Crime and ethnicity in the media: Pickpocketing on a world stage

The Louvre (large museum in Paris, France, pictured below, home to many important works of art, for example, the Mona Lisa) closed today.  Hundreds of staff members walked out citing complaints about rampant crime in the museum that was targeting both visitors and staff.

I read about this issue on five British news outlets’ websites: The Telegraph, The Guardian, BBC News, The Daily Mail, and The Sun.  The differing coverage led me to think about the notion of media bias, which I’ve explored in previous posts.  Here are the five websites’ headlines for each with a link to each story:

  1. The Telegraph: Louvre closes over pickpockets
  2. The Guardian: Louvre closed on account of pickpockets
  3. BBC News: Paris Louvre shuts as staff strike over pickpockets
  4. The Daily Mail: Louvre forced to close as workers walk off job in protest at Romanian gypsy children pickpocketing tourists at gallery
  5. The Sun: Fears for UK grow as Romanian gangs lead to closure of Louvre

Quite a different story is told just by the different titles.  #1-3 don’t provide any characteristics of the perpetrators beyond naming them by their crime, as “pickpockets”.  However, #4 ascribes important characteristics to them; they are “Romanian”, “gypsy“, and “children”.  #5 also characterizes these people as “Romanian” but chooses to use the word “gangs”, making them sound even more coordinated and sinister than the other descriptions do.  Most strikingly, however, The Sun’s headline explicitly connects the problem in France to immigration concerns for the United Kingdom (they do so by citing the fact that Romania has recently joined the European Union but is still waiting to have its immigration restrictions lifted, at which time many Romanians are expected to immigrate to other EU countries including the UK).

I decided to take a look more closely at how the writers of these articles portrayed the perpetrators and victims of these crimes.  I was interested in whether and how the writers would make use of the perpetrators’ and victims’ nationalities and ethnicities.  I took a look therefore at the words used to describe the people involved in the crimes.  I noticed two strategies for dealing with victims and perpetrators that some writers used and others did not:

  1. Linking the pickpocketing perpetrators to Romania (and to a much lesser extent Bulgaria), Romanian immigrants, and the Roma people (a sub-group of the Romani — not the same thing as Romanian)
  2. Portraying British people (and to a lesser extent people from the United States) as uniquely targeted by the crimes discussed

Three of the news outlets, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, and The Sun, linked the pickpocketing explicitly to Romanian immigrants, referring to the pickpockets as “the children of Romanian immigrants” (The Telegraph and The Daily Mail), “Romanian gangs” (The Sun), or “Romanian gypsy children” (The Daily Mail).  The Sun even referred generally to a phenomenon it labelled “Romanian crime”.  All three of these writers also chose to connect this issue to Romanian immigration more broadly.  The Sun, for example, reported that “Similar gangs could come to the UK as 12,770 Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants are expected to flock here in 2014 when EU restrictions are lifted.”  Interestingly, both the BBC News and The Guardian articles are devoid of any references to Romania or immigrants at all.

The second strategy I observed involved writers from four of the five news outlets linking victimhood in these attacks, which took place in France, explicitly to Britishness (and to a lesser extent “Americanness”).  There were two ways in which these media outlets accomplished this.  The Daily Mail and The Telegraph both reported that those perpetrating the crimes often approached their victims first asking “Do you speak English?”  The Guardian also hinted at this phenomenon when it reported that a US school teacher had instructed her students who were visiting on a school trip not to speak English on public transportation.  In addition, The Telegraph and The Sun both reported that pickpockets were operating in gangs “around the Gare du Nord Eurostar station, preying on British travellers as they arrived from London”.  In contrast, The BBC News was silent about the impact of these crimes on British (or US) travelers.

What I think this shows us then is how the media chooses to make events relevant to broader political interests or not.  In this case, media outlets like The Sun, The Daily Mail, and the Telegraph all chose to link these issues to ethnicity and nationality and to concerns over immigration policy.  Readers of these articles were presented with a much more frightening picture of the possible consequences of Romanian immigration.  Other news outlets chose not to make ethnicity and nationality relevant instead portraying the issue as a local crime wave that has no explicit relevance to other issues such as European Union immigration policy.  Readers of these articles were presented with a situation that suggests mainly the need for more local policing of the Louvre.

Some people (myself included) would doubtlessly accuse The Sun, The Daily Mail, and The Telegraph of fear-mongering or being biased against Romanian (and other Eastern European) immigrants.  Others might question why the BBC News and The Guardian have chosen to ignore an alleged connection between crime and ethnicity.  We can be sure of one thing here though.  Journalistic choice is responsible for how events are represented to us.  Here the events leading up to the closing of the Louvre are represented in strikingly different ways: either as an isolated local crime problem or as a global link between crime and ethnicity.  Clearly, the news we choose can change the way we see and feel about the world.

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Human migration, Media discourse and media bias
2 comments on “Crime and ethnicity in the media: Pickpocketing on a world stage
  1. Paco says:

    How interesting! So there is a composite, doubly loaded message in the stories by The Sun, The Daily Mail, and The Telegraph. Namely: 1) immigrants are criminals; 2) British citizens aren’t safe enough from them on native soil, much less abroad. Ergo, the British might be better off not traveling at all; what’s all that nonsense about broadening your horizons anyway?

  2. nsubtirelu says:

    That does seem to be the message. Roving bands of people with -u’s at the end of their names will get you if you leave the house.

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