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Influence of Media on Levels of Crime

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“To Investigate and Discuss the ways in which Crime is Portrayed by the Media, and how this can have an Impact on Modern Britain.”

Introduction – What is the Media?

The term ‘media’ refers to the various means of communication – whether written, broadcast or spoken – that reaches a large audience and influences people on a worldwide basis. There are many different forms of media such as television, radio, advertising, the internet, newspapers, magazines, music and films, etc.

In modern culture it seems that media is a significant force, as the media reflects and creates culture within society; as communities, as well as individuals, are constantly bombarded with messages from a multitude of sources such as TV, the internet, newspapers, billboards, etc. However the media promotes many other things than just products through these sources; as they also promote moods, attitudes, and a sense of what is and what isn’t important in society. Therefore it seems that the mass media are an almost ever-present element of our contemporary lives.

How has the Role and Influence of the Media Changed Overtime?

Mass media is important as it helps to make possible the concept of fame and celebrity; as without film, music, and news media to reach people all across the world, people would not be able to become famous. As recently actors, singers and other social elites have become famous through changes within the media. This is due to the media now having a higher primary focus on portrayal these elites to the general public, through the many different types of media. Whereas in the past it had previously only been political and business leaders that had been somewhat famous, as until lately, the media had a higher primary focus on portrayal these people to the general public through the types of media, rather than social elites. Therefore, it seems that there has been a clear role reversal concerning who the media chooses to have a primary focus on when portraying people to the general public.

However, the media hasn’t always played as huge a role as it does in today’s society, which is due to how the media and its influence have changed overtime. In the 1960s and 1970s, TV had primarily consisted of few networks which were public broadcasting and a couple of local independent stations; which had mainly aimed their programming at two-parent, middle-class families, even though many did not own a television at this time. Since then there has been a huge increase in availability to access media, as in today’s society there is now a TV even in the poorest of homes, and with multiple TVs in many middle-class homes. Over the years, there has also been an increase in programming, which is now more diverse as there are many TV shows available to watch which are aimed at people of all ages, incomes, backgrounds and attitudes, etc.

As well as there being an increase in availability and exposure of television, there has also been an increase in availability and exposure of the internet; and it also holds a more powerful role in culture within society. Therefore it gives the impression that both television and the internet have dominated the media, showing that mass media is a permanent part of modern culture in today’s society. It also seems that, in today’s society, the media is a part of culture; as it connects individuals to the rest of the world as well as reproducing a self-image of society.

The media has grown dramatically along with the growth in technology such as the advancements in television, the internet, computers, telephones, etc. But in the past ten years the media has changed due to it becoming much more advanced and accessible to people all around the world. This is because the majority of people in the world now have access to the most up-to-date phones, computers, TVs etc. which also allows them have quick internet access.

The media and its influence have also changed overtime as in today’s society daily accounts of worldwide news is now more frequent as the news is broadcast throughout the day every so often on numerous channels, and a variety of newspapers are also printed every day. Another change in the media is that violence is now portrayed more often on a daily basis, than it had in the past. This is due to more violence being shown in television shows, films etc. which could lead to some people, who witness these violent acts, committing them themselves in reality; which also leads to more violence being portrayed in the news more often, for example the 2011 England riots.

However it is not possible for the news media to report on everything that occurs on a day-to-day basis, instead they only report on some events that happen by making choices about which stories to cover and how to portray them to the general public. Meaning to make choices based on what they believe will make ‘newsworthy’ stories, by considering which stories will meet the necessary criteria for it to be included in a broadcast or to print and therefore may have an impact on the general public’s views on such stories.

The Influence of Mass Media

The influence of mass media refers to theories about the ways in which the media affects how the public think and behave; as the media can have an influence on the general public by affecting individual’s cultural and personal beliefs. This is because some people may be influenced by what they see and/or read in the media on a daily basis, and so can have an impact on their own opinions and the way that they behave around others. But it is important to remember that what information is revealed in the media may not always be 100% accurate, therefore individuals should take this into account and try not to believe everything that they witness in the media; instead they should try to take into account other forms of information, ie. first-hand information, before forming an opinion based on what they see and/or hear on a daily basis.

There have also been arguments about the media and its influence by numerous people. In the early-mid 20th Century, critics of the media had argued that the media weakens and/or delimits an individual’s capacity to act freely. It has also been argued that through the media, content is purely created for newsworthy events and that television broadcasting has a large amount of control over the content that the general public in society watches, as well as controlling the times that this content can be viewed. However, the New Media have challenged the above traditional media feature by altering participation habits of the public, ie. researching trends of the media that the general public watch & listen to and what times they do this, and so creates specific media content to be published for individuals to watch and at specific times that they will be available to watch it. It has also been argued that the internet creates space to allow for more diverse political opinions, social & cultural viewpoints, and a heightened level of consumer participation. This is because the growth of the media has mirrored the growth in technology as the internet has become a part of culture, due to how it has become a place where people can access information about almost anything, and communicate with others on a daily basis sharing their opinions and views on what happens daily all around the world.

There are three main theories based around mass media and the argument of influence over what people watch or listen to. The limited effects theory (which was originated and tested in the 1940s and 1950s) had argued that people generally choose what to watch and/or read in the media based on what they already believe, and so the media merely exerts a negligible influence; meaning that the media has little influence over what people watch and/or read on a daily basis.

The class-dominant theory argues that the media reflects and projects the views of the minority elite which control it, and those people who own and control the corporations that produce media to society to comprise this elite. Therefore making them the dominant class, over the general public, and determine what they are to hear and/or see in the media on a daily basis.

The culturalist theory (which was developed in the 1980s and 1990s) combined the above two theories and claimed that people interact with the media to create their own meanings out of the images and messages they receive. This theory also sees audiences as playing an active, not passive, role in relation to mass media. And so the focus of this theory is two-fold; on the audiences and how they interact with the media as well as those who produce the media.

In my opinion I believe that the culturalist theory is the one that mirrors more significantly with today’s society and culture as it is clear that individuals choose what they want to watch and listen to, as well as how much of this on a daily basis, among a wide range of options in the media. And it is clear that what the media portrays to the general public, whether in written text or media images, they interpret that material for themselves based on their own knowledge and experiences, rather than just purely relying on the media’s influence over them.

The Influence of Mass Media on Public Opinion, Crime & Violence, and Young People In Society

It is apparent that mass media has a clear influence on public opinion and society, and that the media can also shape public opinion in many different ways depending on the objective. It is clear that the media has an influence on public opinion on a daily basis as it appears to be that the media has an influence over what people buy and wear (as to what’s the latest fashion), what cause or charity they may support, what they think of governing policies, etc. It is also clear that the media also has an influence on public opinion of stories/events that are portrayed in the news. For example, after the 9/11 attacks the media gave huge coverage of the event and had exposed Osama Bin Laden for the attack, following what they were told by authorities. This shaped public opinion to support the war on terrorism, and the same had happened on the war in Iraq. However there would have been a problem with this if the media had received inaccurate information as it would have led to public opinion supporting the wrong cause – therefore showing the power of the media’s influence over public opinion.

It seems that the media also has other influences over the general public; such as their influence on the public through its portrayal of crime and violence in the media, as well as the effects of these, and the influence it has over young people. The media has influence over young people as it appears that they have an impact over what they should buy; based on what they are told is in fashion, what celebrities advertise etc. It is also apparent that the media holds positive influences such how it enhances knowledge and understanding, communication methods, social control, cultural & social values, and a sport that gains a lot of attention in the media also gains popularity and leads to a child taking part in that sport, eating healthy and exercising regularly. However it also seems that the media holds negative influences such as smoking, constant exposure of sex images, exposure to junk food advertisements, eating disorders such as obesity & anorexia, and excessive images of crime and violence – which can be seen in the 2011 England riots.

Between the 6th and 10th August 2011, several London boroughs and districts of cities and towns across England had suffered from widespread rioting and looting. The outbreak of such riots had followed a peaceful protest march on the 6th August in relation to the police response to the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan on the 4th March – as the riot had begun in Tottenham, North London but in the following days the rioting had spread to other London boroughs and districts, as well as other areas of England. But the most severe disturbances, outside of London, had occurred in Bristol and cities in the Midlands and North-West of England. Police action had been blamed for the initial riot, but the subsequent police reaction had been criticised as being neither appropriate nor sufficiently effective. The spread of news and rumours about the previous disturbances in Tottenham sparked riots in the London districts of Brixton, Enfield, Islington, Wood Green and Oxford Circus. Throughout the conduction of all these riots led to a huge amount of coverage, of these events, being depicted in the media.

Primarily the main contributors to the 2011 England riots were teenagers, and young adults, acting in a completely unacceptable and uncaused manner, with no real explanation behind their behaviour. Despite their behaviour, it was little communities within the regions affected that helped to clean up after them in order to help rebuild society. Tens of thousands of users of social networking sites also coordinated clean-up organisations of their local shopping areas and streets. Throughout the rioting, many of the looters didn’t bother to cover their faces as they raided electrical shops, sports shops, and off-licences. Some had even posed for pictures with the stolen goods, and posting such pictures on social networking sites – as if they were proud of their behaviour and wanted everyone to know that they played a part in the rioting.

Such actions during the riots led to vehicles, homes and shops to be attacked and set alight – at least 100 homes were destroyed due to arson and looting, the riots has caused the irretrievable loss of heritage architecture. Some repor ts claimed that the BlackBerry Messenger service was used by the rioters and looters to organise their activities across the country, therefore this led to the impression that such inaccurate accounts of events on social media may have incited disturbances. Streatham’s Labour MP Chuka Umanna had called for the BlackBerry Messenger Service, used by some of the rioters to coordinate their activities, to be “temporarily disabled” between the hours of 6pm and 6am.

The causes of the 2011 England riots, both immediate and long-term, have been the subject of media and academic debate. Several speculations have emerged as to what the likely contributory factors may be for the riots: from socio-economic causes focusing on employment and spending cuts, as well as social media, gang culture and criminal opportunism. A poll was carried out on the 8-9 August 2011 for The Sun newspaper asking what those surveyed believed to be the main cause: 26% thought ‘gang culture’, 8% thought ‘government cuts’, 5% thought ‘unemployment’, 5% thought ‘racial terrorism’, and 3% thought ‘poor policing’ was the main cause of the occurrence of the riots.

However many other people, such as Theresa May, Tony Blair, and Ken Livingstone, blame social exclusion and social deprivation, unemployment, disaffected youth who are outside the social mainstream and live in poverty, and the government spending cuts of the coalition government as the main cause of the occurrence of the riots. Ken Livingstone believed the spending cuts of the coalition government to be the cause of the riots and argued that the “economic stagnation and cuts being imposed by the Tory government inevitably create social division.” The local government budget had been cut in the past year which had led to the closing of many youth clubs in 2011, therefore leaving many teenagers with nothing to do after school. Also the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance combined with high youth unemployment has placed the British youth ‘between a rock and a hard place’. This suggests that such cuts of EMA allowance, high unemployment levels, and cuts of youth groups was a cause of the riots; while this may be one minor cause of the occurrence of the riots it isn’t really a feasible explanation. This is because not all teenagers and young adults who were angered by the above cuts did not take part in the riots at all, it was just a minority, therefore implying that there must be some other cause.

The irony of this argument is that if it is true that teenagers participated in riots due to their anger of the cuts by the government, (those who did take part in the riots because they had no money due to no EMA and high unemployment) is that the money that could have been used in the near future to build for a better future ie. jobs, will now be used to help the whole country with the clean-up of the regions affected by the riots.

it is apparent that changes need to be made to prevent youth crime levels in the future: whether that be for community groups/youth groups to be opened up (if possible) in order to get teenagers of the streets and out of gangs to teach them morals, or for the police to be more present in society and to work with local communities to prevent crime, or for parents and/or teachers to work with teenagers at home and/or school to influence them in a good way so that they don’t commit crime.

The Influence of Media’s Portrayal of Crime in Society

A crime is behaviour which breaks the law and is punished by the legal system. Whereas deviance is behaviour which goes against the norms, values and expectations of a social group and/or society.

The media’s portrayal of crime can influence people’s beliefs or expectations in reality. This is because TV is the most influential medium – as people may, or even do, believe what they see on TV dramas reflects what happens in reality; and so this may lead to raised expectations of the police force and the justice system within courts. The most controversial of topics in mass media is the role of violence through the production and creation of programming with violent themes and action. In the last three decades, researchers have produced major research studies on the role of media violence, especially on its influence over children and adolescents. In 1972 the US Surgeon General had commissioned a study of the influence of the media, of which was followed in 1982 by a comprehensive study by the National Institute of Mental Health, and 10 years later the American Psychological Association had concluded its research.

Those three diverse groups with varying approaches and perspectives had evaluated all the information available from studies that they had conducted; and they concluded that violence portrayed in mass media does contribute to violence being present in people regardless of their age, gender, race, ethnicity, etc. Due to the level of violence portrayed in the media, it also has effects behind these portrayals. As in TV or in films, we see images of violence and people hurting themselves and others; this is traumatic, as children who see this may then grow up to shape their personality values and beliefs around this, and so can become aggressive and so can then lose sense of the difference between reality and fiction of what they are actually seeing in the media. There have even been cases of children carrying guns or other weapons to school with them and later hurting others, and this has been linked to the result of excessive use of violence in TV and in video games. This can be seen in the Jamie Bulger case.

Jamie Bulger (16th March 1990) was murdered on the 12th February 1993, aged 2; he had been abducted, tortured and murdered by two 10 year old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. Bulger had disappeared from a shopping centre near his home, whilst accompanying his mother. His body was found on a railway line two and a half miles away, two days after his murder, and Thompson & Venables were later charged with his abduction and murder. Post-trial, many UK tabloid newspapers had claimed that this attack on Jamie Bulger was inspired by the film ‘Childs Play 3’, as it was believed that there were similarities in violence between the film, and level of violence that was depicted on him which led to his murder; those tabloids had also campaigned for the rules on ‘film and video nasties’ to be tightened.

Recently there have also been depictions of this case in the media. In 2007 a computer games based on the TV series ‘Law & Order’ titled ‘Law & Order: Double or Nothing’ was withdrawn from stores in the UK following reports that it contained an image of Bulger, which led to his family to complain. In 2009 a ‘Hollyoaks’ storyline was axed after the show gave Bulger’s mother a special screening, which showed how two characters had been given new identities before arriving in the village after being convicted of murdering a child at the age of 12.

Mass Media’s Representations of Crime

It is clear that crime and deviance make up a large proportion of news coverage, as the news media show a keen interest in crime but they give a distorted image of crime, criminals and policing when compared with the picture of crime we gain from official statistics. This is due to how it appears that the media: over-represent violent and sexual crime, portray criminals and victims as older/more middle class than those found in the criminal justice system, exaggerate police success in clearing up cases, exaggerate the risk of victimisation, report crime as a series of separate crimes, and overplay extraordinary crimes.

The distorted picture by the news media reflects the fact that the news is a social construction, meaning that it is the outcome of a social process in which some potential stories are selected while others are rejected. Stan Cohen and Jack Young (1973) had argued that the news is not just discovered but it is manufactured through a particular set of ‘news values’ – a criteria set by which journalists and/or editors decide which story is newsworthy enough to make it into the newspaper and news bulletins. This suggests that if a crime story can be told in terms of such criteria, it therefore has a better chance of making the news. Cohen and Young stated that the key ‘news values’ which can influence the selection of whether or not a story is selected to be included in the newspaper and news bulletins are; immediacy, dramatization, personalisation, higher status, simplification, novelty/unexpectedness, risk, and violence.

Several writers have examined the proposition that the media present crime stories – both factual and fictional – in ways which selectively distort and manipulate public perceptions, creating a false picture of crime which promotes stereotyping, bias, prejudice and gross over-publication of the facts. However these writers suggest that it’s not just official statistics that misrepresent the picture of crime, but that the media are also guilty of manipulation and fuelling public fears.

Studies have frequently been conducted in America and in the UK, which indicate that crime reporting in the press is more prevalent than it has ever been before. These studies have also suggested that interpersonal crimes such as violent and sexual crimes are constantly over-reported in relation to what official statistics show. It is also apparent that newspaper readers often over-estimate the proportion of crimes that are actually solved. This can provoke a fear of crime surge at a particular time when statistically, incidents of crime are actually on the decrease. The result of such combined misrepresentations of crime is that public perceptions reflect the media’s construction of a continually spiralling crime rate and a criminal justice system that is ineffective and ‘soft on crime’. The possible reasons for the media’s preoccupation of certain types of crime; such as sexual, violence, women, children etc. may be largely pragmatic and economic. This is because the media is in the business of selling papers and to gain high audience ratings, therefore the crimes which are often the most serious and rare, such as those involving women and children, are less common and so are more ‘newsworthy’.

Crime Content in the Media

Particular events of everyday life become ‘news’ because they are defined as unusual or extraordinary, then ‘deviance’ becomes part of the news very easily. It is questionable as to how much of what we watch and read involves crime in some form. But the answer to that question is dependable on what is meant by ‘crime’. R. Ericson (1987) had focussed on the broader category of ‘deviance’ and had found that between two-fifths (45%) and seven-tenths (71%) of quality newspaper and radio content was about deviance and its control. Ericson had argued that “the news institution focuses upon what is out of place: the deviant, equivocal and the unpredictable.” Whereas Williams and Dickenson, 1993, conducted research on the category of ‘crime’ and suggested that between 5-10% of space is devoted to crime and justice issues, with newspapers in Britain devoting between 5-30% of all news space to crime.

Schlesinger and Tumber (1994) had conducted a study of crime reporting and had suggested that the nature of crime coverage has distinctly changed since the 1960s. As in the 1960s crime coverage in the media mainly concerned murder, jewel heists, and petty crime. But since the 1990s crime coverage had expanded and had been altered to include drugs, child abuse, mugging, football hooliganism, terrorism, policy matters, and only some focus on murder. The factors which may have influenced this change include the abolition of capital punishment in 1965 which lessened the impact of murder stories in the media. But the rising crime rates led to a situation where the sheer weight of stories meant it had to be something ‘special’ in order for it to be reported in the news.

The Relationship between Crime in the Media and Crime & Aggressive Behaviour in Society

What we know, or think we know, about crime is hugely influenced by what we see or hear in the media through TV, film, newspapers, magazines, etc.

In the media, newspaper headlines seem to scream for attention with stories about crime which are designed to shock, frighten and entertain, in order to influence the public’s views of such stories in certain ways. The internet also seems to have fuelled an interest of things in relation to crime, of which provides a forum for people to exchange their different views of crime. There have been many debates conducted to see what type of relationship there is between media and crime; such as the extent of which the media can be said to cause anti-social, deviant or criminal behaviour, meaning to see to what degree that media images bring about negative effects on the public. The results of the conduction of such debates show that society has possibly become responsible for eroding moral standards and corrupting young minds. It also seems that society has become more violent since the start of modern media industry, which led to the seemingly inevitable increase in crime and anti-social behaviour. Some people even believe that modern media are capable of exerting harmful influence or even triggering outbreaks of negative social consequences and also causing damaging psychological effects. Also, violence fulfils the media’s desire to show dramatic events in a graphic fashion.

Recent research that has been conducted has shown that connections between children playing violent video games and watching violent TV programmes & films can later cause aggressive behavioural problems; as studies have shown a 12% increase in aggressive behaviour after watching violent television. Children who view media violence are more likely to have increased hostility, and a decreased emotional response to the portrayal of violence.

The ‘CSI Effect’ is a flawed product of the popular media as it encourages the criminal justice apparatus toward unlawful intrusion into the difficult lives of the populations, and furthers wrongful convictions. Decisions to prosecute are more centred on what popular media proclaims is real such as crime and how to control it. It is any of the several ways in which the exaggerated portrayal of forensic science on crime television shows, such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, has an influence on public perception. The term often refers to the belief that jurors demand more forensic evidence in police investigations. It is also possible that the level of forensic science portrayed in the media teaches criminals on how to conceal evidence of the crimes that they commit, which therefore makes it more difficult for investigators to solve cases.

The popularity of forensic crime television shows also supposedly gives a raised misconception about the nature of forensic science and investigation procedures among jury members. This leads to raised expectations in reality as jurors may expect even more forensic evidence than is actually available, which results in a higher rate of acquittal when such evidence is absent.

Many people believe that the media influences behaviour and what we think or believe. The media may also possibly cause crime and deviance by transmitting knowledge of criminal techniques and imitation. Studies have found that exposure to media violence has at most a small and negative impact/effect on audiences. There’s a fairly direct causal link between violence in films, TV programmes and computer games, and violence in real-life crime. It is argued that such media content exerts a negative effect on mass audiences, especially the young. It is believed that children may copy violent behaviours seen in film/TV ie. ‘copycat violence’ and so re-enact such behaviour in reality, especially if they are not aware of the difference between fictional crime in film/TV/video games, and crime committed in reality.

Official Statistics and Patterns of Crime

Crime statistics are used as an attempt to provide statistical measures of crime in societies. There are two main methods used for measuring and tracking crime. One method is used by taking data collected routinely by law enforcement agencies and concerns crimes reported by the public or otherwise coming to the attention of the authorities. In England and Wales such data collection by the police are generally referred to as ‘recorded crime statistics’. The second method uses survey methods to elicit information from a representative sample of the population about their experiences of crime – primarily as victims – usually over the previous 12 months. In the UK the British Crime Survey was established in 1981 and is undertaken annually.

Police recorded statistics are drawn from records which are kept by the police and other official agencies and are published every 6 months by the Home Office. Official statistics are useful as they have been collected since 1857, so they therefore provide a historic overview of any changing trends overtime.

Criminal statistics are a statistical series compiled from data returned to the government by the police and the courts. Despite them being subject to changes from time to time, they have been produced in a fairly standard format. Official statistics of recorded crime have shown that there has been a gradual rise in crime level from 1904-1982 of around 2.5million, however since then there has been a dramatic rise in crime level to around 6 million in 2004/2005.

However not all offences reported may actually be recorded to count in the official statistics, so therefore not all offences are officially defined as a ‘crime.’ This may be due to the account of an offence given to the police is not accepted, the victim refuses to press charges, police may deliberately fail to record an incident by the police, or police may find insufficient evidence to confirm that an offence has actually taken place.

Crime trends are used to give estimates of how much crime there is at any particular point in order to help us assess whether crime is rising or falling. Levels of recorded crime over the past 2 ½ decades show that crime levels had risen relatively steadily during the 1980s, and had continued to increase from towards the end of the decade to 1992. However from that point on crime rates had begun to decline until 1998/99 when ‘counting rules’ were introduced. The data collected for crime statistics showed that there was a gap between the 19198/99 figures of crime statistics, where the counting rules produced an immediate increase in the number of offences recorded and they appear to show that crime levels had increased again until 2002/03.


It is clear that in modern society we are surrounded by various types of media that is easily accessible. So it seems that the mass media feels like an almost over-present element of our contemporary lives. As in modern society the media is a significant force with reflects and creates culture within society. With the huge change in media and its influence on the general public, so has the publication of crime. Crime is a staple of the mass media as for TV, cinema, books, newspapers and magazines – crime is a central, dominant theme. Despite the positive influences of the media eg. the portrayal of a healthy lifestyle, it also holds negative influences such as crime and violence in the various forms of media which may lead to children shaping their personality around violence as they grow up and so become aggressive. This may lead them to lose sense of the difference of reality and fiction of what they are seeing in the media, and therefore may also lead them to lose sense of right and wrong.

Some cases have demonstrated a causal link between excessive violence in the media and violence in reality. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that media violence is the pure cause of such violence in individuals in reality; there could be other causes, but it seems the easy option is to blame the media rather than looking at underlying problems. Therefore even though official statistics show that there has been an increase in crime, around the similar time of the growing media and its influence, this could merely just be a coincidence. There isn’t any definitive proof that the growing publication of crime in the media has led to the increase of crime within modern Britain.


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