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Volume 3, Issue 2, June 2002

ISSN 1096-4886 http://www.westerncriminology.org/Western_Criminology_Review.htm
© 2002, The Western Criminology Review. All Rights Reserved.


Television Network News Coverage of Corporate Crime From 1970-2000

 
Brendan Maguire

Citation: Maguire, Brendan, "Television Network News Coverage of Corporate Crime From 1970-2000." Western Criminology Review 3 (2). [Online.] Available: http://www.westerncriminology.org/documents/WCR/v03n3/maguire/maguire.html

Abstract 

Numerous studies have shown that both the news and entertainment media present distorted views of crime. Chief among the distortions are an over-exaggeration of violent crime and a corresponding underrepresentation of corporate crime. Does this general conclusion from the research literature apply to network television newscasts? This is a timely question given that criminologists have seldom examined national newscasts, as opposed to local television news. The present study, using the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, examines television nightly newscasts over a thirty-year period. Findings focus on trends in nightly news coverage of corporate crime between 1970 and 2000. 


Keywords: Television crime news, media coverage, corporate crime.

 

Television Network News Coverage of Corporate Crime from 1970-2000* 

Numerous studies have shown that the media present a distorted image of crime (Bailey and Hale 1998; Barak 1994; Garofalo 1981; Kappeler, Blumberg, and Potter 2000; Surette 1998; Warr 1995). This has long been the case for the entertainment media which has persistently exaggerated the prevalence of violent crime, while underplaying the frequency and severity of other types of criminal offenses (Barrile 1986; Dominick 1973; Maguire 1988; Smythe 1954). Indeed, since the 1950s prime-time crime and police shows have depicted murders as if they are common occurrences in American society, while at the same time virtually ignoring corporate violations of the law. Similarly, the news media, particularly newspapers and local television newscasts, have promulgated the same conspicuous distortion by focusing most attention on crimes of interpersonal violence (Chermak 1995a, 1995b, 1994; Dominick 1978; Graber 1980; Maguire, Sandage, and Weatherby 1999; Sheley and Ashkins 1981; Tunnell 1998). Clearly, crime has become a major part of daily news, something Tunnell (1992) refers to as the "commodification of crime." To this end, numerous studies of newspaper coverage and local television news have shown that local news is guided by an "if it bleeds, it leads" format.

Is this also the pattern for national news on the major television networks? Surprisingly, no firm answer is possible, as this is one area of investigation that has been under-researched. The present study addresses this void in the literature by examining the nightly national news on ABC (American Broadcasting Company), CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System), and NBC (National Broadcasting Company). Specifically, this project seeks to answer the following two questions: (1) To what extent do network television newscasts report on corporate crimes, especially as compared to the coverage of other types of crimes? and (2) Have there been noteworthy changes in the extent of network news coverage of corporate crimes over the past three decades?

The results of this investigation could go in either of two directions. On the one hand, it would not be surprising to find that network newscasts are more likely to report crimes of interpersonal violence than corporate offenses (illegalities subject to civil penalties, if not criminal punishment). That finding would be consistent with data found in a long line of previous studies that have examined news media coverage of crime, mainly studies of newspaper coverage and big city television newscasts. On the other hand, it may be that the media and general public have caught up to the fact that corporate crime has very serious consequences. Such a change in orientation would make corporate crime reporting more likely. What is more, producers of national television news might be guided by a different strategy than what is characteristic of newspapers or local television stations, particularly big city television newscasts. The most serious corporate crimes affect the entire society and therefore national television coverage of these stories might occur even if local media outlets do not present such stories.

It is clearly not possible for the media to report all crime, and so reporters typically select the most eye-catching stories. Roshier (1973) argues that the crimes most likely to be covered in the media are acts that are unusual, dramatic, and/or involve famous people. If Roshier is correct, however, that would not necessarily argue against corporate crime reports. Consider, for example, three corporate crime stories that surfaced in 2000: a dot-com company that offered music albums over the Internet was charged with copyright infringement; a tire company was accused of knowingly selling defective tires that resulted in many car accident deaths; and Microsoft, the company founded and headed by Bill Gates, the world's richest man, was charged with antitrust violations. The first offense is unusual, the second offense is dramatic, and the third offense involves a famous person. With this in mind, one is tempted to conclude that network newscasts are just as likely to cover corporate crime as interpersonal violent offenses.

As a final introductory point, it should be noted that there is something roughly tantamount to a national news "inner ring" (see e.g., Bagdikian 1997; Hess 1981). This inner ring consists of major broadcasting networks such as ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX, and NBC; national newsmagazines such as Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News & World Report; and powerful newspapers such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and USA Today. These outlets, reflecting a concentration of power and influence, lead each day's news cycle. As Bagdikian has noted, media news is getting ever closer to Orwell's "Big Brother" image (Bagdikian 1997:3). In addition, inner ring outlets are increasingly the subsidiaries of huge corporate entities (we will speak more about the corporate ownership of the news media later in the paper). 

DATA AND METHODS 

Data for this study come from the Television News Archive housed at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Among other holdings, the archive contains video tapes of all nightly television newscasts on ABC, CBS, and NBC going back to 1968. It is the world's largest collection of evening network television news broadcasts. On its website the archive maintains an index called "Evening News Abstracts" (ENA). This index contains descriptive summaries of each reported story for every newscast including the amount of time devoted to each story. The ENA makes it possible to identify and catalogue every crime story appearing on network news for the past 32 years. The focus here is not that extensive; instead, the present study is a content analysis of a sample consisting of all ABC, CBS, and NBC nightly newscasts for the first Wednesday of every month in 1970, 1975, 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995, and 2000 (CNN did not exist from the beginning sample years, but the ENA now carries CNN information).

At times a news story, including a crime story, will be so popular that it will continue to be covered for several days or more. Analyzing just one day a month minimizes the chance of a single crime story appearing repeatedly in the sample. Even taking this precaution, the present sample includes occasional "repeat" stories, the O.J. Simpson murder trial being the most glaring example. Of course, there were also many highly similar stories as each of the networks covered the same major stories of the day. For example, in the summer of 2000 ABC, CBS, and NBC each aired multiple stories on the Microsoft antitrust case. This type of story repetition is unavoidable when there is same-date sampling of all the network newscasts.

At this point, one could ask whether repeat stories should be minimized in the sample. Robinson (2001), for example, argues that crime story repetition contributes to the problem of fair and accurate news reporting. Accordingly, to best reflect what viewers actually see, repeat stories should be included to a proportionate extent. However, the problem with a repeat story is that it is by definition not a new story. In short, viewers are likely to interpret it as a follow-up, or even a repeat, of old news. In a close call, in terms of sample design, it was decided to give extra attention to fresh stories.

The selection of Wednesday as the sample day was made at random, except that Saturday and Sunday were eliminated as possibilities because weekend newscasts are frequently pre-empted because of sporting events going past their expected time of completion. The examination of newscasts at five-year intervals allows for a comparison of patterns over time, which is a key focus of the study.

Content analysis is a research method for "analyzing the symbolic content of any communication" (Singleton et al. 1988:347). Coding is the primary enterprise of content analysis. The present project analyzed 251 newscasts containing approximately 25,000 news stories (January 1, 1975 was the only Wednesday in the sample not to have three newscasts--NBC aired a college football bowl game instead of the nightly news). The first step in the coding operation was to distinguish crime stories from all other news stories. Each crime story was then categorized under one of the following specific types of crime: interpersonal violence (bodily harm offenses such as murder and rape); drug violence (violent offenses motivated and connected to drug use and sales); non-violent drug offenses (selling, trafficking, and use of illegal substances); terrorism (wide variety of acts perpetrated by a state, group, or individual motivated by a political end); foreign violence (violent offenses committed by individuals not affiliated with a terrorist organization); personal fraud (e.g., embezzlement); and corporate crime (criminal or civil violations undertaken, or alleged to have been undertaken, to advance the interests of a corporation). This is not an exhaustive list; for example, burglary, shoplifting, and police corruption are just a few types of criminal offenses not accounted for. To help deal with this situation a residual category titled "other" was also used. The typology allows for several important comparisons to be made, including most significantly the number of violent crime stories versus corporate crime stories.

In content analysis research there are often two or more coders, and inter-coder reliability is ordinarily a fundamental concern (Krippendorf 1980; Weber 1990). In the present study the author did all of the coding. The fact that one person did all of the coding would presumably optimize coding consistency. The disadvantage of having just one coder, however, is that there is a greater potential for systematic bias and oversight. As a methodological check, a colleague coded roughly 10 percent of the overall sample of newscasts. Intercoder reliability scores ranged from 88 percent for identification of crime stories (from all news stories) to 73 percent for specific categorization of crime stories (within the eight types noted above). Most of the discrepancies had to do with the category of terrorist crime; the only discrepancy related to corporate crime was that the colleague's coding identified one corporate crime as a personal fraud. Finally, there was no indication of systematic bias. This conclusion, however, must be tempered by the fact that the only independent check for systematic bias was a colleague's coding of ten percent of the sample. That no evidence for systemic bias was found is positive, but not totally conclusive. 

FINDINGS 

Table 1 provides a breakdown of the number and time length of crime stories for seven distinct offenses as well as the residual "other" category. Interpersonal violence (identified in Table 1 as "Violence") clearly predominates in both number of stories and length of reports. There were 227 stories of interpersonal violence, most of which were accounts of a murder or alleged murder, or attempts thereof. Air time for these reports totaled about six and one-half hours. The next most frequent crime story focused on terrorism. (Note that the analysis period of this study ended before the tragic events of September 11, 2001. For the past seven months, and perhaps the months and even years ahead, news coverage is likely to include considerable coverage of terrorism. Clearly, the results of the present study have to be interpreted with this context in mind--Editor.)

 

Table 1

Number and Time Length (minutes and seconds)
of Crime Stories by Category, 1970-2000
 

 

Crime

 

1970

 

1975

 

1980

 

1985

 

1990

 

1995

 

2000

 

Total

 

Violence
No.

 

 

37

 

 

30

 

 

20

 

 

29

 

 

21

 

 

72

 

 

18

 

 

227

 

Time

 

60:10

 

46:10

 

26:20

 

42:10

 

37:50

 

149:25

 

37:00

 

399:05

 

Terrorism

No.

 

 

16

 

 

19

 

 

40

 

 

25

 

 

13

 

 

9

 

 

16

 

 

138

 

Time

 

20:40

 

38:30

 

73:20

 

58:30

 

20:50

 

14:40

 

27:10

 

253:40

 

Other

No.

 

 

12

 

 

22

 

 

17

 

 

15

 

 

14

 

 

26

 

 

13

 

 

119

 

Time

 

8:40

 

45:30

 

34:40

 

17:50

 

22:00

 

37:30

 

15:50

 

183:00

 

Non-violent Drugs

No.

 

 

9

 

 

5

 

 

0

 

 

9

 

 

14

 

 

7

 

 

0

 

 

44

 

Time

 

11:00

 

3:40

 

-

 

21:10

 

35:30

 

20:40

 

-

 

92:00

 

Foreign Violence

No.

 

 

4

 

 

11

 

 

1

 

 

14

 

 

3

 

 

10

 

 

6

 

 

49

 

Time

 

4:00

 

10:10

 

10:10

 

22:50

 

2:30

 

16:00

 

7:10

 

62:50

 

Corporate Crime

No.

 

 

7

 

 

5

 

 

1

 

 

5

 

 

9

 

 

1

 

 

15

 

 

43

 

Time

 

3:30

 

4:10

 

1:40

 

9:30

 

16:30

 

3:50

 

47:30

 

86:40

 

Personal Fraud

No.

 

 

4

 

 

6

 

 

6

 

 

5

 

 

2

 

 

7

 

 

4

 

 

35

 

Time

 

3:10

 

9:50

 

5:30

 

10:20

 

0:50

 

6:00

 

8:20

 

44:00

 

Drug Violence

No.

 

 

0

 

 

0

 

 

0

 

 

5

 

 

3

 

 

0

 

 

0

 

 

8

 

Time

 

-

 

-

 

-

 

8:00

 

4:00

 

-

 

-

 

12:00

 

TOTAL

No.

 

 

89

 

 

98

 

 

85

 

 

108

 

 

79

 

 

132

 

 

72

 

 

663

 

Time

 

111:10

 

159:00

 

141:40

 

190:20

 

140:00

 

239:55

 

143:00

 

1133:15

Nearly always, reported terrorist acts were set in a foreign country. Typically, these acts consisted of a kidnapping, hijacking, bombing, or shooting. Most of this behavior took place in the Mideast, which has for decades, indeed centuries, been a hotbed of political tension. The fact that terrorism is so frequently reported is a significant finding because most previous studies of crime news coverage have failed to note the prevalence of such offenses. This omission is probably due to the fact that until September 11 reported terrorism most often occurs in foreign nations, and its motivation is unlike the motivation for conventional crimes of violence. Terrorism is outside the traditional scope of interest that guides the work of most American criminologists, who have tended to concentrate on "Index" offenses occurring in the United States. Nonetheless, terrorist crime has been a regular feature of network television news over the past thirty years, peaking in 1980 with extensive reporting of the Iran hostage crisis.

The data in Table 2 indicate the number of stories aired for violent crimes (which consists of Table 1 categories titled "Violence," "Terrorism," and "Foreign Violence,"), drug offenses (which consists of Table 1 categories titled "Non-Violent Drug Offenses," and "Drug Violence,") and corporate crimes. Content analysis for the seven years sampled revealed only 43 corporate crime stories. That is a small number when compared to the number of violent crime stories (422). In total, the 43 corporate crime stories constitute only 6% of all crime stories in the sample. Interestingly, the reporting of corporate crimes in 2000 reached an all-time high.

 

Table 2

Violent, Drug and Corporate Crime Stories
(Percent of All Crime Reports)

 

 

Year

 

 

Violenta

 

Drug
Offensesb

 

Corporate
Crimec

 

Total Crime
Reports

 

 

No.

 

Percent

 

No.

 

Percent

 

No.

 

Percent

 

No.

 

Percent

 

1970

 

57

 

64.0

 

9

 

10.1

 

7

 

7.9

 

89

 

13.4

 

1975

 

60

 

61.2

 

5

 

5.1

 

5

 

5.1

 

98

 

14.8

 

1980

 

61

 

71.8

 

0

 

0.0

 

1

 

1.2

 

85

 

12.8

 

1985

 

73

 

64.0

 

14

 

12.3

 

5

 

4.4

 

114

 

17.2

 

1990

 

40

 

51.9

 

17

 

22.1

 

9

 

11.7

 

77

 

11.6

 

1995

 

91

 

71.1

 

7

 

5.5

 

1

 

0.9

 

128

 

19.3

 

2000

 

40

 

55.6

 

0

 

0.0

 

15

 

11.7

 

72

 

10.9

 

Total

 

422

 

63.7

 

52

 

72.2

 

43

 

59.7

 

663

 

100.0

aViolence includes three categories from Table 1: violence, terrorism, and foreign violence.
bDrug Offenses includes two categories from Table 1: non-violent drug offenses and drug violence.
cTotal Crime Reports includes all categories from Table 1.

 Table 2 also shows that network news coverage of drug crimes has fallen off significantly in the past decade. The so-called "war on drugs" is both costly (total cost about $1 billion in 1980 to over $18 billion in 2000--see www.lindesmith.org) and controversial, and yet the present sample suggests that it is not as newsworthy a topic as it was in 1985 and 1990. Concerning this finding, there are two points worth underscoring. First, drug crimes, particularly violent offenses, have more to do with the drug war than drug use. Consider what Erikson and Butters (1998:195) have to say on this matter: 

In reality, however, much drug related harm is attributable to the criminal distribution of drugs. The development of a criminal economy surrounding the drug market and the associated violence are not functions of the psycho-pharmacological properties of the drug, but rather have been constructed by the conditions society has created.

Second, the reduction in news coverage of drug crimes in recent years coincides with the fact that there was considerably more violence associated with drug markets in 1985 and 1990 than was the case from 1990 to 2000. Abatement in crack cocaine demand and a stabilization of markets account for the downturn in violence (Baumer et al. 1998).

Table 3 offers a different measure of coverage, not the number of reports, but time length of story. Here again, most time spent on crime focuses on violent offenses (64 percent of the total). Only nine percent of crime coverage in minutes and seconds is devoted to reports on corporate crimes. The 2000 data suggest a substantial increase in time spent on this subject; however, conclusions should be drawn with care. The Microsoft antitrust suit and the Firestone defective tire stories accounted for 12 of the 15 corporate crime reports in 2000. These cases are highly complex and appear to require extended coverage time. Moreover, unlike most corporate offenses, these alleged crimes have a perceived relevance to the everyday life of most Americans. People who use computers, or own shares of stock in Microsoft, would likely be interested in the government's case against the company. The Firestone story would have obvious appeal to Americans who own vehicles that ride on the tires in question. It is an even more gripping story inasmuch as dozens of people have been killed as a result of tire failure. What is more, the Firestone case implicates Ford Motor company because most of the fatal crashes involved the Ford Explorer. Both Firestone and Ford are repeat offenders. In the 1970s Firestone sold the defective "Series 500" steel-belted radial, and Ford marketed the infamous Pinto model noted for its defective gas tank (see Cullen, Maakestad, and Cavender 1987).

Table 3

Time of Coverage for Violent, Drug and Corporate Crimes
as a Percent of All Crime Story Coverage

 

 

 

Year

 

 

Violencea

 

Drug
Offenseb

 

Corporate
Crime

 

Total Crime

Reportsc

 

 

Time

 

Percent

 

Time

 

Percent

 

Time

 

Percent

 

Time

 

Percent

 

1970

 

84:40

 

75.9

 

11:00

 

9.9

 

3:30

 

3.0

 

111:10

 

9.7

 

1975

 

94:50

 

59.4

 

3:50

 

2.2

 

4:10

 

2.6

 

159:00

 

14.0

 

1980

 

99:50

 

70.4

 

0

 

-

 

1:40

 

1.0

 

141:40

 

12.5

 

1985

 

131:30

 

69.0

 

29.1

 

15.3

 

16.3

 

8.6

 

190:20

 

16.8

 

1990

 

65:10

 

46.5

 

39:30

 

28.1

 

14:30

 

10.2

 

140:00

 

12.4

 

1995

 

180:05

 

75.2

 

20:40

 

8.5

 

3:50

 

1.5

 

239:55

 

21.1

 

2000

 

71:10

 

49.7

 

0

 

-

 

47:30

 

33.1

 

143:00

 

12.6

 

Total

 

727:35

 

64.1

 

104:10

 

9.2

 

91:40

 

8.1

 

1133:15

 

100.0
aViolence includes three categories from Table 1: violence, terrorism, and foreign violence.
bDrug Offenses includes two categories from Table 1: non-violent drug offenses and drug violence.
cTotal Crime Reports includes all categories from Table 1.

In short, rather than suggesting a dramatic new trend in news coverage of corporate crime, the reports about Microsoft and Firestone might simply reflect the fact that these are two unusually interesting and relevant corporate crime stories. As a check on this interpretation, a content analysis was done for 1999, using the same procedures as for all the other years covered in this study. Results showed a total of 46 crimes stories, six of which were corporate crimes (13 percent of the total). Air time for the six corporate crime reports totaled twelve minutes and twenty seconds, which was thirteen percent of the total for all crime stories (96:20). These figures represent a bit of an increase in corporate crime reporting, but it is not a dramatic increase; nor is it an increase anywhere near as large as what has been found for the year 2000. Hence, the findings for 2000 are eye-catching, but whether or not they indicate a new pattern of crime news coverage is an open question.

Because the main finding of the present paper is that corporate crime has for decades received little coverage on television network newscasts, it is important to clarify a point concerning the coding operation of the study. Before coding commenced, a decision was made to take precautions necessary to identify all corporate crime stories reported in the sample newscasts. If an error was to be made, it would be made on the side of over-coding corporate crime reports. The 43 cases that were identified as corporate crime stories consist of the following: 1970--Coca-Cola engaged in a deceptive promotion (two reports), pollution suit filed against automakers (two reports), oil company pleads no contest to the charge of failing to install safety devices in oil rigs (two reports), and a paper company found guilty of illegal pollution; 1975--Armand Hammer found guilty of making an illegal campaign contribution (three reports), George Steinbrenner found guilty of making an illegal campaign contribution, a finance company forced to halt a promotion; 1980--Ford vs. Indiana Pinto trial; 1985--General Westmoreland civil suit against CBS (four reports), E.F. Hutton check kiting scheme; 1990--cable TV company charged with violating censorship laws (three reports), record store owner charged convicted of selling obscene albums (three reports), company charged with knowingly selling defective helicopter blades, a company is sued by Donald Trump for unlawful use of his name, company accused of knowingly selling defective bullet-proof vests to police departments; 1995&endash;mail-order marriage company under investigation concerning the murders of women under their influence; 2000--Microsoft antitrust suit (four reports), allegation that Firestone knowingly sold defective tires (eight reports), copyright infringement ruling against a dot-com company (three reports).

It could be argued that at least eight of the 43 stories just identified should not be classified as a corporate crime report. The illegal campaign contribution cases against Hammer and Steinbrenner might more legitimately be seen as personal crimes, not corporate offenses (as noted earlier, however, if we were to err, it would be on side of being overly inclusive). Moreover, given that CBS eventually prevailed in the Westmoreland lawsuit, one could challenge the decision to code the four reports on this case as corporate crime stories. Interestingly, this reasoning would generally not apply in reference to interpersonal violent crimes. For example, even though O.J. Simpson was found not guilty (a verdict most Americans disagree with), there is no doubt that a crime took place. In a civil suit, if the plaintiff does not win the case, it is presumed that no wrongdoing occurred. In any event, the strategy of being inclusive in the identification of corporate crime reports, perhaps taken to the extreme, only strengthens the overall finding that corporate crimes are under-reported.

Finally, Table 4 shows that there is little quantitative difference between the networks in their newscast coverage of corporate crime. For the seven sample years, the total number of reported corporate crime stories was 15 for ABC, 16 for CBS, and 12 for NBC. As a part of total network crime stories, corporate crime reports were a small percentage for each of the networks: 6.7 percent for ABC, 7.1 percent for CBS, and 5.6 percent for NBC. Similarly, the time of coverage for corporate crime stories as a percentage of all time spent on crime reports was slight, ranging from a high of 9.8 percent for CBS to 9.4 percent for NBC to a low of 5.7 percent for ABC. As a general conclusion, none of the three networks appear to make corporate crime reporting a major part of their newscast crime coverage  

Table 4

Number and Time Length of Corporate Crime
Stories and All Crime Stories, by Network

 

ABC

 

CBS

 

NBC

 

Year

 

Stories

 

Time

 

Stories

 

Time

 

Stories

 

Time

 

1970

 

Corporate

 

3

 

1:00

 

4

 

2:30

 

0

 

-

 

All

 

31

 

44:30

 

35

 

32:50

 

23

 

34:20

 

1975

 

Corporate

 

2

 

2:00

 

1

 

1:20

 

2

 

0:50

 

All

 

30

 

58:00

 

39

 

61:00

 

29

 

40:00

 

1980

 

Corporate

 

0

 

-

 

0

 

-

 

1

 

1:40

 

All

 

32

 

37:10

 

24

 

51:10

 

29

 

22:20

 

1985

 

Corporate

 

1

 

1:50

 

2

 

5:10

 

2

 

9:30

 

All

 

34

 

61:30

 

43

 

75:00

 

37

 

66:00

 

1990

 

Corporate

 

3

 

3:10

 

3

 

8:30

 

3

 

2:50

 

All

 

19

 

30:00

 

26

 

53:50

 

32

 

53:10

 

1995

 

Corporate

 

0

 

-

 

1

 

3:50

 

0

 

-

 

All

 

44

 

92:25

 

35

 

66:00

 

49

 

90:30

 

2000

 

Corporate

 

6

 

13:00

 

5

 

16:40

 

4

 

17:50

 

All

 

33

 

40:20

 

23

 

42:30

 

16

 

33:00

 

Total

 

Corporate

 

15

 

21:00

 

16

 

38:00

 

12

 

32:40

 

All

 

223

 

371:45

 

225

 

387:40

 

215

 

379:40
Corporate % of Total
6.7%
5.7%
7.1%
9.8%
5.6%
9.4%

DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION 

Most Americans (78 percent) state that they get their news from nightly national television newscasts (Gallup 1996:117-118). Although these telecasts cover a wide range of topics, crime is one of the primary subjects of television newscasts. Claiming 10 to 20 percent of total news air time, crime is the most reported topic on television news (Dominick 1978; Graber 1980). There are significant fluctuations through the years, however. For example, the Center for Media and Public Affairs, headquartered in Washington, D.C. (see www.cmpa.com), states that there were 542 crime stories reported on ABC, CBS, and NBC national newscasts in 1990. In 1995, the total increased to 2,574, and the most recent total reported (for 1999) was 1,613. The point is there are historical variations in the frequency of crime stories on national newscasts.

In the present study almost 25 percent of all national news stories were crime reports. Despite the extensive coverage of crime through the decades, corporate offenses have received comparatively little attention. Why is this? A number of reasons merit consideration. First, corporate crime is typically not sufficiently exciting to capture or sustain viewer interest; in fact, the details of a corporate offense can be tedious, if not boring. It is one thing to report the grisly aspects of a murder, but presenting the nuances of an antitrust case is quite another matter. With corporate crimes there are often no obvious indicators, no police chalk lines, no sirens, and no visible blood. Instead, "the human suffering caused by corporate cupidity frequently can take years to materialize, in contrast to the graphic suddenness that usually characterizes street violence" (Rosoff, Pontell and Tillman 1998:vii).

A second reason explaining why corporate crimes are not emphasized on television news is that this type of illegality does not resonate with the conventional crime imagery held by most Americans. Of course, part of the reason that corporate crimes escape general public condemnation, if not concern, is that journalists fail to provide adequate coverage of these offenses (Evans and Lundman 1983). In any event, the "typical criminal" is usually conceptualized as a young, poor male who is disproportionately likely to belong to an ethnic minority group (Reiman 1998). Older, affluent, white males, the typical profile of a corporate criminal, are more likely to be seen as role models than "real" criminals. Although American attitudes toward corporate violations have grown more stern in recent decades (see Evans, Cullen and Dubeck 1993), there is still a tendency for Americans to give corporate executives the benefit of the doubt. Even when executives have been caught cutting legal corners to maximize company profits, the public is likely to view these wrongdoers as basically well-meaning individuals. For many audience members, corporate crime is crime, but its importance pales in comparison to street crime. Indeed, according to Katz (1995:48), "crime is made 'news' by a modern public searching for resources to work out sensibilities routinely made problematic in everyday modern urban life." To this point in time, corporate crimes have not intruded on personal sensibilities to an equal extent as street crimes. Hence, newscast producers may limit corporate crime reports for fear of disconnecting with viewers.

Third, not only is corporate crime viewed as a less serious form of crime, but viewers often have a positive image of corporations. The real seriousness of corporate crime is probably not readily grasped by most citizens. Kappeler and his associates (2000:123) estimate that the economic cost of corporate crime is probably 17 to 32 times as great as the economic cost of so-called street crimes. Moreover, many criminologists argue that corporate crimes kill and injure more people than do street crimes (see e.g. Reiman 1998). This lack of recognition is probably related to false consciousness, an inability, or in some cases a lack of desire, to see things as they truly are. Related to this point is the centuries-old practice in the world of commerce to "let the buyer beware." Here the idea is that if one is victimized by a corporation, he has only himself to blame (see Friedricks 1999).

Rather than see corporations as villains, most Americans have a positive estimation of big companies; after all, they employ thousands of individuals. That alone is in their favor. Also, corporations are often visibly involved in local or national altruism. The cultivation of a favorable popular image is a serious task for public relations departments, and they are good at what they do. Additionally, with increasing numbers of Americans owning stock in major corporations, news producers surely know that viewers may also perceive that they have an economic stake in the future of a company and not wish for it to be the target of negative publicity.

Fourth, corporate sponsors pay the bills. Whether or not newscast producers pull or shorten stories that cast their sponsors in a negative light is an open question, but presumably they would handle such reports cautiously. An even more glaring conflict of interest appears when a corporate owner of a network is involved in wrongdoing. For example, how would ABC newscasters cover an investigation of illegal activities by parent company Disney Corporation, or how would NBC newscasters report parent company General Electric crimes? To say the least, stories of this type are likely to generate special behind-the-scenes consideration.

The pro-corporate leanings of the national news media is the product of a variety of factors. Consider the view advanced by Mintz (1992:72): 

The media tilt is the net result of a gamut of causes and motives, including bias, boasterism, coercism, cowardice, libel risks, economic imperatives, friendships, ignorance, lack of resources, laziness, protection of news sources, retreats from investigative reporting, stupidity, suppression, survival instincts, and the pro-business orientations of owners and of the managers these owners hire.

The present paper contributes to the research literature on media coverage of crime by providing data on the extent of corporate crime reporting on national television newscasts. Findings from this study support the conclusion drawn from previous studies of newspapers and local television (big city) newscasts that the news media focus the most attention on crimes of interpersonal violence, while devoting minimal coverage to corporate crime. This is a finding of some importance because it means that the popular, albeit distorted, image of crime continues to be presented by authoritative sources. Presumably, millions of people trust Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings to report the news accurately. Many if not most criminologists would argue, however, that average Americans have more to fear, both financially and physically, from corporate criminals than street criminals, and yet this message is unlikely to be inferred by viewers of network newscasts.

We have also found evidence suggesting new insights: that there has been a recent and substantial increase in corporate crime reporting in national newscasts; that reports on the expensive and intensive war on drugs have fallen off sharply in the past ten years; that terrorism has been for decades a major component of crime reporting on network news; and that crime reporting in general may be falling off. On this final point, it is interesting to note that the average number of crime stories in the sample for 1970, 1975, 1980, 1985, 1990, and 1995 combined is 99. This compares to 72 for the year 2000 and only 46 for 1999 (as noted previously, 1999 was coded as a comparison check for the 2000 data). This is perhaps due in part to the fact that there has been a gradual reduction in news time per newscast over the years. In the present sample, news stories accounted for slightly over 23 minutes out of 30 in 1970 to under 21 minutes out of 30 in 2000. In short, the networks now assign more time to commercials and network promotions than was the case historically. Another reason why there are fewer crime stories on network news is that the crime rate has been going down consistently for the past several years, and in opinion polls crime is no longer popularly perceived as the most serious problem facing the United States.

Future research on network news coverage of corporate crime should include a qualitative approach. That is, what is the qualitative nature of these reports and has it changed over time? While there has been some attention of this sort given to media coverage of specific corporate offenses (see e.g., Lofquist, 1997; Wright, Cullen, and Blankenship, 1995), there has been no systematic in-depth analysis of the content of corporate crime stories as they appear on television network news. The following questions appear to be especially important: (1) Do the networks offer background information on corporate offenders? In particular, are repeating offenders (e.g., Firestone) labeled as recidivists? (2) Are the victims of corporate crime featured? If so, are they presented in sympathetic terms? Are the offending companies themselves seen as victims?

In summary, it may well be that the gap between coverage of corporate crime and interpersonal violence is narrowing in national television newscasts. If that is the case, sociologists and criminologists need to identify and document the specifics of this important new development. This paper seeks to contribute by making a first step in this direction. 


*The author is grateful for the helpful comments of the anonymous WCR reviewers. 

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Brendan Maguire

Brendan Maguire is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology/Anthropology at Western Illinois University. Contact: e-mail: b_maguire@wiu.edu 


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