How Toronto's TV stations distort the picture of what's really happening on the streets
It was the kind of suppertime news story that suspended your fork somewhere between your plate and mouth. It wasn?t a “big” story about “big” names. No dove-releasing picnic of brotherly love hosted by Arafat and Rabin; no prime-ministerial tantrums on Parliament Hill. In fact, what pushed this story to the top of three Toronto newscasts the evening of October 5 last year was its random quality, its message that this could happen to you. And that’s just the impression people were left with ,after watching reports of the swarming of two female commuters at one of the city’s busiest subway stations.
Exactly what had caused the two white, middle-aged women on their way home from a shopping trip to be swarmed by 30 to 40 teenagers was unclear, although some, reports hinted the assault might have been sparked by racial tension. And besides the fact the women had been surrounded, screamed at and shoved, exactly what else had happened also remained unclear.
But however murky the facts, the fear caused by the incident was plain to see. Report after report on Toronto’s Citytv, CFTO and CBLT Evening Newscasts feature clips of nervous subway patrons. “No, I don’t feel safe anymore,” one young woman said anxiously, standing with her pigtailed daughter in the station where the attack occurred. “There’s usually lots of crowds of young people hanging around, and you never know, if you look at them the wrong way you could get jumped.”
Similar scenes were played out over the next few days on all three newscasts. CBLT even devoted several minutes of its newshour the day following the assault to discussing the causes of swarmings with a group of about 20 high-school students. And a few nights later the station ran a report on the fact the Guardian Angels, an urban crime-fighting organization, had begun patrolling the subway system at night to stop the “terror.” Typical of much of the coverage, a story that aired on Citvtv briefly described the Toronto Transit Commission as one of the safest subway systems in North America, then abruptly switched gears with: “But the question is, do you feel safe?”
Predictably, every interviewee said no.
Asked that same question, many Canadians would also answer no, a Statistics Canada report released last June found that 46 percent of those polled feared more for their safety today than they did five years ago. Yet, ironically, that same report concluded Canadians were no more at risk of becoming victims of violent crime in 1993 than five years earlier,
So why is it Canadians are increasingly afraid of crime even though statistics say we’re not seeing more of it on our streets? Partly, it may be because we are seeing a great deal of it on our television sets and in the news in general. Reporters and producers generally agree that today crime stories constitute a larger part of the news package than they did a few years back. This increase, coupled with television’s tendency to focus on dramatic crimes like the TTC swarming, may be casting a distorted, larger-than-life shadow on the reality of crime.
How distorted? While Canadian statistics are unavailable, an American study conducted by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, based in Washington, D.C., found that in 1993 Americans were hit by “a wave of crime news.” Evening broadcasts on the ABC, NBC and CBS networks aired nearly 1,700 crime stories that year-double the number that appeared in 1992. Astonishingly, this increase occurred despite the fact the U.S. Justice Department registered less a two percent increase in crime over that same period.
And the media mayhem that surrounded the TTC swarming may be a small but ominous indication of a similar trend throughout the Canadian news business. Metro Toronto Police Sergeant Lisa Hodgins argues that heavy coverage of the incident left people needlessly second-guessing their own safety. After all, “swarmings,” a specific kind of assault typically committed by a mob of teenagers, had been absent from the city’s crime scene for more than a year. What’s more, assaults on the TTC were actually 13 percent lower than in the previous year. “The fear is absolutely out of proportion. Absolutely,” says Sergeant Hodgins.
Time seems to have proved Hodgins right. just a few days after the swarming, four teenagers were arrested for having started the attack. Since then, virtually no similar random acts of violence have occurred on the TTC, nothing to indicate that, despite its terrifying nature, the swarming was more than an isolated incident on an otherwise safe transit system.
But the public may not have been getting that message – a notion that would hardly surprise Anthony Doob. The University of Toronto criminologist says he’s long believed that television news, and news in general, distorts people’s perception of crime. Doob co-authored the Statistics Canada report that concluded the country’s crime rate hadn’t changed over the past five years. After interviewing 10,000 Canadians, he found that almost one quarter had suffered a personal or property crime. “There’s little doubt that’s a high crime rate,” Doob says, “but it’s no higher than it was five years ago, so there’s no real reason people should be more concerned.”
Besides pointing at fear-mongering politicians, Doob drops a sizable part of the responsibility for skewed public perception of crime onto the news media’s lap. “If I ask people why they think crime is increasing, they sort of stand back and say, ‘Well, what a dumb question. Everybody tells me it is, and all you have to do is open a newspaper or turn on the television to see it happening.” Confirming this link between the news and individuals’ views of crime isn’t difficult. When the Ryerson Review stopped 10 Torontonians last fall, it found that eight believed crime in their city was on the rise. And when asked why, all mentioned the large number of crime stories they saw or read about every day. Several, like 26-year-old registered nurse Helen Rezendes, also pointed to specific stories of “senseless” crimes, including the highly publicized shooting of Georgina Leimonis, a 23-year-old woman, gunned down during the robbery of a trendy Toronto eatery late last winter, and the TTC swarming. “Ever since the story on the swarming,” Rezendes explained, “I don’t feel safe on the subway. And when I’m riding I’m careful to stay away from large groups of teenagers. Anything can happen nowadays, to anyone, anywhere.”
It’s not surprising Rezendes feels that way. A 1991 survey conducted by U of T’s Centre for Criminology monitored two nightly local newscasts (CBLT’s CBC Evening News and Citytv’s CityPulse), and found that crime stories constituted roughly one-third to one-half of the programs. And a random seven-day content analysis of CBLT, CFTO and Citytv six o’clock newscasts, conducted by the Review found the following: on average, 36 percent of CBLT stories, 37 percent of CFTO stories and 48 percent of Citytv items dealt with either a specific incident of crime or an ongoing investigation of that crime.
Anthony Doob has an unlikely ally in Jojo Chintoh. Chintoh has worked in the news business for the past 17 years, and spent the last five as Citytv’s crime specialist. Much like the criminologist, he asserts that television news “tends to play up trivial incidents” and “scares people unnecessarily.” Chintoh says he’s often covered stories in which there seemed to be “nothing there”: “I have to fill a spot on our news show of about a minute to a minute and a half. Sometimes, there’s not much happening. So what do I do? I pick an incident and end up making more out of it than I should. We all do it.”
Chintoh points to a story he put together on a 100-year-old man who had been robbed of his pension cheque. “Now, if you were sitting at home, watching my report on this man,” says Chintoh, “you’d think, ‘my God, what is this city coming to?’ But in fact, nothing has changed. It’s not that more of these crimes are happening, it’s just that I chose to report it because there was nothing else to do a story on.”
Like Chintoh, Sophia Voumvakis is no stranger to the news media’s Chicken Little-like ability to create a climate of what she terms “moral panic” when it comes to crime. Back in 1982 Voumvakis was working on her master’s thesis at U of T’s Centre for Criminology when she began to notice a marked hysteria in the news coverage of the tragic rapes and murders of seven young women. Voumvakis became so intrigued with the nature of this coverage trial that she left off researching her then-current thesis and instead took up analyzing the way in which these incidents were reported by the city’s three daily newspapers.
In examining the hundreds of stories that had been published about the women, who had been attacked in separate incidents over a five-month period, Voumvakis confirmed her initial suspicions. In a year when the number of reported rapes had actually dipped-to 167, down from 174-the city’s dailies, particularly The Toronto Star and The Toronto Sun were busy creating the impression of a sudden torrent of violence against women.
The papers were well aware of these statistics. Voumvakis herself was present at a press conference where police officers and a psychologist presented those tape numbers and said women didn’t have to fear for their safety any more than they did previously. It’s disturbing that none of the papers present chose to include those statements in their reports. “I imagine it wasn?t reported by them because it just didn’t fit into their theme,” Voumvakis says. “This hard evidence would have destroyed the premise they had worked on – that the city was under siege.”
The very idea that the news media hypes crime out of proportion with reality strikes Jim Poling as inane. As vice-president of Canadian Press, which provides news to 100 of the country’s daily newspapers as well as TV and radio stations, Poling agrees that crime makes up a larger part of news reports today than it did a few years back. But the 32-year veteran of the news business argues this is simply because there’s more crime to report.
Poling believes that it is organizations like Statistics Canada and criminologists like Doob – not the media – that are out of touch with the biting reality of crime on city streets. He holds that crime statistics are hardly convincing, since numbers can be “played with” and made to show almost anything. “They can fill this whole goddamn building with reports. But you go out and you tell real people in coffee shops and on the streets that crime is down and they’ll laugh in your face. Reality tells them it isn’t.”
Police statistics would seem, superficially at least, to support Poling’s view that crime is up. For example, Metro Police registered 1,056 more violent crimes in 1993 than 1992. But Doob and other criminologists point out that most of these new incidents, 828 to be exact, were minor assaults that would not even have been recorded by police a few years ago. “When I was a kid and there was a fight in the schoolyard, it was the school that would discipline the kids involved,” Doob explains. “Today, when a fight breaks out, schools normally call the police. Well, if you’re reporting these assaults which have never before been reported to the police, you can’t then turn around and say police statistics on assaults have soared, so more assaults must be happening. More are just being reported.”
A study conducted by criminologist Peter Carrington confirms that more investigations in Canada, especially of less serious offences, are ending in charges than ever before. Carrington’s research focused specifically on young offenders and found that before 1985, police laid charges in roughly 24 percent of the minor assaults they investigated. Since 1985, that number has shot up to 56 percent.
But Poling holds firm. He maintains that crime coverage is up because crime is up. “It’s just not the case that newspeople are running around spending a lot more time and resources covering crime. I don’t believe that for a second.” And Poling is right on that count: Citytv, CBLT and CFTO continue, as they have for at least the last five years, to employ a single crime reporter each, with general-assignment reporters taking on smaller crime stories as they come up. Moreover, neither CBLT nor Citytv news producers (repeated requests for interviews with CFTO producers were ignored) believed that crime reporting did or should receive a larger proportion of the station’s time and resources than in other of the city’s beats.
Like Poling, reporter Sheila Manese, who has worked the CBC Evening News police beat for the last seven years, maintains that television news only reflects the increasingly violent society in which we live: “A few years back every television station used to swarm to a schoolyard fight. Now, we only go if guns are involved. We used to swarm a building if shots were fired. Now, shots are fired almost every second day.” Since the 1980s, Manese says she has noticed a gradual but marked change in what she tags the “style of crime.” Guns and knives play a part in a greater number of the robberies and assaults that she covers. Sexual attacks and even schoolyard fights have become more brutal.
Criminologists won’t argue there have been changes in the nature of crime over the past few years, drive-by shootings, for instance, are certainly a relatively new phenomenon. But some say the news media are often too quick to interpret these changes as telltale signs of a “crime epidemic” without setting them against a larger reality. With an unprecedented four million people living in the Greater Toronto Area, for instance, it is almost statistically impossible to go for more than a day without a shooting, stabbing or other serious offence. So while Manese is quite right to say that these sorts of crimes now occur almost every other day, this assertion must be viewed against the backdrop of the city’s growing population density.
But any accurate reflection of the crime reality isn’t jeopardized solely by the extravagant number of crime stories that get reported. The types of crimes most covered are just as important in shaping individuals’ perceptions of their community. After all, if your favourite TV news show offers up a selection of petty thefts, assaults and only a few stories of rape or murder, you’ll probably be less afraid of taking an evening stroll than your buddy whose news show puts a little more chaos on its menu.
As well, the kind of media attention that more and more these days is lavished upon “celebrity murders,” like the O.J. Simpson saga and the killing of basketball star Michael Jordan’s father, can’t help, but sharpen the general sting of fear.
Thus, it’s worth noting what share of TV crime stories actually focus on violent incidents such as murders, rapes and robberies. A predominant share, says Professor Richard Ericson, who teaches sociology and law at the University of British Columbia. In 1991, Ericson contributed to the research and writing of the previously mentioned U of T study, which found that roughly one-third to one-half of the CBLT and Citytv newscasts focused on crime. What’s more, Ericson’s research also found that a substantial portion of each station’s total number of crime stories?19.8 percent in the case of CBLT and 31 percent in the case of Citytv centered on “interpersonal deviance “including individual acts of violence such as rape and murder.
Ericson contends that these types of crime stories simply seem to fit TV’s format: “Dramatization and personalization are a big part of the medium. So I wasn’t surprised to find that television largely reports in terms of dramatic, individual cases of violence. You ain’t exactly go into long abstractions when all you’ve got is a few minutes.” Jeannie Lee, an urban affairs reporter with the CBC Evening News, agrees, “A lot of television news happens because you have the pictures for it,” she explains. “You say, ‘Yeah, we got a great shot of this guy being arrested, his head down on the cement, officers all around him,’ and so you do a story on it.”
Recently, Lee took on the issue by producing a news report that looked at television’s, and the news media’s, underreporting of white-collar crime. In it, she argued that too often stories on “virtually invisible, yet very widespread” corporate crime are frequently skipped over, not only because it’s harder to match them with interesting visuals, but also because they’re more difficult to flush out. “The companies certainly aren’t going to cooperate with you, so you have to spend more time digging on your own,” Lee explains. “Whereas if you’re reporting on a murder, you can get most of the information in a couple of hours from the officers at the scene.”
Jojo Chintoh concurs that television news tends to cover “scarier, titillating” crime stories, and only rarely devotes time and resources to corporate crime. “Visuals are the power of television. The more graphic and dramatic, the better. A mother crying over a coffin is like a kick in the gut. An interview with a computer expert explaining how some guy stole $10,000 with his boss’ computer isn’t even a pinprick.” As a result, Chintoh believes, viewers are often left with an exaggerated fear of violent crime, a fear that Dr. George Gerbner, a professor and dean emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania?s Annenberg School for Communication, has labelled “mean world syndrome.”
For close to 30 years, Gerbner has monitored television violence with an eye to studying the relationship between viewing habits and general attitudes toward crime. Although focusing principally on violence in fictional TV programs, Gerbner also concerns himself with crime and violence on television news, arguing that the real-life context of news heightens the fear it can spark. “Violence on the news ” he says, “provides confirmation of a cruel and violent world, and a general sense of insecurity.”
Gerbner has concluded that the more television that people watch, the more likely they are to believe their neighbourhoods are unsafe and to assume that crime is on the rise even if statistics don’t support this. Heavy viewers (the definition of which varies by socioeconomic class) are also more likely to buy locks, watchdogs and even guns to protect themselves from perceived evils.
Both Gerbner and Doob contend that this type of fortress mentality reaches beyond the personal realm to enter that of public policy, spawning larger-scale but equally dangerous and ineffective “quick fixes.” Thus, the inspiration for lock-’em-up crime bills (like the policy passed in the United States by President Bill Clinton late last year, calling for all those charged with a fourth felony to be put away for life) and the public outcry for fewer immigrants, more prisons, more police and even for capital punishment.
Yet if reporting on violent crime is so natural to the visual demands of television, is it possible to balance this coverage by presenting it against a larger, less-sensational context? Further, is it even the news media’s responsibility to provide this context? Rose Dyson says the answer to both of these questions should be yes. Dyson is chairwoman of Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment, a grassroots citizens’ organization that monitors and lobbies to curb the amount of violence broadcast over the nation’s airwaves, While C-CAVE is primarily concerned with entertainment programming, Dyson says the organization’s mandate has in recent years broadened to include violence in news programs because of “a growing lack of distinction between information and entertainment.”
Dyson has been one of the first to call on Canadian broadcasters to adopt a policy of providing “family-sensitive” newshours during peak viewing times, a concept winning over many local stations south of the border. The driving force behind these toned-down broadcasts, in which graphic images of body bags, daring arrests and bloody pavements are left in the editing suite, came from American citizens concerned with the violent and pessimistic image of community their children absorb from watching the news.
“Violence in real life can and should be reported,” says Dyson, who would like to see cuts in both the number of crime stories on the news and the graphic video that often accompanies them. “But it’s not necessary to report violence in a violent way,” Indeed, several American news programs that have embraced the family-sensitive philosophy now simply have the anchor read copy on many of the reports of violent crimes, rather than splashing images of the scene, complete with trembling victims, across the screen.
Besides working to cut the number of frightening images and stories on the news, the family-sensitive impetus also calls for broadcasts to be injected with a larger perspective by infusing them with reports on positive stories about their communities, along with the all-too-familiar negative ones.
Family-sensitive news hasn’t caught on in Canada-not one of the nation’s news organizations has adopted the policy. Some, like Citytv and CBLT, say there’s little need to, since they already restrict the graphic nature of images allowed on their suppertime broadcasts, reserving explicit footage for the late-night news, when children are less likely to be watching.
What’s more, producers like CBLT’s Jill Troyer of the CBC Evening News say there are other ways to keep crime in context. To that end, at the start of the city’s municipal election campaign, which saw several candidates throwing themselves onto the law-and-order bandwagon, CBLT ran a report challenging the very perception that crime in the city was up. Moreover, Troyer says she regularly monitors the nature and the number of crime stories the newscast will contain, to ensure “the overall context of the show” remains balanced.
Stephen Hurlbut, Citytv’s director of news programming, says he too aims for context, both within the newscast and within each crime story. “Fear-mongering is not something we’re comfortable with,” he explains.
Hurlbut says that Chintoh often goes for days without putting in a story, simply because other issues related to the day’s events are “more worthy” of the newscast’s attention. “But some days,” Hurlbut explains, “you’ve got shootings and stabbings. These things happen, we don’t make them up and they’re important. But we don’t give these stories any kind of precedence or lead our newscasts with them all the time.” Still, when the Review monitored CityPulse for seven days, it found that the show lead with a crime story on every day but one.
Hurlbut and Troyer agree that no matter how careful and rigorous they are, TV news can only provide so much context. Both producers say that viewers are responsible not only for processing what they see on the news, but also for the type of stories that are covered. And it is true that crime has popular appeal. In two small focus group sessions conducted by the CBC in the fall of 1994, 77 percent of interviewees indicated they would be “very interested” in a story about a murder that took place in their own neighbourhood. This was the highest tally of all the categories. By comparison, 52 percent said they would be very interested in a story outlining where the city’s newest garbage dump would be located, and only 33 percent were very interested in a story about the municipality’s election campaign. Although this vas only a small and by no means scientific study, Troyer says it does demonstrate “the strong interest people have in crime stories.”
No doubt stories like the TTC swarming are watched with wide-eyed intensity. And why not? Crime remains a serious national problem that’s not going to vanish if we close our eyes to it. But opening our eyes to the kind of crime-heavy newscasts being offered up won’t help either. Too often, the media just don’t concern themselves with bringing the bogeyman of crime out of the bushes and into the light. Canadians are as safe today as they were five years ago. But if that’s the kind of reality check you’re after, you’ll rarely find it in the news.
This is a joint byline for the Ryerson Review of Journalism. All content is produced by students in their final year of the graduate or undergraduate program at the Ryerson School of Journalism.