Ryerson researcher finds low-income neighbourhoods get bad rep due to media’s lack of resources
June 17, 2010Ryerson University Public Affairs
Ryerson professor April Lindgren authored a study that examined news coverage of 13 troubled neighbourhoods in Toronto. She found that low-income, urban neighbourhoods received imbalanced coverage.The crime beat is an integral part of news media. Urban news consumers especially expect to see the latest violent crime recaps on their nightly newscasts and across the pages of their local papers. But if you think your news is increasingly composed of crime stories, you might not be wrong. According to one Ryerson University researcher, today’s lean newsrooms and tighter deadlines are having an unintended outcome: low-income, urban neighbourhoods are being underrepresented in media while their crime stories are being over-reported.
April Lindgren, professor in Ryerson’s School of Journalism, authored a study that examined news coverage of 13 troubled neighbourhoods in Toronto. Designated by the city, United Way Toronto and a task force of civic leaders as “priority areas,” these regions struggle with poverty, and inadequate social services and infrastructure. Her work set out to investigate the amount of coverage these areas received, as well as the nature of the coverage.
Lindgren’s team conducted a content analysis involving 28 issues of the city’s most widely read newspaper, the Toronto Star, between January and August 2008. To avoid overrepresentation of major news events, newspapers were chosen using constructed week sampling (e.g. Monday from the first week, Tuesday from the next week, etc). From there, spatial/geographic references in news articles and photographs were used to create a visual map of media coverage. Three distinct geographic areas were included in the study: the priority neighbourhoods, the downtown core and 96 non-priority neighbourhoods surrounding the city centre. Among Lindgren’s findings was imbalanced news coverage of low-income, urban neighbourhoods.
The downtown core received more extensive coverage than the priority and non-priority neighbourhoods. Furthermore, sports and arts/entertainment stories dominated news coverage in the downtown core, accounting for 38.4 per cent of downtown coverage.
In comparison, police-related topics were the most common subject matter (31.15 per cent) dealt with in news items that mentioned locations in the priority areas. This finding, however, conflicts with local crime indicators, which suggest that criminal activities are more likely to occur in the downtown core than in the priority neighbourhoods.
The discrepancy, Lindgren believes, may be due to the realities of modern journalism. “Newsrooms are spread thin, and police news is cheap to produce and easy to come by,” said Lindgren. “Some reporters, for example, work out of bureaus located in police stations. What’s more, police services issue frequent news releases and make media relations officers available to talk to reporters, making for convenient story writing.”
Lindgren points out that crime news also dominates media coverage of priority areas because there is so little reporting of other issues from those communities. “There are very few stories about other topics, partly I think, because news organizations say they cannot afford to have reporters stationed full-time in neighbourhood bureaus,” Lindgren said.
The emphasis on crime news may contribute significantly to the negative stereotyping that shapes the internal and external opinions of priority communities, and may undermine strategies to address social exclusion and poverty.
Lindgren points out that the problem is not limited to the Toronto Star. “The issues that came to light in the study are probably writ large in other media, too,” she says. “All media outlets are constrained by a lack of time, personnel and money. I’m not advocating for nice, feel-good stories, but to really understand what is happening in the priority neighbourhoods, we need stories that don’t just focus on crime and policing.”
Lindgren’s research is part of a larger, ongoing project that examines the news media’s role in cities. “News, Geography and Disadvantages: Mapping Newspaper Coverage of High-needs Neighbourhoods in Toronto, Canada” was published in the summer 2009 issue of the Canadian Journal of Urban Research.