Volume 3, Issue 1, January 2001

ISSN 1096-4886 http://www.westerncriminology.org/Western_Criminology_Review.htm
© 2001, The Western Criminology Review. All Rights Reserved.


Constructing Images of Workplace Homicide

 Ronald Burns

Citation: Burns, Ronald. 2001. "Constructing Images of Workplace Homicide." Western Criminology Review 3(1). Online. [Available]: http://www.westerncriminology.org/documents/WCR/v03n1/burns/burns.html


Public perception of workplace homicide involves someone known to the workplace taking out their frustrations on innocent workers. Yet, empirical data suggest that such confrontations constitute only a small percentage of workplace homicides. The present research addresses newspaper coverage of homicides in the workplace, providing analyses of workplace homicide "themes" depicted in newspaper accounts as well as particular characteristics of newspaper portrayals of workplace homicide. Results from these analyses are discussed as they relate to the interests of politicians, workplace homicide consultants, and the media.

Keywords: Workplace homicide, media coverage, constructionism, workplace violence, ideology 

Constructing Images of Workplace Homicide

Recent accounts suggest that increases in workplace homicide resulted in widespread societal attention directed toward protecting workers. Arguably, government reports of workplace homicide/violence influenced public perceptions of and reactions to such acts. These reports, and the subsequent media coverage of their findings, inspired employers to hire homicide/violence consultants, develop homicide/violence programs, increase pre-employment screening, and implement various other protective actions. However, workplace violence consultants were not the only ones who benefited from the situation. The media benefited from the opportunity to cover an issue affecting a wide audience, while various government agencies capitalized on an opportunity to serve their interests.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) termed workplace homicide/violence "a major health problem" (1993:1), closer examination of the situation suggests that their claim, and many similar pronouncements, may have been misdirected. Specifically, the problem may have been constructed through the use of an ill-defined term and influential claimsmaking on behalf of several groups holding interests in the situation. As such, questions arise regarding the appropriateness of society’s response to claims of the workplace becoming "a shooting gallery." This paper will address the construction of the societal fear surrounding workplace homicide, emphasizing the media depiction of such events, and assessing the roles played by several groups in the construction of workplace homicide/violence as an increasingly dangerous social problem.

Almost half a century ago, Mills (1956) noted that the dominant institutional actors in American society consisted of a "power elite" comprised of the federal government, the military, and large corporations. Mills and others (e.g., Sutherland 1949; Simon and Eitzen 1993; Frank and Lynch 1992; Friedrichs 1996) noted the unethical practices of the power elite; practices which could otherwise be recognized as harms directed toward the general public and/or the environment. The present research is designed, in part, to address the possibility that current members of the power elite misuse their authority at the expense of the public.

Fear and Workplace Homicide

Recent government reports allude to workplace homicide/violence as an increasingly discomforting societal concern. For example, in 1993 the CDC encouraged employers and workers to "immediately develop and implement prevention strategies on the basis of available information" (NIOSH 1993:4-5). Similarly, in Fall of 1992, the National Institution for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) declared workplace homicide a significant public health problem (Solomon and King 1993), while in 1994 a Department of Justice study suggested that the scope of violence at work had increased alarmingly (Kinney 1995).

A closer look at workplace homicide statistics suggests reasons for the alarm. Harvey and Cosier (1995) note that during the 1980s, nearly 7,600 U.S. workers were victims of homicide in the workplace--the third leading cause of death among workers on the job. In 1995 Harvey and Cosier note that workplace homicide is the second leading cause of work-related deaths--behind only motor vehicle crashes--and accounts for about seventeen percent of job fatalities. Homicide is also noted as the leading cause of death for women on the job (Harvey and Cosier 1995). While government research is by no means solely responsible for public reaction (e.g., media coverage of several workplace shootings have certainly added "fuel to the fire"), it nevertheless became recognized as evidence that the workplace was no longer safe.

Kinney (1995:1) sums up public concern in stating that "Violence pervades our workplaces, threatening us all. Horror stories of bloodshed at office towers, on factory floors, in post offices, and other workplaces are all too vivid." Similarly, Harvey and Cosier (1995:11) note that "It’s hard to escape the feeling that the workplace is dangerous these days. Newspaper and magazine articles, television news stories, and government publications are replete with frightening incidents of workers being murdered on the job." However, such statements do not necessarily demonstrate that one is unsafe at work.

An Unsubstantiated Fear?

Despite widespread claims regarding the seriousness of workplace violence, some argue that work-related homicide is relatively rare. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports only 1,006 work-related homicides in the U.S. in 1992, which is roughly four percent of all murders (U.S. Department of Labor 1997). Similarly, a NIOSH study found that workplace homicide accounts for only twelve percent of occupational injury deaths for a ten year period (Southerland, Collins, and Scarborough 1997). Larson (1994) notes that although homicide is the second leading cause of workplace death in 1993, only 1,063 of the approximately 121 million people in the workforce in 1993--or one out of 114,000--were killed while at work. Similarly, Larson (1994) notes that workplace homicide does not occur proportionately across all occupations. He further (1994) suggests that despite the widespread attention, these figures concerning workplace violence are often misinterpreted and/or "mispresented" by the media, making it seem as if the problem occurs more frequently than it actually does. He notes that a federal census of workplace homicides found that fifty-nine employees were killed by co-workers or former co-workers in 1993, out of a total national workforce of 120.8 million people, which is equivalent to one for every 2.1 million people.

Similar misinterpretation exists with regard to public perception of the perpetrators of workplace violence. Results from most, if not all, studies of workplace violence suggest that such acts largely involve people outside of the workplace committing violent acts against workers. For instance, the Fear and Violence in the Workplace survey (Northwestern National Life Insurance 1993) found that while violence by vengeful ex-workers appears most often in the news the most common attacks come from customers, clients, or patients.

Nevertheless, the general public appears to conceptualize workplace violence as mainly involving a disgruntled or crazed employee taking frustrations out on fellow employees or supervisors (Glassner 1999; Larson 1994; Barrier 1995; Filipczak 1993; Bulatao and VandenBos 1996). Filipczak (1993:39-40) and Glassner (1999) suggest that the instances of workplace violence we usually hear about involve the "nut with a gun"--a current or former employee who opens fire at the workplace, while Barrier (1995:18) argues that the words "workplace violence" conjure images of laid-off employees who terrorize their former places of employment. While these types of horrifying incidents do occur, empirical data suggest that the majority of workplace homicides occur during felony-murders where the assailant is unknown to the victim (e.g., U.S. Department of Labor 1997).

Questions remain regarding the origin and perpetuation of misguided public perceptions of workplace homicide. For example, is it possible that this situation evolved from media imagery utilizing graphic and sensationalistic reporting (e.g., Sheley and Ashkins 1981; Graber 1980; Liska and Baccaglini 1990)? Or is the situation perpetuated by the government concern for maintaining an image of being tough on crime? Alternatively, could the financial interests of workplace homicide prevention groups play a role in highlighting a superficial need for their services? Arguably, it was a combination of these.


Kappeler et al. (2000:1) suggest that two different perspectives are used to explain the presence of a troubling social issue. First, they cite those with a vested interest in the situation: individuals who feel the need to bring the issue to public attention. Referred to as "claimsmakers," these groups often propose formal social policy to address an issue, which they recognize as being "real, unique in its characteristics, and grave in its consequences". The constructionist perspective also explains social problems. Those who take the constructionist approach "view social problems as constructed from collective definitions rather than from individual views and perceptions" (Kappeler et al. 2000:1). Constructionists recognize mass media, ideology, and political power as primary contributors to the conception and definition of issues as problems (Kappeler et al. 2000). Assuming a constructionist perspective, this paper examines several groups that had substantial interests in creating and/or perpetuating the public misperception of workplace violence/homicide.

Prevention Groups

In seizing an opportunity to capitalize on the public’s fear of going to work, numerous workplace violence prevention groups began promoting their services. Utilizing frightening statistics and horrifying accounts of attacks at the workplace, these agencies were basically cashing in on the fear that had been generated by government reports and media accounts of the situation. It was not beyond these groups to selectively choose appropriate findings and incidents as a means to promote a public need for their services. For example, in the dozen or so "information packets" analyzed for the present study, there was no mention of Larson’s findings regarding the infrequency of attacks at the workplace.

The vested interest of workplace violence consultants in promoting the seriousness of workplace violence/homicide should be evident: If there is great public fear of violence at work, the need for their services increases. The government also maintained an interest in promoting societal fear of the workplace.

Federal Government

Several researchers documented the federal government’s interest in maintaining a "get tough on crime" approach. Specifically, Kappeler et al. (2000:46) suggest that "Exaggerating and distorting the amount and shape of the crime threat is standard fare for politicians," who appear to be in competition to see who can be toughest on crime (regardless of party affiliation), and seek to generate public fear regarding crime, simply because a scared public will be more likely to support a government which hires more cops, builds new prisons, and spends more funds on criminal justice.

In response to societal concerns, several states passed new laws aimed at preventing workplace violence/homicide and the federal government increased its role in attempts to control or prevent such acts. For instance, recently proposed legislation, sponsored by Arizona House Majority Leader Lori Daniels, would give Arizona companies the "power to request court injunctions against employees who harassed or threatened co-workers" (Mattern 2000). Daniels notes that the bill "could help prevent workplace violence caused by former romantic partners or ex-spouses" (Mattern 2000). Similar legislation was adopted in other states, such as California, while others are considering similar approaches (Stone and Hayes 1995).

Despite a historical "hands off" approach to addressing workplace violence, the federal government appears to have a renewed commitment to deal with the issue. For instance, Southerland et al. (1997:92) suggest that "there is pressure on OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) to take a more active role with regard to WV (workplace violence) even to the point of requiring specific physical security guidelines," while Stone and Hayes (1995) note the renewed commitment that OSHA has given to workplace violence. Similarly, the Violence Against Women Act, which was part of President Clinton’s Omnibus Crime Bill, addressed, among other things, gender-related violence in the workplace, which could raise the liability for companies if violence against women occurs at work or in public areas.

While it would be difficult to provide direct evidence of the White House’s involvement in persuading BLS researchers to "find" compelling evidence of a concern for crime, it may be possible that President Clinton sought public support for his inflated crime bill. Clinton’s initial version of the Violent Crime Control And Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was estimated at $5.9 billion. Yet, after battling with Republicans, the final version was estimated to be $30.2 billion (Windelsham, 1998). In attempts to avoid appearing susceptible to Republican influence, or perhaps in attempts to justify spending (additional) billions of dollars on crime, it is possible that Clinton and other Democrats had some influence in promoting a fear of crime, particularly, at the workplace.

While it is not being argued that such a situation did in fact occur, this scenario is provided to demonstrate how branches or agencies within the federal government could "work together" to promote particular interests (please see Jenkins [1994] for a more specific account of a federal agency promoting fear of crime for the sake of self-interests). The federal government, much like businesses in the private sector, is a compilation of interacting parts which often depend upon one another for support. Perhaps in exchange for additional resources or small favors, large favors, etc. from the Clinton administration, the Bureau of Labor Statistics neglected to alter their measurement of workplace homicide or violence.1

Reiman (1995) highlights the government’s practice of deliberately keeping society concerned about street crime, ultimately increasing the likelihood that crimes of the powerful will go unnoticed. Thus, the government appears to have an interest in developing and spreading public fear of crime. Yet the question remains, "how could they inconspicuously do such a thing?" There are many methods through which the government could spread its ideological influence (e.g., public service announcements, controlled press briefings, the release of research reports, the allocation of grant money, etc.). However, with regard to workplace violence, it appears that a misdefined term (similar to the situations regarding the public’s fear of wilding [e.g., Best 1999] and child abduction [e.g., Kappeler, et al. 2000]), or one that could use clarification, resulted in the public’s fear of going to work. For example, murders which occur during a robbery are recognized as workplace homicide, as are homicides resultant from disgruntled workers shooting fellow employees. Such a broad definition naturally increases the number of incidents which fall into this category.

Best (1999) argues that advocates of social problems tend to "avoid precise definitions," opting instead for broad, inclusive definitions. He suggests that advocates find it easier to gloss over definitions while failing to specify the problem’s scope.

In discussing the difficulties in operationalizing the term "suicide," Durkheim (1951) noted the mass media and government’s acceptance of the broad, vaguely-defined term. The willingness to utilize an ill-defined term is evidenced in today’s society, although the problem appears to have grown as several researchers suggest that particular groups creatively define specific terms that promote their own interest. For example, Kappeler et al. (2000) suggest that research results provided for the public are often "clouded by broad definitions" which ultimately give the impression of an epidemic. They (Kappeler et al. 2000:8) note that:

With great regularity governmental agencies like the FBI, BJS, and NIJ distribute press releases about crime statistics to the media. One must remember that these press releases are written by the same people who fund the research and decide what statistics should be collected and shared with the public. While much of the research that these agencies release provides basic and needed information, it is often oversimplified and sometimes designed to elicit social concern--at a minimum, it is filtered through a political process.

One could argue that the use of broad and inclusive definitions of workplace homicide enabled the government to spread fear among society.


In discussing coverage of social problems, Best (1999:168) argues that: "In relaying advocates’ claims to the public, the media often gloss over definitions. Pausing for an exact definition can disrupt the dramatic flow of a good story; the media seem more concerned with finding disturbing statistics and eliciting statements from experts to document claims about a new problem."

Thus, in addition to the apparent interests of workplace homicide prevention personnel and government officials, it seems that the media played a substantial role in the construction of the concern surrounding workplace violence. The media’s focus upon frightening, fear-invoking acts of workplace violence should not come as a surprise to those familiar with the media’s practice of reporting crime news. In general, researchers suggest that the media can present exaggerated accounts of crime in our society, especially violent crime (e.g., Potter and Kappeler 1998; Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990; Chermak 1994; Graber 1980). These findings become even more significant when one considers that most people learn about crime from the mass media (Graber 1980; Surette 1992) and the media’s emphasis on atypical, celebrated, violent crimes can create serious societal misperceptions regarding crime (Chermak 1994; Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990).

Bulatao and VandenBos (1996:4) suggest that "stilted reporting of…dramatic incidents - driven by the media’s need to attract attention and make stories meaningful to the individual while sparing them complicated explanations - often fail to communicate the full context or put incidents in proper perspective." They add that the "sometimes overheated concerns" of workplace homicide have to be "tempered by consideration of actual statistics" (Bulatao and VandenBos 1996:4).

In response to the apparent misguided fear concerning workplace homicide, the following observes the practices of the media in presenting such information. These analyses assist in furthering our understanding of media imagery with regard to crime, as well as the media’s practice of presenting workplace violence issues. Specifically, provided are analyses of: (1) workplace homicide "themes" depicted in newspaper accounts, and (2) particular characteristics of newspaper portrayals of workplace homicide.


Defined as a "standard sociological technique which uses statistical techniques to make inferences about what is found in the media" (Berger 1990:91), content analysis was used to examine newspaper portrayals of workplace homicide. Specifically, all newspaper articles containing the term "workplace homicide" or related terms that appeared in the top 50 newspapers in the United States (using the Dow Jones News/Retrieval search bank) between the years 1992 and 1996 were analyzed. A total of 455 newspaper articles contained the terms "workplace homicide," "killed at work," "killed at the workplace," "death at work," "homicide at the workplace," "homicide at work," or "death at the workplace." While it is understood that searches of full-text databases depend upon the quality of the search parameters, it was felt that these seven phrases (which include variations of the terms "death," "homicide," and "killed" as they relate to the workplace) would provide an adequate sample of information to assess media portrayal of deaths at work. Nevertheless, it is possible that other, related terms, could be used to possibly grasp a larger sample of articles.

While the terms workplace violence and workplace homicide have been used quite loosely so far, a clear distinction between these terms becomes necessary at this point, as does the need to explain the focus upon analyzing media depictions of workplace homicide, as opposed to workplace violence. Violence is a broad term which encompasses acts of homicide. One must keep in mind that not all attacks at work are referred to as "workplace violence" or "workplace homicide." As such, it was felt that observing media depiction of strictly workplace homicide (as opposed to the larger workplace violence) would allow more accurate results, simply because there is a wider variety of terms which could be used to describe violence. In other words, to observe workplace violence, it is possible that the scope of the search would have to be extremely large, and there would still remain the likelihood of missing numerous newspaper articles. Deaths at work can be searched and found in newspaper accounts through using select terms (i.e., they are more easily identifiable).

Newspaper articles were selected as the data source mainly due to their widespread readership and impact upon Americans, and because articles on violent crime are the most widely read by the general public (Antunes and Hurley 1977; Ditton and Duffy 1983; Gorelick 1989; Sherizen 1978). Surette (1992:63) notes that articles on crime in newspapers are read by a greater percentage of subscribers (24-26 percent) than other news topics, and that being factual and analytical, the print medium tends to affect beliefs more than television (Surette 1992:96).


The primary analysis involved analyzing the articles in search of their major themes, as they relate to workplace violence. As expected, some articles included multiple themes and were more difficult to categorize. In such cases the theme that appeared most prominently was considered, specifically through virtue of its position within the article, the number of lines devoted to it, and/or its mention in the headline. Per the recommendations of Sommer and Sommer (1997) and Hodson (1999), reliability of the data was enhanced through having trained personnel code the data. Thus, in addition to the author of the present research, a trained research assistant also coded the data. Ambiguous cases were discussed and a consensus was reached from a third coder, who was also trained.2

Sommer and Sommer (1997) suggest that skimming over the materials to identify major themes is the best way to select categories for classification. They also suggest combining categories that overlap. After a preliminary review of roughly half of the articles by both primary coders, four major themes related to workplace homicide appeared. As such, the data were categorized into "Accounts," "Research," "Prevention and Regulation," and "Causes." Sommer and Sommer (1997) suggest that "reliability is greatest when the scoring categories are clearly stated and do not overlap," thus clear decision rules and criteria for classifying the information were developed.

Accounts include those articles which primarily depicted instances of workplace homicide. For example, the following is a portion of an article classified in this category: "A truck driver calmly set two handguns on the trunk of his Buick yesterday and stoically waited for police moments after he sprayed co-workers with bullets as they began their workday routines, authorities said" (Sloat 1995).

Typically, articles recorded in this category began with such stories, continued with additional, similar stories, and concluded with brief accounts of recent research findings, or prevention tips.

The second category, Research, included articles whose main thrust involved presenting recent research findings. During the time period under study, several national reports related to workplace homicide emerged, and many newspapers covered the stories. The following presents a passage from an article included in this category: "A new study by the Labor Department found that highway accidents and homicides accounted for one-third of workplace deaths in 1993" (Kulfan 1994).

Such articles typically focused on research results, however, many also included examples of workplace homicides and prevention tips.

A third category of articles found in the newspaper articles related to workplace homicide Prevention/Regulation. Prevention and regulation were collapsed into the same category largely due to the preventive nature of the regulation which was often being discussed. Such articles typically began with a heinous example of workplace homicide and proceeded to mainly focus upon prevention efforts. The following presents a portion of an article included in this category: "Two recent holdup attempts at Southern California gasoline service station- one of which ended in a slaying- have boosted efforts by dealers to force Atlantic Richfield Co. to install bullet-resistant glass and other safety features at its facilities in high-crime neighborhoods" (Parrish 1994).

The final category of newspaper articles involved Causes of workplace homicide. These articles typically began with an account of a murder at the workplace, and proceeded to address reasons why people would want to commit such crimes. The articles usually concluded with a brief discussion of prevention tips. The following account is taken from an article discussing the causes of a post office shooting: 

"One of every three Postal Service workers is a military veteran. Frank, who was succeeded as postmaster general last summer by Marvin Runyon, estimated that more than 10 percent of the veterans in the Postal Service work force are considered disabled, and that ‘those disabilities can be mental as well as physical.’ ‘In a tiny, tiny, minority of cases, you’re going to have people slip through who are basically unbalanced people trained to kill…’" (Smith 1993).

Additionally, there were numerous articles whose content was unrelated to workplace homicide (n=119, or 26.2%). Such a substantial number/percentage largely stems from the wide scope of terms included in the data collection (e.g., "death at work," "death at the workplace"). These articles typically included accounts of workers accidentally being killed at work (i.e., their deaths were not homicides), and thus, were excluded from the present research.

Accounts. Secondary analysis of the data involved comparing newspaper portrayals of workplace homicide to research provided by the U.S. Department of Labor (U.S. Department of Labor 1997).3 More specifically, the analysis involved recording and measuring specific circumstances presented in newspaper portrayals of workplace homicide. The circumstances include the gender of victims, relationship between victims and offenders, and weapons used in the attacks. Analyses of the articles were restricted to direct accounts of workplace homicide; limiting the analysis to those articles which included an example(s), or portrayal(s) of workplace homicide.

Initially, the present research was designed to encompass numerous variables presented in media accounts of workplace homicide (e.g, the demographics of the participants, as well as factors involved in the attacks). However, after initially examining the articles, it was discovered that such thorough information is rarely included in the media portrayals of workplace homicides. Thus, the issues which have been included were those which were found most often in the accounts.4

The following account, taken from The Atlanta Journal and Constitution on March 9, 1992 (p.D1), highlights the information often found in newspaper accounts of workplace homicide: "A woman, working in the kitchen of the Gardens Restaurant, was shot and killed by her boyfriend."

At least three pieces of evidence appear from this account: (1) the victim was a female; (2) the weapon used was a gun; and (3) the actors were familiar with each other. Portrayals such as this were collected, recorded, analyzed, and compared to government data on workplace homicide.

Within the articles there were 156 specific portrayals of workplace homicide containing at least one piece of information pertinent to the secondary analysis (i.e., the nature of the interaction between the offender and victim, the victim’s gender, or the weapon used in the crime). Some articles contained more than one portrayal of workplace homicide, while others included none. The 156 portrayals were found in 105 different articles (i.e., there were several articles containing more than one account). The analysis was conducted by reading and recording the characteristics of the portrayals. Reliability was increased through having the two primary coders analyze the accounts/articles (agreement was reached between the primary coders in each of the accounts). The data for both the primary and secondary analyses were aggregated for the five-year period under study. Prior to presenting the findings, several limitations of the research should be noted.


There are several notable limitations in the present research. First, several have questioned the accuracy of government data on workplace homicide/violence (e.g., Bulatao and VandenBos 1996; Larson 1994; Bell, et al. 1990; Jenkins, Lagne, and Kisher 1992). For example, Bulatao and VandenBos (1996) suggest that "researchers and government officials are still struggling toward a consensus definition," battling issues such as how to define the term, its breadth, and whether to focus on the link between violence and work. Others note the limitations of relying solely on death records, missing employment data, and incomplete and/or unreliable sources for understanding the incidents, offenders, and victims of workplace homicide (Southerland, et al. 1997). However, such data have been widely cited and have increased in accuracy (Southerland, et al. 1997). Thus, recent data were analyzed, hopefully reducing such a limitation.

Second, there exists a significant discrepancy between the number of newspaper portrayals of workplace homicide analyzed and the number of murders noted in the BLS workplace homicide statistics. It is hypothesized that this occurs because newspapers likely do not recognize felony-murders under the guise of workplace homicide. Put simply, it is presumed rare that a felony-murder is termed a murder, or death by newspapers. Yet, somebody murdering a colleague (a less-frequent act) would more likely be deemed "workplace homicide" and thus be included in the present analysis. Such a situation helps explain why there is not an equivalent number of newspaper articles per workplace homicide.

Finally, the limitations of utilizing content analysis should be noted. It could be argued that content analysis themes tell us little and are likely to reflect the researchers’ interpretive schema. Hodson (1999:50) suggests that "coders who read the documentary accounts also may have biases based on their own theoretical orientations or backgrounds. Coding protocols may not overcome these biases completely." As such, reliability and validity are of concern when using content analysis. Content analysis is also limited in that it merely describes communication, and thus is restricted to the materials available. One cannot use content analysis to explain public perceptions, or to make any other generalizations regarding the impact of the written words.

However, content analysis has the benefit of being unobtrusive, thus eliminating the possible bias that occurs when researchers generate data in an interview. It also allows for the simultaneous application of quantitative and qualitative techniques (Sommer and Sommer 1997). Finally, content analysis permits researchers to code and recode data, thus ascertaining consistency in the coding, and strengthening reliability (Babbie 1992). Hodson (1999) suggests that techniques for increasing reliability should be built into the data-coding process through developing clear coding protocols and through training and supervising coders. As such, several steps were taken to strictly follow suggested coding procedures and develop clear rules and criteria for analyzing the articles.


Primary Analysis Findings

With regard to the content of workplace homicide articles, most (51.2%) concerned research findings related to the topic. Accounts of workplace homicide were the main theme in over one-quarter (26.5%) of the articles, while prevention/regulation and causes of workplace homicide were the main thrusts of 17.9 percent and 4.5 percent of the articles, respectively.

Secondary Analysis Findings

Comparison of newspaper portrayals of workplace homicide and BLS data provided several notable findings. For example, newspapers were more likely to portray males (57.1%) as the victims of workplace homicide (females were depicted 42.9% of the time). However, BLS statistics suggest that the overwhelming majority of victims were males (81%) as opposed to females (19%).

Data concerning the circumstances surrounding workplace homicides were divided into two categories, including felony-murders and those apparently resulting from a disagreement/argument. The latter category includes homicides committed by (1) work associates (e.g., coworkers, former coworkers, customers, clients), (2) relatives (e.g., husband, ex-husband, wife, ex-wife, other relative) and (3) personal acquaintances (e.g., boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, other acquaintances).5 In general, newspapers were substantially more likely than BLS reports to suggest that workplace homicides occur as a result of a disagreement/argument (85% of all portrayals compared to only 25% in BLS data). Accordingly, government reports were much more likely than the newspaper portrayals to suggest that workplace homicide occurs during felony-murders (14.9% of all newspaper portrayals, yet 75% in BLS data).

Newspaper portrayals of workplace homicide were slightly more likely than government reports to depict a gun as the weapon used in workplace homicides. Conversely, newspaper portrayals were less likely to portray workplace homicide as the result of a stabbing or some other method. For example, while newspaper accounts portrayed a gun being used to commit workplace homicide in 90.2 percent of such incidents, BLS data suggest that a gun was used only 82 percent of the time. Similarly, 3.3 percent of newspaper accounts portrayed workplace homicides involving stabbings, while BLS data suggest that such a method was involved in 9 percent of the attacks. Newspapers portrayed other methods of homicide in roughly 6.5 percent of the accounts, compared to 9 percent for the BLS data.


Best (1998:221) argues that in examining the organization of a social problem, constructionists typically look toward groups with vested interests in the situation. These groups typically draw public attention to an issue, while sometimes promoting a particular image of the issue. Best suggests that the media then transform and transmit this information to the general public, and hence, a social problem is undergoing development.

Based on the present research, it appears that newspapers tend to emphasize workplace homicide research findings, yet the specifics found in newspaper portrayals of workplace homicide generally differ from those found in government reports. The emphasis upon research findings contradicts much of the previous literature suggesting that the media largely focus upon sensationalized, violent crimes with the intention of attracting a large audience. However, results from the secondary analysis suggest otherwise. This finding supports the argument that violent incidents in the workplace which do not involve the stereotypical workplace murderer (i.e., "the nut with a gun") are not framed by the media as workplace violence. As such, the media present a skewed view of these acts.

The finding also seems logical in the sense that the media referred to deaths in the workplace as workplace homicide only when the actors involved fit the public’s (mis)perception of who commits these acts. In other words, because they focused upon the rarest form of workplace homicide, it makes sense that most articles concerned research results and not necessarily accounts of workplace homicide.

Newspaper portrayals contrast with BLS findings which suggest that males are overwhelmingly the victims of such incidents. By "under-representing" the percentage of males who are actually victimized by workplace homicide, the media create or perpetuate the impression that everyone is equally susceptible to such attacks. Increased focus upon females as victims of workplace homicide is consistent with Surette’s (1998:69) statement that when victims are described in crime news, they "tend to be portrayed as female…".

Newspaper portrayals are far more likely to suggest that workplace homicide results from a disagreement/argument6 as opposed to a robbery. Through largely portraying work associates as workplace murderers, newspaper portrayals contradict BLS findings which suggest that traditional, street criminals are primary offenders in such incidents. It is possible that these sensationalistic accounts have led to the aforementioned public perceptions of workplace murderers (e.g., Barrier 1995; Larson 1994; Filipczak 1993; Bulatao and VandenBos 1996; Southerland et al. 1997).

In addition to providing an account of media depictions of workplace homicide, results from the present research highlight an interesting aspect regarding the effects of media imagery. Specifically, these results suggest that most articles involving workplace homicide are research-related. However, current results also suggest that portrayals of workplace homicide often contrast with government data. Since prior literature suggests that the public generally believes that workplace homicide largely involves a disgruntled worker, it follows that multiple factors may be influencing the public’s perception of workplace homicide.

It could be possible that newspaper effects upon public perception of workplace homicide are substantially limited and other influences (e.g., television news, talk radio, magazines, etc.) shape their beliefs. Or, if newspapers do play a role in shaping public perception, it could be that readers skim (or neglect to read and/or retain information from) workplace homicide stories that mainly address research findings. It is also possible that stories concerning workplace homicide research are not covered on the front pages of newspapers (or may be placed in the rear of the paper, where readership diminishes). Finally, it could be that because many articles addressing workplace homicide begin with an account(s) of someone being killed at work, images of gruesome attacks by disgruntled workers often outweigh the influences of empirical findings. It is likely that a combination of these actions explains the conflicting results.

Claimsmaking on behalf of the media, the government, and workplace violence prevention groups arguably played a substantial role in constructing workplace violence as a societal concern. While not to simplify the process involved in their tactics, it does appear that each group benefited from the perpetuation of fear. For instance, similar to the moral panic which evolved in response to the recent spate of school shootings (Burns and Crawford 1999), the media and government benefited from each other for the sake of promoting their interests. In its attempts to widen the scope of acts which constitute workplace homicide, the government used a broad definition that encompasses acts which, traditionally, are not associated with workplace violence. In doing so, they created substantial public fear, ultimately gaining support to enlarge the criminal justice system. The media, in turn, published these results, which appeared upon government release and resurfaced with each horrific account of a disgruntled worker shooting up the workplace. In other words, the media served its interest by utilizing government research (which is typically better accepted by the public [Dickson 1968]) and horrific accounts to attract readership.

Workplace violence consultants were in the enviable position to "pick and choose" between which bodies of information they wanted to include in their advertising/propaganda. In promoting their business (and subsequently increasing profits), all they had to do was point to the claims being made by the government and the media as evidence of society’s need for prevention services.

Tom Harpley of National Trauma Services profiled the typical workplace murderer: "This person is likely to give off warning signs that often go undetected by those co-workers and managers who encounter them." He added, "This is a different sociological profile from the typical murderer, who’s likely to be a black male in his teens or 20s, using an illegally acquired handgun," and that "The workplace murderer is likely to be a middle-age, Caucasian male, using an exotic weapon, such as an Uzi, an AK-47 or a Samurai sword, legally acquired. In fact, he may have a fascination with such weapons" (Stuart 1992:74). Harpley’s description of the "typical" workplace murderer is not based upon government reports, but quite possibly upon newspaper portrayals of such attacks. If the "typical" workplace murderer was based upon government data (which incorporates felony-murders), one would see the same profile as the "typical" street criminal.


As we progress through the Information Age, it could be argued that the media have replaced the military in today’s power elite. If "information is power," the media are in an opportune position to wield power, as are all branches of government. The present research suggests that these two agencies have abused their power at the expense of the general public; particularly through the use of information management. While their behaviors are not as harmful as other, recently identified incidents of white collar deviance (e.g., faulty tires resulting in numerous deaths), they nevertheless represent an abuse of power.

Kappeler et al. (1996) suggest that the media select the most bizarre or gruesome acts that can be uncovered, thus ensuring market success. The authors suggest that after the media selects an incident, "it is then presented as evidence of a common, more general, and representative crime problem" (Kappeler et al. 1996:376). Observed within the context of the comments made by Kappeler et al., it appears that workplace homicide has been largely misinterpreted by society, with several groups benefiting from the misunderstanding.

It is unlikely that the media will alter the manner in which they portray crime. Similarly, it is unlikely that workplace violence prevention groups, whose industry survives on society’s need for protection from workplace offenders, will alter their approach. Finally, what would suggest that the government will discontinue soliciting public approval for criminal justice resources, and tightening its grasp upon social control? Thus, what hope lies ahead?

Workplace homicide should be of societal concern. However, in acting upon this concern, it is important that efforts progress in the correct direction. The media should clearly define, discuss, and/or portray workplace homicide, with the ultimate goal of informing without creating a workplace homicide moral panic. They must also discourage the development and/or proliferation of misguided employee consulting, training, screening, etc., programs.

Perhaps more importantly, efforts to strengthen the consistency, validity, and reliability of workplace homicide statistics are necessary for appropriate responses to the problem. Clarification of the terms "workplace homicide" and "workplace violence" would be an appropriate starting point. Also, the workplace violence literature currently lacks insightful qualitative measurement.

Regardless of where future efforts aim, it is important that we address not only public perceptions and media depiction of workplace violence, but acts of workplace violence in general. It is also important that we address the misuse of power (regardless if it is information-based or not) by the modern day power elite. Hopefully, the present research provides a step in the proper direction. 

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1. Support for this suggestion comes from several statements made by high-ranking BLS employees, who admit to the limitations in the measurement of workplace violence. For instance, in response to the BLS studies, Martin Personick, a senior BLS economist notes, "One of the first things you see is that this co-worker stuff is not a big deal" (cited in Larson, 1994), while Guy Toscano, program manager of the BLS survey notes that "It’s robberies," further adding "That’s it. But who wants to read about a robbery, when you can read all the little details of the sex between two co-workers who go and kill each other?" (cited in Larson [1994]). Such statements leave one wondering why, if they are aware of the limitations of the research, do they continue to conduct it as such?

2. The coding procedure was based upon the recommendations of Sommer and Sommer (1997). For example, in addition to the author of the present study, two research assistants were trained in analyzing the articles (one assistant analyzed all of the articles, the other was used when there was uncertainty regarding the nature of a particular article). The coders were free to ask questions and express doubts when they were uncertain. They were provided with a detailed explanation of the categories, followed by a "trial run" which helped assess their capabilities and also assisted in further developing the categories of articles.

In general, there was a strong sense of agreement between the primary coders (concurrence as to the main themes of the articles occurred in roughly 93 percent of the cases). Agreement was ultimately reached in all cases upon discussion with the third reviewer. The high degree of agreement among the coders is likely attributed to the limited number of categories, the preparedness and/or training of the coders, the development of a clear, well-defined coding scheme (enhanced through a pilot study), and the straightforwardness of most newspaper articles (i.e., many articles clearly fit into one of the categories).

3. For consistency purposes, the definition of workplace homicide is the one used by the BLS. BLS defines workplace homicide as "an event or exposure resulting in a fatal injury or illness to a person on an employer’s premises when the person was there to work; or off the premises and the event or exposure was related to the person’s work or status as an employee" (U.S. Department of Labor 1997).

4. With regard to the secondary analysis, the limitation of incomplete newspaper portrayals of workplace homicide was addressed by including as much relevant information as possible. For example, several portrayals excluded the gender of the victim. Theoretically, such exclusions might be considered "missing data." However, such information was not considered missing because the current research involves media portrayals. Accordingly, all pertinent, available information was included.

5. Due to the likely motive and for the sake of ease in presenting and understanding the material, homicides committed by work associates, relatives, and personal acquaintances will hereafter be referred to as the result of a disagreement/argument. However, it is not being suggested that all of these offenses were spurred by a disagreement/argument.

6. Overall, most newspaper portrayals of workplace homicide involve a work associate (e.g., a customer, coworker, former work, client). Such accounts constitute 78.5 percent of all workplace homicide portrayals.

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Ronald Burns

Ronald Burns is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Texas Christian University. His recent research focus has been on police use of force, the social construction of image within the automobile industry, and media images of crime. His most recent publications appear in Crime, Law and Social Change, Studies in Symbolic Interaction, and Police Quarterly.

Contact: Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, Texas Christian University,TCU Box 298710, Fort Worth, TX 76129; phone: 817.257.6155 ; e-mail: r.burns@tcu.edu.

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