This study examined links between the prominence of crime in published letters to newspapers and the prominence of crime in portions of the newspapers written by journalists.
Crime news has been shown to influence levels of citizen concern about crime as a political issue, in addition to the extent to which people fear crime. With crime news causing such effects, it is important to understand why the press covers crime as it does. This study examined the relationships between the level of attention to crime in letters to the editor, on the front pages and in editorials of 10 American newspapers from 1948 to 1978. The data analyzed in the study were gathered in the late 1970's and early 1980's under the auspices of the Governmental Responses to Crime project, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice. In total, the study analyzed data from 3,614 issues of the 10 newspapers from 8 cities. The results of the study suggest that letters to the editor are more important in understanding the content of front pages and of editorials than previously realized. The level of attention to crime in letters predicted attention to crime in editorials of four newspapers and attention to crime on the front page of three. The findings were consistent with the idea that in the absence of a more valid indicator, newspaper journalists may tend to take cues about reader concerns from letters to the editor. Even though letters were not significant influences at all of the newspapers studied, their influence was sufficiently common that future research into the determinants of editorials and front-page news should consider the possible effect of letters to the editor. The most important finding of the study was that the amount of attention to crime in editorials and on the front page cannot be fully understood without reference to letters to the editor.