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How The Media Influences Public Perceptions Media Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 3173 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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3.1 Introduction to the media

The mass media is one of the most influential sources of providing news to members of the public. It also has a powerful impact on public perceptions of specific issues, for example sex offenders (Brayford & Deering, 2012). In order for a story to enter any form of the mass media, it needs to meet certain ‘newsworthy’ criteria to help media companies entice greater audiences, thus increasing overall profit (Galtung & Ruge, 1965). Female sexual offending fulfils key aspects of ‘newsworthy’ criteria. The cases covered tend to include elements of seriousness and negativity, which appeals to audiences (Greer, 2003). Child sexual offenders have long received much negative coverage by the mass media, causing a topic for public debate (Kitzinger, 2004).This chapter focuses on how the media represents FCSOs, with particular reference to the Vanessa George case, and examines how it can influence public perception of FCSOs. It is important to note that most academic research involving child sexual offenders, and also the media, focus on sexual offenders in general rather than specifically FCSOs. Therefore this chapter bases its conclusions on the limited research available. Another important issue to consider is that the media provides conflicting representations of women as offenders, in particular FCSOs. On the one hand, female offenders, like Myra Hindley, who receive large amounts of media attention, are demonised, but on the other hand, many other FCSOs go unnoticed in the media due to the traditional concepts of femininity (Giguere & Bumby, 2007). These contradictions are often mirrored in public reactions, creating complications. The challenges in understanding representations of FCSOs are explored during the course of the chapter.

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How the media influences public perceptions of FCSOs

The ‘hypodermic syringe model’ is a theory which describes the media like a drug, injecting opinions directly into the minds of readers (Kitzinger, 2004). This is one way of understanding the effect of the media on public perceptions of FCSOs. It can produce a powerful effect, as the emotion produced by these offences could be why the media choose to report on them. Reports may cause outbursts of street anger and violence, stemming from moral panic, creating hysteria among the public (Thomas, 2005; Cohen, 1972). This is evident in the case of nursery worker Vanessa George (BBC, 2009) who abused children in her care. The media coverage of this case may have made the public start to look at women, particularly those working with children, in a different light, with the same suspicion as men. However, evidence suggests that this has only been provoked by the rare number of FCSO cases actually reported on, as most of the time society has a blind spot regarding female-perpetrated sexual abuse (Tsopelas et al., 2012). This is due to the care-giving roles which females are expected to hold towards children (Finkelhor et al., 1988), which are habitually represented in various forms of the media: films, news reports, TV, etc. It could be argued that, depending on which particular ideology the media decides to report on with regards to FCSO’s, their portrayal will have a significant impact on how society views them. This illustrates the complications created by the media, providing contradictory perceptions of FSCOs, causing confusion as to how the public should perceive them.

The media uses tactics such as emotive language and imagery to influence how the public view certain criminals. One example is the use of the iconic image of Myra Hindley within media reports. The picture showed her as emotionless and cold, making her seem masculine (see appendix 1). Being such a powerful and well-known case, it also shaped how society imagines FCSOs to look (Kitzinger, 2004). Even though this was proved to be a co-offending case, it showed how society views any female involved in such crimes as going against the traditional gender model of women. This relates to the theory used by many feminists who argue that such women are regarded as ‘double deviant’, and receive harsher treatment by society, as they not only breach the law, but also break feminine norms (Heidensohn, 1987). Applying this theory, FCSOs may be regarded as the worst form of criminals, due to the seriousness of their offences. This could explain why they receive such negative portrayals within the media. However, a counter-argument is that females involved in child sexual offending may be viewed by the public as harmless, and their involvement is not perceived as a form of abuse. If the media do not themselves believe that female-perpetrated sexual abuse is a problem within society, they can hardly provide such negative representation with impunity. This is supported by Denov (2003), who states that the public perceive FCSOs as committing less serious offences than male sexual offenders, due to the common belief that women cannot be capable of committing such crimes. Thus, it appears that the media is likely to hold similar views in order to serve the interests of the public, and focuses attention primarily on issues involving male sexual offenders. There is strong evidence to suggest that FCSOs are treated as ‘double deviant’, although some theorists would refute this, with the rationale that they are perceived as less serious criminals than their male counterparts. However, when considering examples such as Myra Hindley, that would appear to be a false supposition.

Media representations of FCSOs

Historically, FCSOs have rarely been reported on by the media. This may be due to the myth that abuse by a female is seen as “a confused form of love” (Gannon & Cortoni, 2010: 13), and suggests that even if women do sexually abuse children, it is in a less aggressive manner than male sexual offenders, and may not necessarily inflict damage on a child. The media is unlikely to report on these cases, as they do not fit ‘newsworthy’ criteria discussed earlier. This could be why the public generally has a lack of knowledge concerning issues surrounding female child sexual offending. As Strickland (2008) argues, men are traditionally viewed as having more aggressive personalities, and are more likely to commit criminal offences. Consequently, it can be argued that these stereotypes make it easy for the media to report on issues and cases linked to them. Moreover, the lack of reports on FCSOs could explain the reason for the lack of disclosure by their victims (Denov, 2003). This is discussed in Chapter 5. As indicated in Chapter 1, any abuse committed by females is usually referred to in the media as a ‘relationship’ or ‘affair’ (Tsopelas et al., 2012: 306) compared with when the perpetrator is a man, in which case the reporters often refer to them as ‘abusers’, again resulting in lack of reports on cases perpetrated by females. This encourages academics to ask the question of whether female-perpetrated child sexual abuse is under-reported, due to the above reasons, or if it is so uncommon that there are not enough cases for the media to actually report on.

Nowadays increasing knowledge and awareness about issues of female child sexual offending has roused strong societal reactions, resulting in increased coverage in the media. Newspapers frequently portray FCSOs as evil monsters (Gakhal & Brown, 2011). This shows a dramatic change from when they were largely ignored in the media, or seen to be coerced into abuse by a male, and has given society a new perspective on the problem. One of the most dramatic cases with wide media coverage was that of Vanessa George. A mother of two, she worked at a nursery in Plymouth. In December 2009 she was convicted of sexual assault, and the making of and being in possession of/distributing indecent images of children, and was given an indeterminate prison sentence with a minimum requirement of seven years. In November 2010, a serious case review was conducted (PSCB, 2010), and it was discovered that the nursery provided an ideal environment for the abuse to be carried out. It found that certain gaps within the system allowed George to commit these offences, such as the nursery’s phone line being out of order, allowing workers to bring their own mobile phones in for emergencies. This presented George with an opportunity to take indecent images of children on her mobile. Yet the media reports paid little attention to these mistakes, focusing primarily on her abusive behaviour. It was also discovered during the investigation that she was an active part of a co-offending group, initiated by a male perpetrator, Colin Blanchard, and yet interestingly, the media attention focused primarily on George. In the serious case review, it was noted that she had no previous convictions, the abuse only starting when she came into contact with Blanchard over the internet. George was manipulated into committing abuse and sharing images with him. These facts were, however, expressed in a completely different manner throughout the media reporting on the case. This warrants further examination, by analysing reports from various media sources.

Analysis of the media reports on the Vanessa George case

Chapter 1 indicated that there is substantial evidence to suggest that many FCSOs are regarded as harmless because they may only target adolescent victims (Mathews et al., 1989). However, this is not applicable in the case of Vanessa George (BBC News, 2010). The media coverage generally concerning this case highlighted the serious issues surrounding female-perpetrated sexual abuse in the UK, different media types reporting in diverse ways. In order to understand how the media represents FCSOs, a comparison needs to be made between the various media types, using a critical discourse analysis. There are many definitions of critical discourse analysis, but, within this dissertation it is referred to as the analysis of language used in speech and writing – within media reports – as a form of ‘social practice’, where specific ideologies are reproduced through the language in the texts (Wodak & Meyer, 2009). This method is appropriate here, enabling analysis of the language used by the media when reporting on FCSOs, and uncovering the hidden ideologies in the text which are used to change the reader’s opinion on the issue of female sexual offending. It is also important to look at the discursive construction of FCSOs, which refers to the way in which the women are defined through the language used in media reports, and how these construct FCSOs as a concept.

Almost every article written about FCSOs can be analysed using critical discourse analysis, reporters being required to make certain decisions as to how they want to represent particular ideologies in their article, e.g. the terms they use to describe an FCSO, or which quotes to use from members of the public. These can add to the way the ideology in the text is portrayed overall, and thus how it affects society as a whole (Richardson, 2007). The three main articles analysed were drawn from different news outlets which hold conflicting ideological stances. Firstly, “Public enemy number one” was taken from The Sun (Coles, 2011), a newspaper which represents right-wing principles. Secondly, “Vanessa George jailed for child sex abuse” was extracted from The Guardian (Morris, 2009) which expresses mostly liberal interests. Finally, “Little Ted’s was ‘ideal’ place for Vanessa George abuse” was traced from BBC News (2010b), which is commonly known to represent a centrism approach to reporting.

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The Sun, known for its exaggeration of the truth in order to attract the attention of more readers, reported on the case of George as one that caused so much outrage and shock that the police needed to step in to stop the abuse aimed at her by the public. The way the article presented these dramatic views is interesting for critical discourse analysis. It was outwardly biased, presenting only the feelings expressed by parents of possible victims, rather than facts of the case. Therefore the analysis made could support the theory that the facts of the case are spun to present a particular viewpoint – here, that FCSOs are extremely disturbing to society – and uses particular language aimed to influence readers into holding the same opinions. This is evident in the following quotes: “Public enemy number one”, “Sick b****”, “The van taking Vanessa George to prison is attacked” (see appendix 2 for more examples). The above quotes use emotive language to express the disgust and anger felt by the public. These quotes are used to align the public voice to that of the reporters, obscuring the ideological underpinnings of the article. This supports Gakhal & Brown’s (2011: 3) argument that the media provides stereotypical portrayals of sex offenders in general, using words linked with ‘monsters’ and ‘evil perverts’. Moreover, this choice of language helped provide a negative perception of FCSOs. The fact that the reporter purposely used a collective noun in the article title – “Public enemy number one”- suggests that the paper was implying that George was hated by all members of the public, and that readers should share these feelings. The fact that the article concentrated on quotes and opinions of parents involved in the case shows how the reporter wanted to present only one ideological viewpoint. Furthermore, it can be argued that this negative portrayal of George, an FCSO, by the media reinforces the argument previously put forward regarding female offenders as displaying ‘double deviance’ (Heidensohn, 1987).

On the other hand, the article in The Guardian expressed a more balanced stance, presenting the audience with facts of the case. The image of George used by the reporter shows her as a smiling, friendly character. This could be aiming to send out a message that, unlike the stereotypical image of most sexual offenders, an FCSO can be any ordinary woman. Perhaps, because such cases are so uncommon, there is so far no stereotype of an FCSO. Thus, it appears that the media can play on the fear of the public, to make them wary of whom they trust for childcare. Furthermore, its choice of image shows how George was part of a co-offending group (see appendix 3), and although she solely committed the abuse in Little Ted’s nursery, she was in fact in contact with two others, one of whom (Blanchard), was coercing her to commit the offences. The article reported that George was ‘besotted’ with him. This both presents FCSOs in a negative light, and provides a more nuanced understanding of the case, constructing her as submissive, under the control of Blanchard. It also covers other issues faced by society, for example the influence male sexual offenders can have on females, forcing them to also commit sexual offences. However, when analysing this article, it can be argued that the reporter was somewhat biased, using post-modified terms such as ‘paedophile’, which disguises the fact that the choice to commit these crimes is not just down to sexual preference, but is a way in which an offender exploits and holds power over children (Kelly, 1998). It also links to the same ideology presented in The Sun, by describing George in a negative light: “Cold and calculating”. These quotes, however, came from the judge in charge of the case, possibly a more reliable source to reproduce the ideologies through language than that used by The Sun.

The way in which The Guardian presented a balanced stance is arguably similar to how the BBC reported on the case of George. They provided the facts of the case and referred to the serious case review (discussed earlier), as well as other reliable sources, such as the councillor for Plymouth’s Efford and Lipson ward, in order to fulfil their reputation of being a dependable source. When analysing this article, it is clear that the ideology behind it is to provide the public with the facts, whilst preventing moral panic, by reporting on the positive responses of professionals towards the case. The reporter used passive verbs, such as ‘reassured’ (see appendix 4 for more examples), and quotations from Ofsted “Ofsted has already implemented a number of changes”, to show the public that society can learn from the mistakes made in this case, and to prevent future similar cases. However, the BBC also used a disturbing ‘criminal style’ image of George within this article, which imitated the reporting techniques used in the Myra Hindley case, reinforcing the stereotypical image of how an FCSO may appear (Kitzinger, 2004). Therefore, it could be argued that no matter what type of media outlet, there is always some form of bias in the way reporters present their ideology through the language and images they choose to use. Another observation made when analysing this article, is the sub-heading entitled “Explicit culture”, which went on to report on the co-offending details of the case. The fact that the reporter used a sub-heading, together with the chosen language, shows an attempt to make readers aware of the increasingly serious problem of co-offending child sexual offenders within society.

This critical discourse analysis has identified the right wing (The Sun) constructions of FCSOs as aggressive, sick and evil, which relates to the theory of female offenders being ‘double deviant’. However, competing constructions with a different ideological base come from other media outlets such as The Guardian, constructing female sexual offending as a male-coerced crime. It is clear that different media types report in different ways: some use stereotyping FCSOs as a powerful influential tool, others are more objective in presenting the facts of the case. It should be recognised, however, that all have had an impact in raising awareness of new issues faced by society with regards to female sexual offending. Much work still needs to be done within all areas of the mass media, in order to educate reporters. When they provide representations of FCSOs, they should appreciate the gravity of the issues raised, and the traumatic results that articles can have on victims and members of the public (Tsopelas et al., 2012). However, the primary aim of media companies is to sell more papers, so unfortunately they will continue to sensationalise articles to increase profits, using cases of female-perpetrated sexual offences to do so.


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