Honolulu — Media coverage is nothing new to this -image-conscious state. But when Hawaii started making front-page news across the country in 1980, it was the kind of publicity the Aloha State preferred to do without.
The issue was crime--rapes, muggings, murder, even the hijacking of a busload of Japanese tourists. And it was written up as ''trouble in paradise'' by big-name mainland newspapers.
The effects were immediate. Local--residents, who had become increasingly restive about crime, grew more vocal. Some travel agents reported that all the hullabaloo over crime had made some of their clients -reluctant to vacation in Hawaii. And although government officials and tourism spokesmen complained of media sensationalism, they launched an aggressive anticrime campaign.
Those efforts, apparently, have paid off: At the end of 1981, Hawaii experienced its first decrease in crime in 30 years. Overall crime in the state dropped 11.3 percent compared with 1980, and violent crime decreased by an even more dramatic 16.8 percent.
For the year 1980, Hawaii ranked 39th in the country in violent crime rate, a standing that may drop lower when national statistics for 1981 are tallied.
''Any time crime raised its ugly head, it could destroy the attractiveness of Hawaii,'' explains Don Bremner who, as executive vice-president of the Waikiki Improvement Association, has been active in pushing for tougher crime legislation at the state level. ''It could do it overnight.''
Although it is impossible to pinpoint any one explanation for the decrease in crime, --observers here say it can be attributed to a combination of factors, including increased public concern, which has led to the formation of neighborhood watch groups, and the fact that crime became a political cause celebre, which prompted the passage of legislation aimed at career criminals and resulted in tougher sentencing procedures.
Further action is likely to be taken this year, as state politicians respond to voters' continuing concerns over crime. Gov. George R. Ariyoshi, seeking a third term as governor this November, dwelt at length on the subject during his 1982 state-of-the-state message. He and two other officials have introduced anticrime programs that range from election of judges to reinstatement of the death penalty.
Although public opinion polls show that citizens across the nation have grown--increasingly concerned about crime, it is a question that is particularly sensitive in--Hawaii, where the state's No. 1 industry--tourism--cannot afford the image generated by crime.
''I think the crime image has been overplayed,'' says Kenneth Char, president of the Hawaii Visitors Bureau. ''The fact that we have crime in Hawaii means that we make news. People come here with their defenses totally down. . . . The fact is we're just like any other American city. . . .''
Mr. Char admits, however, that the--media's focus on crime made the tourism -industry address the issue more directly, with more specific warnings to tourists about such minor precautions as walking on well-lighted streets at night and not leaving valuables unattended at the beach.
There is much already being done to help tourists feel welcome. On Waikiki, for--example, policemen patrol the streets on foot at night--and are in sight on virtually every street corner, it seems. And despite reports that some of Hawaii's younger residents resent white tourists, the state's ''aloha'' spirit of warmth and friendliness can be found in both the cities and the most remote island villages.
"This is supposed to be paradise," says Mr. Bremmer, of the Waikiki Improvement Association. "What that means is that we have to be better than anyplace else. We can't be commonplace."