As we adjust to life in a lockdown there are many unknowns, but one thing has become perfectly clear: the need for high-quality information has never been more important. And this offers us important lessons that should last long past this emergency, particularly in the area of crime.
Swirling around the net are all forms of hokum and conspiracy around the virus and the government's actions, which aren't just unhelpful but outright dangerous.
Sticking with high-quality mainstream media sources should be a must for all people. Not just in a crisis like this, but in life generally. But how well do our mainstream media do when it comes to reporting crime?
Well, it rather depends how you look at it.
There's certainly much to admire, notably around unsafe convictions. Pat Booth writing line after line about the Arthur Allan Thomas case rattled our confidence in the police; without Paula Penfold and Phil Taylor we'd never know the injustice heaped upon Teina Pora; and we should all bask in my absolute favourite line by Donna Chisholm who promised David Doherty that she "would write a story about him every week until he is free" – and with the help of DNA evidence, he eventually was.
These examples and many more show the value of high-quality journalism, and the importance of the media. But there are some elements that are more problematic.
Crime is a big part of the media. Studies show that up to 20 per cent of media content is related to crime and justice issues. Imagine if this reflected reality and 20 per cent of your life was dominated by crime. It would be near all-consuming, and clearly for the overwhelming majority of us it is not. Seventy per cent of adults experience no crime at all in any given year, not even minor offending, and swathes of people will not experience any crime for years in a row. So the frequency with which we are exposed to crime news may inflate how much crime we think is actually occurring. (Crime rates have generally been in a downward trend since the early 1990s – yet surveys show that the vast majority of people don't know that).
Furthermore, the types of crimes portrayed in the media do not proportionally reflect crimes that actually occur. The largest categories of crime in New Zealand are against property, but these rarely make headlines. Murders are extremely rare but are often covered extensively. This can give the impression that crimes of violence, such as being killed by a stranger, are far more prevalent than they actually are. (More women win lotto each year than are killed by somebody they don't know, for example.)
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But just the other day I saw a brilliant example of how small things can make a big difference. In an article mentioning sentencing, the journalist added a very simple line explaining what a life sentence actually is. We have all heard the term countless times, but I'm surprised how few people can define it. (A life sentence means you must spend a minimum period behind bars before you are eligible for parole, and if released you must live under a number of conditions and can be recalled to prison at any time until you die, i.e. for life.)
Many people simply focus on the minimum period before parole eligibility, and therefore fail to appreciate the full extent of the sentence. The best crime reporting, then, isn't about removing information or not reporting on big, newsworthy crimes. It's about adding more information and nuance to ensure specific issues are given important context.
And while the media might not always do this well, they certainly do it better than the dodgy sources that crowd the internet. And unquestionably their strengths outweigh their weaknesses, particularly in New Zealand.
Of course, this does not mean we should have blind faith in the media; such a situation is neither required nor desirable. Journalists and editors – like academics who write columns – have human foibles and failings, and economic drivers claw on things, too. But we ought celebrate the quality of our media and do our best to support it.
In the current virus environment, we should all recognise the media's value, because certainly we'd see the disaster if it – or even widespread faith in it – were to vanish.
- Dr Jarrod Gilbert is the Director of Criminal Justice at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions