The Funhouse Mirror: An Apt Metaphor for the Misrepresentation of Violent Crime by the Media

Have you ever gone to a carnival and looked at yourself in one of those oddly shaped funhouse mirrors that stretch, shrink, twist or distort your otherwise normal features? Now take that image, and imagine that your body is representative of the various areas of crime, and the media is represented by the mirror. While the mirror may widen your hips- which represents commonly reported stories in the media such as violent crime, it may also shrink other areas of you such as your nose; which represents the less interesting event of property crime- something rarely reported by the media. Although this may sound like a strange analogy, it’s one that criminal justice scholars have traditionally used to describe the media’s effect on public perceptions of crime.[1] Effectively, this metaphor is used to illustrate the media’s overemphasis of the prevalence of violent crime to the detriment of other more common crimes.

 

Consider this: what’s the number one most covered crime on television? I expect that most of you are jumping up and down shouting “murder” at your computer screens. While it’s true that murder is indeed the most covered crime on television and is estimated to take up 30% of total news time,[2] it merely accounts for 1% of crime that occurs in Canada.[3] Hmm… This statistic must be wrong… Right?

 

Perhaps it may sound a bit far fetched to say that the misrepresentation of violent crime is an epidemic; and I sincerely hope that you don’t all believe that there’s an axe-wielding thug sauntering down your street as you complacently sit here reading this “fascinating” blog post. Nonetheless, the distortion of violent crime by the media is an issue which the Canadian public should be made more aware of since the consequences are quite startling: perpetuating fear, neuroticism and the laughably wrong idea that nearly all victims of crime are middle-aged women.[4]

 

Just recently, I fell victim to the funhouse mirror effect myself- which goes to show that even those who are aware of the misleading coverage of crime in the media are susceptible. To illustrate the issues with the funhouse mirror effect, I’ve decided to share my story with you in true overdramatic Dateline style.

 

“It was a beautiful fall afternoon. The sun was shining, the birds were chirruping, and malice was amok in Winnipeg (just kidding). Walking down the streets where children frolicked and neighbours greeted each other before closing their doors for the long winter ahead was a stranger dressed in all black. What were his intentions? Why was he there? A young woman was home alone when the stranger approached her door. At first, he knocked gently but his knocking increased in frequency and intensity. Initially, she shook it off and figured he would simply go away if she didn’t answer. Yet as time ticked on, the once gentle knocks reverberated like drums of war, threatening the safety and sanctity of her home. In fear for her life, she dashed to the nearest phone and called her father who was on his way home from work. She then hurried to the laundry room where she armed herself with the best device of self-defence she could find- an old broomstick. She stood paralyzed with fear as the knocks continued… and then the knocking stopped. Unsure of what had stopped the threatening stranger from battering down her door, she rushed to see where he had gone, but he had disappeared like a wisp of smoke. Glad that the stranger was gone, she heaved a sigh of relief and waited for her father to arrive. Within five minutes, her father walked through the front door and said, “I’ve just had the most enlightening chat with our city councillor, he was talking about all the great things he’s done for the area and the plans he has if we re-elect him.” To which she responded, “Was he wearing all black?” Suffice to say, the young woman felt ever the fool when she learned that the stranger who had struck such fear in her was in fact the area’s city councillor visiting houses to solicit votes in the upcoming municipal election… (italics for sarcastic emphasis)”

 

Looking back on the incident now, I cannot help but laugh at myself, and fear that I, alongside countless Canadians are victims of the misleading coverage which the media gives to violent crime. In fact, there are statistics to back this claim up. For example, in Canada property crime is five times more common than violent crime, yet the media reports largely on violent crime alone.[5] To illustrate the obsession of the media with crime, a 1990 US study found that the three leading networks were found to have spent more time covering violent crime over any other type of story[6]- although it should be noted that in this day and age this statistic may not necessarily be accurate due to a certain president (AKA He (With An Orange Toupee) Who Shall Not Be Named) who takes up vast amounts of news time. Meanwhile, here in Canada some Toronto networks have been found to devote up to 50% of air time covering deviance and crime, most of which is violent crime.[7]

 

This leads me to question why. Why does the media devote so much time to making films about and covering violent crime to such a high degree? Are we humans inherently violent and drawn to the idea that some people are less governed by societal norms and are unable to repress their latent animalistic nature? For the sake of humanity, I hope that the answer to this preposterous question is no. Instead, I share the belief of Peter McKnight of the Vancouver Sun that there are certain elements of newsworthiness ranging from the characteristics of the offence, the offender and victim, and the sentence which attract us.[8] These characteristics draw us in, engage our emotions, and play out on TV like any bad daytime soap opera. Take the Canadian case of Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo for example. The couple raped and killed two teenaged girls in addition to Homolka’s own sister. Normally, the violence of this crime alone would warrant media attention. Yet the fact that they were a seemingly normal couple, who in addition to killing two random strangers, also killed Homolka’s own sister, caught international attention due to the novelty of the crime. As a society, we aren’t necessarily helping the issue of violent crime misrepresentation in the media. With the massive increase of public interest in novel violent crime shows like Netflix’s Making A Murderer, and other shows like The People v. O.J. Simpson becoming part of the fabric of our culture, it’s clear that the demand is there and that both news media and filmmakers are simply trying to supply people with what they want… and I’m guilty as charged.

 

Ultimately, this brings us full circle back to the issue of the funhouse mirror. Having regularly watched both the news and Dateline for quite some time, I can attest to the fact that media coverage of violent crime is both highly addictive and influential. However, of the hundreds of crimes that occur across our country every day, what is represented in newscasts are simply several golden nugget cases which the media believes will capture our attention.

 

Ultimately, the media in its search to quench our thirst for new and violent crime stories has created the misconception that violent crime is extremely common. Much like we crave the newest iPhone or social trend, the media seeks to draw our attention to the things it knows we’ll consume; violent crime stories. While I’m content knowing that the funhouse mirror effect exists, I have yet to put my knowledge that violent crime isn’t nearly as prevalent as I think into practice. So, I’ve decided that the next time a stranger clad in all black comes a-knocking at my door, I’ll be sure to let him in; especially if he’s wearing a toque and ski mask. From all of this, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you never know who’s on the other side of the door… and it’s almost never going to be someone with violent criminal intentions.

 

 

 

 

Footnotes

[1] Peter McKnight, “The Funhouse Mirror: Media Representations of Crime and Justice” in Julian Roberts & Michelle Grossman, eds, Criminal Justice in Canada A Reader, 5th ed (Toronto: Nelson Education, 2016) 29 at 29.

 

[2] L Dorfman & V Schiraldi, Off Balance: Youth, Race, and Crime in the News, (Washington: Building Blocks for Youth, 2001).

 

[3] Statistics Canada, “Police-Reported Crime Statistics in Canada, 2008” in Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile, (Ottawa: 2008),

 

[4] Supra note 1.

 

[5] Supra note 3.

 

[6] Supra note 2.

 

[7] R Ericson, P Baranek & J Chan, Visualizing Deviance, (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1989).


[8]Supra note 1 at 30-33

 

 

 

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