By David Mayeda

On occasion, mainstream media do a little sociology when covering crime-based news. A few recent stories in the New Zealand Herald serve as good examples. First this story titled, “Cop drank and gambled away stolen drug cash” (20 April), reporting how a former drug squad detective “was sentenced to 80 hours of community work and ordered to pay reparation of $3467.50” after he was caught stealing money seized in a raid, as well as from an in-house collection.

Granted, this is not a heinous, violent crime; nor is it a white-collar crime tied to tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. But look at the degree to which the offender is described, which lends to reader sympathy. To begin with, the story’s subtitle reads, “Stressed officer’s actions a cry for help, says lawyer.” Additionally, in the middle of the story a robust section is devoted that further contextualizes the detective’s alleged illegal actions:

    The court heard that before the thefts Langford had several “issues” including the death of his father, a relationship break up, and being diagnosed with cancer.

    “On top of that he felt tremendous work pressure which wore upon him,” lawyer Richard Earwaker told the court.

    “It’s one of those situations where you have a man who had an otherwise good career, had performed ably and well.

    “He acknowledged he had become somewhat bitter and twisted after spending years in the force. Disillusionment was the only causal factor. It was progressively building up.

    “There were a whole series of major personal and professional situations contributing to where he ended up and decisions he made. He is extremely remorseful and ashamed of where he is standing right now.”

    Langford had tried to speak to his bosses about being “unhappy” at work.

    “It doesn’t seem to have been recognised that he was in trouble. It seems that this is almost a cry for help,” Mr Earwaker said.

Here, we actually see a little bit of sociology, as the story’s author taps into a meso-level analysis, describing how personal health problems, familial tragedy, breakup with an intimate partner, and work-based concerns collectively impacted the detective in adverse ways. While the Herald is not necessarily excusing the detective’s actions, the paper is making a serious effort to explore multiple background reasons as to why the detective broke the law. And one might argue this presented backdrop increases the likelihood that readers will feel more compassion for the detective. Onto the next example…

This story (22 April), titled “Rugby player losing battle with demons” is about one of New Zealand’s male rugby stars who plays for the famed “All Blacks.” The athlete was recently charged with assault, tied to an alleged conflict with his partner; he has openly apologized for his actions: “To my partner and her family I just want to say that I’m sorry to hurt someone that you love and care so much for. To be in this situation, I know it’s hurting them and it’s definitely hurting me, so I apologise to them.”

This story has been granted extensive media attention, largely because the alleged offender is of celebrity status. Additionally the athlete was part of New Zealand’s 2012 “It’s Not Okay” campaign, which aims to prevent and reduce family violence, and he appears to be demonstrating a good deal of public remorse.

Furthermore, like the previous story, this one has led to the Herald doing a bit of sociological work, writing quite extensively how participation in rugby at the elite level too often contributes to serious mental health concerns. In fact the subtitle of this story reads, “Rugby stars predisposed to suffering mental health challenges because of anxiety, says players’ union boss.” A majority of this particular story also details the hardships that often accompany athletic participation for males:

    Little work has been done on how young players cope, but a players’ association survey of former players found many struggled with life after retirement. The survey of 123 former professional players found they suffered from:

        • Feelings of depression or despair (35 per cent).
        • High levels of anxiety and stress (30 per cent).
        • Alcohol or substance abuse (23 per cent).
        • Relationship issues (20 per cent).
        • Aggression issues (13 per cent).

    “We believe that athletes do have a higher propensity to have challenges in this [area] than normal people,” Mr Nichol told the Herald yesterday.

    “We do a lot physically for athletes but we don’t do enough mentally.”

    Over a five-year period up to 2011, 81 players sought professional help for off-field issues. While incidents such as Savea’s alleged assault of his partner hit the headlines, many others were averted through successful intervention, said Mr Nichol.

    “The reality is we are always going to have players who come into the professional rugby ranks who have challenges. We just need to get our heads around that and say ‘okay, how do we deal with it’? When we stack up against other sporting codes, we do a lot. We do pretty well, but we are the first to say we need to do better.”

Again, the Herald is not making excuses for family violence, but it is making a strong effort to explain how sport can harm athletes, which may contribute to subsequent deviance. The story surely could have gone further, tapping into broader masculinity issues, but at least we get a hint of sociology here. And again like the story with the detective, the Herald presents this story in a way that lends readers to feel compassion for the offender – he is young and has been thrust into a potentially harmful work-based environment.

So why in these two stories do we get a little bit of sociology, some broader social explanations to criminal offending? Why are these stories written in ways that help readers feel compassion for the alleged offenders? In both cases, the alleged offenders already had high social status. The detective worked for the police force and is male. Think about the multitude of offenders who have been arrested for theft. How many even have stories written about them at all? And if they do, the news typically only reports the crime’s basic details (e.g., who’s involved, what the crime is, and who is affected). The news almost never educates the public, explaining how family problems, romantic hardships, or toxic-working environments (let alone poverty) can influence individuals’ criminogenic behaviors. But in this case for an otherwise law-abiding detective, broader explanations are presented abundantly.

For the rugby star, it is worth noting that he is a male of color, of Samoan descent. Imagine then if a young Samoan male, but not an athletic celebrity, was arrested for assault of a domestic partner – would the news even report it? And if they did, even if the offender was publicly remorseful, would the news explore potential ties between work-based anxieties and the violent behavior? Probably not. Instead, the news would simply report the basic information provided by police, and that would end it. However, in the case of a rugby star who plays for a nationally revered team, mainstream media takes extra steps to tie sport’s detrimental influences on the player. So for these higher-status individuals, criminogenic behavior is not individualized. Instead the criminogenic behavior is tied to institutional hardship.

These individuals’ social statuses and cultural capital appear to have shaped how the media reported their alleged criminal behaviors: not only do readers get broader explanations for their actions, but readers are also led to feel offender sympathy.

Up next: When Mainstream Media Does No Sociology on Crime

Photos via the New Zealand Herald (here and here).

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