A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF HOW MEDIA COVERAGE OF CRIME EFFECTS CITIZENS VIEWS ON, AND FEARS OF CRIME
Car-jacking and home invasions show that crime is out of control; that the crime rate is up; and violent crime is on the increase; these are all contemporary ways of expressing what is becoming an everyday fear about crime. However, is crime really on the increase or is it just media hype?
The media is the major source of creating fear and having a profound effect on developing citizens’ view about crime. The underlying theme of this paper is that the fear of crime is constructed socially through the media. Therefore, the goal is to exemplify how the media magnifies fear and how it presents citizens a fear of crime.
Police stories are one of the main staples of the media because they make a good reading. A good story is where you have conflict, a hero, a villain, and you have somebody overcoming obstacles. The police realize that they have an enormous responsibility, authority and accountability. Thus, one of the main areas where they (the police) are going to get accountability is through the media (Best, 1999: 145). The media can give a perspective on crime, sometimes they are right, and sometimes they are wrong. Nevertheless, the media can present a view that can heighten or lessen fear. Alternatively, these reports can also be unreliable because the police tend to give the media selected stories mainly consisting of street crimes (Best, 1999: 147). The crime reports provided by the police demonstrate numerous examples of crimes between strangers, crimes in public places, and crimes specific to age. Since the police rarely mention whether or not the victims and the offender knew each other, the impression created by the public is that crimes occur frequently between strangers than they do in reality (Best, 1999: 145). In reporting to the media, it allows the police to reaffirm their ownerships and knowledge of fighting crime (Sacco & Kennedy, 1998). This allows for more funding for the police department in addition to creating an image that presents their membership as an elite. As a result, the police release information relating to serious crimes to the media which in turn instills in fear felt by citizens.
The General Social Survey Program (GSS) conducted in 1993 involved telephone interviews of approximately ten-thousand adult Canadians. Twenty-five percent of those surveyed had been victimized by crime over the preceding year, the same proportion as in 1988. Furthermore, a majority of these crimes were not reported to the police, because they were felt not to be serious enough to warrant an arrest (McCormick, 1995: 146). Considering the study surveyed more than 10,000 citizens and found that their likelihood of victimization had remained unchanged from 1988-1993, it affirmed that fact that whoever thought crime had increased must simply be wrong, victims of distorted information conveyed by media.
The concern about crime is up, yet based on citizen’s own reports of victimization, the experts can find no empirical justification for it, leaving citizens feeling that crime has increased without any real basis (McCormick, 1995: 145). No consideration is given to the idea that there may be other good reasons for citizens to think that crime has increased: that citizens could be more aware of crime, citizens could be concerned that the criminal justice system is not dealing adequately with crime. According to the official rate of crime, it reveals that reporting to the police has been on an increase since 1995. Rather than attributing these numbers to an increase in crime, they are explained by the researchers as resulting from a simple increase in reporting and not to any real increase in crime itself, a conclusion which is defensible (Best, 1999: 145).
The perception that youth crime is escalating in our society and that the law is too soft on young offenders is created by many such articles, commentaries, and opinion and editorial pieces conveyed by the media. However, it is difficult to determine where the problems they describe is exaggerated or not. The media has a tendency to over-report relatively minor incidents involving youths that they believe are construed to be part of a much bigger problem facing today’s society. This trades on and reinforces a moral panic about the link between youths and crime, and the attention these youth crimes receive might be out of proportion with reality. Relying on the police as the main source of information reinforces the seriousness of the crimes.
Rarely do young offenders appear in the news, but when they do, they are mostly connected to violent crimes. The media continuously push the idea that youth crime is getting out of control and that there is a need for fear of this type of crime. However, in Canada youth crime rates dropped by 7% in 1993, with a 5% decline in violent crimes committed by young offenders (McCormick, 1995: 154). The occurrence of youth crime did not correspond to how the media portrayed them because it gave the impression that these types of crimes are increasing, thus creating public fear, when statistics show otherwise. The media has a tendency to portray youth crimes as getting out of control which they often refer to as moral panics. During a moral panic the behavior of some members of society [in this case youths] is seen as problematic that it becomes a social imperative to control the behavior, and punish the offenders (Sacco & Kennedy, 1998). Moral panics usually involve youth because they are easily susceptible to antisocial influences such as drug use (Tanner, 2001: 12). The media increases the fear of crime by often portraying the young and those who use drugs as problematic and uncontrollable. As a result, drug users and young people are easily used as targets for the media in order to mislead the public and increase their fear of crime.
It is difficult to keep things in perspective when the news constantly reflects the fear that crime is on the increase. There are stories about violent youths, the growing use of guns in violent crimes, and the new crimes of home invasion and car-jacking, and there is continual debate over whether crime rates are really going up or not. News reports fit into a textually constructed reality, where public perception and official policy are part of a loop. The more stories citizens read about crime especially of events they cannot control, the more likely they are to think crime is out of control, which will produce more stories and generate interest in legal reform, a condition promoting the production of crime news in the first place.
Studies have shown that television is the primary source of news for 47% of Canadians. As a result, since media coverage is on the incline and crime rates are decreasing it is not unusual to discover that most Canadians think our society is getting more violent (Canada and the World, 1996). The public will usually encounter minor crimes, such as petty theft or stolen property. Hence, most of these minor crimes are usually insolvable which then adds to citizens perceptions that the area is getting more violent. Even though minor crimes are considered serious, the fear is still increasing despite the declining rates of crime. In 1995, 2.7 million crimes were reported to the police, 58% of which were non-violent crimes while only 11% were violent crimes (Canada and the World, 1996). The violent crimes such as murder, attempted murder, and abduction compose to less than one tenth of a percent of all crimes committed in Canada. In Canada, the rate of youth and adult homicide was 1.8 per 100, 000 in 1999, which was at its lowest level since 1967 (Wilson-Smith, 2000). With the decreasing frequency of crime, citizens still feel apprehensive due to the notion that the media distorts the reality of non-violent crime and displays the worst-case scenarios resulting in the fear felt by many individuals.
Fear of crime serves the interest of a law and order agenda. It is irrelevant at one level whether crime is really increasing or not (Ericson et. al, 1991: 285). If crime is perceived to be out of control, then there is pressure to do something about it. Protests that crime is actually stable or decreasing have little effect because the tendency of the media is to highlight dramatically violent crimes. At the center of a news battle, media empires compete with each other for a larger proportion of the audience, news producers must emphasize events of crime at the cost of other issues. As a result the media places most emphasis on violent crimes accompanied by shocking images on newspapers, magazines and to a large extent on televisions in order to acquire more interest from the public. By displaying images of violent crime, it requires little effort on the part of media because the images speak for themselves therefore, they require less airtime with great impact.
The newswire is a vital source of stories that can be re-edited to fulfill the daily requirement of putting out a newspaper (Ericson et. al, 1991: 43). The result therefore is a set of homogenized news that is universally available and extra-locally produced. People can have a general perception that crime has increased, even though their direct experiences do not bear this out, because they have mediated the experience of crime in society that is delivered through the media. The law and order agenda is part of a larger conservative ideology that is constructed through the discursive reality of the media. Despite whether the topic is crime out control or the fear of crime is exaggerated, the images displayed in the media prompt the same reformist strategy that something has to be done to control crime and assuage fears.
After examining the evidence one can conclude that the media has a profound effect on influencing citizens’ perceptions of crime by instilling fear. Although evidence suggests that crime rates are decreasing, citizens still fear crime. This is due to a number of precipitating factors including the distortion of crime by the media, the notion that the media uses the worst-case scenarios to portray crime, the misrepresentations by the police, the use of moral panics, and the personal effects of crime.