Recently, in the wake of the corporate scandals that sent our stock market crashing, led to hundreds of billions of dollars in losses to investors, and resulted in tens of thousands of Americans losing their jobs and retirement savings, the media finally began to tell the story of corporate crime in America. We learned of the fraud and embezzlement of Enron, Andersen, WorldCom, Tyco, and dozens of other corporations (recall the Issue in Depth at the end of Chapter Four).
Unfortunately, once new laws were passed that supposedly “cracked down” on “bad apples,” our attention was diverted away from such crimes toward a coming war with Iraq. And now, as if corporate crime is a thing of the past, the media rarely even mention it. All of this is problematic precisely because the media serve as the major source of information about crime for most people (Beckett and Sasson 2000). As I show in Figure 5. 3, crime stories funnel out to media viewers, but they are in no way accurate about what most crime really is; nor is public perception of crime.
Historically the media also have not paid much attention to costly and misguided criminal justice policies. Krajicek (1998) writes, “Collectively, journalists were scooped on the biggest crime story of the last quarter of this century by neglecting to adequately inform a puzzled public that our system of law enforcement and punishment, cobbled together with razor wire and prison bars, has been an expensive folly” (p. 5). The media typically do not challenge the legal institution when it needs to be challenged.
Although the media may question a particular enforcement (e. g. , the vicious beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers, captured on videotape), they rarely challenge the legal institution as a whole (Reiman 1998). What about police corruption and police brutality as a regular, everyday occurrence for some Americans? What about the way police discretion in the United States permits and perhaps even encourages such actions? The media rarely discuss such issues.
As a result, media reporting reinforces the validity of law and the myths inherent in the law: “Crime news . . . tends to be ideological insofar as it represents a worldview of state managers” (Welch, Fenwick, and Roberts 1998, p. 220). Some specific events (e. g. , Willie Horton’s crimes, committed after he was released early on a prison furlough) have been used by politicians, through the media, to reinforce a need for new laws that crack down even harder on street crimes and poor minorities.
In these cases, the media act as mouthpieces for sound-bite politicians. In terms of criminal justice, TV coverage inaccurately portrays the U. S. criminal justice network. For example, despite all the controversial issues regarding TV in the courts (e. g. , see Surette 1992), the most troubling aspect of the TV camera in the courtroom is the fact that what people see is not representative of the typical court case. While people see trials in their entirety on Court TV and in part on shows such as Dateline NBC, the reality is that more than 90% of
cases do not lead to trial but are handled informally through plea bargaining. People think that trials are the rule when, in fact, they are the “exceptional case” (Cole and Smith 2000). The media thus “emphasize the rare-in-reality adversarial criminal trial,” which leads the viewer to believe that the typical court case in the United States is “a high-stakes, complicated, arcane contest practiced by expert professionals and beyond the understanding of everyday citizens” (Surette 1992, p.
40), even though the reality is the assembly-line justice of plea bargaining. In other words, people think we are following a due process model of criminal justice when in fact we are using a crime control model. At the same time, corrections is the least-shown aspect of criminal justice, so that the farther one moves into the system, the worse the image of American criminal justice becomes. Media coverage of policing is plagued by numerous problems as well.
Typically, police television shows such as COPS and World’s Wildest Police Videos misrepresent crime, criminals, and typical police work. They tend to focus on the most violent, random, and bizarre stories while ignoring more routine calls for service. They also tend to characterize criminals as minorities, who are typified as being very threatening or suffering from some form of insanity In closing, I feel that media is not fulfilling its role in keeping the public correctly informed about crime and the criminal justice.