The trouble with nickname-based crime journalism

Give gangsters a certain kind of publicity and they start to believe the hype around themselves, says one dismayed father whose son was murdered in gangland feuding

Crime scene: Veronica Guerin was shot on the N7 in Dublin on June 26th, 1996. Photograph: Collins

Crime scene: Veronica Guerin was shot on the N7 in Dublin on June 26th, 1996. Photograph: Collins

 

Since Veronica Guerin’s murder by the John Gilligan gang, 20 years ago this weekend, crime journalism has exploded. The media cover the exploits of gang figures – whom they often nickname – in the kind of detail and with a frequency that would have been unthinkable at the time when the reporter was killed. And because crime stories are so popular – a popularity easily measured on media websites – that coverage is increasing all the time.

But many gardaí believe that the coverage of organised crime creates extra fear around gangland figures that the criminals then use to intimidate others. Gardaí also say that detailed reporting of gang feuds stokes already incendiary levels of tension.

One man who agrees with them is part of a group of forgotten victims in Ireland’s gun violence: the parents who first lose their sons to organised crime and then see them murdered in gangland feuding. Having witnessed the impact that media coverage had on his son and other gang members, the father says that crime journalists have questions to answer.

When his son began to appear in the media he enjoyed the notoriety it brought him – the “negative glamour”, as some criminologists call it – and then used that sense of fear to help him cement his position. It’s a familiar pattern, the father says. “It helps their case. It helps them in whatever business they are in. They live off that. They use the coverage of themselves to intimidate people around them. And I just think it makes the whole thing snowball out of control.

“There are particular types of journalism that build up a sensationalised story. Then these idiots involved in crime start believing what they are reading about themselves. And they feel they have to live up to that. They get given these silly nicknames and start to believe the hype around themselves. And then it just gets worse and worse.

“Years ago you would rarely hear of anyone being shot. It was more or less an unthinkable thing when it did happen. But now they’re all playing cowboys and Indians. And part of that is what’s playing out in the newspapers, so for me that type of journalism doesn’t have a place. It just makes things worse.”

Dr Diarmuid Griffin, a criminologist at NUI Galway, says that “there is sometimes an inverse relationship between the crime statistics and people’s perception. They are more fearful of crime than they should be.

“The impact of the coverage sometimes is that, even though people don’t feel they are going to be victimised in their own community, they still feel strongly that we’re losing the fight against crime.”

Griffin agrees that giving criminals nicknames makes them characters and creates a narrative around them that people fear, and he points out that this can last for years. He notes, for example, that there’s still intense interest in who killed Det Garda Jerry McCabe and Veronica Guerin in the summer of 1996. He says that this is at least partly because the media has given them a certain status.

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