IN the Guardian last December former Sunderland Echo Crime Reporter Nigel Green described his findings in to research he carried out in to how crime is covered in the Newcastle Chronicle.

As another former Echo Crime Reporter I was interested in Green’s findings. He claims that crime reporting has significantly altered over the last twenty years and that journalists are currently engaged in ‘churnalism’  – simply rewriting information provided from the police and through court reports rather than going out and finding stories for themselves.

Journalist Nigel Green who has researched 'churnalism'.

Ethnography is a qualitative research method which considers how people operate, with data often gathered through participant observation, interviews or questionnaires.

In 1980 Fishman carried out ethnographic research into newsgathering by reporters and gatekeeping by news editors. He spent seven months working as a novice reporter on one newspaper, and a further five months shadowing reporters on their daily activities.   He found reporters depended “heavily on official sources” and in order to fulfil their news quota relied heavily on bureaucratic ways of gathering news. He argued that journalists view “society as bureaucratically organised” which “provides the reliable and predictable flow of events required to fulfil the day’s quota.”

In his research Green harks back to what he appears to see as a Golden Age in crime reporting – comparing crime content in the Newcastle Chronicle from 1989 (nine years after Fishman’s research in to newsgathering on American newspapers) – and 2009. He also interviewed a number of former and current crime reporters about their day-to-day lives.

He found a significant change in the “complexion of crime reporting.”  He claimsthat  in 1989, around 29% of the Chronicle’s police-related stories involved the release of information on crimes. The rest was made up mainly of court stories (47%) and accidents (16%). Only 4% could be classed as positive PR-type stories dealing with police raids, campaigns and initiatives.

In comparison by summer 2009 stories on crimes have fallen to 20%, while court reports are down to 39%. The gap has been filled by positive PR stories, such as crime prevention meetings, which have risen nearly six-fold to 23% in the 20 years to this summer.

The emphasis on crime reporting was certainly shifting while I was working at the Sunderland Echo six years ago. I built relationships with local police officers – accompanying them on staff nights out –  as well as building contacts with doormen and the community. I was a local lass, and as such was often able to track down victims and knock on their door.

But the press office at Northumbria Police did not approve of my  – what would be considered as traditional –  newsgathering methods, and actively tried to curb by relationship with the local coppers on my patch doorstep. At times I was called and reprimanded for approaching police officers direct, and I even arrived on a victim’s doorstep to find a press officer hell-bent on stopping me knocking on the door. What’s more, they were at times supported in this by my editor who felt – perhaps rightly in terms of ensuring a constant stream of content – that a positive relationship with the police was off paramount importance to a local newspaper sometimes at the expense of digging around a story.

Life is pretty different when reporting crime for the national newspapers. When working in Manchester as Northern Correspondent for the News of the World, I spent time working some patches in a similar way to I had done as a local journalist.

I particularly thought it important to build relationships with the police and the community in the Moss Side area, certain that eventually there would be a crime story of significance. The relationship building with the community paid off.

When 15-year-old Jessie James was gunned down near his home in 2006, a local street pastor took me to meet the family and I had carried out a full sit down interview with his Mum before the police had interviewed her. Greater Manchester Police press office were not happy. My newsdesk didn’t care and encouraged me to continue with my exclusive. From my experience national newspapers are far less concerned about building relationships with police forces, and more concerned with getting strong crime leads.

Jessie James days before he was gunned down in Moss Side in 2006.

Looking at today’s Sunderland Echo, the front page splash is a story about a ‘Drug’s Queen’ who has been jailed following a raid by police which found £250,000 worth of cannabis. The same story, written in a remarkably similar way,  can be found on page seven of today’s Journal – a Newcastle based morning paper.

As both stories are accompanied by a police mug shot and include identical lengthy quotes from officers from the ‘Total Policing Task Force’ declaring what a brilliant job they doing, it could be assumed that this as come from the police.

Moreover as neither newspapers give the date which the Vietnamese woman was jailed, it would be interesting to find out when this court case happened. Newspapers are in the habit of saying “yesterday” when describing court hearings. As they have not, this may suggest that the court case happened some time before and thus this story is evidence of the ‘churnalism’ in North East crime reporting which Green identified in his Guardian piece.

But in order to establish how these kinds of crime stories are making it in to the paper, it would be interesting to carry out some consistent participant observation in to how crime reporters on both these local newspapers work day-to-day.

For example, if observing both reporters yesterday a researcher would be able to establish whether  both papers receive the same press release. Or whether, as the Journal is printed first, did the Sunderland Echo simply lifted copy from rival newspaper.

This kind of reasearch could build on that of Green and Fishman and establish what the landscape of crime reporting is really like. And if you also built-in similar participant observation of national crime reporters, significant differences in how they operate could be found.

Now I’m wondering whether if I could produce research like Fishmans from my years as a journalist, if I built-in some participant observation. Hmmmmm….

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