DO MEDIA REPRESENTATIONS OF CRIME REFLECT OR DISTORT REALITY?
WHY MIGHT THIS BE THE CASE?
To answer this question this essay will first look at the different forms of media that the public use to access news locally, nationally and from around the world since the 1940s’ to current times. It will discuss if watching or playing extremely violent games could predispose some people to committing violent crimes themselves. Finally, the essay will discuss the factors that makes a story ‘newsworthy’, how distortion can cause moral panics and a fear of crime and the unfair treatment of children and young people. Overall, the essay hopes to show that media representations of crime indeed distort reality.
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The main forms of communication from the second world war were newspapers and newsreels which were watched at the local cinema. Each newsreel ran for 3 days usually but the one showing the liberation of the concentration camp at Belsen ran for a week with over 30 million cinema tickets sold. By huge numbers of people watching these Nazi acts of barbarity, it was hoped it would boost morale in post-war Britain (Reilly, 1998). Going to the cinema to watch newsreels declined with the advent of television in the 1950s and 60s as news was broadcast directly into peoples’ homes. Radio was the medium for most as ownership of a television was rare. Ofcom (2014) figures show that households that owned a television rose from 5.7million in 1956 to 26.5million in 2014. Back in 1956, even the amount of television allowed to be watched was tightly controlled. The Postmaster General restricted the BBC to airing programmes between 9am-11pm weekdays, with only 2 hours allowed before 1pm. There were no programmes allowed between 6pm-7pm to allow children to be put to bed, known as ‘toddlers truce’, however this was dropped in 1957. Saturdays were limited to 8 hours and Sundays to 7 and ¾ hours of broadcasting (Retrowow, 2002). Unimaginable nowadays!
Ever since the advent of television, police and crime shows have been a mainstay in programming from Dixon of Dock Green (1955), Z-Cars (1962-1978), The Sweeney (1975-1978), The Bill (1984-2010), Prime Suspect (1991-2006), Heartbeat (1992-2010) to the more current shows such as The Wire, Happy Valley, Line of Duty and Collateral. Each show portrayed the era in which they were set in and the different attitudes within the police service, for example in The Sweeny it was not unusual to see a suspect beaten into making a confession. Since the introduction of PACE (1984) all interviews are required to be recorded making forced confessions (hopefully) a thing of the past. Crime programmes now routinely show interviews are recorded.
So far, this essay has discussed media since the 1950s but moving onto the start of the 21st Century, there has been a media explosion and there is now a variety of ways that news can be transmitted worldwide. With mobile phone video footage being uploaded instantly to Twitter, events can be seen virtually within seconds of happening. We have Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, 24-hour news channels, channels dedicated to real life crime such as ‘Crime and Investigation’ and whilst fewer people ready a daily newspaper, most households have access to the Internet to keep abreast of news around the world (Case et al. 2017). We now live in a media era and it is through these channels that we learn about and are influenced by the crimes that are reported. As mentioned previously, crime (and violence) is a staple part of our television viewing. In addition to this, there are hundreds of thousands of films, books, video and computer games with crime and violence a central theme, so whilst we are fascinated by crime, it is from an arm-lengths view on screen or page. However, there are some that claim that engaging with violence either by watching it or playing hard-core, virtual reality computer games increases the proclivity to committing crime. For example, Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass-shooter was alleged to have played violent video games, World of Warcraft in particular, before detonating a bomb outside a government building in Oslo, dressed as a police officer, killing 8. Whilst the world was reeling from this atrocity, he drove 24 miles to Utoya and massacred 69 innocent people attending the Workers Youth League summer camp on 22nd July 2011 (Knausgaard, 2015). Prior to this, the killers of James Bulger were alleged to have been influenced by the video nasty, ‘Child’s Play 3’. Although this was disproven, it did not stop tabloid newspaper headlines begging parents to ‘burn your video nasty’ ‘for the sake of all our children’ (MacKenzie, 1993).
In criminology, one of the key topics when dealing with how media represents violent crime, either through newspaper reporting, television news channels, computer games or any number of the social media platforms, is if this constant exposure to violence increases the risk of being susceptible to commit violence oneself. There are 3 models that this essay will address. The ‘social learning model’ where people will do what they see. This was pioneered by research by Bandura et al (1961) known as the ‘Bobo doll’ experiments. A group of children aged between 4-5 years-old were shown a film of a female model hitting and shouting aggressively at a bobo doll. The children were then let into a playroom filled with toys and a bobo doll where they proceeded to act aggressively towards the doll. Critics of this research claimed that perhaps the children had never seen a bobo doll before and did not know what to do with it except act aggressively toward it. Taking this on board, Bandura repeated the experiment with a different group of children but instead the playroom had a group of children who had not seen the bobo doll film in it. The observations showed that the children who had seen the film played more aggressively than the other group who had not, thus in Bandura’s eyes his theory was proven. There were still criticisms of the theory however as the background of the children could not be considered and other social factors. This was put quite succinctly by Schramm et al (1961) ‘For most children, under most conditions, most television is probably neither particularly harmful nor particularly beneficial’. The second theory is known as the Catharsis model which means that a person that watches or plays a lot of violent games gets any violence out of their system and has a purging effect therefore is less likely to commit violence. Finally, the Evolutionary model suggests that extended exposure to media violence can arouse a violent response to those people that may pre-disposed to violence through their background, for example may have witnessed or suffered domestic abuse themselves. Research remains inconclusive as probably the best way to get actual data would be to interview violent offenders retrospectively, but it still can not be guaranteed to be the truth or a true reflection.
The claim that the media exaggerates crime in such a way that generates a fear of crime is another important topic that the study of criminology covers. To the year ending March 2016 there was a total of 4,513,964 recorded crimes which included crimes against society, for example, trafficking, possession of weapons and drugs and fraud offences, also burglary, vehicle crimes and all victim-based crimes (MoJ, 2016). There were 35,798 reported incidences of rape and 70,580 other sexual offences which account for less than 2.5% of the overall total however coverage in the newspapers range from 25% in broadsheets to 46% in the tabloid press. The trend for the media to exaggerate the extent of violent crime in Britain has been a constant for many years as research by Ditton and Duffy (1983) found that violent and sexual recorded crimes reported in Scotland made up less than 3% of all police recorded crime and yet it contributed 46% to all crime news reported in the media. Similar figures were reported by Schlesinger et al. (1991), where violence against the person crimes were responsible for 4% of notifiable offences and yet made up 46% of crime stories in the ‘popular press’ and 25% in the ‘quality press’, the same as the figures quoted for 2016.
Although these statistics show that that violent and sexual crime are comparatively low-volume crimes, the media distort the way they are reported so it appears that they occur more frequently. Some vulnerable members of the public, such as women and old people, believe what they see and read and begin to fear becoming a victim of crime. This can happen despite the reassurances provided by the latest Criminal Survey of England and Wales that only 2 in 10 adults will experience any of the crimes mentioned in the report, with the likelihood being that it will be fraud rather than a violent crime (ONS, 2018). This report will later discuss what makes a story newsworthy, but the statistics already given show the over exaggeration of reporting which may in turn instil a fear, especially in women, of becoming a victim of a violent crime. In the year ending March 2016 there were 571 homicides in England and Wales, 1 victims’ gender could not be identified, 175 women (31%) and 395 men (69%). Almost 50% of the women were killed by their current or ex-partner whilst it was 7% for men. 77% of women and 50% of men were in in some way familiar with the primary suspect and (only) 14 women and 106 men were killed by strangers (ONS, 2016). These figures show us that although women might be more fearful it is younger men that are more at risk. The notion of stranger-danger is defused as women are more at risk from people they know.
The fear of crime by watching excessive hours of television was the foundation of Gerbner’s (1967) cultivation thesis based on American viewers. He believed that peoples’ perception of what was ‘real-life’ and what was ‘tv life’ were blurred and that they had exaggerated fears of the amount of violence that they may encounter in the ‘real-world’. This fear would not only lead viewers to be more supportive of longer jail sentences, the death penalty and more jails but also would lead them to purchase guns and guard dogs for their own protection. To contradict Gerbner other researchers explored a variety of theories to explain the relationship of a fear of crime and exposure to violent television programmes. Doob and MacDonald (1979) said that it was the area that viewers lived in that made the difference. For example, viewers that lived in high-crime neighbourhoods tended to stay at home more and watch television and therefore believed they had a greater chance of becoming a victim compared to those viewers that lived in a low-crime neighbourhood. Dominick (1987) turned the theory around by saying that rather than excessive viewing making people fearful, it was because fearful people stayed at home and watched television.
Further ways that the media can distort reality is their exaggeration and over-reaction to a person, a group of people or an event that they perceive to be immoral or a threat to ‘normal society’ just because they may look and/or dress differently. The media then label these groups as deviant and refer to them as folk devils. (Case et al, 2017). The term ‘moral panic’ was first introduced by Cohen (1972) in his study of the Mods and Rockers youth culture in the 1960s. The newspapers at the time described mobs of violent youths ransacking seaside resorts on the south coast over a bank holiday weekend. The reaction of the public to this media-induced panic was one of fear which consequently resulted in clamouring to the government for a solution to this ‘problem’. The government react with passing new laws and sanctioning the police to deal with this ‘perceived threat’. This is turn creates a chain reaction or as Wilkins (1964) describes a ‘deviancy amplification spiral’, where the distortion and exaggeration of the media reporting in conjunction with the negative reactions of society, government and the police not only reinforces the ‘deviant’ behaviour but increases it (Newburn, 2013 p.98). And so the spiral continues, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The final area that this essay will be discussing are the different factors that make a story newsworthy and how the misrepresentation of young people in the media shows further evidence of the distortion of reality.
As there are news events happening all the time choices must be made about which stories are newsworthy enough to cover and which ones are overlooked. Editors had a set of hypothetical guidelines that aided them in making decisions about what to broadcast or print. These were set out in a study by Chibnall (1977) where he identified 8 imperatives required for the construction of news. They were, immediacy, describing what is going on now. As journalists work under such pressurised deadlines it is possible that important components of the story are missed in the initial reports (Case et al, 2017), thereby possibly distorting the report until such times that the facts are uncovered. Drama and action are a requirement as it is very unlikely that a peaceful protest will make the headlines but violent clashes, such as those seen all over France since December 2018 are reported worldwide (Chrisafis, 2018). Due to advancements in technology it is now virtually imperative that news stories, such as the protests in France, are broadcast with photographs or moving footage, as Greer (2010) has said dramatic action can be filmed and uploaded to news websites almost instantly.
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Personalisation or the cult of celebrity is where the media can promote a victim of crime to the extent that society feels like they know them personally, for example, Maddie (McCann), or stories about the rich and famous, particularly when they have been caught breaking the law or social norms (Case et al, 2017). Finally, the media can promote known criminals to the rank of celebrity by endorsing the horror or violence of their crimes. A notable example of this would be the Kray twins, who in the 1950’s and 60’s were classed as the most dangerous men in Britain, yet they still exuded a glamour that people and celebrities such as Barbara Windsor and Diana Dors were attracted to. There have been countless films about the Krays, the latest being ‘Legend’ in 2015, so their notoriety continues 50 years after their imprisonment in 1969.
The simplification of news stories comes with the pressure on journalists to write quick copy and the need to demonstrate events as victim and offender, black and white or good versus evil. An example how this could distort reality is at the height of the Yorkshire Ripper murders, the press portrayed the prostitutes he murdered as almost being deserving of their fate whilst the other victims were classed as ‘innocent’ (Case et al, 2017). Titillation, where the antics of the rich and famous are reported in a voyeuristic way, for example, when they are falling out of a nightclub drunk, having rows with their partners or the paparazzi and being photographed in compromising positions.
Conventionalism are stories that highlight perceived threats to our ‘way of life’ by groups such as the unemployed, youngsters and currently the emphasis is on immigrants (Case et al. 2017). Structured access relates to the absence of specialised crime journalists that now rely on press releases from various news agencies for their stories. The Ministry of Justice and the Police have their own press offices that can control and monitor any information that they release (Case et al, 2017). The final imperative that Chibnall reported was novelty, which was used to either revive an old story or to keep a current story going by finding a novel new angle.
Building on Chibnall’s work but reflecting on the vast changes in news outlets, Jewkes (2015) updated and expanded the imperatives required for newsworthiness to 12. Although many were similar there are 4 main additions I will address. Predictability, described by Jewkes (2011, p.46) ‘once the media expect something to happen, it will’. Risk, where news reports promote fear and vulnerability with victim-centred stories. Proximity, which relates to both geographical nearness depending on whether the media is international, national or of a local nature and cultural proximity as a relevance to the intended audience of the story. Finally, children, either being portrayed as an innocent victim or as a feral offender will always add prominence to a story (Newburn, 2013).
The demonization of young people is nothing new (Pearson, 1984) and society complaining and fearing them dates to Aristotle where he said that young people ‘overdo everything; they love too much, hate too much, and the same with everything else. They think they know everything and are always quite sure about it’ (Aristotle 320BC). A report by Hough and Roberts (2004) which concentrated on youth crime, justice and public opinion found that most people believed that youth offending was continually rising and the crimes they committed were getting more violent. The survey results showed that 64% of the people asked, got their information from the press and overall, they had a very cynical view of young people. The statistics show a different picture. The Youth Justice Statistics, 2016/17 (MoJ, 2018) where data has been gathered by the Home Office, Ministry of Justice and Youth Offending Teams show there were 16,500 first time entrants to the YJS, an 11% drop from the previous year and an 85% reduction over the past 10 years. Children and Young Persons that were cautioned or convicted fell 14% on last year, and 81% fall in past 10 years to 28,400 and finally the total of all recorded crime, including adults, was 4,315,500 whereas the number of arrests for Children and Young People accounted for 74,784, less than 1.75%. This demonstrates again that the media are distorting reality.
By referring to the different types of media available to the public since the second world war, looking at the different effects that watching violence can have on people from becoming violent oneself or living in fear of becoming a victim of crime. Statistics have been used to show that there is no correlation between the actual amount of violent crime committed to the media coverage and that despite continuing negative stories about our children and young people, the numbers of crimes they have committed have fallen by over 80% in the past 10 years. There is no doubt that media representations distort reality.
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