June 2022. Bristol University Press. ISBN 978-1447358909
“Colbran skilfully examines four decades of crime and investigative reporting in the UK in a nuanced study on representational harms by and through the media, and ways to address them.” Dr Justin Ellis, Senior Lecturer, University of Newcastle, Australia
“Colbran’s is an admirably original, meticulous and compelling study of the developing relations between the police and the mass media as technologies, forms of enquiry and the balance of power between institutions change.” – Paul Rock, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, London School of Economics, UK
“In Crime and Investigative Reporting in the UK, Colbran interrogates 40 years of the police/media/public relationship in the UK in an increasingly complex media landscape. In revisiting classic texts that have theorised police-media relations and considering the contemporary status of the relationship between the police, media and public, Colbran brings fresh insights and perspectives to understanding crime news reporting in a digital society. Using a rich, empirical dataset, Colbran skilfully demonstrates the intersecting impacts of new and social media, national inquiries, and the (re)emergence of start-ups and investigative reporting on contemporary news making practices, representations of crime and harm, and the exercise of power in the police-media relationship. This book is a must read for scholars seeking to understand both the current state of play, as well as the historical roots, of the police-media relationship. Crime and Investigative Reporting in the UK is a valuable addition to the corpus of work in this space.” – Alyce McGovern, Associate Professor in Criminology in the School of Law, Society and Criminology, Faculty of Law and Justice, UNSW, Sydney, Australia
“This book is a thorough and timely excavation of the relationship between crime news, police, and investigative journalists. Constituting over 10 years research from the point at which digital and social media technologies were in their infancy, to the current period in which police organisations have become more media savvy players, it draws out the tensions and communicative gaps between the police and media; tensions made all the more complicated by citizen journalists and investigative start-ups. At a time when the media organisations around the world are adrift in the constantly shifting digital media landscape, this book provides a granular overview of affairs in the UK, and introduces a range of theoretical incites along the way. A must for students and scholars interested in the relationship between police, crime reporting and media.” – Murray Lee, Professor in Criminology and Associate Dean Research at the University of Sydney Law School, Australia
What the book is about
The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 triggered massive demonstrations, in cities throughout the United States and across the globe, against police brutality and the victimisation of people of colour. But along with the world-wide criticisms of the police brutality in Minneapolis, there was also an increasing criticism of crime journalism on both sides of the Atlantic: that it was racist and classist, and that it ‘creates lasting harm for the communities that newsrooms are supposed to serve’ (Chappell and Rispoli, 2020).
This book explores the massive changes in crime reporting in the United Kingdom over the last 40 years – how it has failed vulnerable, marginalised and stigmatised communities and how, over the last ten years, the new investigative journalism non-profits have been working to reverse those harms.
The study reflects research conducted over a period of seven years, and draws on more than 60 interviews with crime journalists, senior officers in the Metropolitan Police Service and journalists from the new investigative journalism non-profits.
It argues that, in the pre-internet age, crime reporters held a privileged and powerful position as the ‘bridge’ or main channel of communication between the press and the public. But in 2011, two factors combined to erode that ‘bridge’. The first was the phone-hacking scandal of 2011 and the subsequent Leveson Report, which resulted in a breakdown in police/media relations. The second was the advent of new digital technologies, allowing the police to communicate directly with the public and bypass the media.
But while the book explores how, as a result, the traditional Fourth Estate role of the press was seriously undermined by these developments, it also suggests that many criticisms levelled at the content of traditional crime news were justified: in particular the ‘othering’ of stigmatised or vulnerable communities, the under-reporting of certain crimes, particularly crimes of ‘social harm’, and the concentration on crimes as ‘isolated incidents’ without explanation of causes or effects.
By contrast, the book argues that, over the last ten years, new investigative journalism non-profits, such as The Bureau for Investigative Journalism, the Bureau Local and The Bristol Cable, have been slowly ‘repairing’ the field of crime and investigative journalism, forming new ‘bridges’ or collaborations with the public – an area of research not previously tackled by media criminologists.
It suggests that, via these collaborations, non-profit journalists are radically changing the content of crime news, through a move away from the reporting of crimes as discrete events to a concentration on crimes of social harm and ongoing social injustices. Crucially, the book also explores how working practices on non-profits have allowed reporters to forge meaningful relationships with stigmatised or hard-to-reach communities, to ensure their voices are heard in their reporting and to reverse the representational harms inflicted on these communities by the mainstream media.
Nevertheless, one key source – the police – controls the flow of policing news to the press and the public. The Fourth Estate may have transformed radically over the last ten years, allowing the opening of millions of new entrances to public life, but in the case of the police, the Fourth Estate has never been so hamstrung in its ability to speak truth to power.