If a news station discovers there have been two local shootings, but they only have the resources to send one team at that precise moment, how do the producer, assignment editor, and reporters decide which murder to prioritize? How does the victim and culprit’s age, gender, ethnicity, and social standing influence this decision?
These are the questions at the heart of Murder in the News: An Inside Look at How Television Covers Crime, by Robert H. Jordan Jr. In addition to bringing over four decades of experience as a news anchor and reporter, Jordan focused on this subject for his dissertation at Loyola University in Chicago.
At times, Murder in the News can become repetitive, present information far from revolutionary, and lapse into rhetoric more appropriate for a dissertation than the average news consumer. Jordan surveyed news stations across Chicago and included some of the results, including respondents’ criticism that presenting them an “either-or” situation wasn’t true to real life because they’d find a way to cover both stories. Another accused him of “academic masturbation.” While Jordan felt such defensive responses touched on sensitive areas that the respondents felt uncomfortable to reconcile, these point to the rigidity of his study.
Jordan’s main thesis, however, is no less noteworthy or important. He’s found that most people in the news industry rely on their “gut” to prioritize news stories, but without more structure or analysis, that “gut feeling” easily leans toward inherent biases and prejudices that don’t necessarily reflect what viewers want to see. This blind spot is becoming increasingly clearer as people consume news online, where embedded tools can better track people’s preferences.
“The stories journalists report do have an impact and can influence public policy and affect the way we think and the perceive others to be” (17).
Murder in the News is a book for anyone who wants an in-depth look on how news stations prioritize stories.
Sarah Hutchins is an English Instructor and freelance writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She earned a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Antioch University and a Bachelors of Arts in English from Portland State University. Her sagging bookshelves suffer from a peculiar fate: for each book read and removed, three or four magically appear in its stead. The books that find a permanent home on these same shelves are typically classics, French literature, philosophical novels and essays, and magic realism.
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