Tabloid journalism and crime reporting

Romayne Smith Fullerton and Maggie Jones Patterson take a look at how the European tabloids report on crime. This tell-all reporting style can ruin lives and reputations. Does journalism that's not done solely to sell papers ultimately win people’s support? 

Romayne Smith Fullerton and Maggie Jones Patterson take a look at how the European tabloids report on crime. This tell-all reporting style can ruin lives and reputations. Does journalism that's not done solely to sell papers ultimately win people’s support? 

For decades, the British happily consumed their tabloids as these papers increasingly spun out of control.  When sales drooped, the “red-tops”—so named for the colour of their mastheads — beefed up their scandal mongering, and readers continued to scoop them up.

But while sales remained widespread, reader loyalty was apparently shallow.

The lesson?

Journalism that’s not done in the public interest does not ultimately win people’s support.  

Although British politicians once cowered from the threat of tabloid power, public opinion quickly turned against these papers when the recent phone hacking and bribing scandals broke at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World.

Tabloid journalists should not have been surprised when they were ambushed as soon as the accusations were made, judged guilty by association if not by deed, and left unable to salvage their shredded reputations.  

They had been doing exactly that to innocent as well as guilty British citizens for years.

Take the case of Christopher Jefferies of Bristol. At the end of July, he won a couple of major victories against the tabloids in court. The public’s response to his treatment in the press may have been an early warning sign that readers were fed up.  

Police arrested Jefferies December 30, 2010, in connection with the murder of Joanna Yeates, a 25-year-old landscape architect who had been living with her boyfriend in an apartment building that Jefferies owned. In England, police can hold people for questioning for several days and under arrest for even longer without charge, but the papers neglected to mention what this nuance might imply.

So while police questioned Jefferies and tore apart his apartment building for clues, the tabloids took an ax to his reputation. A retired teacher of Victorian literature at an upscale Clifton boarding school in Bristol, the 66-year-old Jefferies was a somewhat eccentric bachelor, whom the tabloids now cast in the role of whacko murderer.  

The Sun called him “weird, posh, lewd and creepy”.  Various tabloids quoted alleged former students on Facebook as saying he liked to hold their hands while reciting poetry and that he often invited them to his home for conversation that, in the words of one of the sources, “didn’t exactly stick to the curriculum.”

In more than 40 articles, these newspapers clearly implied Jefferies was a pedophile who preyed on his students and spied on his tenants.

None of it was true.

In March, Jefferies was cleared of all suspicion. Vincent Tabak, a Dutch national and neighbor of Joanna Yeates, confessed to the crime. Tabak’s trial is now set for October.

But this development came too late to save Jefferies from public humiliation.

At the end of July, Jefferies won what British insiders are calling “substantial” libel settlements against eight tabloids, along with their public apology. Two of the papers, The Sun and Daily Mirror, were also fined for contempt of court after Attorney General Dominic Grieve charged them with engaging in what he later called a “feeding frenzy” that could have interfered with jury selection had the case gone to trial.

In sharp contrast to this ‘tell-all’ reporting style, when the story of Vincent Tabak’s arrest broke in his native Netherlands, news media there withheld his name.  In fact, news media in the Netherlands—and a number of other countries in northern and central Europe—routinely protect the privacy of accused criminals by voluntarily withholding identification.

Publishing the names of persons accused or convicted of crimes is legal in Holland—indeed, the names appear in public police and court documents just as they do in Great Britain and North America.  Nonetheless, the majority of Dutch news professionals feel strongly that it is unethical to publish or broadcast these names.  A national press council codifies this belief and enforces it among its members.

In 2010, as part of a research trip to the Netherlands and Sweden to explore crime coverage in Europe, we asked Dutch journalists why they follow this practice of withholding names.  “We believe in innocent until proven guilty,” they told us.  Besides, the Dutch said, even if people are found guilty, their families are innocent, and they should be rehabilitated and returned to their communities without stigma.

Media coverage should not be an additional punishment, they argued.  

As the head of the Dutch Union of Journalists put it, “In America, you believe that everyone has the right to make a million dollars.  In Holland, everyone has the right to start again.”  

Of course, he added, if the public interest is overwhelming, exceptions to the no-names rule can be made.

In British society, observed criminology Professor Yvonne Jewkes of Leicester University in England, criminals are treated as “the spawn of the devil” in the news media.  The Dutch take a different approach. Instead of expelling criminals as outliers, they look at accused and convicted citizens as a part of, not apart from, their community.

While most developed democracies have open courts and records, journalists in some countries believe that such openness places a greater ethical burden on them to treat information with the utmost discretion and care.  They police themselves and their colleagues through press councils and journalists’ unions with power to exact fines and order published apologies.  As a result, courts rarely hear libel cases

Dutch and Swedish journalistic institutions and practices are imperfect, and they are not readily adaptable to British or North American politics and press history.  But the Netherlands and Sweden have inspired a public confidence that the Brits – as well as U.S. and Canadian journalists – could envy.  Despite the spread of the Internet and the availability of online news, circulation figures for Dutch and Swedish papers remain much higher than those in England or here at home.  

Perhaps their publics can see the journalists’ respect for both public and the private spheres—as well as the line between them.

This summer, we interviewed British journalists and learned that many believe journalism’s primary mission of public service has been lost—at least by the tabloids that put forth gossip in place of genuine public business.

Citizens might tolerate some illegal means of newsgathering if they can see some public benefit as a result.  But such motivation is hard to glean in the acts of erasing messages from the phone of a murdered 13-year-old girl, slamming an innocent Chris Jefferies, hacking the phones of terrorism victims, or telling all about Prime Minster Gordon Brown’s newborn, a child with a cystic fibrosis diagnosis.

Journalism’s central mission of public trust relies on an audience that can see this purpose at work and buy into it.  But when that mission is held hostage to profit margins, careerism, and competition, people might be willing to purchase cheap titillation, but they will also be quick to wash their hands of it.

Romayne Smith Fullerton, Faculty of Information and Media Studies, The University of Western Ontario
Romayne Smith Fullerton is an associate professor who teaches in the Master of Arts in Journalism program, in the undergraduate Media, Information and Technoculture program, and also supervises Masters and Doctoral students in Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario. Holding a Masters and Ph.D. in English and an undergraduate degree in journalism from Carleton, she is an interdisciplinary scholar whose research interests and publication list broadly encompass gender, minority issues, and journalism ethics. Along with Professor Maggie Jones Patterson, she is currently involved in an ongoing exploration and analysis of mainstream media treatment of persons accused and/or convicted of serious crimes in Canada, the United States and Western Europe.

Maggie Jones Patterson, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh
Maggie Jones Patterson is a professor of journalism and a former reporter for the Pittsburgh Press.  Her academic interests are in media ethics and media and gender issues.  She has co-authored Art Rooney: A Sporting Life (University of Nebraska Press, 2010); Behind the Lines: Case Studies in Investigative Reporting; and Birth or Abortion? Private Struggles in a Political World. Recent articles include “’Killing’ the True Story of First Nations: The Ethics of Constructing a Culture Apart” Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 2008, and “Covering Pittsburgh’s G-20” in Duquesne Magazine, February 2010.  She is currently working, with Romayne Smith Fullerton, on a comparative study of crime coverage in the news media in Western Europe, Canada and the United States.