to take the warnings implied by the news. And negativity, or a focus on problems and conflict in the city, also disturbed the participants. Guided by those concerns and the literature on crime and sensationalism in newspapers, a content analysis was conducted to assess the image of urban society presented by the press.
The content of eight daily newspapers for July 8-12, 1991 was analyzed.(13) The sample of newspapers was chosen for diversity in market size and geographic distribution. It included dailies in small (fewer than one million persons), mid-sized (between 1.5 and 3 million persons), and large (more than 4 million persons) metropolitan areas nationwide. The major daily newspaper with the highest circulation in each city was selected for analysis.
Papers included were: the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman, Times Picayune (New Orleans), Chicago Tribune, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Courier-Journal(Louisville), and the Seattle Times.
These eight newspapers may not statistically represent all the dailies in the United States. In addition, the one-week sample of newspapers examines only a snapshot in time in an industry that changes daily.
For the content analysis, four graduate students did the bulk of the coding, which focused on the first and metro sections of the papers.(14) The procedure included measuring all stories in square inches to calculate newsholes, noting story placement and story type, and completing a detailed coding of local stories. Local stories were defined as news coverage of events taking place within 50 miles of the city of publication. Detailed coding entailed reading local story headlines and up to 15 paragraphs of each story. The following categories were coded:
This is the primary theme of the story. The 16 categories (listed in Table 1) were developed based on previous research(15) and refined following a coding pretest. Some distinctions among categories should be noted. First, breaking news focuses on events such as accidents and fires. While crime may also be breaking news, for this study it was coded as crime. Stories involving police were generally coded as city services, unless officers were arrested or tried for specific crimes.
Table 1: Types of local stories in eight dailies Story type Percent of Total Arts & entertainment 7.9 Breaking news 7.6 Business 5.6 City services (police, 16.1 fire, transportation, utilities) Courts 7.1 Crime 17.3 Development 1.6 Education 4.1 Environment 5.9 Government, city 7.1 Government, county 6.4 Health 2.2 Housing 2.0 Human interest 3.0 Social problems 3.1 Other 3.1
Measures of sensationalism in news research range from judging severity of stories (such as murder versus property crime), to assessing emotional language used in news text.(16) This study developed a systematic measure to evaluate sensationalism based on two dimensions frequently used in the literature. Using a scale of low, moderate, and high, headlines of all local stories were coded for both subject matter(17) (what the story was about) and presentation (nature and provocativeness of language used to describe events).
Headlines low in subject matter sensationalism included routine, straight news, such as a school board meeting, or a dedication ceremony. Those rated moderate included unusual incidents, something new, some sort of conflict, fires, non-fatal accidents and non-violent crime. Highly sensational subject matter included deaths due to accident (plane crash, etc.), murder, shooting death, rape, scandal, hate crime, child pornography, hostage situation, police brutality, serial murder and dismembering.
To code sensationalism in terms of presentation, coders were advised to look for words and / or language that seemed to make more of something than was really there and/or expressed emotion out of proportion to the event; also, words and/or language designed to amaze or thrill.
Coders rated headlines low in presentation sensationalism if neither of the above applied. If one applied, the headline was coded moderate. If both applied, the headline was coded high in presentation sensationalism. In coding for sensationalism, it was assumed there was a good fit between headline and story. However, a reader could feasibly perceive a story's presentation to be either more or less sensational than its headline.
Focus on problems
When a story specifically mentioned a problem in its text, it was coded as focusing on a problem. When the reference to the problem was evident, but not specific, the problem orientation was coded as hinted at. No reference to a problem was coded as none. It's important to note here that excluding problems from the newspaper can also prove troublesome, as Carolyn Martindale illustrates in her study of newspaper coverage of the problems facing black Americans.(18) However, the present study does not examine issues absent from coverage. It only attempts to document the presence of problem-orientation in stories.
It is also recognized that stories can present solutions to problems, however, the challenges in coding this category excluded it from this study.
Research on the impact of crime stories suggests that readers experience less fear if stories include details that allow them to assess the frequency and representativeness of such events,(19) so a measure of this type of contextual information was included in the study. Stories were coded as either providing or not providing context. A story provided context if it reported how common / typical the event covered was, or if it offered a comparison point to previous years, or to other situations. For example, a murder story with context would include information on previous crimes in the neighborhood where the killing took place, or would mention if the victim knew the suspect.
Journalists are often trained to cite authorities for statements of fact and, especially, opinion. Critics of journalists' use of authorities as sources allege that the practice excludes the voices of ordinary people from the news - relying instead on those in the centers of power.(20) The work of Lawrence Soley indicates an increasing reliance on experts as sources in news stories.(21)
To identify who journalists use as sources in local news, sources for all quotations appearing in the first 15 paragraphs of each local story were coded. Categories included: mayor; official - the major figurehead of an organization or agency, such as company owner, company president, or police chief; non-official - such as a worker on strike; person on the street - someone who is in a public place and accessible to be quoted on any topic, or who just happens to be at the site of a news event; victim - the person victimized or the family of a victim; and anonymous.
Nearly a third of all stories in the sample were local reports (757 of 2,408, or 19 per issue). Local news filled 31 percent of the average newshole. Larger metropolitan dailies tended to allocate more space to local news, with the exception of the New York Times, which devoted the least amount of space to local news, one-fifth of its newshole.
The newspapers studied carried crime news more frequently than other type of news. Next in frequency were stories about city services, which included fire and police departments, transportation, and utilities. Arts and entertainment news followed, and breaking news, such as fires and accidents came in fourth in frequency of coverage. News on city government and courts tied for fifth place. (see Table 1)
Does local news place on page one? It appears to depend on the newspaper. On average, a third of page one stories were local, ranging from more than half in the Seattle Times to only 13 percent in the Chicago Tribune. Small to mid-sized papers tended to place more local news on the first page than did large city dailies.
What types of local stories were found on page one? Overall, news on city operations (city services and city government categories) was most prominent. Of all local stories appearing on the first page of the newspapers, nearly 40 percent featured city operations. Next in frequency was news about crime and the environment; each type comprising 10 percent of page one stories.
Focus on problems
More than three-fourths of all local stories focused on or hinted at a problem. Newspapers in larger cities emphasized problems more often than the smaller papers (with the exception of the Chicago Tribune, which ranked sixth out of the eight papers studied). One small-city daily exhibited a strong problem orientation in its local stories. Eight out of ten local stories in the Austin American-Statesman focused on or hinted at problems.
Subject matter in two out of ten headlines was highly sensational. And about five percent ranked high in presentation sensationalism, in other words, the words/language used in the headlines.
Most headlines were moderately sensational. And for subject matter, 45 percent of all local headlines ranked low, and 35 percent were found moderate in sensationalism.
About half of the local stories in the sample provided a context, while slightly more than half did not. Context, however, varied depending on the type of story covered. Few breaking news reports, crime stories, and stories about social problems contained contextual information. Yet stories on business, education, city government, health, and housing, more often presented context.
There were 1,288 quotes in 757 local newspaper stories, or 1.7 per story. Non- official sources, everyday people, were quoted most frequently. Less than 2 percent of all quotes came from mayors. (see Table 2)
Table 2: Percent of quotes by source in eight newspapers Mayor 1.7 Official 34.3 (i.e. company president, media relations officer, police chief) Non-official 37.8 Person-on-the-street 12.5 Victim (or victim's family) 7.7 Anonymous 6.0
How do metropolitan daffy newspapers portray their own cities?
As anticipated, more stories about crime appeared in the newspapers studied than did any other type of local news. The figures are lower than Graber's 1980 findings.(22) However, data included only local crime news, whereas Graber studied crime news in general.
Nearly two-thirds of the local crime news studied lacked context background information on crime in the neighborhood, or details concerning the victim or attacker. Research on the impact of crime stories suggests that readers experience less fear if certain details are included that may allow them to assess the frequency or representativeness of such events. Without that contextual information, crime stories may be cultivating fear of the city(23) and concern for personal safety out of proportion to reality.
While crime stories ranked highest in number, they did not dominate the front pages; of the papers studied. Only 10 percent of local stories on page one focused on crime. Instead, news of city operations was most often found. Coverage of the Christopher Commission investigation of the Los Angeles Police Department contributed to substantial page one placement of city operations stories during the research period.
Sensational subject matter appeared more frequently in story headlines than sensational language. Newspapers chose to report bizarre, violent events, yet most often used moderately sensational language in their headlines. Despite the milder language, sensational subject matter can create fear in readers, as supported by Heaths findings on subject matter sensationalism.(24)
The newspapers in this study quoted official sources less frequently than expected, with mayors quoted only two percent of the time. Instead, reporters turned more often to ordinary people - from teachers to sales clerks - information on local events. Add to those sources people on the street and victims and their families, and sources other than government leaders and official spokespersons were quoted 60 percent of the time in local news.
While this practice may address social responsibility issues, turning to city leaders so infrequently may inadvertently hush a point of view also needed to make informed decisions about communities.
As a whole, the newspapers studied portrayed their own cities as fairly inhospitable places. Considering that most people turn to newspapers for local news,(25) readers are likely to find in them an emphasis on crime and other problems in their communities, highlighted by somewhat sensationalistic head-lines. Assuming an agenda-setting function of the press - that media tell people what to think about, if not what to think(26) - issues concerning crime and other problems in cities are prominent. The allegation that media contribute to the crisis in cities would appear to be upheld, at least for the cities studied. And the challenge raised 25 years ago - to maintain balance and perspective in reporting the realities of the cities - persists today.
(1.) Joseph W. Shoquist, The Role of the Press in a Continuing Urban Crisis in Why Aren't We Getting Through?: The Urban Communication Crisis, Edmund M. Midura, ed. Washington, D.C.: Acropolis Books, 1971, pp. 43-60.
(3.) Elliott Osborn, Decade of the Cities. Newsweek, January 25, 1993, p. 12.
(4.) Margaret T. Gordon, Final Report to The City University of New York Foundation: Urban Images Project, Phase I. University of Washington Graduate School of Public Affairs, 1992.
(6.) Doris A. Graber, Crime News and the Public. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1980.
(7.) Allen E. Liska and William Baccaglini, Feeling Safe by Comparison: Crime in the Newspapers. Social Problems, Vol. 37, No. 3, 1990, pp. 360-374.
(8.) Garrett J. O'Keefe and Kathaleen Reid-Nash, Crime News and Real-World Blues: The Effects of the Media on Social Reality. Communication Research, 14, 1987, pp. 147-163.
(9.) Margaret T. Gordon and Linda Heath, The News Business, Crime and Fear in Reactions to Crime, D. Lewis, ed. Newbury Park, California: Sage, 1981.
(10.) See Jung S. Ryu, Public Affairs and Sensationalism in Local TV News Programs. Journalism Quarterly, Spring 1982, pp. 74-78, 137; Carole Gorney, Numbers Versus Pictures: Did Network Television Sensationalize Chernobyl Coverage? Journalism Quarterly, Summer 1992, pp. 455-465; Linda Heath, Impact of Newspaper Crime Reports on Fear of Crime: Multimethodological Investigation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47, 1984, pp. 263-276; S. Elizabeth Bird and Robert W. Dardenne, News and Storytelling in American Culture: Reevaluating the Sensational Dimension. Journal of American Culture, 13, 1990, pp. 33-37; Carroll J. Glynn and Albert R. Tims, Sensationalism in Science Issues: A Case Study. Journalism Quarterly, Spring 1982, pp. 126-131; Michael Fournier, Michael Dewson, and Cynthia Whissell, The Dictionary of Affectin Language: VI. "Sensationalism" Defined in Terms of Affective Tone. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 63, 1986, pp. 1037-1074.
(11.) Heath, p. 275, op.cit.
(12.) Two focus groups were conducted in Seattle, Washington during August 1991. A trained focus group interviewer from the National Opinion Research Center, associated with the University of Chicago, led each group of eight participants. One group consisted of Seattle residents, and the other, of suburbanites. Discussions centered around perceptions of the city, of local and national media, and how media reports of local events made participants feel about their communities.
(13.) Had resources and time permitted, it would have been more methodologically sound to spread the sampled papers over a longer period, for example, four constructed weeks (a random Sunday, a random Monday, etc.) from each three-month period over a year.
(14.) A coding reliability check yielded a 94 percent agreement for sensationalism, 90 percent for story type, 76 percent for focus on problems, 90 percent for context, and 84 percent for sources.
(15.) Story categories used in a content analysis of network television news provided the model for the categories; however, adjustments were made to accommodate local stories based on a coding pretest (see D. Charles Whitney, Marilyn Fritzler, Steven Jones, Sharon. Mazzarella, and Lana Rakow, Geographic and Source Biases in Network Television News 1982-1984. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 33:2, 1989, pp. 159-174).
(16.) Ryu, op cit.; Gorney, op cit.; Heath, op cit.; Bird and Dardenne, op cit. Glynn and Tims, op cit.; Fournier, Dewson, and Whissell, op cit.
(17.) Heath, ibid.
(18.) Carolyn Martindale, Significant Silences: Newspaper Coverage of Problems Facing Black Americans. Newspaper Research Journal, Spring 1994, pp. 102-115.
(19.) Gordon and Heath, op. cit.
(20.) Whitney, et. al., op. cit.
(21.) Lawrence C. Soley, Pundits in Print "Experts" and Their Use in Newspaper Stories." Newspaper Research Journal, Spring 1994, pp. 65-75.
(22.) Graber, op. cit.
(23.) For an overview of cultivation research, see Nancy Signorielli and Michael Morgan, eds., Cultivation Analysis: New Directions In Media Effects Research. Newbury Park, California: Sage, 1990.
(24.) Heath, op. cit.
(25.) Guido H. Stempel III, Where People Really Get Most of Their News. Newspaper Research Journal, Fall 1991, pp. 2-9.
(26.) For a review of agenda-setting research, see: Maxwell E. McCombs, Explorers and Surveyors: Expanding Strategies for Agenda-Setting Research. Journalism Quarterly, Winter 1992, pp. 813-824
Artwick is assistant professor in the department of journalism and mass communications at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Gordon is professor of public affairs and dean of the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington in Seattle. The authors wish to thank the CUNY Foundation and the Graduate School of the University of Washington for grants supporting this research…
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Publication information: Article title: Portrayal of U.S. Cities by Daily Newspapers. Contributors: Artwick, Claudette Guzan - Author, Gordon, Margaret T. - Author. Journal title: Newspaper Research Journal. Volume: 19. Issue: 1 Publication date: Winter 1998. Page number: 54+. © 1999 Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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