The relationship between media and crime has been the subject of much research and debate throughout history. Relationships between crime and the media are many and complex, and interest in these relationships cut across a number of academic disciplines from criminology to sociology, and cultural and media studies, to name a few. Similarly, the influence of the media on public opinion, policy, and deviancy itself is an issue that has greatly concerned researchers. The public fascination with crime and justice continues to grow in conjunction with the many changes and developments that have occurred in the media over recent years, such as the introduction of the 24-hour news cycle and the rise of the Internet. There is little doubt media coverage plays an important role in the ways in which the community frames and views issues of crime, law and order, and social control. For the most part, the community does not get its information about crime from personal experience; very few members of the public have direct contact or experience with crime or the criminal justice system. As such, for most of the public, knowledge and information about criminal matters comes from the media and, increasingly, online sources. Ethical concerns that arise from the complex relationship between media and crime include the role that the media play in disseminating crime knowledge, the impact of media crime reporting on audiences and police, and the ethics of media and crime.
Background and Context
The media play an important role in defining the social world and have an equally significant influence on community perceptions about crime, criminals, and the criminal justice system. Criminological and sociological inquiry concerning the nature and role of the media in representing crime is relatively recent. The early 1970s witnessed the emergence of deviancy amplification studies, research into moral panics, and the growth of interest in the construction of crime news. Since then, researchers have gone on to examine the effects of media representations of crime, surveillance technologies, crime and law enforcement in popular culture, and news reportage of crime.
In 1972 the publication of Stanley Cohen’s seminal text, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, highlighted the complex relationship between media representations of crime and social reality. Over the subsequent decades not only has the power of the media grown but so, too, has media technology, requiring an even greater understanding of their function and influence. The media now play an active role not only in how crime is perceived but also in how crime and criminal justice policies and practices are determined and delivered.
The relationship between crime and the media, though complex, is often oversimplified in popular debate, leading many to question just how much influence the media have over the public and political realm.
Crime in the News: The Role of the Media and the News-Making Process
Media outlets allocate significant column space and airtime to stories about crime and criminality. Stanley Cohen noted that the mass media devote a great deal of energy to covering deviance. According to Robert Reiner and his colleagues, deviance is the quintessential element of newsworthiness. Media outlets and their journalists and editors not only choose to publish or broadcast stories based on imagined readers and audiences, but they also take an active role in the construction of such stories. The news-making process is one that has come under much scrutiny from researchers, many critical of the way in which the media misrepresent the reality of crime and criminality. As Geraldine Bloustien and Mark Israel put it, news programming does not mirror crime and its control; rather, they assert, “journalists actively construct their stories by choosing particular kinds of events and presenting them to their assumed audience in terms of what they think will make such events intelligible.”
The processes undertaken by journalists and media outlets around the production of crime news have been the focus of a number of groundbreaking studies, the most famous being Stephen Chibnall’s 1977 examination of crime news production. Chibnall’s research identified eight rules that he argued implicitly guide the construction and reporting of crime news stories, including immediacy, dramatization, personalization, simplification, titillation, conventionalism, structured access, and novelty. More recently Yvonne Jewkes expanded upon this work to better reflect today’s changed media world. Jewkes’s 12 core values, many of which are similar in whole or part to Chibnall’s list, also emphasize the important role that visual imagery plays in the newsmaking process.
Media Representations of Crime
The media play an important role in helping the public to understand matters of crime and criminal justice. As Cindi Banks explains, “[t]he media construction of crime will define what are thought to be the causes of crime, what acts are regarded as criminal, and what policies of crime control should be adopted.” By giving voice to particular experts and authority figures in their commentary, the media are able to set the agenda on law and order issues and, as Cohen’s moral panic thesis recognized, create public interest in particular matters of crime. For example, the antidrunk driving campaigns that are now a mainstay of Western criminal justice policy and legislation may not have got the traction that led to such legislative amendments without media and public interest groups joining to recharacterize public sentiment around drunk driving.
The Media and Their Audiences: Media Effects?
One of the biggest debates in media studies is the extent to which the media influence audiences. The prominence and regularity of crime across all forms of the media, from news to entertainment, has been a focus of much anxiety and debate in academic and general circles. Many of the earliest theories of media effects posited that populations were vulnerable to media influences. Such influences could be as innocent as audiences uncritically engaging with media content, through to audiences being directly influenced by media representation of crime and violence. Probably one of the biggest concerns at this end of the spectrum has been the potentially criminogenic influence of mass media representations of crime. For example, shortly after the 2009 Columbine High School massacre, it was widely reported that the two gunmen were fans of violent video games, films, and music. For many this was evidence of the deadly influence that the media, particularly entertainment media, could have on criminal behavior. Despite these popular beliefs, however, the evidence causally linking violent video games and violent and criminal behavior is questionable.
Crime, Politics, and the Media
It has been argued that intense media interest in crime matters has impact, direct or otherwise, on the policies and legislation on crime and justice concerns. As Ray Surette stated, the most important effect of the crime–media relationship is on criminal justice policy. He asserts that this effect has only intensified with the growth of the mass media. While it might be easy to assume that the stories people see on the news, read in the papers, or listen to on the radio are the drivers for change, the reality of the law and order policy-making process is often more complex than superficial analyses suggest. Despite this, there is no doubt that the media play an influential role in setting the political agenda when it comes to matters of crime. This is particularly evident in the lead-up to elections, or in the wake of serious or high-profile criminal justice matters, such as the gun reform debates that have followed high-profile gun tragedies, such as those in Port Arthur, Australia, and Newtown, Connecticut. Political parties campaign strongly on law and order issues, often reducing quite complex crime problems to easily digestible statements, or “sound bites,” for news broadcasts on television and radio and for quotation in newspapers. Over the past few decades, crime has become one of the most important electoral linchpins, with the media being an integral element in a very complex criminal justice policy process.
Media and Fear of Crime
Other debates over the prominence of crime stories in the media have focused on the link between media representations of crime and victimization and increased levels of public fear. It is almost impossible for politicians to ignore the strong impact of public opinion around matters of law and order, and this includes many of the fears and concerns voiced by the community in relation to crime and victimization. Fear of crime has become an increasingly important concept in criminology, and policy and is often linked with the moral panic theory because of the relationship between fear of crime and media amplification of the threat of victimization.
In the late 1980s the British Home Office’s standing conference on crime prevention argued that “the effect of crime reporting by the media is almost inevitably to increase fear… The public receives only a distorted impression” when news coverage leans heavily toward coverage of particularly violent crimes against particularly sympathetic victims. More recent studies on the relationship between media consumption and fear of crime have further suggested that media portrayals of crime do have some influence on levels of fear. Phillip Schlesinger and Howard Tumber, for example, found that there were consistent relations between readers of tabloids and heavy television watchers and levels of fear. Caution, however, is required in making claims about the causal effect of the media on fear.
Whatever the cause, fear of crime has come to be regarded as a major social problem, a characteristic of contemporary culture, and a useful tool for politicians in the quest for public support. Fear of crime has become so problematic that many criminal justice agencies, particularly the police, have developed distinct policies that aim to reduce levels of fear. In this way, the reduction of fear has become just as important as the reduction of crime for criminal justice organizations. Integral to many of these strategies is using the media as a tool through which messages of reassurance and safety can be communicated. The emergence of professionalized public relations and media departments within police agencies is a symptom of the importance police place on the role of the media in their crime-and-fear fighting activities.
Media and Ethics
Banks has written at length about the ethical issues and obligations of the media when it comes to dealing with and reporting crime. She notes six wide-ranging considerations that the media should take into account when dealing with matters of crime. These are (1) reporting the truth, (2) avoiding bias, (3) avoiding harm, (4) serving the public, (5) maintaining trust, and (6) avoiding manipulation.
It is Banks’s position that the media are in an extremely privileged position when it comes to matters of crime; they hold a lot of power in the dissemination of information. As much of the literature on the role and impact of the media on crime matters explains, it is not uncommon for the media to simplify and sensationalize matters of crime, leading to very “black-and-white” readings of what are quite complex issues. The media can not only fuel moral panics over crime, potentially impacting law and order policy, but also contribute to victim and offender stereotyping, all of which have the ability to contribute to misrepresentations of the true picture of crime. Given, as stated at the outset, that the media are the primary source of public knowledge on matters of crime, it is of great concern that this knowledge may not be entirely accurate.
The relationship between the media and crime is a complex, multifaceted one, and is subject to much debate in criminological and other circles. One thing that can be established, though, is that the media plays an integral role in the dissemination of crime information to the public, a role that has grown exponentially with the expansion of media formats and the shift into entertainment-style news and information programming.
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- Schlesinger, Phllip and Howard Tumber. Reporting Crime: The Media Politics of Criminal Justice. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.
- Surette, Ray. Media, Crime and Criminal Justice, 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2011.
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