Youth Violence Stories Focus on Events, Not Causes

By McManus, John; Dorfman, Lori | Newspaper Research Journal, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Youth Violence Stories Focus on Events, Not Causes


McManus, John, Dorfman, Lori, Newspaper Research Journal


During the last 25 years we've learned much about how audiences make sense of news. We know, for example, that news frames are influential in making certain elements of issues and events available for mental processing while ignoring others. We know the level of context in stories greatly influences comprehension. Terse episodic reporting, for example, throws readers and viewers back on their own pre-conceptions about why events take place. It encourages simplistic explanations such as blaming individuals and exempting the conditions shaping them. Some kinds of reporting appear to promote a political or social reaction while others elicit only apathy.

The present study explores whether major newspapers have incorporated these findings about how to make information more useful as a resource for civic participation.

We focused on the portrayal of youth violence in three large California newspapers with generally good reputations for quality. Violence attracted our attention because Americans have consistently ranked it at or near the top of their concerns over the last several decades and because "law and order" has been an area of intense political interest. Youth have been a focus of new criminal laws. Youth also interested us because we thought environmental contributions to crime would show up in the coverage of impressionable and immature perpetrators, if it showed up at all.

Numerous studies have documented the media's preoccupation with crime reporting--particularly focusing on juveniles--even while crime rates have been declining. (1) These portrayals of youth violence may have powerful political effects. For example, 44 states and the District of Columbia adopted tougher juvenile sentencing laws from 1992-97. (2)

A grant dictated California as the locus of the study; but, in addition to being the most populous state, California has a reputation for being where American popular culture is invented. We selected three large newspapers--one in the state capital, and the largest circulation papers in northern and southern California--thinking they might be likely places to find the best in journalistic practice because of their great resources. Although fewer Americans are reading them than a decade ago, newspapers are still the standard-bearers of journalism and often set the agenda for broadcast news.

Literature Review

We begin with an analysis of how violence was covered a quarter century ago. In 1976, Graber launched the most comprehensive study of violence reporting we could locate in social science literature. She examined news content for one year in three Midwestern newspapers, a small paper in New England, network newscasts and local television news. She found crime/justice was a frequent story across all media. But most articles appeared to have been taken almost verbatim from the police blotter with little context. The great majority of stories were episodic--accounts of single incidents--rather than thematic--stories emphasizing issues or connections and patterns among events.

"One seldom finds interpretive analyses that place criminal justice system information into historical, sociological or political perspective," she wrote. (3)

"What" trumped "why" in this coverage. Only 5 percent of all crime stories discussed causes.

Of those, Graber wrote: "Curable deficiencies in the existing criminal justice system (mostly making it more punitive) and personality defects in individuals are depicted by the media as the main causes of rampant crime. Social causes play a subordinate, though by no means non-existent, role." (4) Only 3 percent of all stories mentioned solutions.

"Suggested remedies are sparse and do not generally include social reforms," she noted. (5)

Since Graber's landmark study, researchers have learned a lot about presenting news to facilitate comprehension.

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