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Portland State research: Public faults media on crime reporting
Author: John Kirkland, University Communications
Posted: August 7, 2012

Most people think the local news media do a good job of reporting individual crimes, but they are largely dissatisfied with coverage of the bigger picture of crime trends and causes.

Those are some of the findings of research by the Criminal Justice Policy Research Institute at Portland State University. Researchers sent surveys this year to nearly 6,000 residents from neighborhoods throughout Portland, and received 2,461 back as of July 11.

This report follows another study last year by the same PSU researchers that showed most Oregonians believe crime is going up despite statistics that show the crime rate was at a 43-year low.

“Misconceptions about crime have the potential to negatively impact people’s physical and psychological wellbeing and the overall quality of life in our city,” said Kris Henning, associate dean of the College of Urban & Public Affairs and one of the lead researchers. “We believe the news media play a role in shaping these perceptions.”

Henning said the researchers were expecting some dissatisfaction with media coverage of crime, but they were surprised by the deep split in opinions about everyday reporting of individual crimes and other coverage areas such as the underlying causes of crime and the risks of becoming a victim.

Nearly 64 percent of respondents rated the coverage of individual crime events as “good” or “very good.”  Less than a quarter of the respondents gave a good or very good rating when it came to coverage of underlying causes of crime, risk factors for victimization and community efforts to reduce crime. A third of all respondents said they watch local TV news or read The Oregonian every day, and well over half the total said they did so at least several times a month.

According to the research brief, the media devotes “extensive coverage to individual criminal events, particularly crimes that involve atypical victims and offenders or severe acts of violence. Hence the journalistic expression ‘if it bleeds it leads.’” The areas that were given lower marks on the survey, such as crime prevention and crime trends, were ones that may have greater value to the community, the report states.

Criminal justice agencies need to do a better job of disseminating crime information directly to the public and work with the media to cover a broader range of crime topics, according to the report. 

“All these agencies are in daily contact with the media and they need to know how the community feels about local crime reporting,” Henning said. “If people are dissatisfied, perhaps these agencies should rethink their own strategies for interacting with the media and the kind of press releases they issue.”

A later study using the same survey will examine the relationship between media exposure and perceived safety, Henning said. “Prior studies suggest that greater exposure to local TV news in particular is associated with higher levels of fear,” he said. “Our study will address whether this relationship holds true in Portland.”