Reporting rising crime in the city

by Eric Loo
Jul 26, 2012

After a week’s work in the slums of Chennai, I stopped over in Petaling Jaya for the weekend en route to Sydney. I heard from friends alarming stories of abductions and killings, assaults and robberies in Malaysia.

A week earlier a decomposed torso was found washed up by heavy rains in Jalan SS22/21 in Damansara Jaya – less than five minutes’ walk from where I lived. One might feel safer navigating the urban chaos and mass human traffic in the capital city of Tamil Nadu than wandering in the shopping mall car park and streets of PJ and KL. With each bloodier crime reported in the media, community fear goes up a notch.

Pemandu had urged for more “balanced reporting” to allay the public fear. Crime reporting, however, is fraught with difficulties when headlines are driven by blood and gore. The more frequently crime stories are highlighted, and sensationalised, by the tabloids – the more we feel unsafe. Anxiety and insecurity then breeds distrust of strangers and neighbours, stereotyping of criminality by ethnicity and fear stoking by right-wing populist parties.

Should the media restrain and sanitise its crime reporting? Certainly not. Crime stories follow the crime rates. The higher the crime rates, the more the crime stories. But, journalists should know that for every crime story written, there could be many that go unreported. Pemandu’s statement of a 40 percent decline in street crime from January to May this year doesn’t explain the community anxiety over ‘rising’ crime in the city.

I received an email from a BFM89.9 Radio journalist when I arrived in Sydney. Referring to my article ‘Reporting crime in context’, the journalist, Lee Jian Chung, asked “why are Malaysian media organisations not pursuing critical and contextual stories about crime?”

The plausible factors are – short turnaround of breaking news, ‘if it bleeds it leads’ news value in commercial media, prevalence of ‘cue journalism’ (as termed by a colleague, Mustafa K. Anuar from Universiti Sains Malaysia), journalists who see crime incidents as events rather than as symptoms of broader socio-economic issues and woefully inadequate policing, journalists who uncritically assume that what the authorities say are true without verifying its factual and contextual accuracy.

The real question is how can Malaysian journalists do better in their crime reporting?

Go beyond traditional sources

My suggestion is simple – delve into the context, and go beyond the traditional sources for explanation – police, NGOs, government departments. Saying that sources are not willing to speak is a cop-out. Good journalists persist. They should go with their instincts, put on their critical thinking caps, tenaciously research and consult with alternative sources to make sense of the perceived rise in crime in the city.

Journalists should crunch the numbers released by the authorities, study the crime patterns, time and where they’re committed, the hot spots, the demographics of the perpetrators. Based on available evidence and a clear understanding of the context, work out a theory.

Indeed, journalists routinely work on assumptions. But good journalists test their assumptions on available evidence to form a theory. Then, they approach expert sources for reactions. Herein lies the essence of critical purposive reporting – which takes self-belief to investigate, time to write, and dedication to follow through.

Purposive journalism could be guided by having SMART goals in mind (acronym borrowed from the field of counseling that refers to goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-limited).

Applied to purposive SMART crime reporting, it would mean the stories should aim to stir public discussion that will lead to identifying the specific improvements badly needed in the policing system; publicising the measurable achievements or otherwise by the authorities in tackling the rising crime in specific communities; in collaboration with the stakeholders, develop achievable anti-crime community action plans; responsive reporting and monitoring of criminal activities; and truthful account of what’s going on in the community, what’s lacking in the law and enforcement sector.

Good journalists don’t just report what the authorities and experts say. Good journalists go beyond ‘he said this’ and ‘she said that’. Good journalists check it out for themselves and test their theories with independent sources and the people on the streets.

Thus, when the home minister and his underlings say the crime rate has declined, that should set off crime reporters’ crap detector to ask why doesn’t it feel like it when you walk the streets after dark or withdraw money from the ATM machine?


ERIC LOO left Malaysia for Australia in 1986 to work as a journalist. He currently lectures at University of Wollongong, Australia, and also mentors international journalism students via, run by United Press International. He edits a refereed journal Asia Pacific Media Educator published by SAGE Publications (New Delhi) and conducts journalism training workshops in Asia. Email: [email protected]

  1. #1 by monsterball on Friday, 27 July 2012 - 2:40 am

    When Malaysians are getting poorer committing crimes is not an option.
    It is a necessity to steal …rob and even kill for a few ringgit.
    It is feeding the hungry family.
    Crimes have increased.
    And not all are committed by foreigners.
    Check out so many untold crimes committed.
    Malaysia is a sick country.

  2. #2 by Winston on Friday, 27 July 2012 - 9:37 am

    Eric, the MSM is owned by the UMNO/BN government.
    And when the police is telling all and sundry that the crime rate is falling, what would happen if the MSM were to tell the truth.
    And splash all kinds of criminal activities in their papers?
    They’ll be “chau you yee” – Chinese lingo for getting the sack!!
    Even editors have been sacked for giving out true but unfavourable news about the federal government.
    In fact, for a very long time, our newspapers have been wiped clean of any crime reporting!
    The fact that there is a spate of such reporting recently shows that the news media is rebelling!
    All the news papers owned by the federal government are their propaganda mouthpieces and are disbelieved and reviled by Malaysians.

  3. #3 by Winston on Friday, 27 July 2012 - 9:45 am

    While the UMNO/BN government continues to empty the Treasury, more and more Malaysians are taking to sleeping in the streets and abandoned premises.
    And lining up at free grub kitchens.
    This country is resource rich and would be envy of many others worldwide.
    But instead of having a high standard of living, the government has incurred debts of hundreds of billions and told Malaysians that it is still manageable!!!
    So, where have all the wealth that should have been accumulated over their very long five-and-a half decades rule gone to?
    Aside from the lying, cronyism, cheating and scandals, just this alone makes them unelectable!

  4. #4 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Friday, 27 July 2012 - 10:33 am

    I still believe that in this country we have good and professional journalists. But good journalists alone is not enough to put right the decades of abuse and manipulation by umno (esp by that crazyO’mamak). In any event good journalists could do little when we have politically connected/controlled editors and media owners.

  5. #5 by Godfather on Friday, 27 July 2012 - 10:35 am

    Did Pemandu show us the statistics regarding crimes solved, and perpetrators jailed ? The answer is NO because the majority of crimes do not get solved. Even when they claim that crimes have been solved, how many of these crimes are successfully prosecuted ?

  6. #6 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Friday, 27 July 2012 - 2:09 pm

    Crime level. This is sooo depressing. Only umno is happy. But of course. I mean can we seriously expect people who are in the prolonged state of deep orgy notice the deplorable condition the country is now in? Malaysia is a wonderful country. And umno has reduced it to a hole for criminals and third world migrants. Drugs? Boleh. Police pun ada jual. Kereta potong, oh yes we have that too. Titles? No problem. What do you want? Dato? Datuk? Dato seri? Ask around and will know where to get them. Degrees? Bachelor, Master and yes even phD pun boleh dapat.

    Errr kontrak kerajaan umno pun ada. Komisen 10%. Cheap! cheap!

  7. #7 by boh-liao on Friday, 27 July 2012 - 2:15 pm

    Lucky d author is in Oziland, otherwise Pemandu will drive him 2 d loo

  8. #8 by megaman on Monday, 30 July 2012 - 11:41 am

    How to provide accurate n critical reporting when as a journalist you are subjected to all sorts of abuse and pressure ?

    Remember the incidents where journalists and photographers were physically assaulted and their cameras confiscated during Bersih rallies ?

    Remember the Sin Chew Daily journalist Tan Hoon Cheng that got imprisoned using ISA ?

    Remember the radio deejay that was forced to quit when he made certain critical remarks on air ?

    Remember the sexist remarks and insults against female reporters in a news conference ?

    Looks like a lot of people have forgotten, but I haven’t.

    • #9 by megaman on Monday, 30 July 2012 - 11:43 am

      Good journalism can only exist when the journalist are protected by the masses.

      Did we as the general society do anything to protect them ?

      If not, why should they take risks to report the truth ?

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