Firstly, this essay will briefly outline the reasons behind the concerns of crime in our society and the importance of tackling this issue. This essay will then explore the mechanism behind crime reporting and how the media exaggerate and distort facts to produce sensationalised articles causing an increase in the publics fear of crime.
Today, perhaps never as vividly before, crime stands at the centre of public consciousness. The mass media serve up a regular diet of stories of rising crime, vulnerable victims and callous offenders. The public persistently voice their fears and anxieties about crime in opinion surveys and in official government studies prioritising their concern with the issue. The success of the police in dealing with the crime problem in general comes under ever more scrutiny, and the effectiveness and rigour of the criminal justice and penal systems generate never-ending controversy. It is clear that crime constitutes a major realm of societal concern (Bilton et al, 1996).
The most important factor in determining what is in the news has become known as ‘agenda setting’. The media effectively determine which issues become the focus of attention and have the power to make one issue dominate public debate and concern. This is particularly significant in relation to criminal activity as the media are generally the publics main source of information. The police also play a significant role in setting the ‘crime agenda’. It is suggested that the media and police are reliant on each other – the media need the police for news material and the police need the media as a means of communicating with the public. The police actually set the crime agenda which may or may not be a realistic portrayal of current criminal activity. For example, a type of crime may be high on the crime agenda but infrequent in reality because an increase in police press may cause the increase of news overage (Abercrombie, 1994).
In general news reporting, the agenda is set by various factors ranging from spontaneity – sudden events such as murder; elite centred ‘crime’ news – this relates to a celebrity committing an offence be it minor or otherwise and extraordinaress – events which are considered ‘out of the ordinary’. Interestingly, this can be compared with the Gaurdians advice of news priorities issued to new staff in the 1960’s:
* Significance – social, economic, political, human.
* Drama – the excitement, action and entertainment in the event.
* Surprise – the freshness, newness, unpredictability.
* Personalities – royal, political, ‘showbiz’.
* Popular ingredients – sex, scandal, crime.
* Numbers – the scale of the event, numbers of people affected.
* Proximity – on our doorsteps or 10,000 miles away (Hetherington (1985) cited in Townroe ; Yates, 1995).
Such guidelines are adopted by journalists to identify what makes an item ‘newsworthy’. Moral panics are dramatic expressions of the medias agenda setting power. An example of this is the ‘mods and rockers’ and how the press reported events at Clacton 1964. What started out as a holiday weekend ended in fighting between youths belonging to groups of motorcycle riders ‘rockers’ and scooter riders ‘mods’. The papers chose to report these disturbances as ‘riots’ and ‘battles’. The depiction of events have clearly been exaggerated by the media with clever use of language and one doctor who served on the bench at the hearing was quoted:
“These mentally unstable hoodlums only find courage when like rats they go hunting in packs” (The Daily Mirror (1994) p6). This quote had been included deliberately from a figure of high social status because it was less likely to be disputed and therefore reinforce the publics fear that deviant behaviour was out of control. Cohen argues that the press tend to take the same view as the police, magistrates and parents when there is seen to be a threat from gangs of youths. They overdramatise events and amplify peoples fears (Townroe ; Yates, 1995).
A further aspect of crime reporting is ‘victim blaming’ which occurs when the media consider that the victim has broken a social norm which has resulted in them being victimised. This is often evident in rape cases where the focus is on the victims past sexual history and descriptions of revealing clothing rather than the rape itself, apportioning some of the blame onto the victim and to some extent excuses the attacker. For example, after a widely reported gang rape in Brixton, where two teenage girls were raped at knifepoint through the night by a gang of six youths after trying to return home from a pop concert, the Detective Inspector in charge was quoted as saying:
“It was not wise for these girls to be out so late” (The Gaurdian (1992) pg16). By selecting comments made by ‘authoritative officials’ the implications that females should not venture out at night is an ideology that is reinforced and even supported by the media where its norm setting function is apparent. Again, this type of reporting will add to the publics fear of crime, especially affecting the females in this case who may now not feel safe to be out alone. In addition, this may perhaps make the victims afraid to report crimes they have suffered (Giddens, 1997).
It is arguable that people who are generally more likely to be fearful of victimisation are especially sensitive to the media focus on crime. These people include women, parents and the elderly. Despite the fact that statistics and other research prove that men are more likely to be victims of violent crimes, the media focus on violence against women promoting fear for their safety. The home is portrayed as safe sanctuaries for women by the media as incidents of domestic violence is not commonly reported by the news mediums. This can be related back to the norm setting function of the media.
The social production of crime news largely derives from the structured relationship between the media and police who have a mutually beneficial relationship. Together they inform the public of what (and who) is acceptable or deviant. Therefore the media assist the police in maintaining social control and order and to encourage the public to accept policing strategies such as CCTV. The fear of crime is an excellent marketing tool for extreme crime prevention measures and the view that CCTV is intrusive is not circulated by the media. Mass coverage of street crime has arguably enabled easily gained public acceptance of this technological surveillance through the media (Abercrombie et al, 1994).
It is important to recognise that rather than being a spontaneous response to world events, many news reports are planned well in advance. It is argued that it is a manufactured and manipulated product involving a high degree of selectivity and bias. News mediums feed from each other so stories are often recycled and tend to be simplified to make them easily and quickly digestible. Since much of what we read is shared by the mass media, we are constantly exposed to reports of crime through the newspapers, magazine and TV from which we can’t escape. This constant exposure to crime reporting can further reinforce the public’s fear of crime.
In conclusion, evidence presented in this essay indicates that crime reporting can increase the public’s fear of crime. The mass media have clearly become a very influential part of our society. Virtually every household has a TV and over 20 million people read a daily paper so we are constantly exposed to what the media provide. With this in mind, for many people the mass media is their main source of information about criminal activity. Researchers have claimed that throughout the mass media crime, particularly serious crime is severely over-represented and this portrays a distorted image of the frequency of crime. This then increases the fear of crime among the public.
The use of emotive language such as ‘viciously attacked’ and ‘brutally raped’ have a powerful impact on the reader and lead us in a particular way. Reports are often biased giving only one side of the argument manipulating the reader – the media control how we perceive the crime. It must be acknowledged that a casual link between fear and crime isn’t clear because the public are subjected to various other crime related sources of influence and importance such as friends and family. However, recent studies suggest that news is not simply dictated to and absorbed unquestioningly by passive receivers. People can do and make use of the media for their own purposes and are capable of resisting and opposing media messages.