The theme of the interactions between media and crime affects everyone, beyond the divisions of profession and training. Indeed, we are all “media-exposed persons”, and therefore more or less sophisticated consumers of media content related crime. This position paper will be evidencing two sides of a debate that has been one of the main concerns of the sociology of crime: is media reportage of crime harmful? In a first part, we will analyse how the news media report on the criminal matter (in the broad sense) is honest and realistic; and then review some of the consequences that may result from media coverage, going through a few recent case studies and using theories of crime (Jewkes, 2011).
All the facts, events or behaviours do not have the same probability of being publicized. Various analyses have helped to bring out the features shown by the facts picked by the media (Chibnall, 1997). First of all, preference is given to immediate facts, namely facts likely to give rise to a near real-time media coverage and which do not require further historical approach. Secondly, the events occurring in familiar contexts have some form of priority over those that take place in more unusual contexts. This is explained by the fact that knowing the context favours emotional identification, and thus a better consumption of media content. Thirdly, customizable facts, those which can be treated and sometimes be reduced to people’s questions, are frequently exploited by the media. Last but not least, highly dramatic facts, which quickly capture the prospect’s attention, are more often in the headlines. All facts related to crime, almost by definition, have, with few exceptions, these characteristics. This may partially explain why crime in its most general sense and in the multiplicity of its variations, often occupies the media forefront, sometimes at the expense of issues that have yet much more human and / or societal potential interest. Furthermore, immediacy, conventionalism, personal and dramatic characters also account for the media’s treatment of crime in the information. Regarding the quantitative aspect, criminal facts are usually more publicized than the trials related and trials, in turn, cause more media coverage than the resonant theme of the enforcement of sentences they carry.
From a qualitative point of view, and in the only category of criminal acts this time, it is also these four above-mentioned characteristics that determine the choice of media. They explain why violent crimes are proportionally over-represented in the information content, compared to what statistics would suggest. For example, an American study has shown that during the period considered (1960-1989), the media published up to eight pieces of information for two violent crimes against property crimes, whereas the ratio indicated by official statistics was reversed: one for nine violent crimes against property offenses (Marsh, 1991).
The question of why the media select the facts on the basis of the above criteria remains unanswered. Marxist theories have historically opposed liberal theories here. The former have long supported the existence of a propaganda model in which political, economic and cultural elites control the media to serve their interests. On the contrary, the latter have consistently refuted this position by claiming that journalists’ integrity and objectivity prevent such abuses. Postmodern theory exceeds this ideological opposition by offering a perspective that coincides with the world of the twenty-first century and nowadays’ societies. Indeed, the postmodern analysis goes beyond the oppositions between reality and portrayal, and/or information and fiction, and considers all the information as consumption products, which entails that their relationship to reality is not a priority (Osborne, 1995). The concept of “infotainment”, built on the fusion of the words “information” and “entertainment”, highlights that information has become a form of entertainment with informational virtues, so that the distinction between information and entertainment becomes totally unnecessary.
Furthermore, media have a positive impact on society, especially when a case is solved because of large- scale public attention. For instance, the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders were a series of abductions and murders of young boys that occurred in California, between 1926 and 1928. The pioneer radio evangelist Reverend Gustav Briegleb took up the cases sensationally, the affair achieved a national level and eventually improved the LAPD system. Indeed, this criminal affair has been a base for several films, series and television programs (such as The Changeling, 2008). Moreover, left realist theorists, such as Lea and Young (1984), would argue that the society should combat crime by implementing policies at a community and local rather than national level, and focus on the effects of crime on women and ethnic minorities. A good example of the positive impact media can have on policies is the case of Stephen Lawrence. In April 1993, he was stabbed to death, victim of a racially motivated attack, while his friend Duwayne Brooks and he were waiting for a bus. The total incompetence of the police was vehemently highlighted by the media, and this display of criticisms led to the Macpherson Report in 1999, which recommends a series of measures to take regarding institutional racism (The Guardian, 1999). It is also the mark of a postmodern society to create participatory illusions and this explains why, today, an important place is given in the news media, to the opinions and reactions to the mediatised facts, especially when they deal with crimes. This statement also includes all forms of interactivity between the public and information, such as SMS or email.
Beyond the mechanisms used by the media to report crime, the question of the possible consequences of this media coverage must be raised. The constructionist perspective argues that objects are “not given in the world” but constructed socially, to give them meaning. These constructions generate representations which, in turn, lead to opinions, identities and behaviours. The direct and personal experimentation of crime, either as an offender or a victim, especially in the case of the most publicized forms of crime (violent variants), is, fortunately, particularly rare. Despite this, few are those who have no opinion on the causes of crime as a phenomenon, on the criminal as a human being (human or not for some), on the crime as an act not to mention the ways to address it, sometimes in terms of prevention, often in law enforcement. One of the major recent media stories is the death of Mark Duggan, who was shot and killed by the police in August 2011 in Tottenham, on suspicion of planning an attack. The media portrayed Duggan as a gangster, misled by his criminal record, and the police’s report that the suspect had a shotgun (BBC News, 2013). Thus the media are at the heart of social interactions, give meaning to facts and may therefore have an impact on the social representations that concern them.
The above-mentioned criteria for the selection of facts to mediate can therefore shape distortions and stereotypes, potentially contaminating the very opinions, identities and behaviours they created. A general example of quantitative distortion is the overrepresentation of violent crimes. Laurent Muchielli, a French sociologist, analysed the distortions related to the phenomenon of gang rape (Muchielli, 2005). His study of media occurrences did emerge between 1990 and 2000, and this issue was the subject of an average of four titles per year. Starting with 50 annual media occurrences in 2001, the number decreased to 32 and 23 the following two years before returning to initial values in 2004. Comparing these values to those of official statistics, Muchielli highlights a character representation shaped by the media image. Indeed, the years considered, the number of convictions for gang rape did not differ statistically and therefore no correlation could be drawn between the official data and the occupation of the media field.
Beyond quantitative concerns, media treating criminal matters can also spread stereotypes that contribute to form qualitative social representations. Muchielli engaged in an analysis of media content previously quantified. He found that gang rape was almost relentlessly presented as being a typical “city youth” phenomenon, highlighting the way to a double stigma, that is the suburbs of cities re-established in their image of “lawless zones” and the youth in these neighbourhoods branded at-risk and / or dangerous.
Security is an objective fact, whereas insecurity is subjective. Insecurity is more a feeling than safety; it fluctuates and is not necessarily concordant with security. Many factors can influence the way people perceive in-security and the media can be one of them. Many case studies have demonstrated the role played by the media in generating a climate of moral panic, a concept developed by Cohen in 1972. Moral panic can be defined as a threat, created by the media, which generates a “collective outrage, which ultimately defines what society perceives as good versus bad” (Goode, 1994). Moral panics are triggered through a media halo effect, suggesting an evolution of the phenomenon when in reality it is only an effect almost similar to the astronomical parallax, that is to say the sensation of movement of the observed object due to a change of position of the observer.
Moral panic related to paedophilia perfectly illustrates these mechanisms. It has already shaken the USA with the Megan Kanka case, France with the paedophile network in Angers, and Belgium with the Dutroux affair. Few today remain unaware of the very meaning of the word “paedophilia” whereas it was relatively unknown twenty-five years ago. More importantly, many believe in the omnipresence of a paedophile risk of victimization, including children. Paedophilia is very summarized, because of the selection process of the facts described previously. The media now mostly expose sexual predators and networks, whereas in the past, it was presented more broadly, as a pathology. Again, many more examples of this phenomenon could be cited, and could show the extent to which the media has fostered the emergence of moral panics on topics as diverse as substance abuse or road delinquency.
Finally, it is impossible to describe the possible effects of the media coverage of crime in the information without mentioning the influence that it can have on the political and judiciary content. By introducing a political dimension in the analysis we move on from a bilateral to a trilateral vision. Crime not only takes up the media space, but also materialises on political agendas. Production policy in connection with crime is indeed impressive, from election programmes, to legislation and parliamentary activities. In this post-modern information society, politicians, like professionals, must be as responsive as possible. But it is even truer when it is about crime because it gives the impression of a political grip on the society. We can see now more and more hyper-publicized facts that give birth to crime laws without political debate. Following a critical criminology perspective, Stuart Hall at al. (2013) analysed the rise of muggings in the early 1970’s in Britain. This led them to the conclusion that the media that were covering the court cases fuelled public concern, and the defendants were convicted for deterrence. Finally, the judiciary cannot escape the media influence. Judges, prosecutors, judicial assistants, or members of the various administrations are also media-exposed persons, and this has a notable impact on how their practice (Robbers, 2008).
It seems appropriate to conclude this brief overview of the issue of media coverage of crime information by emphasizing that the media are a reflection of the society they are supposed to report on (like police statistics in connection with the crime that first reflect the activity of the police services before the crime itself). This means that the media are broadly in line with a society with which they are in constant interaction. We should not be pessimistic or resigned after this explanation of the mechanisms that govern the media coverage of crime. It should neither create withdrawal from nor rejection of media, because individual reactions will not lead to major changes. However, institutions must raise awareness about the necessity to have a critical gaze. Foremost among these institutions, of course, we find the family, but it is also the case of the school, from primary to graduate. This influence was also dismantled by numerous scientific studies: the family relationship with the media, the overall lifestyle, and the degree of openness to the non-media world are decisive in drawing the consequences of this rather special consumption (Banks, 2005). Indeed, passive assimilation of the media content can permanently harm society.
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- The Changeling (2008) Directed by Clint Eatswood [DVD]. Universal Pictures.
- BBC News (2013) Mark Duggan ‘among Europe’s most violent criminals’, inquest told. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-24210480 (Accessed: 14/11/14)
- The Guardian (1999) The Macpherson report: summary. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/1999/feb/24/lawrence.ukcrime12 (Accessed: 14/11/14)