A study carried out by forensic psychology researchers in the Department of Psychology at Middlesex University has helped to explain why some murders are reported so heavily in the UK tabloid press, while others are ignored or given very little coverage.
The research – recently published in the British Journal of Criminology – is based on in-depth questionnaires with ten UK national tabloid journalists, and was carried out by Anna Gekoski, Jacqueline M. Gray and Joanna R. Adler.
Anna Gekoski, a researcher in the field of forensic psychology and herself a tabloid journalist before retraining in forensic psychology, said: "There has been very little research conducted as to why some homicides are particularly newsworthy – keeping them on the front pages for months at a time – and why others are virtually ignored. In order to investigate this, we went to the source of decision-making about the newsworthiness of homicide in the tabloid press: journalists themselves. This is the first time this has been done in the UK."
According to participants in this study – who had been tabloid journalists for an average of 15 years each - the ‘perfect’ tabloid murder typically involves one or more of the following five factors:
(1) ‘Perfect’ or ‘ideal’ victims, typically including children, (attractive, white, middle-class) women, the affluent, and celebrities
(2) Unusual or novel features
(3) Killers at large/on the run
(4) Extreme brutality/sensationalism
(5) Serial killers
Conversely, murders that involve so-called ‘undeserving’ victims – or the ‘underclass’ - in commonplace circumstances are not considered particularly newsworthy, with participants in the study giving examples of prostitutes, drug users or dealers, criminals and the homeless. The exception to this is when such people fall victim to serial killers, which immediately elevates their newsworthiness.
Gekoski said: "Consider some of the biggest homicide cases in recent times in terms of press coverage. The murders of pretty, white, innocent schoolgirls Sarah Payne, Milly Dowler, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman; or the bright, middle-class, landscape architect Joanna Yeates. Think of the killings of Dr Harold Shipman, a trusted figure in the community, convicted of 15 murders but thought to be responsible for hundreds; those of Stephen Griffiths, the PhD student and serial killer of sex workers who dubbed himself the ‘Crossbow Cannibal’; and Raoul Moat, who went on the run after shooting his ex-girlfriend, her new partner and a police officer. We can clearly see how they all fit one or more of the five criteria described above and this guaranteed them extensive news coverage across all forms of media.
"However, despite these general ‘rules of thumb’ followed by journalists when reporting on murder, this research further highlighted how there will always be exceptions to these. Occasionally there will be a homicide that does not fulfil any of the above criteria, yet is made newsworthy by other, more unpredictable factors. Such factors, as identified by participants, might include a particular personal interest from a newspaper editor or homicides that tie in to current societal or cultural issues such as, for example, racism, paedophilia, or institutional failure.
"We have to consider the impact of such distorted reporting of murder, which may have wide reaching and damaging implications for both society at large and individuals. For example, it may enhance fear of crime, create moral panics, and fuel prejudice. We have also found, from speaking to the families of homicide victims, that such reporting may have profoundly negative effects on relatives of victims whose murders are not reported in the press or given very little coverage. In such cases, families may feel that the lack of coverage implies that their loved ones’ lives were not worthy or important, leading to them experiencing feelings of anger, humiliation, shame, and pain."
Notes for editors:
What they said - journalists views on what makes the news
(1) ‘Perfect’ or ‘ideal’ victims, typically including children, (attractive, white, middle-class) women, the affluent, and celebrities:
“The best story will always be the worst story so if you have an angel killed by a devil in the most horrendous of circumstances the lines are clearly drawn for the reader; there can be no misinterpretation of the facts, no doubt that the victim didn't deserve it and the result is a real sense of loss and empathy because it could have happened to anyone, meaning it could have happened to them.” (Natalie)
2) Unusual or novel features:
“Basically anything that makes a murder different from the norm elevates its news value. On a basic level, a dull murder is gang-on-gang killers involving knives. These happen all the time. News is something which is 'new.' So on motive - crime of passion is always good ... Method - the more elaborate the better. Relationship - the more sexual the better. Number of victims - the more the merrier.” (Aaron)
(3) Killers at large/on the run:
“A story that gains momentum and builds up over time is also crucial. For example the case of Raoul Moat was on the face of it a tale of domestic revenge but the fact he was on the run for several days made it front page for a week.” (Tom)
(4) Extreme brutality/sensationalism:
“The way the murder was committed, especially if torture was involved or the death had some sexual aspect to it. Man shoots man dead is one thing, but man ties up another man, stabs him repeatedly, cuts off his ear and then slits his throat so savagely that his head is nearly hanging off - that's far more newsworthy.” (Jake)
(5) Serial killers:
“A serial killer is ALWAYS, ALWAYS a big story. Doesn't matter if they are young or old, rich or poor. Serial killing rarely happens and when it does the public lap it up. Serial killers are almost always boring people in their normal lives who wouldn't ordinarily be newsworthy - Peter Sutcliffe (unattractive lorry driver); Dennis Nilson (non-descript civil servant); Steve Wright (forklift truck driver) - yet they will all go down in history.” (Aaron)
Conversely, murders that involve so-called ‘undeserving’ victims – or the ‘underclass’ - in commonplace circumstances are not considered particularly newsworthy, with participants in the study giving examples of prostitutes, drug users or dealers, criminals, and the homeless:
“A thug killed by a thug.” (Jake)
“Scum killing scum. Two heroin addicts have a row and one stabs the other over a bag of heroin.” (Sam)
“Old drunken tramp kills old drunken tramp in rundown inner city.” (Jake)
The exception to this is when such people fall victim to serial killers, which immediately elevates their newsworthiness:
“One prostitute dead is barely going to cause a ripple through a newsdesk. Three plus dead in roughly the same area and you have a story - a new Ripper headline.” (Natalie)