Trent’s Community Research Centre matches fourth-year forensic science students with community organizations to complete research projects—year-long assignments devoted to answering research questions provided by the organization. Arthur’s project is unique as it provides the opportunity for the student, as the “researcher in residence” to choose a topic of interest and related research questions.
Following shelter closures during the summer of 2019, members of Peterborough’s unhoused population established a “tent city” in Victoria Park. This was the target of vitriol from Peterborough residents, some of which was published in local newspapers. This coverage is what initially interested me in the topic of crime news reporting in local newspapers and perceptions of criminality in Peterborough.
Residents of Tent City had nowhere else to go, but were treated as if they were criminals whose presence alone made downtown Peterborough unsafe. The link between homelessness and criminality is brought up directly in this Examiner article, when Peterborough Police Chief Scott Gilbert mentions that crime rates had decreased in 2019, “even with Tent City.”
I wanted to understand why reporting on this issue lacked compassion and why, rather than publish articles investigating the root cause of Peterborough’s housing crisis and propose ways to mitigate it, the Examiner published articles that blamed unhoused people for loss of business downtown.
Because true crime—a genre that mainly focuses on dramatic, extreme crimes—is so ubiquitous these days, I wondered if there was a connection between the proliferation of true crime media and the overtly critical tone of Examiner articles on tent city. I also wanted to know how these articles might have influenced their readers’ views on the safety of downtown Peterborough.
More broadly, I will be investigating the role that local newspapers play in affecting perceptions of crime in Peterborough, with these research questions:
1. How is crime in general reported on in local media?
I will address this question by reviewing academic literature on crime reporting, as well as relevant Arthur articles, and articles in the “crime” section of The Peterborough Examiner.
2. How do these media influence people's perceptions about the level of crime or danger in Peterborough?
I will address this question with a survey, which will ask community members about their news reading habits and beliefs about crime in Peterborough. This survey is open to anyone over the age of 18 who currently lives in, or has previously lived, in Peterborough. Follow this link to participate.
Canadian crime reporters consider themselves watchdogs of the law, and they want to portray the battle of “good vs evil” that plays out in court. Crime reports in newspapers follow a predetermined formula—press is devoted to acts of extreme violence, which are presented without the statistics to contextualize the fact that these events are rare. Articles will often include the shocking details of a crime but usually lack testimony from either victim or accused. Reporters claim this focus on violence is in the pursuit of transparency, although readers may find these details excessive and unnecessary for their understanding of the crime. Reporters tend to favour sensationalism over a more complete picture of crime.
Public shaming is a key part of crime reporting. Canadian crime reporters will publish the names and addresses of the accused, unless they are a minor. In doing this reporters intend to make legal proceedings transparent, but they also create the opportunity for a trial by media. Regardless of actual guilt or innocence, readers can decide the named party is guilty—causing them to be labelled as a criminal and socially ostracized; a punishment meted out not by the legal system but by the community. Publishing the accused’s name and address encourages readers to direct blame at individuals “while downplaying the role of societal factors” that created the environment in which the crime occurred.
Depictions of disadvantaged people are often dehumanizing. Addiction, mental illness, and homelessness are portrayed as deviant behaviours caused by personal choice or moral failing, rather than the result of complex life circumstances. Reports on violent crimes committed by mentally ill individuals lack statistics that show that such instances are relatively rare or “facts about the relative accessibility or quality of existing community mental-healthcare services”.
My literature review painted a fascinating picture of the way journalists—especially Canadian ones—report on crime. It pointed out their motivations, how writers try to grab readers’ attention by covering sensational violent crimes and publishing shocking and violent details. Crime reporters also portray the legal system as a conflict between ‘good and evil’ where law enforcement officers are heroes. Offenders and victims are rarely called upon to provide first-hand information on the crime.
Articles under the “crime” tab on The Peterborough Examiner’s website are published daily, or multiple times per day. Interestingly, most of these articles have no author named; the byline instead states “Examiner Staff.” They are usually extremely short—the entire article fits on the computer screen without scrolling—and cover only basic details. The article will describe the charge being laid and the location of the incident, and, if known, the suspect or offender’s name and address. There is little to no investigation of the events, background information, or context given to better understand what transpired. In a few instances certain high-profile crimes are given much more coverage, but this is the exception, not the rule.
After reading one month’s worth of Examiner articles I found that the majority of crime reports seem almost procedurally generated, checking off a list of requirements: date, location, charges laid, and name and address of the accused. I would guess that very little time is spent actually writing them, considering most articles don’t even have an author listed. As a result there is very little writing to analyze, but even based on a few lines there is clearly the use of public shaming. Publishing the name, home address (or lack thereof) and prior offences of the accused makes them a public spectacle vulnerable to prejudgement from readers. Sensationalism is also apparent when looking at what kinds of stories get the most press. Longer, more in-depth articles are devoted to more high-profile, violent crimes. Another hot topic in the Examiner is complaints about downtown Peterborough, such as pedestrians’ discomfort at the presence of tents and panhandlers, or an apartment developer’s disgust at the proximity of a supervised injection site to his property. The denigration of disadvantaged people ‘sells’; it generates controversy and engagement for the Examiner.
This article (found in the “Peterborough region” section, not in the crime section), spends a surprisingly long time detailing a condo developer’s refusal to build a condo if a supervised injection site is built across the street from his property. Joelle Kovach presents his NIMBY views as-is, painting drug users as too dangerous to live near (or as roadblocks to a profitable construction project) when the supervised injection site will likely make downtown Peterborough safer in the long run. This is a prime example of reporting in the Examiner that uses stigma (in this case against drug users) as a means of social control, by designating certain behaviours or people as undesirable in conventional society.
As this is a year-long project, my research on this subject continues. I will be continuing to seek out relevant literature that I might apply to my analysis of crime reports published in the Examiner. However, as I previously mentioned, the next step in this project will be to examine readers’ perceptions of crime in Peterborough. As of the time of this article’s publication, the survey is open for responses from current or former Peterborough residents. If you would like to anonymously participate, the survey can be found here. This is the first in a series of three articles on my project. Future articles will discuss the findings of my survey and further address my research questions.
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