Representing Fear in Crime Messages

Suddenly there are footsteps behind her. Heavy, rapid. A man’s footsteps. She knows this immediately, just as she knows she must not look around. She quickens her pace in time to the quickening of her pulse. She is afraid. He could be a rapist. He could be a soldier, a harasser, a robber, a killer. He could be none of these. He could be a man in a hurry. He could be a man walking at his normal pace.

But she fears him… (as cited in Walklate, 2001:87). One of the most fearful situations for anyone in this society is criminal victimization:  crimes such as burglary, assault, and rape are inherently harmful. Yet, for most of its history, criminology treated the issue of fear of crime as a simple reaction to victimization, in need of little consideration. However, over the past three decades criminologists took a decidedly different perspective on this issue, as an increasing amount of evidence pointed to the fact that fear of crime can be as devastating as the actual victimization itself.

Fear can unleash a series of negative social outcomes that lead to xenophobia, conservative penal policies, and a reduction of community solidarity (Eschholtz, 1997; Conklin, 1995). Hence, fear of crime had increasingly become a major social problem and therefore had a considerable impact on people’s daily lives (Barak,1995; Gordon & Riger, 1999; Stanko, 2000). The news media has always had an intimate relationship with crime. However, crime news is often selective and distorted, giving an inaccurate picture of crime in society.

This observation has led Warr (2000:482) to argue that “fear of crime rests on highly uncertain information about risk” In fact, Fields and Jerin (1999) carried out a comparative analysis of crime coverage in newspapers in fourteen different countries. In the US, he found evidence of misinterpretation, overrepresentation of violent crime, heavy reliance on “official” sources, false image of police effectiveness, uniform crime coverage, lack of educational value, racial prejudice and/or stereotyping, and little coverage of corrections.

This is a significant finding as the majority of citizens only have symbolic rather than experiential knowledge about crime. Consequently, when the media are the primary knowledge distributors about crime, distortions such as these are readily available to construct public perceptions. And because the consequences of crime can be severe, these perceptions can lead to an increased concern about victimization.

This “resonance” hypothesis argues that the media “cultivate” a violent and threatening view of the world, which compounds preexisting fear (Bagdikian, 2000). Social Theory, Media, and Fear of Crime The relationship between fear of crime and the media is complex. For example, Barak, (1994) finds that although the press do not present a consistently biased impression of crime and criminals through their process of selection, he discovers little evidence to suggest that this is very influential on public perceptions of, and opinions about, these phenomena.

On the other hand, Sheley (1995) argues that the media responds to and stimulates fears of crime and are probably the single greatest influence on public attitudes about the topic (as cited in Langworthy & Whitehead, 1986). However, both social constructionists and radical feminist criminologists see the mass media as particularly relevant when studying fear of crime, as the meaning and significance attached to a criminal event during its commission can be transformed entirely once it is communicated into society. As Stanko (1992:14) notes:

The full social and personal consequences of fear and anxiety can never be deduced from the simple enumeration of risks. Like other human experiences they necessarily involve representation, communication and attribution of significance, and it is for this reason that the understanding of the character and uses of mass media may be able not simply to help explain the distribution of expressed fears but also to illuminate their nature and implications.

The significance of this fear as it relates as it relates to culture needs to be taken in to consideration in order to understand the transformations commonly found in media narratives over time. In addition, a “lack of sensitivity to media-generated reality-constructing processes has serious real-world implications” (Surette, 1998:271). Heavy crime coverage in the media can not only increase public fear, it can also direct much public discourse on the crime issue which leads to stereotypical views of crime and criminals, shapes certain crimes as social problems, and limits crime control options (Barak, 1998:44).

Working within the social constructionist paradigm, I argue that fear of crime is a social process rather than a social fact: reactions to crime are subjective and dynamic. Not only are these reactions based on the actions of certain social groups who have the power to set forth their own interests over others, and who employ “experts” to offer professional credibility to support their claims, but they are also based on dominant cultural ideologies.

In turn, the media disseminates these “truth” claims as they see fit, creating a “conceptual reality” for public consumption. I consider this constructed reality and its relation to fear of crime exploding:  Who are constructed as deviant “outsiders? ” What claims and claims-makers are central to the discourse? What preferred rules does the media maintain? Who is given the most voice to speak authoritatively? In the   hierarchy of fears, what is the “master of offence? ” Do the crime messages discuss possible solutions to crime?

Are the crime messages sensationalistic? Are random crimes reported the most often? I chose to analyze an issue of a three popular women’s magazines as my primary data for crime messages since it embodies many areas of social life, making it culturally significant. Moreover, magazines give a less fragmented picture of the total crime phenomenon than say newspapers, and their documentary style gives a more elaborate perspective than the information oriented style of newspapers. The analysis was done through content analysis.