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If you watch, listen to or read media coverage of crime, try paying attention to the use of adjectives. You will find that they are common in crime reporting, but not in ways that actually help us understand the crime. Instead, adjectives are primarily used in crime reporting to arouse emotions in the consumers of the stories. And in that regard they are positively unhelpful.
Adjectives are helpful in news reporting when they give us a fuller understanding of what is being reported. To say an old man was hit by a car gives information very different from saying it was a young man. The information provided by the adjective is descriptive rather than evaluative. Similarly with saying, for example, that a person shot by police was carrying ‘a big knife’ vs ‘a small knife’. Of course we could quibble about what precisely we mean by ‘big’ and ‘small’, but some uncertainty is inherent in all language and in this case the adjective changes our understanding of situations and events.
Crime reporting uses particular adjectives
But crime reporting often strays far from this guideline and uses adjectives that tell us nothing new whatsoever about the events.
The headline of this post is one of the most common and yet least justifiable uses of adjectives in crime reporting. Virtually every murder is reported with ‘brutal’ in front of it. As if there were some other kind of murder – a gentle murder perhaps? A murder is brutal by definition; the adjective adds nothing but does evoke emotion.
Many other examples could be cited. For example, a ‘shocking’ or ‘gruesome’ or ‘grisly’ crime’. What makes some crimes shocking or gruesome and others not? And who actually is shocked? Are these words really equivalent to ‘unusual’ – and if that is so, why not say ‘unusual’ which has a clearer meaning in this situation? Or an event is called a ‘terrible tragedy’, when every tragedy is terrible by definition. Or a ‘hardened criminal’, which presumably is a way of saying ‘someone with a substantial criminal record’. Once you start to listen or watch for this sort of wording you will see it everywhere.
Adjectives used to create emotion
So why are adjectives used so often when they add no information to the story? Precisely in order to evoke emotion. Media coverage is intended to gain readers, viewers or online clicks. That’s how media gain audience, which is their main purpose. It is often our immediate emotional responses that lead us to follow a story, so there is a strong incentive for media reports to appeal to our emotions, and especially the most powerful ones such as fear, disgust and anger. And indeed, many online sources on reporting make precisely this point – use lots of adjectives to get people interested.
Some may read this complaint as quibbling by someone who is being unreasonably picky about language. But the problem with this kind of use of adjectives is that it causes people to react to crime emotionally rather than thoughtfully. This kind of coverage causes people to be much more fearful or angry about crime than they might otherwise be, or should be based on real probabilities. It encourages people who demand harsher punishments, for example, or more policing, because they are angry or afraid. People’s impressions about crime are already badly distorted by the amount of media coverage that goes to extreme crime – far out of proportion to its actual occurrence. The result is bad public policy – spending a lot of money on things that don’t make us safer or reduce crime rates.
Improvement is possible
Interestingly, some media have stopped using certain adjectives in reporting crime. For example most mainstream media no longer report the skin colour of someone accused of a crime. This used to be common but is now seen as exacerbating racial stereotypes and therefore to be avoided. Yet we continue to use many other adjectives that have no informative value.
There are many steps that could be taken to improve media coverage of crime, such as providing more context, or relying less on information from sources that have an interest in scaring people about crime, such as police. But one simple step that should be obvious to anyone concerned with the careful use of language would be to strike out all adjectives that don’t convey real information and especially those that are used solely to create an emotional response.