Conceptions of crime are distorted by exposure to media coverage

The public often has a certain image regarding criminals and criminality. Often these images are at a stark contrast to the nature of crime that the statistics show. Government statistics reveal that a third of men will commit a serious crime before the age of 30, added to this is the amount of crime that is invisible to the statistics (Williams 2001). Whilst the popular image of the criminal may be as a villain, the reality is that the majority of people will either have committed a crime or know someone who has (Williams 2001).

Where do we pick up this perception that is at a tangent to the apparent reality of crime and of the criminal as the ‘other’? People construct their own individual perception of crime from various sources. These three sources are; their own experience, the experience of those they know personally, and information from the media. This essay will attempt to examine the influence of the media over our perceptions of crime.

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I will summarise the findings of various content reports involving news and fictional reporting of crime and then attempt to find whether the unrepresentative nature of these media actually has an effect on the individual’s perception of crime. The assertion that the media has some influence on our perceptions of the world is supported by the increased attention paid to it by interested bodies. It is not only the Home Office and the Police that court the media, but other groups such as professional associations and trade unions (Williams 2002).

These groups have all noted the power of the media in changing people’s perception of them, and have worked hard to influence coverage. This assumption is an important starting point, the fact that these groups invest large amounts of resources in the media suggest that what we see on the television or read in the newspaper is not simply ‘bubblegum for the mind’. It is the ‘sifting’ of news that distorts the accurate portrayal of criminality in the media. This is not a controversial point or a criticism of the media.

The fact that a story has to be deemed ‘newsworthy’ to appear in the press is largely down to the competitive nature of the media. This means that the audience is courted with news that widely appeals. Also, it simply would not be possible to report every incidence of crime. The fact that only a small portion of crime is reported and that some types may feature more heavily to satisfy audiences is explained by these factors. The first step in establishing a link between the media and the public perception of crime is to attempt to measure the actual content of the media in some way.

Content analysis aims to do this in a ‘systematic, objective, and quantitative manner’ (Dominick 1978). Like the problems often discussed concerning crime statistics, content analysis also suffer from the findings being social artefacts. Criticism of the objectivity of content analysis often focuses on the theoretical presuppositions by the researcher about what is important and how it is defined (Reiner 2003). The content of the media is never studied without some theory of what the consequences of such bias may be. There is also the problem of objectively defining images that may be seen by different people in different contexts.

However despite these shortcomings, there has still been a wealth of such analysis. Young (1974) states that newspapers ‘select events which are atypical, present them in a stereotypical fashion and contrast them against a backcloth of normality which is over typical’. Newspapers thrive on contrast, between the criminal and the innocent and between chaos and order. Chibnall (1977) noted five items that enhanced the likelihood of being reported: visible and spectacular acts, sexual or political connotations, graphic presentation, individual pathology, and deterrence and repression.

Following on from this it is clear that violent crime by its very nature will receive a lot of media coverage. Sexual crimes and recently paedophilia also figure highly. These cases are often sensational especially when there is a clear contrast, an example being the ‘evil sadistic paedophile’ preying on the ‘innocent school child’. A whole number of studies have shown that this bias occurs in media reports. Box (1981) shows that the media tend towards sensational violent and sexual crime.

It is clear that the media shows bias; however it is also interesting to know that this reporting bias will change with the audience. A study into newspaper reporting of crime by (>….. ) showed that violence was popular among all titles, however sexual violence showed a dramatic difference, ‘Quality’ newspapers were much less likely to report it than tabloids. The news media is not the only form of media that can influence how people perceive crime. Frictional media can also influence people’s perceptions, although finding a link between the two is even more complicated than in news media.

Crime fiction exists in many forms; in print, on the small screen and in the cinema. Fictional representations of crime are nothing new and have existed as part of popular entertainment for a long time. While dominant styles of crime fiction have changed the public demand has not. In the 1930s crime novels accounted for 25% of all books available through W. H. Smith’s library service (Reiner 2003). The novel’s successors as popular mass media; television and the cinema have also had a fascination with crime. 20% of all films are crime movies, a figure which seems to be relatively stable.

Like the news media, fictional representations of crime represent murder and violent crime to a greater degree than the levels recorded by the official statistics. Sexual and drug offences started to appear in the 1960s. The degree of violence shown has been seen to increase dramatically, with scenes that depict severe suffering and violence that is not instrumentally necessary becoming far more frequent. Fictional representations of murder differ from reality in that they are usually portrayed as being the result of greed and calculation and the portrayal of rape also suffers from misrepresentation.

The demographics of offenders and victims are also likely no to reflect official statistics. Pandiani has stated that there is a relationship of ‘polar opposites’ between the two. Before I progress to the question of whether media representations of crime affect public perceptions I will briefly summarise the crime content of both news and fictional media. Firstly, crime has featured in the media throughout history; and has always enjoyed a level of prominence, although there is evidence of increased exposure.

There is a tendency to focus on violent crimes and the proportion of these crimes represented is usually the inverse of official statistics. The demographic profile of offenders is of an older and higher status than those apprehended. The media generally present a positive image of the police force and the criminal justice system. There is however a growing tendency towards criticising them. This essay has previously focused on the bias inherent in media representations of crime. The effect this has on people has been the subject of much research, most of it focusing on two things; the medias effect on criminal behaviour and fear of crime.

The latter being the purpose of this essay. Fear of crime has become more and more of an issue over the years. Excessive fear of crime can have detrimental effects on the quality of a person’s life and also social bonds and trust. However more damaging is the fear that a voting public can be manipulated by excessive media representation of crime which can damage the democratic process. The problem faced by academics is how to evaluate such claims. Most empirical studies have faced two challenges.

Firstly, the other variables that affect a person’s fear of crime, such as: class, gender, place of residence, and actual criminal experience. These other factors make any relationship very hard to prove. Secondly, the hypothesis that people that are more fearful watch more television, rather than vice versa (Reiner 2003). These both make the hypothesis that frequency of exposure to affects the individual’s fear of crime very difficult to evaluate Young (1974) argued that the media affects the public perception of crime in three ways; mass manipulation, commercial ‘laissez faire’ or the ‘consensual paradigm’.

These three attempts to understand the effect the media has on the public concentrate on the relationship between the media and the societal actor, the question is: to what degree do they affect each other? The mass manipulation theory portrays the actor as a passive sponge that information from the media can be poured into and absorbed. If we are all passive dupes and can be easily manipulated the media is obviously something dangerous and should be closely monitored and regulated. This powerful media can then be utilised by political groups and the economically powerful. Recently a lot of Marxist work has been contributed in this vein.

Commercial ‘laissez faire’ contends that the media offers a variety of differing views allowing for choice. This view does not see the actor as passive but as a consumer that will often purchase the type of media that subscribes to their views. An attempt at manipulation by the media would simply be met by the consumer buying a separate form of media. However, this view tends to lean on the assumption that there exists a diverse variety of mass media that express a wide range of views and report different stories. The majority of English newspapers are controlled by a small amount of powerful people.

If all the newspapers available to people only contain a narrow consensus on certain issues the consumer is not given the option to choose. Faced with an array of publications that all say the same thing the actor is liable to be manipulated. Garland (2000) argues that neither of these theories adequately explains the effects of the media and more importantly between the actor and the media. Garland states that it is not political forces that have manipulated the media’s role in more punitive punishments. He argues that the media simply reflects changes in the public’s everyday experiences.

Garland thinks that the increase in the reporting of crime stems from an increased interest in crime by the public. One of these changes experienced by the public is the rise of crime affecting the middle classes. As the mobility of criminals increased and the rewards criminal behaviour became greater, middle class properties were targeted more. This increased experience of crime led the broadsheet papers to concentrate more on it and the workings of the Criminal Justice System.

In a 2003 Home Office survey on crime the readers of newspapers were found to have differing perceptions of the rate of crime. 3% of tabloid readers thought that crime had increased a lot, compared to 26% of broadsheet readers. 2003 was the first year the Home Office had looked for a link between the fear of crime and newspaper readership and the results were marked. Tabloid readers being more than twice as likely to fear possible assault or mugging. However these findings do not constitute a direst link between newspaper content and fear of crime. The biggest criticism of constructing a link from these findings is the existence of differing social demographics between newspaper audiences.

The occurrence of crime is not universal throughout British society, the lower classes experiencing far more crime. In conclusion whilst there is a clear bias inherent in media representations of crime it is hard to demonstrate a clear link between media reporting and fear of crime. These problems start with the inadequacy of official statistics in representing a ‘true figure’ of crime with which to measure media bias against. This difficulty is then added to by the various factors that will affect a person’s perception of crime and the uneven distribution of crime through society.