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Television news and juvenile crime subject of new UD report

NEWARK, DE.--Television news and the way it skews the country’s view of juvenile crime is the focus of a new report, "Kids, Crime and Local TV News," recently published at the University of Delaware.

In the report, Danilo Yanich, policy scientist at UD’s Center for Community Development and Family Policy, asks why most people perceive juvenile crime as being on the rise when it is not and why people perceive juveniles as the perpetrators of violent crime, when overwhelmingly they are the victims.

"Why do people see juveniles as victims on the news most every night and yet remember the stories like Columbine where juveniles are the perpetrators?" Yanich asked. "Juveniles commit few violent crimes and many more property crimes than adults, but that’s not the way it is perceived."

People gather their perceptions, Yanich said, from watching and believing local television news, where production techniques and presentation modes can make all crime—including juvenile crime—seem worse than it really is.

In six out of l0 murder stories, in two thirds of the stories about other offenses and in half of the other violent crime stories used in the study involving juveniles, youth were victims rather than suspects.

"These findings seem counter to our perception of the presentation of juvenile crime," Yanich said. "National stories of juvenile perpetrators, like the shootings at Columbine High School, make it seem that television news most often covers juveniles as crime suspects.

"Citing news as the source for understanding crime, particularly juvenile crime, presents important social questions," he said.

In his study, Yanich examined local broadcast news in two prominent television markets—Baltimore and Philadelphia. Studying how television stations portray juvenile crime.

"Once we have the facts, we can inform the public, policymakers and the news organizations about the nature of juvenile crime coverage in order to prompt discussion and, if necessary, change," he explained.

For the study, Yanich videotaped the early evening newscasts of each of the stations that delivered a regularly scheduled newscast for a "constructed" week. Newscasts of a specific day of the week were gathered over an extended period. By using the Monday broadcast of the first week, the Tuesday broadcast of the second week, and so on, he was able to reduce the danger of a single story dominating the data.

Of the 2,104 stories that were broadcast (exclusive of sports and weather), there were 590 crime stories that specified the age of the suspect or the victim. These became the basis for the study which defined kids’ crime stories as those in in which the suspect or the victim or both was a person under 18 years of age.

As he found in previous studies of crime coverage on local television news, Yanich again found that crime was the dominant story topic taking up almost one-third of the reported stories and braodcast time on the newscasts.

Seven out of 10 crime stories covered crimes committed by adults against adults, and almost one-third of the stories focused on crime in which a juvenile was either a suspect, a victim or both.

He also found that certain production techniques were used in the presentation of the stories that increased viewers sense of crime-dominated news. For example, most crime stories, both adult and juvenile, were broadcast in the first block of the news program—the time from the opening of the program to the first commercial break. This also was traditionally the longest period of time without commercial in a newscast—often lasting from nine to 11 minutes.

"These first-block stories must capture and hold the audience for the broadcast. They represent, essentially, the newscast’s best shot to play the ratings game," Yanich said.
While the overwhelming majority of crime stories, in general, appeared in the first block of the newscasts, almost 78 percent of the kids’ crime stories were presented there as opposed to just 68 percent of adult crime stories.

The manner in which the opening segments are constructed also has impact.

"Contributing to the impression that the local news is dominated by crime is the grouping of at least three crime stories together," Yanich said. "This montage technique was used extensively for both kids’ crime and adult crime, with 65 percent of both types of stories broadcast that way."

Crime stories are often selected for broadcast because they are cheap to produce, Yanich said, and many times they are presented simply as a voice-over by the anchor.

"The anchor presents a narrative while videotape that was shot for the story is shown on screen. It’s less expensive than sending a news crew to the scene of a crime but gives the impression that the station was there. Of course, the only person who was really at the scene was the camera operator," Yanich said.

"Production choices of the news directors showed a clear preference for methods that produced short and dramatic episodes of the human condition. The stories were designed to attract and hold an audience much more than to inform the public," Yanich said.
Other findings from the study show:

Kids’ crime stories last longer than adult ones.

Neighbors are used as a source of information twice as often in juvenile crime stories than they are in coverage of adult crime.

Most crime stories—both adult and juvenile--are reported on when the courts come into play, not when the crime is committed.

Murder is the offense of choice—the crime most often covered for both kids and adults.

Nonviolent crime -- including property, drugs, official misconduct, traffic and civil offenses -- accounted for just over one-fourth of the kids crime coverage and about three out of 10 adult crime stories.

  • Males were overwhelmingly the suspects in both categories of crime.
  • In adult crime, males were most often the victims; in kids’ crime females most often were.
  • Almost half of the news items for kids’ crime did not report the race or ethnicity of the victim. In adult stories, six out of 10 did not report it.
  • In kids’ crime, one third of the stories reported that the suspect and the victim were family members. In adult crime, just 5 percent were members of the same family.
  • Fourteen percent of the kids’ crime stories indicated that the suspect and victim were friends or acquaintances. That figure was just 8 percent for adult crime.

But, regardless of whether a story involved juveniles or adults, audiences in both Baltimore and Philadelphia were told essentially the same story -- that random, violent crime is a structural feature of American society," Yanich said.

"It becomes very important then for citizens to be wary when they consume the news -- it should be watched with a critical eye," the researcher concluded.

For a PDF copy of the report click here.

Contact: Beth Thomas, (302) 831-8749,
April 5, 2000