What are the meanings (and effects) of color in crime news?

I’m still trying to figure this out, so if you have ideas for answers, please let me know.

I am interested in how news media use color to depict crime.

Altering crime images isn’t a new thing. Time and Newsweek were involved in altering OJ Simpson’s mug shot in the 1990s.

The darkened image of Simpson, an African American, further portrayed his danger, his guilt.

But what about everyday local news coverage? And what of not just news photographs, but graphics?

This photograph of a fire uses orange, yellow, red, and blue colors to reveal the drama and the mystery of a local fire. Light flares provide movement, action. It is a compelling image.

It’s not usual, then, that news info graphics might have similar traits to relay the meanings of action through recognizable imagery.

Here, for instance, are a bunch of crime graphics from KRCG/The Gazette in Cedar Rapids. Each accompanied a crime or “public safety” story.

They all look alike.

But, you may say, this is just how one news outlet portrays crime images in graphics.

Yet, how to explain this: Images from news stations across the country.

Journalists and designers use graphics and illustrations to draw attention to stories or to accompany information. Newsroom designers would argue that the “better” graphic and illustration is the one that shares overt information, where the illustration itself is part of the delivery of news.

But making, or finding, such images is not always easy.

Sometimes, it’s not (arguably) possible.

And not each story needs such an image, either.

But when they are used, it’s important to understand that they appear in the news intentionally. News doesn’t happen — journalists create it and shape it — and news images don’t just appear. Images are crafted, edited, selected, and published by someone for some reason.

One question I have is what meanings may readers or viewers attribute to a crime graphic, including the colors, the positioning of the items in the graphic, and the overt and covert symbols within them.

Huxford, in his article in Journalism, identifies metaphoric meanings of news photographs and illustrations evident in their size, shape, and color: Bright colors can be read as action; sephia can be read as historic or a moment of remembrance.

But he doesn’t talk about “stock” images, or news graphics. His readings could be used outside of just news photographs, but deeper readings of crime graphics might be interesting.

In this image, above, then, what meanings are connected to the double yellow police tape? The color red?, the flare?, the black outlines around the side of the image?

And, I wonder, do the meanings of the image change depending upon the stories that they are attached to?

Often these stock images are used over and over again by news outlets for different stories. So, what if this image was used for a murder story and then used again later for a burglary, or another non-violent crime.

Those are two different types of violence, but does the meaning that goes with the image the same?

Does it matter?

If journalists are supposed to present information (though we know they present to the public social norms and dominant ideology), then shouldn’t they be more intentional about the images that they use if the images hold deeper meanings?

At the more normative level, Charles Apple, on his copydesk.org blog, tells TV news graphic users who run crazy graphics like these ones below to grow up.

Apple writes:

The lesson here: Don’t ever decorate a story with an icon or an illustration. Use something that’s more authentic. If you don’t have data for a chart or map, then use a photo of the victim or of the area or something.

Or simply go without a visual. That’s preferable to this kind of credibility-killing nonsense.

Get your shit together, TV news business. You’re embarrassing yourself.

As a journalist, I’d say this same message should be sent to newspapers and their websites.

But from a cultural position, I suggest we explore the possible meanings and values that are expressed in graphics. Nothing is just created without intended meanings.

Just as journalists make choices on which stories to write, which words to use in that story, which angle, sources, and details make the story the most interesting, the same choices are made in design.

It’s time to look deeper.