An examination of the nature and impact of print media news reporting on selected police organisations in Australia

  • Stephen Jiggins

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Prior to 1994 I had little interest in the activities of the police. As a mass media consumer I was aware of the prominence of crime in the daily news agenda and I watched, read and listened to potted summaries of rape, mayhem and murder. Frequent too, were stories of police malpractice, incompetence and corruption. Police stories were also a significant part of television drama with programs like the long running British series The Bill, and a range of Australian productions: The Feds, Halifax f.p, Rafferty's Rules, Blue Heelers, State Coroner, and Water Rats. The police also featured at the cinema with crime genre movies Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, USA),Once Were Warriors (Lee Tamahori, New Zealand) and Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, USA) becoming box office hits. My interest in the portrayal of police change dramatically when on the 7th of October 1994,I was appointed Officer-in-Charge of the Media and Publications Branch of the Australian Federal Police (AFP). I was responsible for all aspects of the communication function including: media liaison, crisis management, media management, publications and internal communication. My branch dealt with media inquiries from local, national and international media across the gamut of issues facing the AFP. These ranged from industrial issues about budgets and overtime, allegations of corruption and incompetence, and operational matters as diverse as burglaries, alleged Nazi war criminals, peace-keeping operations and drug 'busts'. Needless to say my police stakeholders did not always see things the same way as my media colleagues. I was seeing at a practical day-to-day level the complex taxonomy of police/media relations outlined by Putnis (1996). Putnis noted the ubiquity of the police and the media as social institutions and observed that their daily operations involved a complex, dynamic, relationship constructed out of many thousands of interactions, across all levels of the organisations, in many different settings. My experiences in dealing with the media became the genesis of this study. My aim is to expand our understanding of the police/media relationship by exploring characteristic forms of print news-media reports about policing, the impact these reports have on police, and on law and order policy. The possibility of bias towards police in this study is acknowledged given I was a member of a police service from 1994 until 2002 and the research relies heavily on 'participant observer' techniques (Kay 1997; Potter1 996; Schofield 1993). Every effort has been made to maintain a critical perspective on the subject matters raised and it should be noted my association with police ended prior to the writing-up phase of the research. In addition to comments from my supervisory panel, ongoing discussions with media colleagues were another strategy adopted to ensure balance in the writing-up of this study. This is a unique study in that it offers an insider's perspective of police/media relations and at a time that represented a watershed for police. The early 90s was a period of straightened finances for public sector agencies and police, like other agencies, were under pressure from governments to demonstrate the efficient use of public monies (AFP 1995; Grieve 2000). Reform programs swept through policing with many, like the AFP, being organised along business lines (Palmer 1995; Etter 1995; Rohl 1999; WAPOL 1999). The 90s were also a watershed for criminal organisations with the emergence of transnational criminal syndicates, such as drug traffickers, that had the potential to impact on crime at a local level without even entering the country, let alone the jurisdiction, in which the crime took place (Bliss and Harfield 1998; Palmer 1995; McFarlane 1999). In order to combat these syndicates, police began to work in a more cooperative fashion and formed loose coalitions, often across countries, in a manner similar to the criminal syndicates they were trying to combat (Palmer 1995). The 90s also saw the continuation of committees of inquiry and royal commissions into police malpractice (Landa and Dillon 1995) and the inevitable bad press for police (Wood 1996; Munday 1995). The media and police have a symbiotic relationship and it is a critical one as most members of society have little direct contact with the criminal justice system. Information about crime, and the efforts of police to combat it, is obtained second hand through fictional accounts from such vehicles as television dramas, and from the news media. As aptly described by Hall et al. (1975),nearly thirty years ago, the media is the link between crime and the public. The police are therefore heavily reliant on the media to provide a balanced account of the panoply of issues surrounding the criminal justice system (Cowdery 2001). At its most fundamental, police require the support of the communities they serve in order to be effective, and the news media can have a major impact on perceptions about police performance (Reiner 1997; Surette 1992). As organisational entities, police need to compete with other bureaucracies for public hnding, and the media is an essential tool in generating positive publicity about successful operations and policies. The media is, therefore, critical to the maintenance of positive relationships with the two most important stakeholders in the policing function: the community and the government. McGregor (1993) provides a useful summary of the literature relating to print media coverage of policing issues: there are substantial discrepancies between official accounts of criminal activity and press reports of crime; the media tends to homogenise crime by concentrating on a limited range of crimes (mainly violent crime) and drawing facts from a limited range of sources (police/court reports); the media over-report serious crimes, especially murder and crimes with a sexual element; and, the press concentrates crime reportage on events rather than issues, so crime incidents and specific crimes form the bulk of crime news as opposed to analyses of the causes of crime or remedies, trends or issues. McQuail (1994,p.256) reminds us that assessing media performance on the basis of media content, measured against the extent to which content relates to reality, is open to question. He argues that there is no general answer to questions of meaning construction, but media research has pointed to several elements in a more general framework of social and personal meanings including clues as to what is more or less important, salient or relevant in many different contexts (1994,p. 379). An important research question concerns the impact of news media practices, particularly given the significant costs to the community flowing from the commission of crime, its investigation by police, and the processing of offenders through the criminal justice system. The Australian Institute of Criminology estimates the cost of crime in Australia is approximately $19 billion, while the cost of dealing with crime is another $13 billion (Mayhew 2003). The news media, articulated through radio talk-back hosts, are seen as having undue influence on how public funds on crime control are spent (ABC, The Media Report,1 August 2002; Chan 1995; Cowdery 2001; Dixon 2002; Weatherbum 2002). These commentators have pointed to the serious public policy issues arising from the contribution made by the media towards what Weatherburn describes as an irrational public debate about law and order (2002,p. 12) and Hogg and Brown have coined 'the uncivil politics of law and order' (1998,p. 4). As Hogg and Brown (1998,p. 4) observe: crime is depicted as a problem of ever-increasing gravity set to overwhelm society unless urgent, typically punitive measures are taken to control and suppress it. The influence of the media on public policy has long been recognised. As Paletz and Entmann (l981,p. 6) observe: they influence the decisions and actions of politicians; they are open to manipulation by the powerful which insulates the powerful from accountability to the public; they reallocate power amongst the already powerful; they decreased to a marked extent the ability of ordinary citizens to judge events; they foment discontent among the public; and they preserve the legitimacy of the political, economic and social system. Ethnomethodological approaches (Ericson and Haggerty 1997) underpin the research in this study. The ethnomethodological approach was used because of its wider scope, employing as it does, observation, interviewing, and document-analysis techniques (Ericson et al. 1987,p. 77) and its ability to provide meaning and context to the phenomena under observation (Hall 1978; Willis l981). Ethnomethodological approaches are complemented by news framing analyses (Barkin and Gurevitch 1987; Blood, Putnis and Pirkis 2002; Capella and Jamieson 1996; Coleman 1995; Entman 1993; Kitzinger 2000; Keely 1999; Darling-Wolf 1997; London 1993; Pan and Kosicki 2001; Miller and Riechert 2001; Pirkis and Blood 2001; Reese, Gandy and Grant 2003; Scheufele 1999) to explore the news media frames employed in the genre of print crime reporting. What emerges from the study is evidence of a one-sided, highly negative, discourse about policing implemented through a range of media frames centred on conflict and broader xenophobic and egalitarian narratives. Despite the advantages police have as information gatekeepers, their attempts to manage the media environment have met with little success (Hughes 2004; Williams 2002) and the need for police to restrict access to police communications is being challenged (Crime and Misconduct Commission 2004,Inquiry into the effects of a Queensland Police Service decision to adopt digital technology for radio communications). There are exceptions, of course: the news media are not all bad. Routine reporting of crimes, where details of offenders are publicised, greatly assists the work of police as reflected in the case of 43-year-old Mr Colin George Dunstan which is discussed in Chapter Eight. Dunstan sent a series of explosive devices through the mail system in Canberra and police provided the media with photographs of the devices, Mr Dunstan (who was the main suspect),and his vehicle. The media coverage restricted Mr Dunstan's movements and led to his early arrest. Similarly, publication of the details of missing persons, warnings about lethal batches of drugs and crimes such as drink-spiking, enable police to reach a mass audience efficiently and quickly. And at a more abstract level, as noted by McQuail (1994,p. 34),modem communication vehicles can make a positive contribution to cohesion and community. The emergence of the 'yapping pack' form of journalism (Tiffen 1999,p. 207) has resulted in elements of the media exercising a worrying degree of influence over what should be a broader and better informed debate about criminal justice issues. An illustration of this process occurred toward the end of this study with the widely reported spectacle of the Premier of New South Wales presenting his replacement police minister before radio presenter Mr Alan Jones for his endorsement; the subsequent involvement of that minister in operational police matters (Williams 2002); and the departure of the state's police commissioner as a result of sustained media attack (ABC, The Media Report,1 August 2002; Weatherburn 2002). These incidents say much about the influence of the news media in relation to police matters and makes this study a timely one. What follows is a literature review examining contemporary trends in policing and the media; a detailed analysis of two major case studies involving complex police operations; an analysis of a number of examples of print media reports about policing, to identify typical, or characteristic, media frames; the findings from nearly 50 interviews with senior people involved in the police media interface; and an examination of changes in the milieu in which media reports about policing occur.
Date of Award2004
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Canberra
SupervisorTrish Payne (Supervisor), Warwick Blood (Supervisor) & Glen Lewis (Supervisor)

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