Panic- do it now, do it often: crime news distortions (a student comment)
As a society that relies so heavily on the news media for access to information and communication, it is easy to forget that this reliance enables the media to have a profound effect and influence on our lives. The way the news media portrays crime has a significant and potentially dangerous effect. Journalists, reporters and editors will choose stories for the news based on their newsworthiness, or the perceived public appeal of a story based on whether a story contains specific news values. Ultimately then, the stories that contain more of these news values will appear in the news more often than ones that do not, thereby distorting how crime is portrayed in the news media. Some especially prominent news values are if the crime is random, caused by factors attributable to the individual, supports a conservative law and order ideology or contains an element of violence.
This will have a significant impact on individuals because they will be led to believe in the stranger danger myth, even though many statistics show that you are more likely to be harmed by someone you know. This can lead individuals to engage in counter-productive tactics to protect themselves from harm because they do not know the reality of whom the most common perpetrator is. Also, focusing on crimes that can be attributed to the individual is negative because it will encourage news consumers to blame and stigmatize the individual and not look at societal and structural factors. Also, if crime stories that support a conservative ideology occur more often in the news media, individuals and institutions are more likely to adopt a punitive perspective and approach when thinking about and dealing with crime and justice. Again, this has negative effects because punitive responses are not effective methods of rehabilitation and reintegration for offenders.
Furthermore, violent crimes, such as homicides, will appear more often in the news media than non-violent property offences, which demonstrates the media’s unwillingness to separate the ordinary from the extraordinary. This gives society the impression that these extraordinary crimes occur much more often than they actually do, thereby distorting the reality of crime. These crimes are also then exaggerated and sensationalized by journalists in order to further grab people’s attention. So, individuals are even more misled by believing in the overstated severity of these “common” crimes. This can lead to individuals becoming desensitized to violence and increasing individuals’ tolerance for violence or increasing people’s fear and anxiety over violent crimes. In fact, the frequency in which people watch television news is significantly related to fear. The concern or anxiety that is created by the inaccurate depiction of crime can also snowball into moral panics. Moral panics refer to disproportionate social reactions to a condition, episode, person or group of persons that emerges to be defined as a threat to social order and values.
Moral panics and distorted views of crime can lead to inappropriate tactics utilized by legislatures when drafting criminal laws to address and reduce crime and criminal justice structures in their crime prevention and enforcement strategies. Politicians often also use this fear from the public to advance their platforms and police and legislatures respond accordingly to alleviate that fear. Police action often takes the form of crackdowns and zero-tolerance policing (Cohen, 2002). These various responses construct the accuseds as folk devils that act as a foundation upon which society can base continuous concerns (Garland, 2008).
Vince Lee, within Winnipeg and likely across Canada, has become a household name and is the centre of many heated debates. The Greyhound cannibalistic murder incident from 2008 created likely one the most well-known moral panics in Canada surrounding fear of offenders with mental illnesses. This incident was highly reported on and still is today, even after almost a decade has passed because it contains prominent news values. The crime was random, violent, can be considered to be caused by factors attributable to the individual and it supports a conservative law and order ideology. The media’s fixation on this ignited a moral panic and cast Vince Lee as a folk devil in the advocating for harsher penalties, sanctions and restrictions for those deemed Not Criminally Responsible on Account of Mental Disorder by the criminal law court system. Politicians also used him as way to further their tough on crime platforms.
On occasion social movements and advocacy groups develop in response to such panics. It is notable to also mention MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), an organization that developed in response to a moral panic that occurred about drunk drivers (Garland, 2008). MADD in particular is a significant example of how moral panics fueled by how the media reports on crime can influence criminal law legislation as they actively petition for amended legislation surrounding drinking and driving offences.
Not only then does distorted crime reporting by the news media have minor effects on the individual, it can also greatly affect society at large by influencing politics, legislatures and the criminal justice system. So, the next time you find yourself reading or watching a news report on a crime, read it more objectively, keeping in mind the news values they base their stories on. The way media reports on crime is unlikely to change as they deify news values that will sell and accumulate capital. The keen eye of a consumer is the best weapon we possess.
Cohen, S. (2002). Deviance and moral panics. In S. Cohen Folk Devils and Moral Panics:
The Creation of the Mods and Rockers, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge) pp. 1-15.
Garland, D. (2008). On the concept of moral panic. Crime Media Culture Vol. 4(1): 9-30.
Doyle, A. (2006). How not to think about crime in the media. Canadian Journal of
Criminology and Criminal Justice 48(6): 867-885.
Welsh, A., Fleming, T. & Dowler, K. (2011). Constructing crime and justice on film: Meaning and message in cinema. Contemporary Justice Review 14(4): 457-476.