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Making crime news: newspapers, violent crime and the selective reporting of Old Bailey trials in the late eighteenth century

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Abstract

How was crime and justice news constructed in the late eighteenth century? This paper uses a comparison between the Old Bailey Sessions Papers and the London newspapers’ coverage of Old Bailey trials to analyse newspaper selection policies across all categories of trial, and across different types of murder cases. It measures the impact of the gender, social status and notoriety of both victim and accused, as well as the role of dramatic struggles, sexual content, humour and broader social fears in decisions about newsworthiness. In doing so it offers a different perspective on changing attitudes to violence. Then, as now, trials that involved lethal violence were much more likely to be reported than any other category, but in the eighteenth century most murders were given no deeper coverage than other capital crimes. There was, however, a very high correlation between the penalty imposed by the court and the depth of reporting. Murder did not always attract longer news coverage in the late eighteenth century but the possibility that a trial would end with death on the gallows was undoubtedly a key criterion of newsworthiness.

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