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. …