In 2003/04 the police recorded crime figure was 6,013,759 offences. This figure has fallen in every consecutive year and the figure recorded for the period 2011/12 was 3,976,312. Despite this drop of over 30% , the British Crime Survey showed that 60% of respondents to the 2011 survey believed that crime had actually risen. The fact that crime is actually falling much more quickly than people’s fear or perception of crime is a phenomenon that criminologists continue to research and attempt to explain.
Mass media has been put forward as one of the significant explanations for such a divergence between the perception and the reality. It is difficult to discount this explanation, as mass media is so prevalent in society; newspapers, books, social media and television are permeated with reports and articles about crime, often extremely sensationalised. However, despite the huge influence that mass media has on public perceptions, it is too simple to say that mass media is the only explanation for the fear of crime.
People’s personal circumstances and experiences of crime and what they hear from their friends and acquaintances all play a part in increasing their fear; the mass media merely exacerbates these fears. Moreover a factor that may be regarded as equally important is the public punitiveness that creates a huge demand and interest in crime. Without this the mass media would have no audience and it may be argued would not focus so strongly on crime in its publications.
Therefore, although the way people are brought up, where they live and past experiences are important in provoking the fear of crime, mass media is more significant than these factors, but its importance is only derived from the platform that is created for it by the public’s obsession with crime itself. Studies have found that ‘newspaper reporting of crime news is highly selective and distorted, often sensationally over-reporting crimes involving sex and/or violence. (Ditton & Duffy 1983: 159-165) This increases the misconception that many people hold, that violent crimes are much more common than they actually are. For example, there is substantial over-reporting of homicides in the newspapers, ‘which amounted to 0. 2 percent of crimes, but 29. 9 percent of crime stories. ’ (Ditton & Farrall 2000) Sex and violence allow journalists to build the most graphic descriptions of the crime and by doing this they instill fear in the readers.
In addition to focusing on the crimes that actually make up a minor proportion of all crime, studies on crime reporting have also found that the ‘attention shifts away from offence, offender and the criminal justice process and towards a victim-centered cosmology. ’ (Cohen 2004) The media focuses on the innocent victim, using emotive language particularly with those crimes involving children or the elderly, they use pictures of the victim and witness accounts to conjure a fear within readers that they or their loved ones ould quite easily be the next victim when in reality the risk of this is low. Stories with child homicide victims and/or perpetrators are particularly likely to be featured so prominently that they become long-running stories with a familiar cast of characters’. (Reiner 2006:310) It is not only the reporting of crime that instills this fear in the public but also the misleading information concerned with the criminal justice system especially in regards to sentencing.
News stories continue to emphasise the leniency of sentences, the agreeable conditions of prisons and the low conviction rate ensuring that the public underestimates the harshness of the sentences that are imposed on offenders. (Roberts & Stalans 1997) The technology of the twenty-first century means thousands of television channels are at the public’s fingertips, as are twenty-four hour news feeds and the huge upsurge of use of social media to reinforce news stories.
It is hard to argue that these mediums are not significant factors that add to the fear of crime in some way owing greatly to the mass media’s constant focus on the negatives of the criminal justice system, the emphasis on violent crime and the prevalent individualism rather than if they reported actual policies, figures or trends which would potentially increase the public’s understanding and probably reduce fear. Despite the media’s significance it is also it is important to consider other factors which contribute to the distorted fear of crime. Personal experiences of crime have also been put forward as an explanation for crime fear.
If someone has been victimized by crime in the past it is logical that they are more likely to fear it happening again. ‘For victims, fear is often the largest and most enduring legacy of their victimization. ’ (Moore & Trojanowicz 1988:1) Studies have shown that 30% of victims express a great amount of fear of crime compared to 19% of non-victims. (The Angus Reid Report 1997:43) The memories and scars that crime leaves individuals with is the most ‘abstract crime problem’ (Moore & Trojanowicz 1988:1) which is what the media plays upon and exacerbates with its relentless reporting.
Criminologists suggest that in addition to past experiences, fear of crime is also influenced by geography and perceived vulnerability. People living in urban areas are more likely to be fearful of crime than those living in rural areas. It can be argued that this is a direct result of crime being, on average, around ten percent higher in cities than in rural areas and it supports the idea that the media cannot be the only explanation of the fear of crime. Howard 1999) Feelings of vulnerability are especially prominent in women and may arise from childhood if men are presented as aggressive and something to fear or if women are brought up to believe that they are weaker than men or simply because during childhood ‘the stereotypes of fearless males and fearful females are forged. ’ (Ditton and Farrall 2000) The keen interest in crime is evident in that ‘crime has been the foundation for an entire genre of fiction for over one hundred and fifty years,’ (Scaggs 2005:1) 1 in 10 films released in cinemas are crime related and may help to explain the huge focus on crime in news stories.
Roberts and Hough (2011) believe that society has an extremely punitive view of crime and criminals. Newburn and Jones (2005) argue that this explains the alignment of opposing political parties’ stance on crime in Britain over the past few decades. The punitiveness of the public creates this demand for such stories in the news and the huge amount of films that are released every year; it is society that buys these books and watches the endless amounts of crime investigation programmes on television..
Without this incessant demand the mass media would not supply it; newspapers would not sell as well, films would be unsuccessful and crime novels would no longer top the fiction charts. These books, films and television programmes reinforce the public’s punitive view on crime through their focus on violent crime and a vicious circle arises from this infatuation. Media coverage of crime results in ‘people’s understanding of sentencing severity and options is restricted and often distorted’ (Cullen et Al 1997:3) But, the media could be more constructive if it chose to alleviate his by focusing on the successes of the criminal justice system and the actual statistics which show the reduction in crime. Therefore the media can be criticised for distorting society’s view of crime rather than presenting a more balanced view which may result in reducing and explaining crime. But it could also be argued that the media presents what the public wants and more constructive articles would be overlooked by the public in favour of the more sensational articles on violent crimes which reassures the public that they are correct to be punitive.
Fear of crime is falling much more slowly than actual crime because the public has an infatuation with crime. It is not a sadistic interest but one derived from the public’s punitive view on crime and linked to crime being an emotive issue that affects so many types of people to whom the public can relate. Sensationalization of crime by the media leads to the public’s misconception. But, media coverage cannot be the only explanation for this fear of crime.
Fear of crime and misconceptions about actual crime rates are produced from a cycle in which the media is significant but not the only factor. Fear of crime is higher amongst the previously victimized and those in high crime areas and the media plays upon these fears. However, the media is only significant to the increasing fear of crime because of public punitiveness and fascination with crime, without it the effect would not be so great; fear from those previously victimized would not spread to the masses and crime in local areas would not be as publicised.
Moreover, the effects that the media has through individualism, sensationalism and when ‘the mass media take a reasonably ordinary event and present it as an extraordinary occurrence’ (Jewkes 2004:37) would not be as far-reaching without public demand. This leads to the conclusion that although the mass media is extremely significant in causing the gap between the fear of crime and crime itself, its significance would not be as nearly prevalent without the platform for the amplification of crime created by the public.