Critically Assess Media Representations of Youth Crime

Youth culture is a twentieth century phenomenon that has had repercussions in so many aspects of life. It has allowed us to define a rite of passage that all must experience. However, the connotations that the term holds are rarely positive, youth are perceived to be confused and dangerous. Therefore, the question arises; what single entity is largely to blame for such misrepresentation. The answer to this question lies in an unavoidable part of life, the media. ‘Media’ and ‘youth’ are very hard to define as they are always changing and becoming something different.

The dictionary defines ‘media’ as a “means of communicating information” (the new choice English dictionary). This includes a range of sources, for example, television, radio, newspapers, advertisements and the Internet are the most obvious of media devices. ‘Youth’ is defined as “the period between childhood and adulthood” (the new choice English dictionary). Both definitions are unspecific and therefore difficult to clarify. The two main schools of thought regarding the media and how it represents the world we live in are the Marxist and Plurist ideologies. According to Marxism, the media is a form of government control.

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The media represents the ideology of the dominant class. Therefore there are strong political and economic interests within the media, which are aimed at highlighting social inequalities. Plurists believe that we have the freedom to choose what we read, believe and say. Therefore the media promotes ‘freedom of speech’ (120soc lecture 8 notes). Media surrounds us daily; therefore it is not surprising that the images it portrays have a profound effect on public opinion. This often results in the formation of entirely new sub-cultures; youth has now become a sub-culture.

Dick Hebdidge (as cited in The Guardian, 18/12/1999) believed that cultural diversity in post war Britain defined new sub-cultures; one of the contributing factors to this is the rise of black culture in Britain as this introduced new genres of music, a different style of speech and a new code of dress all of which represented the repressed society that many people lived in. Increased standards of living, leisure time and post war consumerism offered the public increased choice. Over the decades these have included scooters or “Harley-Davidson’s, speed or acid, Dr Martens or desert boots” (The Guardian, 18/12/1999).

With each of these groups came controversy and an opportunity for the media to intervene. However there is sometimes the portrayal in the media of what is often classified as good; ever-rising education standards; the wider variety of employment prospects for young people; initiative to promote community acceptance and young people participating in political and social consciousness. But this cannot exist without opposition; youth violence; teen sex and pregnancy; alcohol and drug abuse; unemployment; graffiti and vandalism and many other forms of unsocial behaviour.

Disturbances that occurred in Brighton in 1964 that apparently caused destruction, injury and terrorised tourists gave Stanley Cohen the opportunity to conduct some research. From this research Cohen coined the term ‘moral panic’ which suggests that the media portray events to be far more severe or prevalent than they are, causing the public to have a distorted view of reality, become afraid and therefore panic (this applies to all media representations of crime, not solely youth crime). Therefore, according to Cohen “news representations neither simply reflect reality nor simply invent it” (cited in Understanding Youth and Crime).

The groups of people that such representations portray (i. e. the mods and rockers) are simply ‘folk devils’ that act as “scapegoats for wider social pressures” (Understanding Youth and Crime, 39 -46). The media is often successful in introducing the public to new causes of moral panic. Quite often the media coin a new term to define a crime. “Mugging” is a media phenomenon, the term is not recognised by the criminal justice authorities, however each individual has an understanding of what it means. Hall et al (1978) analysed the rising moral panics concerning this new type of robbery and emphasised the crucial part played by the media.

The public anxiety caused by this crime stimulated changes in policing policies for a crime that had previously been known as robbery. This is just one example of how influential the media has become. This is because the media is the only insight into the world that many people have, particularly those of the older generation who have been petrified into remaining indoors due to the moral panics that the media cause. The case of Derek Bentley, a young man who was present at the scene of the murder of a policeman in 1952 is relevant here. Due to media coverage of this crime, Bentley was portrayed as the murderer and executed for the crime.

In 1988, following further investigations, new evidence emerged and Bentley was pardoned. This illustrates the power that the media has, not only over individuals but also over the courts, making it very difficult to have a fair trial. There have been numerous cases since where media coverage has intervened with police investigations. For example, Damilola Taylor and Stephen Lawrence. The media demand that a case is solved and the criminal is locked away for many years to come, this puts enormous pressure on the police and this in turn can cause mistakes to be made.

The media then scrutinise the police for making mistakes without taking any responsibility for their own actions. Possibly the most notorious of these cases is James Bulger. In summing up the case, the judge told the court that “exposure to violent video films may in part be an explanation” (youth, crime and justice, 50) from this Holland (1997, as cited in youth, crime and justice, 50) notes that the face of the chucky doll which is childish but evil covered tabloid front pages. In this case it appears that the media are prepared to blame (a different form of) the media for stimulating crimes.

However, not many people would be likely to make this link as newspapers and news television programmes are seen as entirely different to films or computer games, when in reality they can all be categorised under the term ‘media’. Therefore, how much is the media to blame for crime? As we have discussed in relation to the mods and rockers, the media produces labels for groups of people. It is very rare that the media praises young people for their hard work, good deeds and kindness. The media simply ignores well-behaved young people and focuses on the bad.

Thus, the public begin to see all youth as bad. Subsequently, negative labels are applied. According to labelling theory, when people are labelled they are likely to conform to the labels and the behaviour associated with it because it is very difficult to change public opinion. Therefore, as illustrated by Leah Betts and hedonism, young people are portrayed as drug users, this opinion is unlikely to change, and so young people may well become drug abusers. This then leads to the homogenous notion that all youth are the same.

Often the media presume that all young people fit into a specific sub-culture, in fact, many fluctuate between two or more sub-cultures. Youth may respond to this nai?? ve view in several ways. Some may respect a society that appears to, through media coverage, harass and put down with stereotyping and therefore become disillusioned and pessimistic. Some may be inspired to disprove such stereotypes, others may gain confidence within a group by living up to a socially unacceptable label. Social upbringing is also seen as an indicator of whether or not a young person is likely to commit a crime.

The public opinion that poverty results in delinquency is not an accurate portrayal. However it is not shocking if the media portrays drug or alcohol abuse on a council estate. Often it is the more affluent youth who are more capable of this form of criminal act due to the financial backing it requires. Recent examples include Prince Harry and his cannabis use and Euan Blair ‘drunk and disorderly’ behaviour aged sixteen in London’s Oxford Circus. The media cause the public to be shocked at this behaviour because both offenders have had privileged upbringings.

Just as the media targets certain social classes as being delinquent, it also ignores the fact that young people are more likely to be targeted victims of crime, as opposed to the perpetrators. Particularly with the recent advances in telecommunications technology (i. e. mobile phone theft). Seventy percent of local television news stories on violence in California involve youth, however only two percent of Californian youth were either victims or perpetrators of violence. Similarly, youth only made up fourteen percent of violent arrests.

Therefore the media manipulates stories without considering the real statistics, this in turn makes young people viewed as suspects or criminals. Subsequently it can be argued that the media do not present a balanced portrayal of youth. Similar findings occur within British media, for example, the overall rate of crime has fallen yet crime coverage in the news has increased. Similarly the news report that the victims of crime are often white middle class adults, their suspects for the offence are likely to be black.

Therefore it is perceived by the public that black youths are more likely to commit a crime than white youths, this perception has not been verified by statistics. Despite violent crimes dominating the news there have been times when the police handling of the case has been scrutinised, particularly the cases of the Stephen Lawrence and Damilola Taylor murders. The media highlighted possible police flaws due to racism in the investigation into Stephen Lawrence’s murder and this stimulated the development of the McPherson report, which looks at ways of improving policing and police relationships between minority groups.

Therefore the notion that “the media generally present a very positive image of the success and integrity of the police, and criminal justice generally” (Oxford Handbook of Criminology, 393) is not always manifest. Despite a love-hate relationship between society and media, the media is highly relied upon as it provides supposedly representative snippets of people’s actions. Therefore its portrayal of young people will mould and challenge societies view of youth, as it will also affect young peoples view of themselves through labelling theory.

It is clear that the interaction between youth and society is affected by how society responds to the media portrayal of youth, whether or not the portrayal is accurate. The work of Stuart Hall (1980) is relevant here. He concluded that it is much more difficult to reward the law abiding individuals than it is to discourage disorder by increased repression. Therefore deviants are the scapegoats for blame; subsequently this takes pressure away from the socio-economic system itself (Oxford Handbook of Criminology, 245).

Therefore, this represents a Marxist ideal as the public attention is focused away from other problems within society and aimed at one particular group of people who are then lumbered with a negative perception for years to come. Perhaps the intention of the media to search for truth and offer protection is effectively a witch-hunt for the assignability of social problems. The possibilities of this and its impact are endless and each individual will form an interpretation of the information presented in the media, which will be as individual as we inevitably are.