The media has always been trusted by the public for delivering news accurately and objectively, without bias or disinformation. But what if the media deceives the public through misrepresentation, causing unjust and unbalanced reports to be shared?

When it comes to social issues like homelessness and racism, the media frequently plays a large role in shaping perspectives – but this isn’t always their first priority. News outlets will often write their stories based on the most ‘newsworthy’ angle, aiming to get the most clicks and the greatest readership. 

In July 2014, a woman’s body was found near Melbourne Botanic Gardens, and the police wanted to speak to a 42-year-old homeless man, Scott Allen Miller, in regards to her death. 

The Age and ABC News carefully headlined the story as ‘Death In The Domain’ and ‘Botanic Gardens death: Police search for homeless ‘loner’ wanted in connection with body found in Melbourne’ respectively. However, the Herald Sun focused solely on the homeless man, with the headline ‘Hunt For Killer Hobo’ on the front page.

While you might ask why it is so important to specify the man’s living conditions, it is ultimately the angle that the Herald Sun deemed the most interesting and significant.

According to a 2006 study from Hanover Welfare Services and Maurice Blackburn Cashman Lawyers, the public has strong misconceptions of homelessness. Their survey concluded that the majority of people believe that a typical homeless person is a male aged over 40-years-old. 

However, according to the Council to Homeless Persons, 42 percent of homeless people are under the age of 25, and 44 per cent are female. The media’s portrayal and sensationalisation of homeless people establishes incorrect stereotypes that don’t educate the public about the truth.

We see a similar pattern when it comes to crime. News outlets choose to report on certain events over others because of the ‘newsworthy’ element, which often incorrectly informs the public about the rate and frequency of certain crimes. 

In the Journal of Criminal Justice, Chermak and Chapman found that while homicides account for less than one per cent of reported crimes in the United States, they are included in 15 per cent of crime stories in newspapers. 

Of course, homicides are newsworthy as they are violent and affect the public, but when they are over-reported against other crimes, it presents an imbalance between the reality of homicides, and how often they occur.

Not only does the media have the power to influence public opinion, but they can also have an impact on the law. Australian news outlets frequently covered stories of ‘one punch homicides’, which undoubtedly scared the public and in turn, led to the enactment of relevant laws in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and New South Wales. 

While this isn’t a negative impact, it does show the necessity for the media to present the news accurately and appropriately, as it may influence extreme public and legal responses.

Fundamentally, these misrepresentations also have strong harmful effects on those that are being singled out. After being negatively portrayed and racially stereotyped in the news recently, many leaders of the African community have spoken out about their concerns for the future. 

Speaking to SBS News, Clyde Sharady, CEO of African Media Australia, said that he is worried about employment, education and housing opportunities because incorrect information about Africans is being perpetuated.

“Even those who are doing really well in the community will end up facing these issues, simply because the media continues to present a distorted image of the African community,” he said.

This came after the release of a new study from the Centre for Multicultural Youth and researchers from Monash University and the University of Melbourne, which looks at the impacts of the ongoing media coverage of the ‘African gangs’.

Participants in the study said they they had been subject to public hate crimes, racial profiling by the police, increased surveillance at school from teachers, and increased scrutiny by parents and elders from the South Sudanese community.

Many participants felt that the narrative the media was creating blocked their ability to achieve their goals. 

Carmel Guerra, Chief Executive Officer at the Centre for Multicultural Youth says that the media misrepresents and overstates the extent of the crime.

“One of the biggest challenges is community perceptions of fear that exists, which is out of proportion to the reality,” she says.

“Youth crime is on the decline, yes there are crimes that are scaring people but I think the media needs to be more responsible in their journalism and to provide accurate facts, and this report points out numerous incidents where things are reported incorrectly.”

When consuming news, it is necessary to understand that what is being portrayed may not be the full scope of the story. Audiences must be aware that they may be subjected to information that has been deemed ‘newsworthy’, but essentially spreads dangerous stereotypes and misinformation that has the capability to affect both public opinion and government decision making.