By: Constance Nothomb

Do you often witness a murder in the street? In the Netherlands, probably not. Do you often hear or read stories of cruel assassinations? That is more likely.

Crime is a fascinating subject. It is intense, mysterious and captivates attention. And that is why the Media has long loved this topic. While up until the 1960s, criminologists were relatively unconcerned with the selection process and content analysis of crime stories, these criteria have since become a top-priority of today’s journalists. Length of articles and number of crimes covered in the news have doubled. The focus also shifted from the broader aspect of criminality and implications of the aggression itself to a strong interest in the characteristics of victim and offender, and circumstance of the act (Buckler and Travis 2005; Coenen and Vandijk 1976).

Thus, more and more, the choice of crime stories is based on market-driven criteria. This commercial pressure has revolutionized traditional requirements for newsworthiness. And so, instead of reflecting reality, criminal news now simply seems to try attracting as many readers as possible (Beale 2006).

Criteria of Newsworthiness

For a crime to be deemed interesting enough to be published, it has to (1) be relatively violent, shocking or brutal, (2) unique, (3) involve a socially prominent or respectable citizen and (4) generate mystery, suspense or drama (Chermak 1995; Doyle 1995). This means that atypical crimes are more likely to be covered than typical ones. Similarly, violent attacks are the ones reported even though non-violent harm is more frequent in reality (Curiel et al. 2020).

To illustrate this, you can look at stories that come up when surfing the internet to learn more about crime in the Netherlands. The murder of Theo Van Gogh on November 2004 for example seems pretty important. It happened in the streets of Amsterdam; the brother of the famous painter was shot eight times before having his throat cut by a Dutchman of Moroccan descent. The murderer then wrote a note of Theo’s chest with a knife (DutchNews.NL 2019).

Such aggression perfectly fulfills the newsworthiness criteria mentioned above. And so it is not a surprise that it garnered so much attention. The story is both shocking and brutal, involves a socially prominent man and captivates the audience. Also notice that the information given concerns the attacker, the victim and details about the crime, but not the implications or motives for such actions.

This kind of report is relatively frequent in today’s news. As an example, on June 6th 2021 a 14-year old boy was stabbed at the entrance of a supermarket in Groningen, a city in the Netherlands. The incident happened in the middle of the afternoon. The victim and the suspect, a man of 23 years, did not know each other. Even when the facts of the attack were still unclear, dozens of articles had already been published about it (NL Times 2021).

Consequences of such Representation

Newspapers cannot be blamed for covering incidents like these. However, the strict selection of ‘newsworthy’ cases leads to a strong misrepresentation of reality and an overemphasis on most cruel crimes (Warr 2000).

By representing salient incidents at a higher rate than they really occur and common aggressions at a lower one, news media drift away from their main function: information. People read newspapers because they are the primary source of information of local but also national and international events. Such influence should give papers the responsibility to objectively report incidents to the public. This is not always the case however (Tiegreen and Newman 2009).

Here, one important criticism is that a misrepresentation of certain victims and/or aggressors results in audiences associating crime with a minority status. Reported incidents are partly chosen based on the people involved. Biases of gender, age, race, socioeconomic status and relationship status thus emerge. It influences citizen’s perceptions and contributes to reinforcing stereotypes (Garcia 2008; Tiegreen and Newman 2009). The story on the murder of Theo Van Gogh is just one example of this dynamic. Journalists, each time, carefully emphasize that the perpetrator was Moroccan. 

Not only does news coverage on crime inaccurately inform but it also generates fears to those who read it. In the Netherlands, surveys on feelings of unsafeness show that “people with relatively severe feeling of unsafeness regularly read reports about crimes in the newspapers” (Coenen and Vandijk 1976). Additionally, individuals who identify with the community they perceive as “victims” through what they read are more likely to feel insecure and suspicious in the streets (CECM 2013; Tiegreen and Newman 2009).

And so, we enter a cycle, where the exaggerated news we read only makes us more wary to experience the real world outside.


Beale, S. (2006). “The news media’s influence on criminal justice policy: How market-driven news promotes punitiveness.” William & Mary Law Review 48(2), 387-481.

Buckler, K. and L. Travis (2005). “Assessing the newsworthiness of homicide events: An analysis of coverage in the Houston chronicle.” The Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture 12(1), 1-25.

Chermak, S. (1995). Victims in the news: Crime and the American news media. Boulder, CO: Westwiew Press.

Coenen, A. and J. Vandijk (1976). “The development of crime reporting in the Dutch daily newspaper between 1966 and 1974.” U.S. Department of Justice. At

Council of Europe (2013). “Report of the 1st conference of the council of Europe network of national focal point on gender equality.” Council of Europe. At

Curiel, R. P., S. Cresci, C. L. Muntean, S. R. Bishop (2020). “Crime and its fear in social media.” Palgrave Communications 6, 57.

DutchNews.NL (2019). “12 Notorious Dutch murder cases, and several miscarriages of justice.” At

Garcia, C. S. (2008). “Insecurity in reality, the media and our self-image.” Envio Digital. At

NL Times (2021). “Silent march to honor the 14-years old victim of fatal stabbing in Groningen town.” NL Times. At

Tiegren, S. and E. Newman (2009). “Violence: Comparing Reporting and Reality.” Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. At

Warr, M. (2000). Public perceptions and reactions to violent offending and victimization. Understanding and preventing violence: Volume 4. Washington, D.C: National Academies Press, 1-66.

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