Newsmaking Criminology Essay

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In 1988, criminologist Gregg Barak coined the term newsmaking criminology. Newsmaking criminology refers to “the processes whereby criminologists use mass communication for the purposes of interpreting, informing and altering the images of crime and justice, crime and punishment, and criminals and victims.” Newsmaking criminology was largely a response to the popular but typically inaccurate portrayal of crime and perpetrators of crime in the mid-1980s. Newsmaking criminology represents a call to criminologists to help shape, and in many instances correct, conceptualization of criminal justice issues. The concept makes clear, as Barak notes, that taking sides is part of the formula.

Some criminologists seem to suggest that actualizing newsmaking criminology is an exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, task. They note that successfully altering how crime and criminal justice issues are reported requires knowledge of the format, frame, and genre of specific media. Yet, many newsmaking criminologists approach their task by trial and error. Barak and others suggest that by understanding communicative frames and drawing on this understanding, newsmaking criminologists can use the media, rather than being used by the media, to alter perceptions. Under this framework, the criminologists act as “experts, journalists, subjects and/or as educative provocateurs.”

The Landscape

In the years immediately preceding Barak’s labeling of newsmaking criminology, the media had become fascinated with crimes that inflamed the passions of their consumers. Rare crimes that involved gruesome circumstances and wild plot lines crowded out the more typical instances of criminality. A common media phrase of the time was, “If it bleeds it leads.” Reporter David Anderson calls this practice “the politics of hysteria.”

As Anderson explains, escaped felon Willie Horton fundamentally changed how the media covers crime and criminal perpetrators. The 1988 presidential campaign pitted George H. W. Bush against Michael Dukakis, then governor of Massachusetts. A central issue in the campaign became Dukakis’s record on criminal justice issues. To illustrate his contention that Dukakis endorsed lenient and dangerous criminal justice policies, Bush called national attention to the case of Horton, a Massachusetts inmate serving a life sentence who had been granted a weekend furlough, escaped, and assaulted a young couple in suburban Maryland. Most political scholars agree that the Willie Horton story cost Dukakis the presidency.

Anderson argues that the Willie Horton case began a trend in reporting on criminal justice issues. He contends that the formula for a popular crime story involves five components. First, the crimes must be “luridly violent,” often involving rape, murder, and assault. Second, the victims and perpetrators must be of different races, providing a racial element to the story. Third, the victims must be “wholly innocent” and cannot be contrived to be at fault in their own victimization. Fourth, perpetrators must appear “to have chosen their victims at random.” As Anderson notes, crimes between couples or friends do not make headline stories. And finally, perpetrators must have had prior contact with the criminal justice system, “suggesting that if the criminal justice system worked better, the terrible crime might have been avoided.” These characteristics of crime, Anderson contends, drive media interest, as such stories will attract a disproportionate amount of attention from consumers.

The Introduction of Newsmaking Criminology

In 1988, Gregg Barak noted that criminological research often focused on the role of the media in constructing the image of crime and the criminal. He also noted, however, that criminologists rarely “participated in the mass construction of those portrayals.” Barak’s proposal centered on the idea that criminologists should use the media and take part in shaping reports of crime and criminals. Barak termed this practice “newsmaking criminology.”

Barak’s concept of newsmaking criminology draws on Alvin Gouldner’s concept of “newspaper sociology.” Gouldner noted that newspaper sociologists “participate in the public sphere,” “receive recognition for doing so,” and “thus play a role as public persons.” The primary purpose or goal of a newspaper sociologist is to help shape the moral rules and definitions of social reality. Barak’s notion of the newsmaking criminologist tracks Gouldner’s prior definition.

In the context of crime, Barak contends that news outlets rely too often on official police reports and political statements regarding crime. He argues that these reports are typically one-sided, focusing almost exclusively on street-level crime, typically to the exclusion of white-collar criminal offenses. As Barak explains, many news outlets will regularly cover the mugger who steals the old woman’s purse, but will not report the old woman’s demise because corporate executives mishandled her pension fund. Barak also notes that crimes are reported without appropriate context. He observes that the media often overlook the social, political, and economic factors that play a role in crime. And finally, Barak suggests that such distorted reports of crime and criminal offenders have a significant impact on reactive public policy.

Executing Newsmaking Criminology

Barak argues that the single most important aspect of newsmaking criminology is criminologists’ ability to develop relationships with the media. While he acknowledges that the “technocrats of the news-producing industry” share common bonds with the “capitalist-driven media,” these same technocrats also value free expression and objectivity and often sympathize with an academic perspective of criminal justice issues. It is these windows of opportunity, Barak argues, through which criminologists can enter, develop relationships, and alter how crime is reported.

Once a relationship with the media is established, Barak argues, criminologists can become professional viewpoints on criminal justice issues. They can supplement, and in some cases supplant, “official” sources like law enforcement personnel and politicians. But notably, Barak also contends that criminologists can move beyond a reporting or informational role. He urges criminologists to begin the task of “producing crime themes.” Barak explains that criminologists can “participate as a credible public voice, offering a variety of theoretically enriched analyses that challenge the prevailing crime myths and enlarge the popular discourse on crime and justice.”

Barak has further refined the role of the newsmaking criminologist, noting that to be effective, criminologists must gain an understanding of the way the media frame the news. Drawing on the work of Simon Cottle, Barak explains that communicative frames are either conflict-oriented or consensus-oriented. Making up these larger communicative frames are several narrative frameworks specific to either conflict or consensus communicative frames. Importantly, narrative frameworks of social conflict employ propositions, claims, counterclaims, and arguments. Conversely, narrative frames of social consensus employ “‘cultural displays’ rather than ‘analytic deliberations.’” Social conflict frameworks are based in logic and objectivism while social consensus frameworks appeal to emotion. Barak contends that effective newsmaking criminologists should gravitate toward the narrative frameworks of social conflict, as they allow for a more in-depth, analytically grounded coverage of crime and criminal justice policies.

The Current Landscape

Anderson’s account of crime reporting is alive and well. The cases of O. J. Simpson and George Zimmerman provide illustrative examples of how certain factual elements of a crime make a case more likely to attract media coverage and the accompanying polarized national attention. Moreover, media outlets are increasingly controlled by corporate factions and still typically rely on law enforcement as “official sources” of crime news. Accordingly, the task that befalls newsmaking criminologists is as burdensome as ever.

Barak himself has noted that crime reporting has changed little in the past 20 years. For this reason, the role of the newsmaking criminologist, he argues, is as important as ever. Though some scholars question the potential of newsmaking criminology, others argue that criminologists who situate themselves close to media sources, developing bonds with those sources, and approach crime news from an objective, contextual prospective can provide valuable information that shapes conceptualizations and themes about crime and criminal justice policy.

Bibliography:

  1. Anderson, D. C. The Politics of Hysteria: How the Willie Horton Story Changed American Justice. New York: Random House, 1995.
  2. Arrigo, B. “Media Madness as Crime in the Making: On O. J. Simpson, Consumerism, and Hyperreality.” In Representing O. J.: Murder, Criminal Justice and Mass Culture, G. Barak, ed. New York: Harrow and Heston, 1996.
  3. Barak, G. “Doing Newsmaking Criminology From Within the Academy.” Theoretical Criminology, v.11 (2007).
  4. Barak, G., ed. Media, Process, and the Social Construction of Crime: Studies in Newsmaking Criminology. New York: Garland, 1994.
  5. Barak, G. “Mediatizing Law and Order: Applying Cottle’s Architecture of Communicative Frames to the Social Construction of Crime and Justice.” Crime, Media, Culture, v.3 (2007).
  6. Barak, G. “Newsmaking Criminology: Reflections on the Media, Intellectuals, and Crime.” Justice Quarterly, v.5 (1988).
  7. Cottle, S. “Mediatizing the Global War on Terror: Television’s Public Eye.” In Media, Terrorism, and Theory: A Reader, A. P. Kavoori and T. Fraley, eds. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.
  8. Gouldner, A. The Dialectic of Ideology and Technology: The Origins, Grammar, and the Future of Ideology. New York: Seabury, 1976.

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