Washington Post - Mostly Crime, Most of the Time

By Geneva Overholser

Friday, December 24, 1999

The lists of the year's top news stories are coming in, and there's--well, there's good news. Crime and scandal stories were down in 1999, and foreign news was up. I'm hoping this says something about the American media's setting its sights higher, and broadening its vision.

Not that all the foreign news was good news, of course. Kosovo was the leading story on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening news shows, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA), a nonprofit research group. Also making the top 15 were the earthquake in Turkey, the brouhaha over the International Olympic Committee, massacre in East Timor, Chinese espionage and fighting in Chechnya.

Meanwhile, only one crime story made the list, the Columbine High School shooting. And, with the Clinton-Lewinsky story winding down, scandal also was far less prevalent.

Now, you may be that rare American who maintains enough generosity of spirit toward the media to assume that this represents a logical equation: Less crime and scandal mean fewer crime and scandal stories. But, going back a year, there were plenty of difficulties overseas in 1998, yet foreign news ranked much lower in coverage. Crime and scandal drowned it out.

A look at the recent history of crime--and crime coverage--would indicate something much less logical is going on. Every fall since 1993, the Justice Department has announced a significant decline in violent crime. Yet each year (at least until now) crime coverage has increased. The U.S. homicide rate dropped by 20 percent from 1992 to 1996; during that period, coverage of homicide on evening news reports went up by 721 percent, the CMPA says.

A majority of Americans tell pollsters they believe juvenile crime has been on the increase--no surprise, since teens make the news almost exclusively in connection with violence. Yet juvenile crime has been dropping even faster than adult crime. African Americans have long deplored the unfairness of their depiction in media as being so disproportionately connected to crime. Now teenagers experience the same unfairness. No surprise, then, that both groups are misunderstood, even feared, by so many people.

Conflict has increasingly driven the news over recent years. A study by the Pew-funded Project for Excellence in Journalism analyzed front-page content of seven newspapers for the first two months of this year. It concluded that:

"The press shows a decided tendency to present the news through a combative lens. Three narrative frames--conflict, winners and losers and revealing wrongdoing--accounted for 30 percent of all stories, twice the number of straight news accounts. The penchant for framing stories around these combative elements is even more pronounced at the top of the front page and is truer still when it comes to describing the actions or statements of government officials."

Most of us in the press would say it's only logical that news is predominantly negative: What goes wrong is the exception, and exceptions make news. But a steady diet of failure and malfeasance does not provide an accurate picture of the world. Nor--for all that's said about crime and bad news selling papers--is it a prescription for strong readership. Few people enjoy being made to feel hopeless. In a decade as a newspaper editor and then ombudsman, I heard consistently: Why must journalists tear everything down, always concentrate on the worst, seem relentlessly to be against everything?

A survey last March by the Freedom Forum showed 53 percent of Americans believing the press has too much freedom to do what it wants. By September that had gone down to 42 percent, a decline the study's authors attributed to greater distance from the Clinton-Lewinsky stories. When one media obsession overwhelms all else, the public is ill-served--and knows it.

The great journalism of this century has included stirring tales of progress, from the Wright brothers' flight in 1903 to Neil Armstrong's 1969 walk on the moon, from women winning the vote in 1920 to the Supreme Court decision that ended school segregation in 1954. Much of it resulted from hard digging on subjects others were unwilling to pay attention to, from Rachel Carson's pioneering environmental writing to The Washington Post's investigation of the Watergate break-in.

Such stories are given short shrift--or never written--when journalists are disproportionately obsessed, en masse, with crime or scandal. Here's hoping that these reports of less crime news and more foreign coverage foretell a shift that carries into the 2000s--a more all-encompassing, more balanced portrayal and a wider view of the world.

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