War Zones and Depraved Violence: Exploring the Framing of Urban Neighborhoods in News Reports of Violent Crime

AuthorAndrew J. Baranauskas
Published date01 December 2020
Date01 December 2020
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/0734016820915638
Subject MatterArticles
Article
War Zones and Depraved
Violence: Exploring
the Framing of Urban
Neighborhoods in News
Reports of Violent Crime
Andrew J. Baranauskas
1
Abstract
This study examines the role that the news media play in casting certain urban neighborhoods as
particularly violent areas. It is possible that the news media serve as a key source of information
about urban neighborhoods to the general public, just as the media are the main source of crime
information to those who do not directly experience crime. Based on a thematic content analysis of
newspaper reports of violent crime in four American cities, this study explores the language used by
journalists to describe urban neighborhoods and the crimes that occur within them in reports of
violent crime. Findings suggest that newspaper articles reporting crime in disadvantaged Black
neighborhoods are likely to use intense language to describe the normalcy of crime and the terrible
nature of crime in these areas. Reports of crime originating in affluent White neighborhoods are
likely to highlight the unusual, shocking nature of the violence. Implications for perceptual and policy
reactions to crime in urban neighborhoods are discussed.
Keywords
social constructions of crime/justice, crime/delinquency theory, race and crime/justice, other,
violent behavior
Urban neighborhoods have long been maligned as places of excessive violence. A long history of
criminological research has found that urban neighborhoods with high degrees of socioeconomic
disadvantage and African American residents to be the areas where violent crime is most likely to
flourish (Peterson & Krivo, 2010; Sampson, 2012; Shaw & McKay, 1942). Socioeconomic disad-
vantage and Black residents have also been shown to influence how people perceive urban neigh-
borhoods, shaping views of the criminal danger that lurks in these areas (Drakulich, 2012; Quillian
1
Department of Criminal Justice, The College at Brockport, State University of New York, NY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Andrew J. Baranauskas, Department of Criminal Justice, The College at Brockport, State University of New York,
350 New Campus Drive, Brockport, NY 14420, USA.
Email: abaranauskas@brockport.edu
Criminal Justice Review
2020, Vol. 45(4) 393-412
ª2020 Georgia State University
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DOI: 10.1177/0734016820915638
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& Pager, 2001, 2010; J. Q. Wilson & Kelling, 1982). These perceptions of danger can have real
consequences for urban neighborhoods such as leading people to avoid these neighborhoods and
deterring commercial and residential interest in them (Gourlay, 2007; Hastings, 2004; Musterd &
Andersson, 2006; Wacquant et al., 2014).
It is possible, however, that public perceptions of urban neighborhoods are not based on wholly
accurate information about the reality of violent crime in urban neighborhoods. The media serve as
the main source of crime information for the majority of the public, who do not have direct firsthand
experience with crime (Roberts et al., 2003; Sacco, 1995; Surette, 2015). Similarly, it is possible that
the media are the main source of information about urban neighborhoods to the vast public who has
never set foot in inner-city urban areas. How, then, do the media socially construct the reality of
violent crime in urban areas?
Research has provided evidence that the news media report violent crime in urban neighborhoods
in ways that differ from the reality of urban crime according to police statistics. Findings show that
the media tend to underreport homicides committed in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighbor-
hoods with lower levels of African American residents (Boulahanis & Heltsley, 2004; Petersen,
2014) and underreport robberies and assaults in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods
(Baranauskas, 2020). None of these studies, however, examines the content of news coverage
regarding the ways that news outlets frame and describe violent crime in urban neighborhoods.
Given that neighborhood socioeconomic disadvantage and racial composition seem to play an
important role in media reporting of violent crime, it is possible that the media may describe
neighborhoods and crimes differently depending on the socioeconomic and racial composition of
the neighborhoods in which the crimes occur. This serves to imply that the crime problem could be
framed as better or worse in certain neighborhoods, which has the potential to shape reactions to
these neighborhoods by the public.
The purpose of the current study is to explore the ways in which the mainstream, White-owned
news media describe urban neighborhoods and the crimes that occur within them in reports of
violent crime. Building off prior research, I provide an examination of violent crimes via a thematic
content analysis of violent crime reports in major newspapers from multiple cities throughout the
United States. My analysis identifies themes in descriptions of neighborhoods and crimes in these
news reports and compares the language of these descriptions in news reports originating in urban
neighborhoods with varying degrees of socioeconomic disadvantage and Black residents. The
overall goal is to identify important differences in the ways the media frame crime in affluent,
White neighborhoods compared to disadvantaged neighborhoods of color in order to shed light on
the reality of crime in these neighborhoods that is being disseminated to the public.
Theoretical Background
The Social Construction of Crime by the News Media
The mainstream news media play a unique role in constructing the social reality of crime for the
media-viewing public. According to Quinney (1970), the process of mass communication is vital to
the diffusion of criminal definitions throughout society so that the members of a society can con-
struct their own conceptions of crime. The media is a vital source of information about crime. Most
people do not have direct experience with crime; the proportion of people who are victims, offen-
ders, and agents of the criminal justice system is low relative to the population at large. As such,
most people rely on the media for crime information (Roberts et al., 2003; Sacco, 1995; Surette,
2015). Research has shown that crime coverage is overwhelmingly prevalent in the news media
across news formats (e.g., Chermak & Chapman, 2007; Frost & Phillips, 2011; Graber, 1980; Graber
& Dunaway, 2015; Jewkes, 2015; Reiner, 2002; Surette, 2015).
394 Criminal Justice Review 45(4)

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