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Providing context

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 16:02 UK time, Friday, 30 May 2008

A man walks into a pub. "Hey, I've just not been mugged," he says.
"That's amazing, " a bloke at the bar says as he puts his pint down. "I didn't strangle my wife today."
"You two are weird," said a third bloke. He was a journalist.

Youths in hooded tops (generic)Reading the papers this week, you'd be forgiven for thinking there is carnage on our streets - partly because one newspaper said exactly that.

The truth is, there isn't carnage on our streets and very few of us are victims of or witnesses to crime more than once or twice in our lives - even fewer are victims of serious crime.

In any rational description of the world, our risk of dying in, say, a knife attack or a serious assault ranks way behind our risk of dying in a road accident or from the effects of cigarettes or alcohol. And if you happen not to be a city dweller and are over 25, your chances of being shot or stabbed are vanishingly small: your chances of being attacked or killed by a stranger, approaching nil.

Except, we don't learn about the world from a rational description. We learn about it, for the most part, from "news" - and crime is news precisely because it is both shocking and uncommon. Except, of course, when it seems to confirm our society is sick and broken. Then, the more common and apparently true-to-type the gruesome violence can be made to seem, the better.

One of journalism's great father figures, American commentator, media critic and diplomatist Walter Lippmann, struggled nearly 90 years ago with this paradox. On the one hand, news is the way we learn about the world; on the other hand, you would be mad to rely on it to learn about the world.

"All the reporters in the world working all the hours of the day could not witness all the happenings in the world," he wrote. So, a thing becomes becomes "news" only when it is a "manifestation" at one of the places journalism has "watchers stationed" - the police station, the courts, the crime scene.

So how to put the deaths of Amar Aslam or of Jimmy Mizen or of any of the other 20 teenage victims of violence so far this year into context? They are terrible, sad events and we all have great sympathy for the boys' families. But beyond the personal tragedies that they represent, they tell us nothing about teenagers, gangs, knives or crime. Most of all, they tell us nothing about how concerned or fearful we should be for ourselves and our own families.

KnivesThree years ago, a Home Office survey found that 4% of 10-to-17-year-olds had carried a knife at some time in the previous 12 months: or to put it another way, 96% had not. This month, in Operation Blunt2, the Metropolitan Police seized 193 weapons in more than 4,000 searches: or to put it another way, 95% of those stopped were not carrying knives.

Or try this question. In England and Wales, were you more or less likely to be murdered last year than five years ago? Were you more or less likely to be stabbed last year than five years ago? Bludgeoned to death? Strangled? You'll have guessed the answer to each - according to official statistics (pdf file) - is less likely. There were 734 murder victims in England and Wales last year - almost 10% down on the 805 murdered in 2001-2002 and about 5% below the average for 2001-2006.

Is there another, better way of reporting crime that doesn't risk distorting what we think we know about our world? Take the trial at the Old Bailey of the two young men and two youths charged with the murder of 14-year-old Martin Dinnegan.

What are the alternatives to covering the trial as the news story that it is? Not covering it at all? Holding back details of the evidence? Pointing out repeatedly that most 14-year-old boys don't get stabbed? Using a chart within the story to show how deaths by stabbing and beating are falling not rising?

Maybe part of the answer is for us all - journalists and audiences - to understand that "news" is what it is: a semi-ritualised set of snapshots of a small sector of our common lives. No more, no less.

Maybe journalists should resist the temptation to make links where none exist: are we really in a "battle to fix broken Britain" as the Sun's banner for each report of teen violence claims? And maybe audiences have a job to do, too: to understand the limitations of "news" that Walter Lippmann wrote about all those years ago. And to realise it's the unusual that's weird, not the everyday.


  • Comment number 1.

    I find it hard to reconcile my perception of crime with the official statistics. In the month of May it seems we have had stabbings week in week out, sometimes several over a weekend, often involving teenagers. I just don't ever recall these vents being reported before with such frequency.

    Yet you article suggests my perception is wrong. Can this be so? Are the official statistics accurate? One issue you don't mention is fear of crime. This issue is important in the context of actual crime. I have never been mugged, but I often fear it when I pass gangs of youths hanging on street corners in the evenings.

    Maybe a good topic for a Panorama investigation?

  • Comment number 2.

    your a curious chap kevin, i don't quite know how to take you.

    I would like to start by thanking you for being one of the few (possibly only) who actually dares mention the idea that aunty beeb makes mistakes.

    Whether you are just the apologist for them is another question but at least you allow debate. So thats good.

    Now you call news a 'semi-ritualised set of snapshots of a small sector of our common lives'.
    which is as fair an explanation of what news is as any. I like the reporting of the actuality of events, but lets face it, there is no 2 line definition of news and what it actually is.

    What i would like is your definition of what is BBC news. (and not what it should be or wants to be but what is its working purpose.

    Please take into consideration of D-Notices, coverage bans (P harry as an example)

    For me BBC news is nothing more that the information the state wants you to know.

    essentially UK pravda - discuss

  • Comment number 3.

    A dilemma is posed:

    Should one say:

    "Another knife attack" or

    "Assault rate unchanged"?

    You know what the usual editor would say!

    My answer would be "both and in the same article".


  • Comment number 4.

    I agree greatly with the comment you used:

    "On the one hand, news is the way we learn about the world; on the other hand, you would be mad to rely on it to learn about the world."

    That statement though sums up the world we live in; we constantly demand news 24/7, and naturally, events that make the news are mostly of a negative nature. As they say, scandal sells, and seeing as The Sun is the best-selling paper in the country, the kind of stories they propogate would only increase the sense of fear and suspicion. We do not hear positive stories on a regular basis, simply because they do not have the same impact and attention-grabbing nature. And perception of the world around us comes from news sources, who make use of negative stories. Imagine if we were in an isolated community, cut off from the news: we would feel our world is safe, simply because we don't hear of stabbings/muggings daily.

    And keep in mind, Victorian crime levels were far higher than they are today, it is not a new phenomenon.

  • Comment number 5.

    Kevin Marsh is concerned with issues of journalism. Here is another to consider:

    It is accepted that gettting more "hits" on a counter is a measure of success.

    But, this not not specify "success at doing what?".

    Should we not specify our objective(s)? If so, what are they?

    If a reputable service, such as NEWSHOUR, uses the WHYS blog,
    what is lost?

    The tabulation of emotional public responses has some use, but it contributes very little to informed discussion.

    A different level of personnel is required if one is to go beyond the tabulation of emotion.

    One solution would be to have the equivalent of a "letters" page where the response is vetted by qualified personnel.

  • Comment number 6.

    I broadly agree with you - reporting the extraordinary gives a very false impression about the experience of the average person.

    Only thing I think you miss is that the crime/disorder is not evenly distributed. In rural Leicestershire my direct experience of crime at my home is near zero. But this is not the case for someone living in war zone Hackney or a housing estate dominated by teenage gangs. In those settings people's lives really are influenced by intimidation and the risk of assault. Some people really do have to pick the route they walk to the local shop on the basis of not walking past a certain alley where a gang of youths loiter and will intimidate and humiliate them (or assault them if the adult answers back).

  • Comment number 7.

    Good article; thanks. Being the natural born Eeyore character that I am, it's helpful to see a topic placed into context like this. Please would you do a similar piece on the gloom and doom being generated right now on the conflating issues of the-end-of-cheap-energy, soaring food prices, the credit crunch and the harbingers of intra-country and inter-country conflicts caused by demand for diminishing natural resources - back to energy, food and, indeed, water again - exceeding our planet's ability to supply. Some analysts say the world's population is only sustainable at around 2 billion people. If they're right, we have a problem (as Tom Hanks once said ... or was it an astronaut?)

  • Comment number 8.

    At last a voice of reason from the BBC. Please apply these principles as often as possible.

    I understand that newspapers have to sensationalise stories in order to sell copies and stay in business. I don't understand why the BBC doesn't use it's unique funding position to present the proper context and provide perspective more often. Make full use of comparisons with previous years and other countries. If BBC News has the same basic tone and agenda as the commercial outlets, why do we need it?

    Too often I see BBC editors justifying decisions on coverage purely on the viewing figures achieved. What is more important, truth or audience numbers?

    Have you ever considered that the enormous exposure given to teen gang knife attacks might play a part in the rise in incidents of this nature even when the general murder trend is downward?

    The impression is also distorted by the blanket coverage. Now we have the journalist in the police station, at the crime scene and at the court. Also attending funerals, interviewing friends and neighbours, replaying CCTV images etc. It would be easy to think that several dozen murders happen for each actual incident.

    I pity the family and friends of victims who are regularly exposed to the 'wall of death', images of those killed in previous incidents every time there is a new murder.

    I look forward to seeing the boring but accurate news you describe, but won't hold my breath.

  • Comment number 9.

    "Too often I see BBC editors justifying decisions on coverage purely on the viewing figures achieved. What is more important, truth or audience numbers? "

    Again, one should consider purpose.
    Perhaps the main purpose would be to have informed citizen/voters?

    If so, then "hits" is only a measure of audience interest, but the main criterion would be obtaining the context for the current facts.

  • Comment number 10.

    "What are the alternatives ... Pointing out repeatedly that most 14-year-old boys don't get stabbed?"

    Perhaps by making space to include the number who have been killed in traffic accidents or have committed suicide, both of which, I suspect, take far far more lives than violent attacks, tragic as these are. I also suspect that a sample of public opinion would return something very different to reality.

  • Comment number 11.

    The need for context is great:

    "In a perceptive article in the New Yorker, “Within the Context of No Context” (Nov. 17, 1980), G. W. S. Trow offered several insights about the action of the media in modern American society.

    Some of these ideas are paraphrased here. Counting takes the place of judgment. Only things that could be counted were important. Those things with high counts were boosted even more.

    People sought a false intimacy for reassurance. The culture acted in a childish way.

    News is mostly reported without history or context for judgment." quoted in "Mind and Ideology" (ISBN 978-092082113).

    The book goes on to talk about the media man as priest and has other topics that bear on the interests of journalists.

  • Comment number 12.

    BBC News is the background to my day.
    For some time I have been worried about the effect of rolling news. The repetition of headlines on the quarter hour.
    Repetition renforces - anything - and depending upon the drama of the news item perhaps gives the news over exposure in relation to the actual stats.
    If reporting is a snapshot of an event at some given time, is there not too much news?
    I am returning to the view these snapshots might be better placed at strictly rationed times during the day/night inorder to retain perspective.
    The now old fashioned use of the special news bulletin instead of continually 'breaking news' might make news editors think before committing to the mike or screen.

    I am seeing dangers in anything goes inorder to fill rolling news 24/7.

    Well, IMV.

  • Comment number 13.

    I already know what my reality is like.

    I do not need the news to confirm what I see day in day out.

    But I do appreciate that the media help us to connect with the victims of tragedies, and that we can all learn better to prevent such tragedies from occuring in other places, and in our lives.

    One victim is too much. Do you want a society where you will be afraid to walk out, whilst the media report on Britney Spears? It already exists.

  • Comment number 14.

    Love the way you try to make such simple things sound like rocket science.

    Yes you put a graph in. Yes a couple of sentences pointing out the decline. That's called sensible, honest, factual reporting. Something the BBC (nor anyone else) has managed for years.

  • Comment number 15.

    Are we really experiencing a spate of stabbings at the moment, or is it that the news media has latched onto them, reporting every one with prominence when they don't normally?

    Comment 1 sums this up, I think...

    // "In the month of May it seems we have had stabbings week in week out, sometimes several over a weekend, often involving teenagers. I just don't ever recall these vents being reported before with such frequency." //

    Presumably all these stabbings aren't linked, and yet within a relatively short period of time, they're all getting the priority news treatment, including on the BBC News homepage.

    It would be awfully coincidental if they've all only suddenly started happening at this rate, bunched together like this, given that they're not linked.

    What do you think Kevin? Is this just the news agenda (borne of the tabloids) dictating prominence? Is this similar to the "lost data" theme last year, when, following the major 2 CD slip-up, we then had a whole stream of similar stories getting the priority treatment across news media, including the BBC?

    Back then, almost everyone seemed to be saying, "Oh, not ANOTHER one?!! What's going on?!" whereas only a few of us seemed to be making the point that perhaps these things were happening all the time, and it was just that it had become the news media's obsession du jour?

    My sense is that, with the current apparent "spate of stabbings", we are seeing the same thing. An agenda has been set (as usual, by the tabloids, in this case, the Sun's Broken Britain) which has generated public anxiety, and the BBC (and other news outlets) are now following suit by giving each new stabbing story greater prominence than usual.

    What's sad is that if your relative or friend happens to have suffered from knife crime outside this 'season', their injury or death will most likely have been relegated to the inside or secondary pages and their tragedy deemed less (news)worthy. And many in the country will be left with a perception of the extent of knife crime that is, to put it mildly, off-balance.

  • Comment number 16.

    I would be more sympathetic to your piece if most of the headlines which appear on my news page from Radio Manchester were not about crime. Indeed this is true of the headlines in from local stations on the England page. Many years ago I persuaded Greater Manchester Police to control reporting of crime incidents to those where they were seeking information. I would not dream of daring to suggest that in the BBC Lunchtime O'Booze's still exists who fill there quota of stories in the afternoon by calling their contacts in the emergency services

  • Comment number 17.

    A big problem with providing "context" must be that you can select the context you want to fit the story.

    In the homicide (i.e. murder, mansluaghter and infanticide) data you give there was a peak in the early noughties coming after a long rise since the early sixties, such that the rate (simply adjusted for population) is now nearly twice what it was in the late sixties. The choices over period, age range, crime method, area etc. all effect the context you are giving (so the 5% reduction you quote is excluding all the Shipman murders for example).

    The overall crime statistics even give you a choice of surveyed crime (peaked in the mid nineties) or recorded - which is difficult to trend because of two changes of recording in the past decade. When the next bulletin comes out you will you give more prominence to the areas that are going up over those going down?

    And the Sun story you link to is about carnage in London, which for most of us isn't exactly "our streets".

  • Comment number 18.

    A good article, higlighting the challenges faced by editors of news programmes (and I would have to say that, although not perfect by a far stretch, the BBC does better than most in this area).

    Two points:
    Silverfoxuk (1) - I think that too much emphasis has been placed on the 'fear of crime' statistics that we hear about. These sorts of surveys and polls are only created to further the case of a political party (usually the opposition, for obvious reasons). It would probably be more appropriate to have 'misconception of crime' statistics, drawn from actual crime statistics mapped against fear of crime statistics.

    The big problem is that once an issue becomes headline news, there are a whole pack of people in Westminster looking to make political capital out of it. So: we hear about knife crime on the news, Cameron's spin doctors realise the this has caught people's attention, Cameron announces a press conference (this makes the news) in which he presents some statistics about how Labour aren't controlling crime (this makes the news) and he then goes out and hugs a hoody (this makes the news) and by the time this has all been done, there's been another murder to make ther news and add fuel to the fire. (Should stress that this isn't an anti-Tory example, they just happen to be the party in opposition.

    The news is ultimately self-perpetuating (the BBC was particularly guilty of this with the McCann child) and, understandably, looks for themes with which to link one story and another.

    Maybe the answer is to report stories/incidents on main news bulletins as individual aqnd isolated incidents except when this would damage the integrity of the report. Programmes such as Newsnight are far better placed to take a more in-depth look at the context of incidents and any trends they may or may not demonstrate.

  • Comment number 19.


    is an area that badly needs context-background and objectivity.

    Here is a comment blocked today on one BBC blog and posted on another:

    "Today, no logical person goes after nuclear weapons," Iran's supreme leader said in a nationally televised speech Tuesday. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the Islamic republic "is after peacefully using nuclear energy ... and will reach it." His remarks appeared to be a response to last week's suggestion by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran may be withholding information on secret attempts to build nuclear warheads. Khamenei also suggested that President Bush was mentally ill for saying that allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons would be "an unforgivable betrayal of future generations." reported in the Christian Science Monitor.


    dpa reports that the Israeli newspaper Jediot Achronot says Olmert's visit to Washington is urgently press for attack on Iran while the latter's nuclear arsenal is still very small and that the attack should take place before Bush leaves office.

    An Iranian correspondent who lived long in Tehran has an article in the Christian Science Monitor ( claiming that the Iranians again like the USA.

    It is time for the West to look at the map and at history. Iran has a strategic position adjoining Russia, athwart the Middle East and at the entrance to Asia. It has oil. The urban population is well-educated (there are more female university graduates than male, their medical research is very good, etc.)

    Half the population is under the age of 25. They are much more receptive to popular American culture than to the restrictions of the mullahs. Consumer goods and television are eagerly sought,
    while the religious police are trying to tear down the satellite dishes.

    A policy of threat has served to unite the population behind their religious leaders and against the West, but the population is chafing under the restrictions of the mullahs. The Iranian President has sought talks with America and has been rudely rebuffed.

    It is time for talks, diplomacy, trade and cultural exchange. Let intelligence guide us, rather than the propaganda of Israel.

  • Comment number 20.

    "very few of us are victims of or witnesses to crime more than once or twice in our lives"

    Wow, and there was me thinking I've been living a relatively crime-free privileged life! I'm 26 and off the top of my head I've been the victim of three burglaries, one mugging, three general thefts (stolen bikes etc) and three acts of deception. I'm not sure what constitutes assault and harassment but if they count that's potentially many, many more crimes I've been a victim of - having eggs thrown at me, fireworks thrown at my home, being insulted or threatened by strangers etc.

    If you also count petty crimes like using pirated material, selling/copying copyrighted material, taking drugs, underage drinking/smoking, claiming allowances and benefits you're not entitled to, breaking health and safety regulations and doing something or other without a license, then we're talking about thousands of crimes witnessed. If I go round the corner in the evening then I literally can't walk five metres without being offered drugs (admittedly round the corner happens to be Camden Town).

    If you add all the things I've forgotten (it's not like I keep a journal of this), and all the things that have happened to friends, relatives and friends-of-friends, that's a whole lot of crime, not a fantastical phenomenon that only happens in newspapers. And I'm still pretty certain I've lived a relatively crime-free life.

    I've never considered this unusual; it's certainly not much different to the experience of my friends and relatives. So I'd be very interested to know where you get your astounding "once or twice in our lives" statistic!

    Having said all that, I do agree that reading/watching the news gives a distortingly depressing view of the world, but I think that goes for any topic, not just crime, because horrific news is generally more attention-grabbing than uplifting news.

  • Comment number 21.

    The news is always upside down. The more rare an event is, the more newsworthy it becomes. Hence, as motor car accidents are too common (usually) to make the news, people are more scared to fly in an aeroplane than travel in a car.

    Many news publications will accentuate the freaky aspects of news in order to grip attention and sell more copies/ads etc.

    As we fund the BBC, it should surely try to do a better job of putting stories into context. Take politics: I suspect that the majority of Labour MPs are loyal to their PM. Few have spoken in negative terms about him. Yet, by perusing recent BBC stories about the Labour party, you would have thought there was open rebellion.

    The same happened when John Major was PM: in one of the BBCs more shameful periods, it was trawling for those that would speak against him so that they may appear on the tv or radio. The fact that the majority was loyal was forgotten.

    With its vast resources, and the fact that it can publish stories around the clock, the BBC tends to lead the headline order. This gives it power. The BBC may not vote in parliament, but it does wield power by proxy. The problem is, this is the worst mix: power without responsibility.

    The power of journalism is self-evident: aeroplanes have far more safety checks than cars, despite the facts. Some children are subject to metal detector searches, despite the facts. Some children – despite the facts - have become upset and worried from the belief that the world is in imminent danger (look at some of the output aimed at kids on the BBC, and you will see why).

    What is even worse is that governments – or members of parliament – may fall, despite the facts.

    The BBC made a statement on Thursday 24th January around 10:12pm stating that “something is wrong with our political system”. I fear that this arrogant statement by an organisation that has no right to make this judgement – let alone broadcast it on national television – encapsulates everything that is wrong with the BBC: the time you could be taking to put stories into context is actually taken up with your own views. The BBC, above any other media organisation, should not have an editorial line. And that is the problem: the potent mix of stories left out of context, mixed with your speculation, gossip and liberal/lefty line, leaves viewers and listeners with a jaundiced view of life, and politics in particular.

    The saddest thing is that we desperately need to protect independent quality journalism as this is a vital plank of our democracy. The BBC, sadly, does not fit the bill. What we need is an organisation that supplies unfettered facts that are put into context – and that are free of liberal/left (or any other) doctrine.



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