Reporting the Underworld: A Cross-Platform Analysis of Crime in Journalism


In recent years journalism has seen a dramatic shift in the way content is sourced, produced and received. The rapid growth and expansion of the internet can be largely credited for the diversification of journalism; growing one step ahead of a cultural shift that would force the industry to change and meet its demands.

The product of journalistic work was, at one point, restricted only to print before radio, and then television, became mediums through which the general public could access the news with ease.

With historical context, the proliferation of online journalism appears to be a natural progression, and it has had a remarkable impact on the interaction between news and the audience.

After formerly having news and information dictated by media organisations, the audience is now able to aid and inform the very organisations that are delivering right back.

In her essay on the future of journalism in 2009, University of Denver Associate Professor Adrienne Russell argued that the general public is starting to create their own news around what is most relevant to them.

“Greater public participation, for example, is generating more useable so-called hyperlocal news, which is reported increasingly via crowdsourcing and instant messaging by local residents intimately familiar with what they are reporting,” wrote Russell.

The extension of journalism’s embrace to include involvement from the general public, however, has not been met with unanimous praise.  

Professor Graeme Turner of the University of Queensland suggests in his 2010 book, The Demotic Turn, that user-generated content has led to the ‘dumbing down’ of media, as well as the rise of the ‘ordinary man’ being featured in our news.

Between Russell and Turner’s arguments lies a grey area in journalism that is now beginning to be explored in real depth and expanded upon at an exponential rate in today’s media.

Joseph Acquaro and the coverage of the Calabrian Mafia in the media

On 15 March  2016, Joseph Acquro was shot dead outside of his gelato store in Brunswick East, Melbourne.

The 54-year-old lawyer had represented some of the Calabrian Mafia’s most notorious criminals, including Antonio Madafferi – thought to be the head of the Mafia in Victoria.

Coverage of Acquaro’s death was widespread nationally, and subsequent stories continue to remain at the forefront of most major media organisations.

Aside from being a tragic and shocking incident, having taken place in a residential area in Melbourne’s inner North, the story took on graver significance, given its ties to the Mafia and the city’s underworld.

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 Herald Sun print coverage of the Acquaro shooting March 16-24

In the days that followed Acquaro’s murder, the Herald Sun and The Age ran a number of feature articles detailing the lawyer’s history with the Calabrian Mafia. Immediately after the shooting, both papers emphasised the fact that Acquaro was aware he was in danger and remained fearless.

But accounts from sources close to Acquaro began to emerge that some had noticed a change in his behaviour shortly before his death, and that he was, in fact, scared for his life.

In a short period of time, the portrait being painted of Acquaro in the news turned from that of a brave man into a frightened one.

The main photograph of ‘Pino’, as he was known by friends, used by the majority of the media was a blurry one that showed him wearing a worried expression on his face, despite the fact that he was frequently photographed for representing high-profile figures in Melbourne.

The Herald Sun, for the duration of their coverage on the story, focused extensively on the list of people who had made an enemy of Acquaro, without explicitly speculating as to whether anyone on this list could be suspected of the murder.

The shooting was devoted less time by most television networks after the story initially broke; possibly due to the fact that footage for the story could only be shot outside the store where it took place, accompanied by shots of Acquaro leaving court before his death, and grieving family and friends. Footage of this nature is not necessarily of high impact for the viewer, and is therefore better explored in print.

Channel 7 covered the story most extensively of the five major television networks, focusing primarily on short interviews with those close to Acquaro, before exploring his ties to the Calabrian Mafia, and Antonio Madafferi.

     7 News, Original air date: March 17 2016

Herald Sun journalist and crime author, Andrew Rule, was a port of call for many television networks looking for comment on the shooting. Rule, who had covered the Mafia for a number of years, and written multiple articles involving Joseph Acquaro, spoke to 7 News, Sunrise and Today to provide context for the shooting. On air, he gave short, succinct answers to what were generally vague or ignorant questions.

However, in his piece for the Herald Sun headlined ‘Targets who turned their back on danger’, Rule was scornful of members associated with the Calabrian Mafia, and used highly emotive language to convey his distaste for the gang and the crimes they’ve committed.

The stark contrast between his television appearances and his writing highlights the disparity between the intentions of TV news and print. Where the former must provide news in a compendious manner, print often works to fill the gaps.

The Age Vs Antonio Madafferi

Joe Acquaro’s murder took on a unique significance for The Age as Antonio Madafferi, dubbed “The Godfather” of the Calabrian Mafia, had previously been involved in a legal battle with the newspaper over reports Madafferi had a contract out for Acquaro’s life.

The bounty, thought to be $200,000 and then increased to $400,000, was first reported early last year. Madafferi claimed The Age‘s reports were defamatory, but his case was later dismissed in court.

It is alleged that Acquaro had been leaking information about the Mafia to The Age journalist, Nick Mckenzie, whose investigation into Melbourne’s underworld had featured on the ABC‘s Four Corners.

Shortly after the shooting, The Age was back in court with Madafferi over a suppression order banning Acquaro’s name so that it could not be suggested he had any involvement with the murder.

After arguing the suppression no longer applied given that Acquaro was deceased, The Age won and subsequently ran stories on both Madaferri’s links to the Lygon Street shooting and the ruling itself. 

Media Watch reported on the battle between The Age and Madafferi on 21 March but were able to obtain comment from neither Madafferi nor McKenzie. The report included statements from McKenzie made last year to the program, saying he had also been warned by police that his life may be in danger as a result of the investigation and refused to divulge his sources to Madafferi, who was rumoured to have used  intimidation tactics on the journalist.

The report ended with a disclaimer: “We are, of course, not suggesting that Tony Madafferi was involved in Acquaro’s death.”

Media Watch 21 March 2016

Glamourised Crime?

It is no secret that the general public have a morbid fascination with crime, and especially the underworld. Shows like Nine Network‘s ‘Underbelly’ highlighted this fascination with huge ratings throughout its six-year run. 

While shows of this nature work to bring issues that tend to thrive on secrecy to the attention of the masses, they may also inadvertently serve to glamourise the criminals themselves. 

In his article for The Saturday Paper titled ‘Joseph Acquaro and the Calabrian Mafia, Martin McKenzie-Murray notes that people have shown a tendency to be sympathetic with Mafia men and gangland crooks, as a result of influence from the depiction of these criminals in the media. 

“It is the work of mental impoverishment that a serial killer’s crimes might be excused for his insistence on three-piece suits and a syrupy deference to his mother. But such is the world of The Honoured Society. Friends might be murdered, compatriots betrayed and mistresses taken, but never shall it disrupt appeals to nobility,” wrote Mckenzie-Murray.

News Corp news website,, reported on the shooting and days later on Acquaro’s funeral. At the bottom of the article the website posted a link to Foxtel‘s crime drama ‘Alphonse Gangitano – The Black Prince of Lygon Street’.

Graphic used by of Foxtel‘s ‘Alphonse Gangitano – The Black Prince of Lygon Street’

While arguably relevant, linking to a crime drama underneath photos of a recently deceased man’s funeral is ethically dubious at best.

Especially considering News Corp owns half of Foxtel.

Crikey media reporter, Myriam Robin believes that the glamourisation of notorious criminals may be an unfortunate by-product of media reports on the underworld, but journalists have a responsibility to cover stories they think the general public needs to be aware of.

“In crime, as in all rounds, journalism plays an important accountability role, keeping scrutiny on the function and effectiveness of the criminal justice system,” said Robin.

“While it’s possible to think of some instances where criminals have been glamourised – and some crooks court the publicity – most journalists’ sympathies are with the victims. I think if the victims are given sufficient emphasis in a story, this can overcome any glamourisation that occurs.”


Crikey Media Reporter Myriam Robin


Clickbait Criminals

One of the founding principles of journalism is that you must capture the attention of the reader from the outset. Coupled with the ever-growing push towards online content, this has manifested in the name now heavily identified with online journalism: clickbait. 

Many journalists, like former editor of The Guardian and columnist for The Observer Peter Preston, believe that clickbait journalism may be a necessary evil, and that it would be naive to think that journalism is detached from click-driven stats.

“It seems on one hand it’s pretty stupid to not make sure your journalists are doing their best to serve their readers,” Preston told BBC journalist Ben Frampton in 2015.

Clickbait is constantly attributed to stories of a trivial nature, but as online journalism has evolved, it has grown to encompass all kinds of news, including tragedies and serious crimes. 

While it is true that clickbait journalism is often used to promote serious and well-intentioned stories, there is no denying the fact that it can just as easily begin to trivialise stories that deserve more than a blatant attempt to reel in clicks. 


Clickbait on Facebook , March 18 2016

It’s a sentiment echoed by Myriam Robin. She believes that, while news organisations think they can balance clickbait with serious reporting, they are yet to prove it. 

“Many media outlets say they can do both – worthy stories with the clickbait. I’m not so sure they can. The competition for eyeballs is too great for it to be something you can do on the side – you either prioritise visitors to your website, or you focus on in-depth coverage of particular things, whether it’s local news or some other niche, and charge readers and advertisers for your specific coverage,” said Robin. 

She holds a strong skepticism for the clickbait juggling act performed by the media, but believes that the digitisation of journalism has led to better coverage overall, and journalists, especially, are better off for it.

“The digitisation of journalism has made research easier than ever before. It’s simply quicker to add context and background information to stories. But it’s also meant media outlets increasingly compete on a very narrow metric (clicks), leading to a focus away from important journalism and towards stories, already done elsewhere, that will earn someone’s fleeting curiosity.”


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