Written by:
Patrick Olajide

Between the lines

Read time:
5 minutes

Between the lines

In his research into the coverage of homicide incidents in London, crime and justice analyst Patrick Olajide seeks to understand how the press talks about Black victims of crime. What he has discovered so far is an 'almost surgical indifference' to the tragic loss of human life.

Last year, 91 Black people were killed in England and Wales, accounting for over one in eight of all homicide victims. Between 2019 and 2022, Black people were four times more likely than white people to become a victim of homicide. Over a third of Black homicide victims were aged 16-24. 

These statistics will be familiar to many of us through the news. But we are less familiar with who these victims who tragically lost their lives actually were. What were their stories and experiences? And how did the press relate these stories and experiences to the public?

These are the questions I am focusing on in my current research, which involves analysing more than 130 news reports on homicide incidents in London from local, regional, national and online news outlets in order to understand how the press talks about Black people, especially those who are victims of tragic crimes.

The press plays an important but controversial role in society, particularly in the spaces where deeply sensitive issues and experiences meet, such as in the intersection between homicide, long-standing social inequalities and race. 

' I expected to see the dog whistles and stereotypical tropes'

Some argue that by reporting on homicides, news outlets raise awareness and share victims’ stories. Others say that this coverage is disproportionate, increasing fear of crime, dehumanising victims and reinforcing stereotypes around marginalised groups, particularly Black people.

When I started this research, I expected to find racism – explicit, implicit, subvert, overt. I expected to see the dog whistles and stereotypical tropes that, unfortunately, are all too familiar with my experience as a Black person living in the UK. 

But what has, in fact, struck me is a sense of coldness, an almost surgical indifference, from the press to the tragic loss of human life – the tragic loss of Black lives. In the articles I analysed the victims weren’t treated as people. They were a spectacle, a snippet of information or passing headline, with distressing details and sensitive subject matter delivered in a factual, objective but distant tone.

In the 500 words or so typically dedicated to reports on homicide, we often learned little about the victim, other than that they had lost their life. In many cases, where details were given about who had tragically been killed, it was almost always data-focused and impersonal. Reports identified victims’ gender and age and how they had lost their life, but didn’t identify them as people with whom to relate or sympathise with the impact of their loss. 

The victims of homicide – like all victims of crime – are people: parents, children, husbands, wives, colleagues and friends. They had hopes, dreams, histories, backgrounds and experiences too complex to cover in 10-20 lines of text. 

'I’m also left with gnawing questions'

Having recently completed the first part of this research, I’m left with the need to reaffirm how important it is that when journalists write about victims of crime, they do so sensitively and centre the victim’s voice and humanity in the reporting. 

Journalism is a hard job. Fact-finding – gathering information about victims, incidents and suspects – requires time and ongoing, open communication from witnesses, the police and other authorities. For victims, especially, it requires trust, access and vulnerability from their families, friends, communities and all those affected, during a time when their shared trauma is most bare and raw. But in the moments where there’s the most urgency to cover a breaking story, there’s also the least information available.

Reflecting on this, I’m also left with gnawing questions about the experience of all homicide victims in the press and papers. How much of this experience is down to the realities of fact-finding and journalism? Is this an experience shared by all victims, or does bias play a role here too?

These are questions I’ll explore in my next phase of work, looking at how the press report on homicide victims who aren’t Black, to understand the intersections and differences of experience, and to what extent they are racialised. 

Patrick Olajide is a crime and justice analyst at Crest Advisory with a background in safeguarding, social justice advocacy and youth work. His final report, Between the Lines, will be published by Crest in the autumn.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.

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