The media can be an effective tool for tracking down crime suspects, according to research by Dinand Webbink, Judith van Erp and Froukje van Gastel, published in the March 2017 issue of the Economic Journal.
Their study finds that on nights when a popular crime-watch TV programme called ''Wanted'' has a lot more viewers (because there are no big football games on another channel), the probability of solving the crimes shown is significantly higher. The effect is particularly strong when the police have high-quality images of the suspects or there are many potential witnesses of the crime.
The mass media have created unlimited opportunities to show images of suspects to a broad audience, enabling the public to participate in solving crime. But until now, surprisingly little has been known about the effectiveness of media exposure in terms of solving criminal cases.
This study investigates the effect that showing crime suspects on a TV programme has on the probability of their apprehension. The researchers investigate data on the Dutch programme ''Wanted'', which attracts a weekly audience of more than a million viewers, 7.5% of the total Dutch population. This audience drops by 20%, however, on evenings when Champions League football games are broadcast on competing channels.
The research uses this variation to establish the impact of public exposure of suspects on solving crime. This is possible because ''Wanted'' cases on Champions League evenings and regular evenings do not differ systematically.
The estimates show that an increase in the number of viewers of the TV programme increases the probability of solving crime considerably. A decrease in the number of viewers by 100,000 – which is approximately 10% of the total number of viewers – decreases the probability that a case will be solved by 3 to 9 percentage points relative to an average of 26-29%, depending on the type of case.
The effect is particularly strong for criminal cases with many potential observers or cases for which it is easier to recognise suspects due to the quality of the images.
The implication of these findings is that the media can be effectively used for detection of crime suspects. Maximising the number of viewers – for example, by generating extra publicity around crime-watch programmes – can be expected to contribute to solving crime.
The researchers note that showing crime suspects to the public may also have negative effects: it may lead to increased ''naming and shaming'' and disproportional punishment of offenders; it may also inhibit reintegration of offenders. The programme therefore operates within clear boundaries set by the criminal justice authorities.
The researchers also note that their findings may be related to certain aspects of the TV programme. According to Dutch law, the right to publish images of crime suspects is reserved for the criminal justice authorities and only allowed in serious criminal cases, when publication is proportional in relation to the crime. Petty crimes are therefore not included, and the programme avoids overt stigmatisation of suspects.
In addition, the prerequisite for broadcasting is that the police have sufficient capacity to follow up on tips, which may contribute to the programme''s effectiveness. The programme is also edited carefully to disclose only those aspects of cases that are expected to benefit from public participation, as media attention may also ruin a case.
''The Effect of Media Exposure of Suspects on Solving Crime'' by Dinand Webbink, Judith van Erp and Froukje van Gastel is published in the March 2017 issue of the Economic Journal. Dinand Webbink is at Erasmus University Rotterdam Judith van Erp is at Utrecht University. Froukje van Gastel is at the Netherlands Gaming Authority.