Sociology Media and Crime

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2 March 2016

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Media give a distorted image of crime
Over-representation of violent and sexual crimes – Ditton and Duffy – 46% of media reports were about violent/sexual crimes but only made up 3% of all crimes recorded by the police Media coverage exaggerates police success

The police are a major source of crime stories and want to present themselves in a good light Media exaggerates the risk of victimisation, Especially to women, white people and higher status individuals Crime is reported as a series of separate events
Without structure and the examination of underlying causes
Media overplay extraordinary crimes
Underplay ordinary crimes
Felson – ‘dramatic fallacy’
Media images lead us to believe that to commit and solve crimes, one needs to be daring and clever Schlesinger and Tumber – in the 1960s the focus had been on murders and petty crime; in the 1990s murder and petty crime were of less interest to the media; change due to the abolition of the death penalty for murder and because rising crime rates meant that a crime had to be ‘special’ to attract coverage Increasing preoccupation with sex crimes

Soothill and Walby – newspaper reporting of rape crases increased from under a quarter in 1951 to over a third in 1985; coverage consistently focuses on identifying a ‘sex fiend/beast’ by use of labels

News values and crime coverage

Distorted picture of crime painted by the news media reflects the fact that news is a social construction – the outcome of a social process in which potential stories are selected and others are rejected Cohen and Young – news is manufactured

A central aspect of the news is the notion of ‘news values’ – criteria by which journalists and editors decide whether a story is newsworthy to be in newspapers or the news bulletin. Immediacy
Dramatisation – action and excitement
Personalisation – human interest stories about individuals Higher-status – ie celebrities

News give so much coverage to crime as it focuses on the unusual and extraordinary – makes deviance newsworthy since it is abnormal behaviour Fictional representations of crime
Mandel – estimates that from 1945 to 1984, over 10 billion crime thrillers were sold worldwide Fictional representation from TV, cinema and novels are important sources of our knowledge of crime as so much of their output is crime-related

The media as a cause of crime

Concern that the media have a negative effect on attitudes, values and behaviour for vulnerable and influential groups e.g. young, lower classes and uneducated Ways in which the media might cause crime and deviance

Desensitisation – repeated viewing of violence
Transmitting knowledge of criminal techniques
Target for crime – theft of plasma TVs
Stimulating desires for unaffordable goods – through advertising Portraying the police as incompetent
Glamorising offending
Studies tend to find that exposure to media violence has at most a small and limited negative effect on audience Livingstone – despite such conclusions, people continue to be preoccupied with the effects of the media on children because of our desire as a society to regard childhood as a time of uncontaminated innocence in the private sphere (the family)

Fear of crime

Concern that the media may be distorting the public’s impression of crime and causing an unrealistic fear of crime Evidence to some extent supports the view that there is a link between media use and fear of crime Gerbner et al (USA) – heavy users of television (over 4 hours a day) had higher levels of fear of crime Schlesinger and Tumber – found a correlation between media consumption and fear of crime – tabloid readers and heavy users of TV expressing greater fear of becoming a victim – especially physical attack and mugging Existence of such correlations doesn’t prove that media viewing causes fear. It may be that those who are already afraid of going out at night watch more TV because they stay in more Sparks – media effects research ignores the meanings that viewers give to media violence – may give different meanings to violence in cartoons, horror films and news bulletins (interpretivist view that if we want to understand the possible effects of the media, we must look at the meanings people give to what they see and read)

Media, relative deprivation and crime

How far media portrayals of ‘normal’ rather than criminal lifestyles might also encourage people to commit crime Left realists argue that the mass media help to increase the sense of relative deprivation amongst poor and marginalised social groups In today’s society, the media present everyone with images of a materialistic ‘good life’ of leisure, fun and consumer goods and the norm to which they should conform to. The result is to stimulate the sense of relative deprivation and social exclusion felt by marginalised groups who cannot afford these goods Merton – pressure to conform can cause deviant behaviour when the opportunity to achieve by legitimate means is blocked (ie the media are instrumental in setting the norm and thus in promoting crime)

Moral panics

Media can cause crime and deviance through labelling
Moral entrepreneurs who disapprove of some particular behaviour may use the media to put pressures on the authorities. If successful, their campaigning will result in the negative labelling of the behaviour and perhaps a change in the law E.g. the Marijuana Tax Law – labelled marijuana smoking as criminal; media helped to cause crime Creating of a moral panic – an exaggerated over-reaction by society to a perceived problem – usually driven or inspired by the media – where the reaction enlarges the problem out of all proportion to its real seriousness. In a moral panic: The media identify a group as a folk devil or a threat to societal values The media present the group in a negative, stereotypical fashion and exaggerate the scale of the problem Moral entrepreneurs, editors, politicians, police chiefs, bishops and other ‘respectable’ people condemn the group and its behaviour This leads to calls for a ‘crackdown’ on the group – may create a SFP that amplifies the problem that caused the panic in the first place

Mods and Rockers

Cohen – examines the media’s response to disturbances between two groups of largely working-class teenagers Mods – smart dress and rode scooters; Rockers – leather jackets and rode moterbikes Initial confrontations started with scuffles, stone throwing, broken windows and wrecked beach huts Media over-rated the confrontations which was minor. Cohen uses the analogy of a disaster where the media produce and inventory of what happened containing: Exaggeration and distortion – media exaggerated numbers involved and the extent of the violence Prediction – media assumed and predicted further conflict and that violence would result Symbolisation – symbols of mods and rockers were all negatively labelled and associated with deviance – medias use of the symbols allowed them to link unconnected events Cohen argues that the media’s portrayal of events produced a deviance amplification spiral by making it seem as if the problem was spreading and getting out of hand. Lead to calls for an increased control response from the police and courts.

Produced further marginalisation and stigmatisation of the mods and rockers as deviants and less tolerance of them Media further amplified the deviance by defining the two groups and their subcultural styles – youths adopting the styles – media crystallised two distinct identities, encouraging polarisation, creating a SFP of escalating conflict Cohen notes that media definitions of the situation are crucial in creating a moral panic as most people have no direct experience of the events themselves and thus have to rely on the media.

This allowed the media to portray them as folk devils – major threats to public order and social values Cohen argues that moral panics often occur at times of social change, reflecting the anxieties people feel when accepted values are undermined; moral panic was a result of a boundary crisis – uncertainty about where the boundary lay between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour Functionalist perspective – moral panics seen as ways of responding to the sense of anomie created by change. By dramatising the threat to society, the media raises the collective consciousness and reasserts social controls when central values are threatened. Hall – neo Marxist approach locating the role of moral panics in the context of capitalism (distracted attention from the crisis or capitalism) CRITICISMS – Assumes that the societal reaction is a disproportionate over reaction (relates to left realist view that peoples fear or crime is rational) McRobbie and Thornton – moral panics are now routine and have less impact; in late modern society there is little consensus about what is deviant

Global cyber-crime

Internet has been accused of undermining public morality and corrupting the young due to the speed with which is has developed and its scale – almost half the world’s population is on the internet Thomas and Loader – arrival of the internet has led to fears of cyber-crime defined as computer-mediated activities – either illegal or illicit Jewkes – internet created opportunities to commit conventional crimes – fraud – and new crimes using new tools – software piracy Wall – four categories of cybercrime

Cyber-trespass – crossing boundaries into others cyber property including hacking, sabotage and spreading viruses Cyber-deception and theft – identity theft; 95% of music is downloaded illegally (Swash) Cyber-pornography –
including minors and opportunities for children to access porn Cyber-violence – psychological harm and inciting physical harm including cyber-stalking Policing cyber-crime is difficult partly because of the scale of the internet and the limited resources – globalised nature posing problems of jurisdiction Police culture gives cyber-crime a low priority as it is seen as lacking the excitement of more conventional policing D

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"Sociology Media and Crime" StudyScroll, Mar 2, 2016. Accessed Dec 5, 2023.

"Sociology Media and Crime" StudyScroll, Mar 2, 2016.

"Sociology Media and Crime" StudyScroll, 2-Mar-2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 5-Dec-2023]

StudyScroll. (2016). Sociology Media and Crime. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 5-Dec-2023]

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