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March 31, 2010

Is the mass media to blame for a distorted perceptions of criminal danger?

The question in the title of this post is inspired by this interesting new piece published in Crime, Media, Culture: An International Journal, which is available via SSRN.  The piece is titled "The Ambivalent Consequences of Visibility: Crime and Prisons in the Mass Media," and here is the abstract:

This article aims to demonstrate that, despite their potential for cultivating communitarianism and deliberative democracy on a large scale, the mass media contribute decisively to the formation of punitiveness amongst the public by means of selective semiotic aestheticisation. They overstate the problem of crime; put the blame on marginalised cohorts and level heavy criticism against the administration of prisons purportedly for laxity; issue urgent calls for ever-greater reliance on the use of strict imprisonment by the authorities and the adoption of self-policing measures by local communities and private individuals; and either mute or neutralise the attendant hardships prisoners suffer at the hands of the state.  Breaking with discourses of rational linearity, whereby distorted perceptions of criminal danger result in punitive reactions, the claim is made that the imagery of crime and punishment helps audiences resolve at the level of symbolic expression contradictions which remain unconsciously insoluble at the level of everyday life.

March 31, 2010 at 08:47 AM | Permalink


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The answer is yes. Sensational reporting inflates ratings.

Posted by: beth | Mar 31, 2010 8:50:24 AM

Yes, of course. The older I get the more I think that we as a society have come to mistake the freedom to speak (a right which I passionately endorse) with the freedom to YELL.

Everyone should have the right to say what they want, but I am no longer sure that I think they have a right to say it at the top of their lungs.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 31, 2010 10:36:28 AM

How not to think about crime in the media
Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Oct, 2006 by Aaron Doyle

A great deal of research suggests that the portrayal of crime in the news and entertainment media differs from the picture portrayed by official and other statistics (Garofalo 1981; Orcutt and Turner 1993; Perlmutter 2000). It has also been repeatedly demonstrated that the media are implicated in the construction of "crime waves" (Davis 1951; Hall et al. 1978; Fishman 1978, 1981; Voumvakis and Ericson 1984) in the absence of any statistical increase in the crime in question. This point was noted by journalist Lincoln Steffens early in the century, long before it was demonstrated by social scientists (Antunes and Hurley 1977). Similarly, media construct "new crime problems" such as "freeway violence" or "wilding" (Best 1999) or construct moral panics around particular types of crime (Cohen 2002; Jewkes 2004), although many analyses of the latter focus on the behaviour of media and officialdom, and offer little evidence the public is actually panicking.

Posted by: George | Mar 31, 2010 10:41:23 AM

This article seems to have interesting points to make, and I was about to click to download it, when I noticed the phrase "selective semiotic aestheticisation" in the abstract. Ugh.

I am pretty sure I could puzzle out the meaning of that phrase were I to devote the necessary mental resources to the endeavor, but, unfortunately, I have more pressing matters to attend to. I guess I will have to await an explanation in a more accessible form of English. Though it is an age-old complaint, I ask again: Why must academic authors weigh down their writing with such leaden, needlessly opaque phrases?

Posted by: Observer | Mar 31, 2010 11:32:21 AM

I completely agree with Beth, the problem is the media is a moody little 5 year old in a store throwing a tantrum, they just want all the attention and will do anything for it, at any cost!

Posted by: O'neill Morgan Solicitors | Mar 31, 2010 11:49:39 AM

Observer -

EXACTLY. I realize it's an academic article, but using language like that is the equivalent of using a ton of "wheretofor"s and "thereupon"s in your briefs - it's designed to make it sound fancy and important.

That said, from what I can tell, the author is exactly right - media portrayal of crime scares people out of all proportion to the actual risks people face.

Posted by: Cheqster | Mar 31, 2010 4:43:19 PM

Observer --

"Why must academic authors weigh down their writing with such leaden, needlessly opaque phrases?"

Because if they used plain English, people would see through it.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 31, 2010 10:45:04 PM

Nah, people never saw through the "plain English" we gave for the media to report. And believe me, the media always reported the press releases we gave them: because they were in plain English.

Posted by: s.cotus | Apr 1, 2010 1:47:42 AM

"...selective semiotic aestheticisation"

Whoa! Them's fightin' words.

At some point in the late 1970s, editors who believed the mission was providing information citizens needed to function well in a democracy began losing ground to marketeers armed with readership surveys.

Gradually the goal of balancing what readers wanted with what they "needed" gave way to full-on pandering... putting eyeballs on ads... selective semiotic aestheticisation, if you will.

What better way to draw an audience than stoking fear of crime?

s.cotus is right, though. Too many citizens didn't want or didn't get what serious media outlets attempt to put before them. Citizens failed the media every bit as much as media failed them.

Posted by: John K | Apr 1, 2010 11:17:17 AM

John K --

"What better way to draw an audience than stoking fear of crime?"

By playing John Edwards' sex tapes (of himself, at age 56)?

P.S. Less than 48 hours ago, and about 12 miles from my house, four people were shot to death on the street and another five injured in some feud-related mass murder. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/31/AR2010033100707.html. But I agree with the implication of your post, to wit, that news of this should be deep-sixed, because, for any sane person around here, it sure as hell is going to be "stoking fear of crime."

P.P.S. I also agree with the implication of numerous prior posts of yours that the real problem here is not a thuggish and violent mentality among the shooters but out-of-control prosecutors and crooked cops. Indeed, they probably staged the whole thing. They are, as you've told us so many times, relentlessly cooking up evidence to convict the innocent.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 1, 2010 5:18:41 PM

Sometimes you infer things I didn't intend to imply, Bill.

There's an important difference between deep-sixing crime news and overplaying it.

For all the good it will do (probably none), I'll try yet again to disabuse you of the notion I criticize prosecutors for dealing aggressively with thuggish, violent offenders. I don't.

I do, however, believe some prosecutors abuse their considerable powers to compel confessions from citizens wrongly accused of white-collar and other non-violent crimes.

Posted by: John K | Apr 1, 2010 6:36:26 PM

John K --

The problem with your response is that "stoking fear of crime" (your phrase) must imply violent crime, not the white collar crime to which you ssay you intended to refer. Bernie Madoff, Martha Stewart and your mortgage broker friend might well have stoked anger and resentment, but FEAR??!!

Your premise is incorrect as well. When four people are gunned down on the street in a military style assault in our nation's capital, it would be hard to "overplay" it. And instead of being "overplayed," I've seen scant mention of it in any but the local DC media. What about that grisly crime has been "overplayed?"

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 1, 2010 11:36:52 PM

Bill, the question posed in the post was whether the media overplays crime news to the extent that public perceptions (fears) of crime are distorted.

My answer was "Yes, I think so." So basically I was supporting the author's suggestion that the media might be doing a poor job of keeping crime news in perspective.

I can't imagine the author had Martha Stewart in mind when he penned the question. I certainly assumed he was speaking of violent crime.

However, The stoker of fear in the context of my post was the media. There was no reference in my post (direct or implied) to prosecutors or crooked cops.

Yes, I'm troubled by what strikes me as abuse of power by federal agents and prosecutors, and I complain about it a lot. So I can understand why it might be confusing to you when I address other topics...but that's exactly what I was doing in this particular post.

In sum, it appears you're reacting to what you anticipated I was going to say instead of what I said. I hope this helps.

Posted by: John K | Apr 2, 2010 11:30:36 AM

Here's some more crime news we should keep in perspective:

"TRENTON, N.J. - Two adults and three juveniles have been charged with gang-raping a 7-year-old girl who was sold by her 15-year-old stepsister during a party at a crime-ridden apartment building, police said Saturday.

"Details on the arrests were announced at a Saturday night news conference at police headquarters in Trenton, the state's capital city. The group included a 20-year-old man who already had been charged Friday with having sex with the 15-year-old, and officials said further arrests may be made.

"The other four — a 19-year-old Trenton man and three boys ages 13, 14 and 17 — were each charged with aggravated sexual assault and child endangerment."

There's more, but it's actually too disgusting to go on with.

This story, incidentally, is by the AP and was picked up on MSNBC, where I found it just now. Shame on both of them for, you know, stoking fear and all. Better to sweep it under the rug and let the Excuse Factory handle it with the help of a "compassionate" judge.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 3, 2010 11:59:12 PM

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