Kōrero: Violent crime

Whārangi 9. Violent crime and the media

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Leaving aside driving offences, around half of offences reported to police are property crimes (such as theft, burglary and white-collar crime). The media under-reports these offences and focuses on violent crime. Selective and disproportionate coverage of crime, especially violent crime, can stoke public fears about crime and influence attitudes towards punishment.

The meat of the stories

In 1992 the chairperson of the Victims Task Force, Ann Ballin, outlined her thoughts on the way victims were treated by the media: ‘Victims become the meat of stories and frequently are used not only for news, but entertainment value. In this way they are exploited unmercifully. In my judgement a person who is a victim should not be subject to media attention unless that is what they want.1

Reporting on crime

Editors, journalists, and television and radio producers know that there is a public appetite for morbid, horrific or macabre news stories. 

There was a worldwide trend toward ‘infotainment’ in the 1990s and early 21st century. Mainstream newspapers became more sensationalistic, more like their populist counterparts such as New Zealand Truth. The quantity of crime news also increased. A 2002 study found that crime news coverage in New Zealand's main newspapers increased from 16.4% of content in 1992 to 19.6% in 2001. A 2008 study of leading newspapers around the world found that New Zealand’s ranked third highest in quantity of stories on crime and violent deaths.

Investigative journalism

The press sometimes keeps other organisations and individuals accountable for their actions by publicly exposing wrongful acts. For example, in the mid-1990s journalist Philip Kitchin began investigating rumours about police rapes in Rotorua in the 1980s. After intensive investigation he tracked down the alleged victim, Louise Nicholas. The Dominion Post and TVNZ broke the story in 2004 and a high-ranking police officer was subsequently convicted for perverting the course of justice.

If members of the media want to film, record, photograph or sketch a court in session, they must make an application in advance through the court registrar. The judge can approve or decline the application and can remove the media at their discretion. Jurors may not be filmed, photographed or identified. During trials, jurors must not be interviewed, and no comments made by jurors may be reported.

In-court filming was introduced in 1998, with some restrictions. Filming has only been used for high-profile trials. Most reporting still takes place on the steps outside courts or on nearby footpaths, where there are few restrictions on the use of cameras.

Crime on show

Presenter Paul Holmes pioneered television interviews with crime victims and their friends and families in 1989, when he began his half-hour Holmes show. In the late 1980s, non-fiction or ‘reality’ crime television shows arrived. Crimewatch, a show describing crimes and asking the public for leads, screened from 1987 until 1996. It sought more details on unsolved cases. The show also gave advice on personal and property safety. The reality show Police Ten 7, which first screened in 2002, followed police on the beat. This show was cancelled in 2023 after accusations of racism. Information provided by viewers did help police solve some cases.

Sensing nothing

Sensing murder, a television series in which ‘psychics’ tried to solve cold (unsolved) police cases, attracted criticism from groups such as the New Zealand Skeptics. None of these shows has solved any cases. One sceptic put up a potential prize pool of $400,000 if a psychic could prove their abilities. No one took up the challenge.

TV shows, movies and podcasts have examined real-life crimes. The movie Beyond reasonable doubt (1980) is based on the case of Arthur Allan Thomas, who spent nine years in jail for murders he was later pardoned for. Bad blood (1981) details the 12-day manhunt for Stanley Graham in 1941. The Peter Jackson film Heavenly creatures (1994) centred on two teenagers, Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, who murdered Parker’s mother in Christchurch in 1954. Out of the blue (2006) tells the story of the 1990 murders of 13 people at Aramoana by David Gray.

A number of these programmes have focused on examining alleged miscarriages of justice. Until proven innocent (2009) was about David Dougherty, who was wrongly convicted of crimes, and the fight to prove his innocence.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Quoted in Victims of crime: a training kit for journalists. Wellington: Victims Task Force, 1993. p. 1. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Greg Newbold, 'Violent crime - Violent crime and the media', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/violent-crime/page-9 (accessed 23 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Greg Newbold, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 3 May 2024 me te āwhina o Greg Newbold