The Media and Police Promote Myths about Murder

Such myths are divisive and dangerous.

Posted Nov 05, 2018

Public domain
Pamela Smart mugshot
Source: Public domain

The media and law enforcement authorities in the U.S. actively promote a number of myths about homicide. One popular myth about murder is that it is primarily inter-racial—that is, blacks killing whites and whites killing blacks, etc. Another popular myth is that women, generally, and young, white women in particular, are the most likely victims of homicide.

In truth, both of these popular myths are entirely incorrect. Such myths and others like them are dangerous because they offer a distorted picture of actual homicide patterns. Moreover, at the heart of these myths are stereotypes involving gender and race.

The reality is that much of the public’s knowledge about homicide is a product of stylized and stereotypical depictions of such events in the news and entertainment media. The media present colorful and sensationalized stories to pique the interest of commercial audiences, not to paint an accurate picture of either the perpetrators or victims of homicide.

By focusing on atypical cases, particularly those involving attractive, young, white women, the media captivate the public with sensationalized depictions of the females involved, and create the erroneous impression that such cases are far more prevalent than they really are.

In other words, the use of hyperbole and stereotypes by the news and entertainment media perpetuate popular myths regarding the characteristics and patterns of murder in the U.S.

The media are not alone in their misrepresentation of homicide to the public. Law enforcement professionals and other criminal justice practitioners also contribute to homicide myths involving race and gender.

For example, homicides cases in which a young, white female is either the victim or perpetrator are extremely rare and there is a tendency among homicide detectives and other legal practitioners to generalize about such incidents because they so rarely encountered them in real life.

More precisely, lack of exposure to such cases leads investigators to extrapolate rare anecdotal information from one incident and apply it to another. As a result, certain stereotypes have taken root among law enforcement authorities regarding the nature of homicide cases involving white female perpetrators and victims. The police use these stereotypes and inaccuracies in their official statements to the media about such rare criminal incidents.

Ever since the televised trial of Pamela Smart in 1991, murder cases involving a young, white, female defendant, generate tremendous interest and curiosity among the public. In such cases, the public’s massive appetite for information and images leads to a screaming match between competing media outlets that vie for the public’s limited attention.

People can only watch one television network at a time. Sensationalized and exaggerated news content attracts viewers, so the television networks try to outdo one another by offering the most shocking information and images possible in order to lure viewers. The so-called news stories that result from their frenzied competition for the public’s attention are often filled with misinformation, stereotypes, and exaggerations.

The normal routines of crime news reporting almost guarantee that the media will present inaccuracies and exaggerations to the public in unusual, high profile criminal cases. This has to do with the nature of the relationship that exists between the news media and the police. The relationship between the news media and law enforcement is of a quid pro quo nature that leads them both to disseminate misinformation to the public without either party being aware of it.

That is, in the normal routines of news reporting, journalists rely on state authorities to provide both the official definitions of crime and the details of a particular case, so they tend to report whatever they are told without questioning it. Conversely, law enforcement authorities must rely on the news media to deliver their official statements, reports, and policies to the public.

Given the symbiotic nature of their relationship, it is in the best mutual interests of the news media and law enforcement authorities to cooperate with one another and not to question each other’s motives.

The routines of crime news reporting are rarely deviated from in unusual, high profile incidents such as the shooting of Trayvon Martin because law enforcement authorities are under tremendous pressure to solve the case quickly and the public’s insatiable demand for graphic, sensationalized news about the case outweighs journalistic integrity.

In such instances, popular stereotypes, myths, and hyperbole become standard fare in both the official and news media accounts of the case. The result is a distortion of the facts that can lead to misinformation, confusion, divisiveness, and chaos among the public.  

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Dr. Scott Bonn is a criminologist, professor, and media expert. He is the author of the new suspense novel, Evil Guardian, based in part on his actual correspondence and interviews with real-life serial killers “Son of Sam” and “Bind, Torture, Kill.”

He is also the author of the critically acclaimed books Mass Deception: Moral Panic and the U.S. War on Iraq and Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website docbonn.com.