In the 21st century crime is everywhere – or at least that is the perception. Crime dramas fill the airwaves. News outlets, cognizant that crime brings ratings, are increasingly focusing on it. Prime time “analysis” shows cast objectivity to the wind. As a result newspapers and other old media sensationalize their coverage in order to keep up. The media’s presentation of crime is a double-edged sword. In some cases, it can raise awareness about crime, thereby providing a public service.
That awareness can then be used to make substantive ad effective changes in the way that particular type of crime is dealt with in society. At the same time, media obsession about crime can potentially have a negative effect on individuals and society as a whole. The ratings driven media is always looking for “the story. ” What is it about the particular event that will draw viewers? In the process of finding these ratings nuggets, the true story is not always presented in its complete form. This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it isolated to the Western nations.
In an endless string of crime stories lacking context, societal attitudes can evolve. This evolution may be mis-focused and may actually create more problems over time than it solves. Irregardless, the explosion of new media and the resulting competition with old media only mean that the media will have more impact on crime perceptions in the 21st century than they did in the 20th. It is difficult, most times, to measure the impact of the often hysterical crime coverage on overall public opinion. It is more likely to affect the way the individual sees the outside world rather than his or her own life.
The media’s effect can be seen more indirectly, however, through its expression in public policy. The outrage culture Recent highly publicized crimes such the disappearance of Natalee Holloway and the murders of Jessica Lunsford and Laci Peterson are indicative of the intense level of coverage now given to the worst crimes. During the coverage of these crimes, which was nearly constant, a mix of speculation, opinion and facts, painted a picture without any true context. Are people’s opinions and actions affected by this type of coverage? Some research says yes.
For instance, the Australian Psychological Society states that “Research shows that in general people overestimate the level of crime…and media representations of crime are thought to be partly responsible” (2000). It is more than coincidence that the prevalence of media reports about violent crime has resulted in people feeling that more violent crime is actually taking place. In many cases, the increase in reporting is not congruent with the facts. The vast majority of crimes are actually non-violent. In many places, the violent crime rate has stayed stable or gone down while reporting on violent crime has gone up.
Media mis-characterization of crime is a worldwide phenomenon. In Malaysia, for example, there is a widespread perception that foreigners are responsible for a high percentage of crimes. The media likely did not create this perception. Id did capitalize on an already pre-existing perception, solidifying public thought and increasing outrage. The results can have a devastating effect on individual rights. The reality in that country is that only two percent of crimes are committed by foreigners. Yet, public attitudes reinforced by the media have had an effect on policing.
Nearly one-third of the prisoners in Malaysian jails are foreigners who remain uncharged for any crime (Hector, 2007). Furthermore, the outrage arising from this public impression has resulted in laws being passed that restrict the movements and activities of foreigners, whether accused of this crime or not. It is difficult to say whether this reality would exist without the media’s focus on crime and incomplete context of the situation. It is clear, though, that the media there is missing an opportunity to provide a complete picture to the public.
The Malaysian situation is a microcosm of what is happening in many other countries. Huge media conglomerates and the drive for profit are undermining the objectivity of individual news outlets. Richard Garside, the director of the Crime and Society Foundation (UK), found changes in the methods and intensity of crime reporting. He writes: …there is a significant mismatch between underlying crime rates… and media reporting. While crime has probably been falling since the mid-1990s, our media has been doing their best to convince us that it is rising and out of control. (2004) The nature of coverage has also changed.
While property crimes, theft and vandalism used to receive substantial coverage, now the focus is on the most serious crimes. Murder, rape and crimes against children are everyday topics in today’s media, whether it is news, drama, music or even comedy. In the past, crime events were often presented as singular, unusual occurrences. Now, editorial boards have made the decision to present crime as part of an ever increasing trend. That saturation of violence has the potential to shape public opinion and, consequently, public policy. Whether the level of crime reporting is an accurate reflection of society is debatable.
In some area crime has risen; in most it has fallen. More likely, it is a reflection of what people want to see. The public is fascinated with criminality, in part, because it allows them to feel a sense of superiority. Saying “How could someone do something like that? ” is in effect to say “I am a better person than that. ” In that sense, the media has tapped into a public need. Most people recognize that the media portrayal of crime is distorted, but not to what extent. Every generation has felt that the following generations are less moral, and more criminal, than theirs.
The explosion of media in the 21st century has only helped to solidify those feelings. In an indirect way, those feelings are being reflected in public policy. Politics, Policy and the Public Crime coverage, while exaggerated, is not completely divorced from reality. The political debate that often results from this coverage does “reflect some of the hopes and fears, aspirations and anxieties, of the public” (Garside, 2003). This small slice of fearful reality is a gold mine for aspiring politicians. Politicians are acutely aware that “crime sells. ” Many have emphasized the threat of crime to gain votes.
In times past, meaningful debate occurred as to how to address crime and how to treat those who are convicted. In today’s environment, it is toxic to the politician to appear “soft on crime” in any way. The deep-seeded fears of the public, reinforced constantly by the media, are often expressed at the ballot box. For example, support for the death penalty might decrease if the media provided some meaningful discussion about its usage. Instead, they continually stress the worst crimes in graphic detail. Politicians, noticing the high ratings, craft their statements and policies with this in mind.
Intense media coverage and sensationalism of crimes often leads directly to changes in pubic policy. This can have both good and bad outcomes. Wall-to-wall coverage in recent years of children abducted by strangers has led to greater punishments and scrutiny of parolees and even those who are merely suspected of criminality. Public outrage and fear over these incidents has plugged holes in the law, but has also tilted the balance of civil rights away from a small minority of people. For politicians, thes3e are acceptable outcomes. Political parties are, in effect, competing businesses jockeying for market share.
The most lucrative position is to appear as harsh on crime as possible. According to Richard Garside, “crime has become a much more party-political issue. ” He adds that this reality has “been damaging to public debate…and to criminal justice policy” (2003). Most of the public, not actually exposed to criminal behavior except through the media, is inclined to be harsh rather than address the root causes of crime. The media and politicians reinforce this thought by providing crime information without context or meaningful discussion about the root causes.
The effects of media can also be seen in policing, both in terms of people’s perception of the police and the policies of the police themselves. In his review of Peter Manning’s book Policing Contingencies, Simon Cole notes that “The public’s perception of the police is now more likely to be shaped by media representations than by personal experience with the police…” (Cole, 2003). Police abuse is another ratings getter for the media. Often the coverage is slanted toward the legitimacy of the abuse claim. Again, there is a double-edged sword. Media exposure can bring to light problems that need to be addressed.
At the same time, reputations may be unjustly ruined and the police as a whole may receive an unjustified reputation that hurts their ability to do their job effectively. Unclear boundaries and Media Backlash The fusion of increased crime coverage and 24hour a day media has clouded the boundaries between news, drama and opinion. Several well-known news stations, for example, have a mix of “hard” news and opinion oriented programming. The line between the two is increasingly cloudy. The mix of shows provides news and commentary, but context and balance are conspicuously lacking.
Each of these networks runs a slate of these shows over and over until the beginning of a new news cycle. Continual presentation of a sensationalized and incomplete picture may lead to “prejudice toward some groups [and] stereotyping of certain groups” (The Australian Psychological Society, 2000). Jonathan Gilbert of American Chronicle epitomizes those who feel that the media have gone too far in finding scapegoats in order to boost ratings. The constant repeated exposure and the lack of journalistic context are a toxic mix for those who might be prone to violence.
Some, like Gilbert, feel that the media bear direct responsibility for such events as the mass murder that occurred at Virginia Tech in 2007: If anything, the media is to blame for his [Cho Seung Hui] actions, Because the media hypes and glorifies every mass killer that comes Along, inspiring people who seek attention to act out in tragic ways. (2007) While this position is somewhat extreme, there are elements of truth within it. Some very tragic crimes have been committed with the assailant assured of intense media coverage, and even planning it into the crime. This is the darkest side of the media infatuation with violence.
The notoriety of the crimes, and the killers, triggers “copycats. ” Whether any of the crimes they commit would have occurred without the opportunity for instant infamy is difficult to say. The actions of highly disturbed individuals are impossible to predict. To date, those who want to tamp down coverage of violent crime have gained little traction. Analysis and conclusion The nexus between crime coverage and public sentiment is not quite clear. For example, a study in England found that the degree to which people were worried about crime was associated with the type of coverage they received.
People who read the more sensational tabloids were more fearful of crime than those who read traditional newspapers (Garside, 2004). However, those who read tabloids were also more likely to live in high crime areas. Therefore, that fear may have been well-founded and not the result of media coverage. Media coverage of crime has very real consequences, even if they are hard to predict or measure precisely. Inaccuracy and over simplification can lead to injustice for some. Racial profiling, rushed police work and false convictions are just a few of the consequences that can arise when media obsession seeps into culture.
In order to present a full contextual picture of crime as it really is several hurdles must be overcome. As Hazel Rose Markus of Stanford University puts it: Representation does not just reveal the world as it is; representation takes place with the aid of one’s attitudes, expectations and models of the world, and these frameworks of meaning derive from our social and cultural consequences. (2005) Doing these things will require a de-emphasis of financial motives and a refocus on journalistic ethics. In and of itself, crime coverage is not necessarily a bad thing.
It has been shown to play a role in the perceptions and attitudes of people in good, and bad, ways. The effects are both direct and indirect. Determining the extent of the effect is more difficult. The fragmentation of the media has changed the way people become informed. What seems assured, however, is that media coverage of crime is out of proportion with actual crime. As such, it fosters a cultural intolerance that fails to address the root causes of crime. Bibliography Chermak, S. 2003. Media Representations of September 11: Crime, Media and Popular Culture. Portsmouth, NH: Praeger Pub. Cole, S. 2003. A Review of Policing Contingencies.
Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture. Nov. p. 32-34. Duncan, B. 1976. Differential Social Perception and attribution of intergroup violence: testing the lower limits of stereotyping of blacks. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 34. p. 590-598. Garside, R. 2004. Speech to Nacro Conference, Nov. 19, 2003. Available at: http://www. crimeandsociety. org. uk/articles/nacrospeech. html . Gilbert, J. 2007. Media Glorification is to Blame for Virginia Tech Killings, Not Computer Games. American Chronicle. 24 Apr. , p. 1. Hector, C. 2007. Rise in Crime?
Blame the Foreigners! Available at: http://charleshector. blogspot. com/2007/03/rise-in-crime-blame-foreigners. html . Markus, H. 2005. Race and Representation. Stanford University. Available at: http://ccsre. stanford. edu/pdfs/MarkusKatrinaComments. pdf . Mastro, D. & Kopacz, M. 2006. Media Representations of Race, Prototypicality, and policy reasoning: An Application of Self-Categorization Theory. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. Jun. p. 305-322. Silverman, J. & Wilson, D. 2002. Innocence Betrayed: paedophilia, the media and society. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub. The Australian Psychological Society, Ltd. 2000. Media Portrayals of Crime. Melbourne, Australia: APA.