It’s not difficult to gauge what the popular notions of crime in the United States are. Engage in any polite conversation over dinner or cocktails and one is likely to hear similar themes: “crime is out of control, it’s just not the same world we grew up in, it’s not safe to walk down the street anymore, it’s a mean world out there,” etc. The underlying theme that can be drawn from these notions is fear. There is a widespread conception that crime is a rampant problem in this country and that violent crime and others are on the rise.
However, these beliefs are not supported at all by the facts, even those put forth by our own law enforcement agencies. So why then, are most Americans so concerned with the threat of violent crime in particular? While the answer to this question is a complex one involving many contributors, the focus of this essay is concerned with the impact of popular media on these perceptions, because the media, it would seem, is one of the most influential contributors to the social construction of crime in this country.
The coverage of crime, and particularly violent crime, in the news media has increased in frequency of coverage and sensationalized reporting despite statistical proof that violent crime has been decreasing for many years. This phenomenon is of great concern because how we arrive at our perceptions of our world should be critically examined so policy solutions react to truth not manipulated reality.
As of 2001 homicides made up one to two-tenths of one percent of all arrests, yet made up 27-29% of crime coverage on the nightly news (Dorfman and Schiraldi). Still one of the most shocking statistics from Dorfman and Schiraldi’s study states that, “Crime coverage has increased while real crime rates have fallen. While homicide coverage was increasing on the network news by 473% from 1990 to 1998, homicide arrests dropped 32. 9% from 1990 to 1998. We can see one indication of the effects of this unrealistic reporting in 1994 when, for example, in a Washington Post/ABC poll respondents named crime as their number one concern (far more than any other issue) with 65 percent of those who responded as such saying that they learned about this issue from the media (Jackson and Naureckas). The fact is, however, that violent crime has been on the decrease for roughly thirteen years and is estimated to be at a roughly thirty year low (U. S. Department of Justice). The following graph rom the Department of Justice shows a dramatic decrease in the rates of violent crime beginning in the early nineties: ? The National Criminal Victimization Survey, which is conducted differently than the more common Uniform Crime Reports, shows a decrease in violent as well as property crimes in the United States for more than a decade (qtd. in Torny 118). The evidence seems to be overwhelming; no matter what the method used for measuring crime rates there is an obvious decrease in crime, especially with respect to violent crime in the United States.
These are just a couple of the statistics researchers and academics have compiled over recent years addressing the discrepancy between media coverage of crime and actual crime statistics. So in light of these multiple studies using different methods, how and why is it that media coverage of violent crime has grown exponentially? Surette explains that crime is both an individual and cultural product (237). There is a correlation between media consumption and support for more harsh criminal justice policies and perceptions of the “mean-world view” (Surette 196).
This supports the theory that the more news a person consumes, particularly television news, the less they know about the actual state of the world. Surette explains that while the media certainly does have an impact it is not the only factor in creating this culture of the fear of crime and impacts those who live in a more isolated environment and consume higher levels of media (200). He also notes that research suggests that those who watch a good deal of television have trouble differentiating between the television world and the real world (204).
The media has a “relationship with fear” that can correlate with fear fore some viewers (Surette 206). One example of this “relationship with fear” that the media seems to have can be found in a 1994 article in “US News and World Report” where the authors, despite noting briefly that violent crime by all statistical accounts is actually down, names the previous year as “the scariest year in American history” seeming to assert that the numbers don’t matter (Jackson and Naureckas).
The article also makes a good point about the contradiction between perceptions of crime and the reality of crime: “the drumbeat of news coverage [that] has made it seem that America is in the midst of its worst epidemic of violence ever. That sense is not supported by the numbers” (Jackson and Naureckas). Throughout the rest of the article similar contradictions abound and it is difficult to tell exactly what conclusion should be drawn from it. The causes of crime, as with most crime reporting, are not dealt with in the article while “random violence” is examined closely (Jackson and Naureckas).
Most violent crime is perpetrated by someone whom the victim knows yet the theme of “random violence receives much more attention in the media (Jackson and Naureckas). The US News piece illustrates how the media engages in a form of “doublethink” where despite knowledge of factual evidence indicating a decrease in crime they continue to put forth images that depict violent crime as an epidemic and continue to support perceptions of fear, distrust, and cynicism. This fear mongering often plays into preconceived notions of crime and violence such as racism, ageism, and classism held by some.
A 2001 study by Dorfman and Schiraldi found that crimes against African Americans were underrepresented in reporting and overrepresented as perpetrators, white victims tended to receive more lengthy coverage as well. In Los Angeles television news African Americans were 22% more likely to be shown on TV committing violent crimes than non-violent ones despite the fact that arrest reports indicate that African Americans in Los Angeles commit both types of crime almost equally (Dorfman and Schiraldi).
The study also shows how youths are also disproportionately covered: 7 out of 10 local TV news stories dealing with violent crime in California had youths as the perpetrators despite the fact that youths commit only 14. 4% of violent crime in that state. Furthermore, half of the stories dealing with minors for any reason involved violence even though only 2% (though due to unreported crimes the actual number may be higher) of California youths have been victims or perpetrators of violent crime (Drofman and Schiraldi).
The study also found by looking at news reports over the last decade that in Hawaii there has bee a 30 fold increase in the number of youth crime stories despite a steady decrease in youth crime over that same time period. This increased focus on youth crimes has led to increased support for treating juvenile offenders as adults and, especially in instances of more serious crimes, applying the same retributive punishments previously not applied to young offenders (Glassner 73). These findings show how not only are the media’s sensationalized reporting of crime contributing to a false sense or reality for many people, but are also einforcing stereotypes and bigotry. Utilizing these preconceived ideas also intensifies the impact of fear based coverage. This sense of fear that the media is able to conjure up in certain situations can easily be manipulated by politicians and policymakers looking to gain some support. According to Glassner, the more fearful people are of crime the more likely they are to support more punitive justice systems instead of rehabilitation programs. This is especially true with respect to juvenile offenders (72).
Glassner further argues that it is interesting that as we cut into funding for educational, medical, and antipoverty programs we begin to grow more concerned about crime and there seems to be what he calls “unacknowledged guilt” about why crime now seems inevitable (72). While the media is often the target of criticism and blame it has been argued that largely the media mirrors public opinion and can be controlled by it (Gans 76). There is evidence however that particularly brutal crimes or large amounts of coverage of crime can shift public opinion somewhat.
For example, polls show an increase in support for the death penalty following news of horrifying crimes (Gans 76). Gans believes that despite the fact that the news media is often thought of as having more power than it actually does it may have long-term effects on public opinion (88). So, even though the media of course cannot shift public opinion overnight in the long run a shift in coverage of sensationalized crime coverage can have long lasting effects of the political climate around crime policy.
If the tone of the media is largely controlled by previously held notions of media consumers then how might the news media correct the public when it’s beliefs are erroneous? Chiricos examines the effect of “moral panics” which something or someone becomes defined as a threat to societal values or norms (2). Moral panics are signaled by a rapid increase in the volume of media reporting and are often followed by political action as the public feels that “something must be done” (Chiricos 60). Every so often crime and violence becomes the subject of a moral panic in America.
Chiricos examines two moral panics occurring in the early to mid nineties: crack cocaine and violent crime. Both of these stories where covered in much the same way: as inner-city problems leaving the ghettos and threatening the middle-class way of life (63). When this issue was framed as a direct threat to suburban America a moral panic followed. When crime was confined to urban areas and “ghettos” there was little to worry about until the perception became that crack and violence was spreading into areas that were considered to be “safe”.
During this time 49 percent of Americans then said that crime was the most important issue facing the country compared to only 9 percent before the moral panic began to set in (Chiricos 64). The panic was further compounded by reports that these issues were spreading to children which Chiricos notes is a common component of the rise of a moral panic (65). The reaction to these panics was unsurprising. Panics are viewed as sudden problems and treated with fundamentally inappropriate solutions such as sending more people to prison and building more of them (Chiricos 67).
Following moral panics, according to Chiricos, “commands” are issued by the public (71). The policy ramifications from these moral panics included 9. 7 billion dollars for more prisons, California’s three strikes program, and various repressive laws aimed at adults and children alike in many states (Chiricos 71). These examinations of the media’s relationship with public opinion point out how in this age of information the media is an important factor in how we carry out our democracy and decide what issues are important.
If this has become the case than there are serious concerns for how the media is serving democracy. Lawrence sees the media as an arena where problems are constructed and there is constant struggle between elites, groups, and the public seek to define and address problems (3). What constitutes a problem is socially constructed. This is also true of crime problems. Lawrence is concerned with how problems are socially constructed in the media because when something is defined as a problem facing the country power is conferred upon the social institutions we would likely look to deal with it (5).
So, in the arena of the media if crime is framed by elites as stemming from the degradation of society or loss of opportunities for many people then programs and institutions organized for supporting the poor and communities will be empowered. However, the usual winners in this clash of frames typically define crime as an epidemic problem fueled by a justice system which is too soft on criminals. With this frame politicians must appear “tough on crime” and power is given to more punitive crime control policies and the prison-industrial complex flourishes as more and more money is spent on warehousing offenders.
This further disempowers social welfare institutions as money spent on police and prisons cannot be spent on education, healthcare, or welfare programs. This struggle to define problems can be looked at as a clash of differing realities where vastly different takes on issues exist but one is adopted by the media and then disseminated to the public (Lawrence 5). Lawrence says that the prevailing reality held by the most successful definers typically comes from officials within the government (5).
There exists a close relationship between government officials and the news media. They are the primary definers and therefore the strongest factor in how we construct the reality of crime (Lawrence 5). This is unhealthy because, with the issue of crime in particular, officials are quick to define crime as an epidemic issue filled with fearful imagery and then act against criminals in draconian ways. When they construct a reality where they are needed to protect their constituents justice in harmed for the sake of political capital.
This manipulation of reality and fear for the sake of power is addressed by Entman but with respect to the war on terror instead of crime and justice. He argues that the elite exert control by hegemony and indexing (4). Hegemony refers to the way officials release only information that supports the narrow reality that they seek to perpetuate and indexing is how the media reflect this narrow debate among elites quite closely (Entman 5). With this control over public perception it is relatively easy for officials to frame issues such as crime or terrorism.
When they win the battle to define a problem obvious remedies arise. If terrorism is framed as an attack on our way of life rather than a consequence of our projection of power across the globe then it follows that the remedy is defense and war. Similarly, if elites succeed in defining crime not as a consequence of lost economic opportunities but as a result of naturally deviant personalities then the reaction that follows is to lock up these defective personalities and isolate them from the rest of “normal” society. The way in which we think about various issues and problems directly affects how we deal with them.
Most in society would say that the solution to problems is obvious because it is. What is missed however is the fact that how we think about problems can completely shift the ways in which we deal with them. In order to change policy then the first step is to change the perceptions and the reality surrounding it for officials and the public alike. Lakoff tells us that if we can reframe issues we can create social change (XV). When we change the way the public sees the world, largely through the media, and alter that perceived reality we can change the policies that follow.
So why then does the media seem to be so concerned with violent crime and creating feelings of fear and anxiety in its consumers? The reason seems to be sensationalized journalism meant to increase viewership and a system where officials control our perceptions through the media. It needs to be understood that passive consumption of the media is unhealthy and we should think critically about how reality is constructed by elites and the media because, that subjective reality directly affects the solutions that are used to deal with our problems.
While so many people are given the impression that crime is rampant the underreported fact is that crime has been decreasing for many years. In order for there to be rational crime control policy in the United States we need to have accurate information about the reality of crime in this country. In order for this to happen the media must provide an accurate depiction of crime that is constructed by a fair debate in the public arena of the media. There is a lot at stake in how we perceive the world around us and how we think about crime and punishment.
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Crime in the Information Age. (2018, Oct 01). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/crime-in-the-information-age-essay