What tell-all crime reporting says about us

Paul Mayne // Western NewsFaculty of Information & Media Studies professor Romayne Smith Fullerton is the co-author of Naming Names: A Comparison of Crime Coverage Rituals in North America and Europe, forthcoming with Oxford University Press, which looks at how journalists make ethical decisions related to crime coverage in North America and Europe.

Imagine being accused of a crime ­– or being found guilty of one.

Depending on where you live, your future may be determined by what – and how much – the news media says about you.

While researching crime reporting across the globe, Faculty of Information & Media Studies professor Romayne Smith Fullerton found North American media coverage of crime differed significantly from that of European news outlets.

She details these differences in Naming Names: A Comparison of Crime Coverage Rituals in North America and Europe, forthcoming with Oxford University Press. The book’s contributing research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Co-written with Maggie Jones Patterson, a journalism professor at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University, the book looks at how journalists make ethical decisions related to crime coverage in 10 capitalist democracies across both continents.

In Sweden and Holland, for instance, journalists usually choose not to name or divulge any details concerning the accused or the convicted person – not because it’s the law, but because they want to protect innocent family members and ensure the accused’s presumption of innocence.

“Historically, people in Sweden see someone accused of crime as a member of their own community who made a bad life choice,” Smith Fullerton said.

While the practice is under pressure because of changing immigration patterns, easy access to names on the Internet and increased media competition, media in these countries routinely offer little information about the accused.

In Canada and the United States, it’s a different story.

North American journalists often give public and private details of accused individuals or those convicted of crimes. There are exceptions; in Canada, newspapers are not permitted, by law, to identify minors or alleged sexual assault victims.

“But once people are charged,” said Smith Fullerton, “journalists usually tell as much information as they can find about an accused’s family, children, former partners, mental health background and so on.”

Smith Fullerton hopes the book will help start a conversation among journalists, academics, law enforcement officials and policy-makers about long-overdue questions. How do journalists shape, or are shaped by, the public’s perception of justice and privacy? In an age where globalization sometimes flattens all differences, does it matter if journalism everywhere takes on the American ‘tell-all’ style?

“Because we live in a capitalist society where competition can drive news content, coverage of victims and perpetrators can tend to the sensational,” Smith-Fullerton said.

The public, she believes, has failed to “consider its own responsibility in producing criminals, and to have serious discussions on how we ought to treat people who are charged and convicted.”

The past does not excuse the crime, she added, but can help explain social and economic circumstances – documented childhood abuse, for example – that may lead to these behaviours.

Unlike crime reporting in countries like Canada and United States, journalists in Sweden and Holland, for example, “try to encourage conversations with the public that are more about issues, rather than people’s names and what they did,” Smith Fullerton said.

These attitudes may also reflect the society of those countries.

For example, Sweden’s population has, until recently, been relatively homogenous in ethnicity, religion and culture; this has given them a stronger sense of community and, in crime, a sense that convicted criminals can be rehabilitated and restored to the community, she explained.

“If everyone knows who you are and what you did, how could you be accepted back into society?” Smith Fullerton asked.

North America, in contrast, is a land of immigrants, a cultural mosaic of different cultural values and beliefs.

Success stories are rarely framed as a collective victory; instead, they are lauded as individual grit overcoming extraordinary difficulties.

“But if you fail, you also fail on your own,” Smith Fullerton noted.

She credited a Dutch journalist with providing a pithy summary of these differing attitudes.

“He said, ‘In America, everyone has the right to make a million dollars. In Holland, everyone has the right to start again.’”