If a homicide involves a “sympathetic victim”, the event is likely to be covered with photographs, noticed Walter Works and Jennifer S. Wong, both of Simon Fraser University. The inclusion of photographs in the coverage will, in turn, affect the audience’s impressions and recall of the crime, potentially distorting public understanding of crime, the authors warn.
Works and Wong analysed 3 998 news reports on homicide, published by the Canadian newspaper Vancouver Sun over the span of 12 years. The coding took note of the stories’ features indicative of one of four themes: Sympathetic Victim, Fear of Personal Victimization, Sensational or Shocking Homicides, and Media Construction of Social Problems. For example, the victim’s Caucasian ethnicity and lacking criminal involvement were coded as signs of a sympathetic victim.
The authors noticed that only one of the themes, Sympathetic Victim, was robustly predictive of photograph use in multivariate analysis. Works and Wong suggest that a sympathetic victim is much more conducive to visual representation compared to, for example, social issues.
The authors suspect that journalists understand the appeal of stories involving sympathetic victims and use photographs strategically to boost the stories’ emotional effects. This may lead to unfortunate results, Works and Wong conclude: “Prominence of victim-related images could drive demand for stories featuring photogenic victims, resulting in coverage patterns that do not reflect actual victimization statistics, potentially skewing the public’s perceptions of victimization rates and personal risk (…). Conversely, less ‘sympathetic’ victims may be increasingly hidden and marginalized if image supplementation within reports of their killing is not considered worthwhile.”
The article “Using Crime News Reporting Themes to Predict Image Inclusion in Newspaper Homicide Articles” was published by the journal Journalism Studies. It is available online on the publisher’s website (abstract free).
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