A newsworthy murder - why it is far from a black-and-white issue

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The Independent Online

It is an accusation that has often been levelled at the police but this week the media has been accused of "institutional racism" in its reporting of murder.

While some in the media agree that there is an element of racism in their decision-making processes, others argue that a whole host of factors play a part in selecting which murders receive more attention.

The age and class of the victim, the amount of detail provided by the police and what else is happening in the news agenda all contribute to whether the media focus on a particular murder case.

The former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan said Sir Ian had "got a point". Mr Morgan said: "The media collectively for a long time have assessed five black or Asian youths dying in a car crash in a different way to the way they would have assessed five white youths. I wouldn't call it institutional racism. I would call it subliminal racism."

Donald Trelford, a former editor of The Observer, said a more commercial equation was taking place. "News editors get excited by the stories they think their readers are likely to be excited by and since the country is preponderantly white, [stories about white victims] are more likely to get extensive coverage."

Jeff Edwards, chair of the Crime Reporters' Association, said the frequency with which certain types of murder happened determined their place on the news agenda. "Once something becomes commonplace, it ceases to be news. Twenty years ago a black man shooting a black man dead in a car in Hackney was a story. When it happens 10 times in three months, it ceases to be a story."

Racially motivated murders such as the killing of 18-year-old Anthony Walker in Liverpool are always big news, according to Mr Edwards. "A race murder, - thank goodness - will always stop the traffic and be picked up and gone into in great depth by all the media," he said.

Age is an important factor in deciding whether a murder gets prominence. "[Damilola Taylor] was 10," Mr Edwards said. "If he had been a 20-year-old black youth stabbed to death by other youths on an estate in Peckham, it probably wouldn't have got a line anywhere."

Class is also an important issue. "Middle-class victims of crime are more rare," said Mr Trelford. "Readers don't relate quite so easily to murders which are maybe drug- related. They don't see them as the sort of thing that could happen to them walking down the street, or to their children."

A particular day's news agenda is also a factor. Apart from the nature of the crimes, it could be argued that one of the key reasons for the extensive coverage afforded to the Soham murders was because of timing: August, in the middle of newspapers' silly season.

The amount of detail that police provide can also sway news judgements. Sir Ian asked why the murder of Balbir Matharu, a 54-year-old Asian father of two, got less coverage than that of the white lawyer Tom ap Rhys Pryce, though both occurred on the same day.

According to Mr Edwards, the real reason was that police initially revealed very little detail about Mr Matharu, not informing reporters for 72 hours that he had been dragged 100 yards down the road. In the case of Mr Rhys Pryce, however, detail was plentiful, giving the story a strong human interest angle.

"If Tom ap Rhys Pryce had been black and had also been a successful City lawyer on his way home to have dinner with his fiancée, it would have still been a big story," Mr Edwards said.

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