Melaleuca Media
The media and community safety

Presentation given to Australian Crime Prevention Council Conference 1993

I have been asked to speak to you about the media's role in promoting community safety, or conversely, the media's role in inhibiting community safety. I should also add that I am speaking as an individual, and not in this instance as a representative of the Criminal Justice Commission.

I thought I might first approach this in an anecdotal way by referring to an incident that occurred fairly early in my journalistic career.

Periodically, around the Australian Coast, a human bumps into a shark. In a very small minority of such cases, the shark attacks the human. This is causative of a rash of stories about shock and horror shark attacks in the media. Inevitably, they interview someone called Vic Hislop who uses the opportunity to push a program of shark genocide.

I think it was about 1984 that somewhere on the Queensland coast a passing shark took a passing bite out of a passing human. I was working in the Sunday Mail at the time and the chief of staff raced up to me in great excitement and asked me to write a backgrounder on shark attacks to go with the news story. So I did.

From memory, my first paragraph read something like this: In the past 75 years, sharks have eaten 49 Australians. In the same period, Australians have eaten 1,345,782 sharks."

The story wasn't run and I was never asked to write it again.

Let us put this in the context of what we are about today - still community safety, but about sharks and not crime. The overwhelming majority of people entering the water don't come into contact with any sharks at all. The minority who do tend to be divers and surfers who are really intruding into the sharks world in a big way. But even in the majority of these cases, nothing happens - shark and person look each other up and down and each swim their separate ways. In a lesser number of cases, the shark has been unlucky enough to run into Vic Hislop or someone else with a spear, hook or net and is very much the worse off for the encounter. And, in an infinitesimal number of cases, shark attacks human and just some of these attacks are fatal.

You can see in this case that the common media image of a coastline ringed with dangerous marauding man-eating sharks is not a particularly accurate reflection of reality. But this distortion of reality has enormous influence. All around Australia there are a large number of people who will not dip a toe into the water because they have a subconscious expectation that toe will be taken by one of the numerous, dangerous, marauding man-eating sharks around. Also government agencies spend money setting nets and hooks out to sea; the stated intention here is to protect bathers from unanticipated encounters with sharks but I have a suspicion that the real purpose is to protect the tourist industry from media sharks. At any rate, we catch some sharks and as well, some turtles, some dolphins and the odd whale and surfer. This is what you could call an unintended consequence of policy, something that we will come back to.

More people come into contact with crime than will ever come into contact with sharks - of the aquatic variety anyway. Is the media's portrayal of crime any more accurate than its portrayal of sharks? Let's take a hypothetical case, let's say an inner city mall. Assume that of all the thousands of contacts between persons in this mall, late one night there is one that can be described as a mugging. The story makes the paper, the local police union uses it as an opportunity to berate the government over the insufficiency of police numbers and resources, and some, who now know the mall is a dangerous place where you are likely to be mugged, avoid it. Actual or potential muggers on the other hand, now know that the mall is a place where there might be easy pickings or, at the very least, as a place where they can enjoy the congenial company of other muggers. Since the number of muggings is likely to be in some way related to the relative proportions of potential muggers and potential victims (muggees?), what we have here in this hypothetical case is a classical example of a tendency towards a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In real life, many things bear on the relative safety of malls other than the coverage they receive in the media. However, I am sure you see the general drift - the question is why does the media do the things the media does. And the answer, in brief, is that there are all sorts of historical, and structural and cultural reasons that we get the media coverage that we get.

The first barrier to understanding is probably that we treat the media as a homogenous entity, this grand generalisation we call the media. Historically, the media as we know it today is a very recent phenomenon, but it can be seen to have a number of ancestors.

First, and not to be neglected, is what you call the tradition of the village gossip, the collector and disseminator of information of undoubted purient interest even if often doubtful accuracy. Here (National Inquirer, Picture etc) is the village gossip in the late 20th century. Now you might ignore these magazines, but here are some clippings from the Courier-Mail to show that the village gossip tradition is not neglected in the major metropolitan daily. I'm not picking on the Courier-Mail - I could have found similar material in the Sydney Morning Herald though I will admit it might have taken me a bit longer.

Second, there is what I call the Times or the activist tradition which traces back to the 18th century when the first newsletters - including one called The Times - were furtively circulated in Paris and London coffee shops with the authorities treating both the newsletters and the coffee shops as profoundly subversive institutions - which they undoubtedly were. In asserting a right to report upon, analyse and criticise the trade of authority however, these newsletters naturally provoked Newtons opposite and equal reaction.

First, not surprisingly, there was the effort to ban both the newsletters and the coffee and criminalise all those associated with them. I think it has been said in relation to other substances that prohibition has a very doubtful record of achievement where there is significant demand for the substances or services in question. So it was with newspapers and coffee. Second and still with us, there is the effort of the trade of authority to control the media, through taxing it, imposing legal liability upon it, owning it, controlling its content, manipulating the flow of information it receives or through a variety of other, more subtle methods that could most accurately be described as fitting into the categories of extortion, bribery or seduction. This is what I call the propagandist tradition - it is not just the old Pravda - all governments, however liberal in the old sense of the world, employ people involved in more or less subtle information control and manipulation and media bribery, extortion and seduction and the fruit of their labours can be seen reflected in all the media, to a greater or lesser extent. Sad, but true.

Another tradition, which grew up in the mid-19th century, saw the media as basically an educator, an extension of schooling which was then being extended to reach more and more of the population. I call this the Christian Science Monitor tradition for two reasons - firstly because that newspaper was the most prominent early embodiment of that particular tradition, and secondly as a reminder that "education" is rarely neutral - often what might appear to be education would often be more accurately be described as activism or propaganda. The Christian Science Monitor was, and is, a very fine newspaper - but it doesn't much question the tenents of the faith.

Then there is what you might call the Citizen Kane tradition, where the media seeks to exert power in its own right and for its own interests, in defiance of or to the great peril of those elected to the trade of authority. This practice isn't as prevalent as it once was or, at least, it isn't as blatantly obvious. However, it is still there and given a little time I could no doubt pick out an example from this morning's paper.

Lastly, there is the commercial tradition, given to us most persuasively early this century by some of the same people who were later used as the role models for Citizen Kane. In this tradition, which I call the Randoph Hearst tradition, the media is basically a business and its business is to attract readers, listeners, viewers and revenue, and to maximise the profits accruing to the large public companies or individuals that own the media. Once again, I can refer here to the Daily BMW, I'm sorry The Courier-Mail.

The point of this dissertation is that every single one of these traditions still exerts a powerful influence on the media of today. Further than this, I could say that I could pick up any copy of any major newspaper on any day and point out examples of pure unadulterated gossip, of activism, of propaganda, of education, of misuse of media power, or of mere grubby commerce.

By now, you are probably asking how we journalists live with ourselves. When journalists and editors and producers sit down to decide what to cover, how to cover it, and how to defend their decision later it all revolves around a concept called "newsworthiness". Something has news value, or it hasn't. Looking around here now, it is pretty obvious, is it not, that we do not have much "news value". However, there is something further to consider - the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald uses the same justification as the editor of the Truth - surely they are not talking about the same thing.

Go back to our traditions of the media and ask the question, What is news?
Is it gossip, the more salacious the better? Is it information that should be shared and that might through better understanding lead to a better society? Is it the information our rulers want passed on? Is it some privately funded continuing education program? Or is it simply the information and the presentation that will get the highest ratings?

And, just at the point when you were ever wondering when I would get back to the topic, what is crime to the media? Well, I don't know of a single media outlet that covers all varieties of crime on an equal basis. What is reported reflects the balance, within a media outlet, of all the competing traditions that have contributed to the modern media. You might pick up the paper and see crime accurately described and thoughtfully analysed. However, you are more likely to get a fairly shallow pot-pourri of the more juicy crimes, those that involve sex and violence and famous people and also periodic assertions that some form of crime that is reasonably prevalent - like housebreaking - is now out of control. And from this shallow and very selective coverage, you are quite likely to get calls for the government to do something about alleged waves of juicy crime or relatively prevalent crime. The remedies proposed are usually as shallow as the original analysis and extensively they rely on more and better ways to catch baddies and bigger and better punishments for baddies who get caught. And if a government or an opposition want to push a law and order barrow up to a forthcoming election, well a lot of the media is going to be very co-operative. Similarly, if some arm of the media wants to push a law and order barrow, you can equally confidently predict that there will be no lack of politicians willing to jump aboard.

What this means in effect is that those who rely on the media for most of their information about crime don't have much knowledge of crime and hence, aren't well equipped to determine an appropriate response to it. Unfortunately, this includes most of the population who vote and, I am afraid, most of those whom they vote for. When crime seems threatening, which it sometimes is and sometimes is just made to appear, both the response demanded and the action, if any, taken is likely to be pretty basic. I am reminded of the words of the American social comentator H.L Mencken

For every complex social question there is a simple answer - and it's wrong.

So what do we do. Well some of the media does respond to exhortations to lift their game, if the exhortations come in significant bulk or from quarters of significant influence. A lot of the media is, however, quite deaf to this sort of appeal.

Next, those interested in or concerned by crime should be alerted to the dangers of relying on a purely media diet of information. In general, they are likely to be misinformed and led to favor simple answers to complex problems or, if they are likely to be held responsible for taking some action, inclined to indulge in the legislative knee jerk response or some appropriately publicised heavy handed enforcement. In either case, the response may well compound the problem but we will all feel good doing it.

Probably most significantly, those who do have knowledge of crime without being criminal and those who have expertise in crime research should do much more than they currently do to get their information into the media. We don't do ourselves, or the community any good, by being such shrinking violets.

Later on, I will be speaking about some possible deficiencies in our crime research, from the point of view of community safety. But for the moment, that's enough from me and I hope I have given you something to think about. Thank you.