Last month we began a series of blogs about the impact of local news on community engagement. The first blog covered Denver, Colorado, and two weeks ago the second covered Ljubljana, Slovenia. This week we conclude with news coverage from Hamilton, Ontario.
by Tarah Hodgkinson
As with our last two blogs on crime news, much of the focus in Canada is on the war in Ukraine but, as in Denver and Ljubljana, crime stories continue. Here are some recent crime stories from Hamilton, Ontario.
In this story, a man went to meet the private and online seller of a luxury car and when he went to test drive it, locked the doors and took off with the vehicle. He is still at large. This story confirms the narrative that people should be careful selling (and buying) their items online.
This incident demonstrates some of the unique ways offenders are adapting in order to steal cars. Since electronic immobilizers were mandated in Canada in 2007, auto theft has plummeted.
This is largely because you can’t turn over the ignition without the key. As such, many offenders are finding alternative ways to access the keys to cars, such as burglary and robbery.
In this story, police caught an armed bank robber who stole cash from two banks in Hamilton’s east end. He went into the bank, handed the teller a note saying it was a bank robbery and he was armed and took off with an undisclosed amount of cash.
This story follows some common themes in crime reporting: it is discrete, easy to understand, and there is a clear villain and hero. Similar to the auto theft story, it is also a somewhat unique event in the 21st century. Bank robberies are far less common now that security has been improved and bank tellers have very little cash at their stations.
In this story, police are investigating a shooting in downtown Hamilton leaving one person hospitalized. The two assailants fled the scene and the police are encouraging local residents to inspect their security cameras for any footage of the incident.
While there is very little information provided in this story, we still see many of the criteria of newsworthiness: it is easy to understand, there is a clear victim, and the event was short-lived. It is also a rare and violent event. Shootings are incredibly uncommon in Canada, especially compared to our southern neighbours. However, these kinds of incidents have the ability to instill a sense of fear in neighborhood residents who are provided very little detail about what actually happened and if it might happen to them next. This is similar to crime stories in Denver.
MEDIA AND THE POLICE
You will note that all three crime stories in Hamilton are similar to those told in Ljubljana and Denver in one crucial respect – while they differ in seriousness, they are all informed by the local police.
According to Criminologist Vincent Sacco, the police are the main source of crime news for journalists because of the relationship that is mutually beneficial. Journalists receive ongoing access to crime news and the police are positioned as the experts or “owners” of the problem.
This may be why residents who comment about crimes in news media directly refer to police in their observations. It may also be why stories about police ineffectiveness or controversy also show up on many front pages. Residents see police and crime as intimately the same story!
The stories also fit specific criteria outlined in a Canadian criminology textbook by Sacco and Kennedy, The Criminal Event.
In my master’s degree, I worked with my mentor, Dr. Sacco at Queen’s University. Sacco’s book is a well-known Canadian intro textbook. He explains that crime news often contributes to a skewed understanding of crime in our neighbourhoods. He outlines four main reasons for this:
Sacco explains that crime news ignores the complex relationship between social conditions and crime – something we observed in all three cities. Further, there are factors that make crimes more newsworthy in all three cities of Ljubljana, Denver, and Hamilton. Crimes are newsworthy if they are short-lived, simple to understand, and predictable with dramatic narratives and clear heroes/victims/villains.
Crime reporting has significant implications for local residents in neighbourhoods. First, reporting may result in fear of crime. When citizens are afraid, they often retreat into their homes, meaning there are fewer eyes on the street and more opportunities for crime. That makes community crime prevention difficult.
Second, when crime news creates the impression that police are the owners of the crime narrative, local residents are less inclined to engage in crime prevention because they don’t see themselves as part of the solution. This is a constant problem we confront in our SafeGrowth work.
We believe that neighbourhood residents are among the best suited to prevent crime. We support residents in reclaiming the crime prevention narrative and we help them establish ownership over their own crime problems. SafeGrowth helps contextualize the frightening crime headlines by providing residents the tools to collect their own data and build their own understandings of crime issues, often in collaboration with local police.
In doing so, they see the truth behind the crime stories and they analyse their fears so they can build their own local solutions. From Denver to Ljubljana to Hamilton, we are convinced that is the way forward.