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The Mass Media In Structuring Public Perceptions of Crime

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I am going to investigate how the media has played a major part in shaping the public’s perceptions of national crime, focusing mainly on the negative effects. The consequences of this relationship between media and the public can be characterised as a unidirectional influence, since the media effectively provide the information that shapes what people might know or understand about criminal activity. Many individuals awareness of crime and deviance is therefore based mainly on secondary sources.

I want to answer questions like, how seriously does the public take note of stories and reportings in the media. I think it is important to look into this aspect of my hypothesis so I can get honest opinions from individuals in society. I would also like to look at ideas such as a deviancy amplification spiral, where media portrayal make crime worse which I feel will support my hypothesis well, especially looking into the negative side of the media representations. I desire to focus mainly on media such as TV and Newspaper reportings. As if I make the focus too broad it will be hard to come to an accurate and correct finding.

I have decided to look at crime and deviance and the media because I wish to do a criminology degree at university in the nearby future and I feel that the topic I am looking at is a major part in introducing me to research based at most criminology degrees which will be useful for my future education. I feel this is significant to my hypothesis/study as I myself have my own perception of crime and deviance and I am interested in discovering why I have these discernments.

I have also decided to choose this subject as crime and deviance are a major aspect of modern society, it’s a setback to the public and doesn’t seem to be improving so I hope to make a small difference within my local community with this project.

Contexts and Concepts


Crime and deviance are a major source of public concern. There are many images, discussions and dramatic illustrations of crime in press, film and television. Given the size and inscrutability of contemporary society, few people are likely to have direct experiences of criminal and deviant behaviour. Therefore, most people’s awareness of crime and deviance must be based on secondary sources.

Sociologists claim that the mass media plays a major role in structuring public perceptions of crime and deviance by;

1. Defining certain activities as criminal or deviant

2. Defining certain activities or actions as ‘news worthy’

3. Defining certain activities as suitable for fictional presentations in novels, movies and televisions programmes

Many studies have looked at the way in which the media portray crime. It has been found that the media tend to disproportionately represent violent accounts of crime. The media cover events which are “intense, exciting, arousing or extreme” (MacLatchie, 1987)

Williamson & Dickinson (1993) found that personal violent crime made up 64.5% of the space allocated to British newspapers but constituted to only 6% of the official total of all reported crime.

This theory relates well to my hypothesis as it supports it well. These statistics sustain my hypothesis that the media has a negative effect on crime. And also has a major role in forming public perceptions of crime. These figures show how newspapers ‘select’ their reportings. Young once stated, during his research of the drug problems in 1970 that “Newspapers select events which are atypical, present them in a stereotypical fashion and contrast them against a backcloth of normality which is over typical”.

Cohen (1987) studied the ‘Mods and Rockers’ incidents of the 1960’s. Cohen concentrated on the communal responses to the disturbances which took place and not so much on the actions of the supposed ‘mods and Rockers’. The mass media represented the disturbances as a confrontation between rival gangs “hell bent on destruction”. Looking at the disturbances, Cohen actually found that the actual physical aggression and vandalism was not that immense as what the media had informed it to be. The mass media had fashioned a twisted version of what had actually gone on. The general public sensitised by these incidents and twisted representations in the media meant that the police made more arrests, the media reported more deviance and young people more readily identified with mods and rockers.

This theory is well connected with my hypothesis as it is looking into the negative side that the media has on crime, I also stated that I wanted to look into the amplification side of the media and crime and how the media can sometimes make the criminal activity worse. Becker’s (1963) discussion of dope smokers, Young’s (1971) study of drug takers and Cohen’s (1972) analysis of Mods and Rockers attempted to demonstrate processes of ‘labelling’, ‘deviance amplification’, ‘moral panic’ and ‘moral entrepreneurship’, in society.



This is where individuals see so much criminal behaviour or aggressive behaviour in the world around them that they become less emotional aroused when witness this behaviour. This means that this criminal or deviant behaviour becomes more emotionally accepted within the individual. I feel this relates well to my hypothesis as the media can play a major role in this Desensitising as the media focuses on the most extreme criminal activity and after a while the public becomes more established to it and learns to accept it more effortlessly.

Deviancy amplification spiral

Deviancy amplification spiral is a mass media phenomenon defined by media critics as an increasing cycle of reporting on a category of antisocial behavior or other undesirable events. In 1972, Stanley Cohen wrote a book, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, whose thesis is that moral panics usually include what he called a deviancy amplification spiral.

According to theory, the spiral starts with some “deviant” act. Usually the deviance is criminal but it can also involve legal acts considered morally repugnant. The mass media report what they consider to be newsworthy, but the new focus on issue uncovers hidden or borderline examples which themselves would not have been newsworthy except in as much as they confirm the “pattern”. For a variety of reasons, what is not frightening and would help the public keep a rational perspective (such as statistics showing that the behavior or event is actually less common or harmful than generally believed) tends to be ignored.

As a result, minor problems begin to look serious and rare events begin to seem common. Members of the public are motivated to keep informed on these events. The resulting publicity has potential to increase deviant behavior by glamorizing it or making it seem common or acceptable.

In the next stage, supporters of the theory contend, public concern about crime typically forces the police and the whole law enforcement system to focus more resources on dealing with the specific deviancy than it warrants. Judges and magistrates under public pressure pass stiffer sentences. Politicians under pressure pass new laws to deal with the perceived threat. All this tends to convince the public that any fear was justified while the media continue to profit by reporting police and other law enforcement activity.

I have chosen to look at the subject of deviancy amplification spirals as I feel it will have a major part in determining, investigating and evaluating my hypothesis. For a deviancy amplification spiral to take place, the mass media reports on what they consider to be newsworthy. For this reason I believe this context relates directly to my hypothesis. I believe this concept will be very useful in my project

Moral Panic

A moral panic is a mass movement based on the false or exaggerated perception that some cultural behavior or group of people, frequently a minority group or a subculture, is dangerously deviant and poses a menace to society. It has also been more broadly defined as an “episode, condition, person or group of persons” that has in recent times been “defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” (Cohen 1972: 9)

These panics are generally fuelled by media coverage of social issues, although semi-spontaneous moral panics do occur. Mass hysteria can be an element in these movements, but moral panic is different from mass hysteria in that a moral panic is specifically framed in terms of morality and is usually expressed as outrage rather than unadulterated fear. Moral panics (as defined by Cohen) revolve around a perceived threat to a value or norm held by a society normally stimulated by glorification within the mass media or ‘folk legend’ within societies. Panics have a number of outcomes, the most poignant being the certification to the players within the panic that what they are doing appears to warrant observation by mass media and therefore may push them further into the activities that lead to the original feeling of moral panic.

I have decided to look at the idea of moral panic as I believe that these are a consequence of the media and the public perceptions of crime. The mass media are responsible for moral panic so therefore I find it important to include this idea in my project for this reason I believe my hypothesis suits this well.

For my method I will have to operationalise these concepts. I plan to, in the case of moral panic ask questions such as. “Have you ever been concerned about a criminal activity after reading a news report in the paper or seeing it on television, that otherwise would not have concerned you. I.e. graffiti in your local area” I also aim operationalise these concepts well in my method, so I would add definitions that are easily understood.


The methodology that I am going to adapt for my investigation will be a positivist methodology. Positivists generally assume that reality is objectively given and can be described by measurable properties which are independent of the observer (researcher) and his or her instruments.

I have choose to use this method as I would like to test certain theories that are already out there, theories such as Cohen’s ‘Mods and Rockers’ Positivist studies generally attempt to test theory, in an attempt to increase the predictive understanding of phenomena. So by using a positivist approach I hope to amplify my understanding of certain actions demonstrated by individuals.

The initial sociological “problem” that I identified was the negative influence that the media has on public perspectives of crime and deviance. The hypothesis that I developed from this was, The mass media has played a major role in structuring public perceptions of crime and deviance.

I will be using Primary sources to collect my research. I am using random sampling so that every member of the sampling frame has an equal chance of being selected. The sample will be held within my school. The reason I have done this is that it is makes it easier for myself having my sample at school around me. I will have a list of all the people in the school and I will randomly select 50 samples in which I will ask them to complete my questionnaire, if they refuse or are otherwise unable to complete the questionnaire I will simply randomly select somebody else. I have decided to take the sample from my school as it is easily reachable and will be quicker in the research process. I feel that this sample would be a good representation of the general population as there is a wide variety of people in my school.

I will be using a questionnaire using qualitative data with closed and open ended questions. I have chosen to receive qualitative research so that the questions will not be as limited as if I was using quantitative date. In a sense with qualitative data I can get a wide variety of opinions I will be using a mixture of closed and open ended questions to get a good balance of opinions I have decided to use open ended questions so that the questionnaire would not be as bias as a simply closed-ended questionnaire. I hope that the closed-ended questions will not be bias so I will try to make the answer range as wide as possible, and these questions will be easy to classify and quantify

I think the strengths of my method are that firstly It will be pretty inexpensive to run which means I can worry more about the content of the questionnaires. Also as the precipitants will be in a close range it will be easier to receive back after completion. Also with this method it is possible to survey a large sample. Another strength of questionnaires is that the responses are gathered in a standardised way, so questionnaires are more objective, certainly more so than interviews. Another advantage is that generally it is relatively quick to collect information using a questionnaire

Weaknesses of my questionnaire will be that firstly respondents may not understand the questions or follow the instructions carefully enough. Also answers within the questionnaire may be incomplete, illegible or incomprehensible. Another weakness is that closed questions may seriously limit what the respondents say. Questionnaires, like many evaluation methods occur after the event, so participants may forget important issues.

Open-ended questions can generate large amounts of data that can take a long time to process and analyse. One way of limiting this would be to limit the space available to students so their responses are concise or to sample the students and survey only a portion of them. Respondents may answer superficially especially if the questionnaire takes a long time to complete. The common mistake of asking too many questions should be avoided. Students may not be willing to answer the questions. They might not wish to reveal the information or they might think that they will not benefit from responding perhaps even be penalised by giving their real opinion. Students should be told why the information is being collected and how the results will be beneficial. They should be asked to reply honestly and told that if their response is negative this is just as useful as a more positive opinion. The questionnaire should be anonymous.

Reliability and validity, as the terms are used in scientific study, are characteristics of the dependent variable and the specific operational definition. In analyzing a study, after the dependent variables and their operational definitions are identified, their reliability and validity must be established. When designing a study, I should consider whether there is research to support the reliability and validity of the specific measure, or operational definition.

I hope to improve reliability by making sure the questionnaires are all the same and that I stick to my random sampling well. I will also be adding my personal contact details such as my name, email address and my tutor class so that if anybody has a problem with the questionnaire they can come straight to me. Lastly I will be making sure that the precipitant is aware that the questionnaire will be in the strictest confidentiality

To improve validity I will try to make sure that the data gathered should match the decisions I need to make. I will also make sure to gather information from all the people that can contribute information, even if they are hard to contact. And if I am going after sensitive information I will try to protect my sources, i.e. the questionnaire will be strictly confidential and anonymous to all participants.

Concepts that were operationalised into my questionnaire were that of moral panic, Desensitation and deviance amplification spiral. I used closed and open ended questions to portray these concepts and I worded them simply so that they could be understood easily.

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