The mass media and individuals have an obsession with crime; libraries and bookstores are full of crime fiction and non fiction books, and newspaper devote roughly 30 per cent of their coverage to crime. However some groups argue that this is dangerous in that it presents a distorted view of crime; both in the selection of crime news stories, depending on their newsworthiness, and the over-representation and exaggeration of certain crimes, which can increase the risk of some individuals believing that they are more likely to be a victim.

The media plays a key role in agenda setting in relation to crime and deviance. Agenda setting refers to the media’s influence over the issues that people think about. The mass media clearly can’t report every single criminal or deviant act that occurs, and media personnel are necessarily very selective in the incidents that they choose either to report or ignore. Naturally people are only able to discuss and form opinions about the crime and deviance that they have been informed about, provided by the agenda setting media. This results in people’s perceptions of crime and deviance in society being influenced by what media personnel choose to include or leave out of their newspapers, television programmes, films or websites. Media representation overwhelmingly therefore influences what people believe about crime regardless of whether these impressions are true or not.

Reiner ( 2007 ) points out that media coverage of crime and deviance is filtered through journalists’ sense of what makes an event newsworthy – a good story that media audiences want to know about. The idea of this is driven by what are known as ‘news values’. These are values and assumptions held by editors and journalists which guide them in choosing what is newsworthy, and therefore what to report on and what to leave out, and how to present these stories. This notion means that journalists tend to include and play up those elements of a story that make it more newsworthy, and the stories that are most likely to be reported are those with dramatic aspects.

In relation to crime specifically, Jewkes (2004) suggest these news events have to be considered significant or dramatic enough to be in the news – a single rape may make the local newspaper, but a serial rapist might become a national story, for example, the Yorkshire ripper. Crime becomes newsworthy when it can be presented as serious, random and unpredictable enough so that a moral panic occurs in the sense that we all get scared of becoming a victim ourselves. For example, the ‘war on terror’ meant that initially many people felt that every person in the UK was at a risk. Events, namely violent ones, accompanied by film, CCTV or mobile phone footage are more newsworthy as they enable the media to provide a visual and dramatic impact for the audiences.

The August 2011 riots demonstrate this. This new media enabled almost instant pictures to be obtained directly from the riots. Crime and deviance, even if quite trivial involving celebrities or more powerful people whether they are victims or offenders, is seen as more newsworthy than that involving ordinary people. The MPs’ expenses scandal is one example; though many businesses make additional claims on their expenses,  this however rarely hits the news. Finally, children as offenders or victims of crime have the potential to be newsworthy. Sex crimes, women as victims and non-criminal sexual deviance like bondage, domination and sadomasochism, are generally more newsworthy.

As these newsworthy stories appear on TV and explicitly in the tabloids, research evidence shows that there is a link between media use and fear of crime. In the USA Gerbner found that heavy users of TV ( over 4 hours a day ) had higher levels of fear of crime. They found a correlation between media consumption and fear of crime, especially physical attacks or muggings. If reader or viewers are constantly bombarded with certain images then this could lead to a form of moral panic. After 9/11 a minority of white British felt all Muslims were a threat to their safety.

Furthermore Greer (2005) found that all media tends to exaggerate the extent of violent crime. The tabloid ‘red top’ newspapers are always seeking out newsworthy stories of crime and deviance, in order to exploit the possibilities for a good story by dramatising, exaggerating, over-reporting and sensationalising certain crimes out of proportion just to generate audience interest and attract readers.

Despite the fact that most crime is fairly routine, trivial and non-dramatic, TV programmes such as Crimewatch often pick up on the more serious and violent offences like sexual assault, murder or armed robbery – with reconstructions giving quite a frightening insight into the crime. This focus on the dramatic side of crime is a routine feature on TV programmes or film as well as news reports, and gives a false and misleading impression of the real extent of such crimes.

Reiner points out that crime fiction presents property crime less frequently than is shown in crime statistics but the property crime it does portray is far more serious than most recorded offences. He concludes that the picture of crime shown by the media is the opposite of that shown by statistics on crime. Such media representations tend to create distorted perceptions of crime among the majority of the public, exaggerate its threat and unnecessarily increase the public’s fear of crime.

Even if much of what is reported is untrue or exaggerated it may be enough to whip up a moral panic. The media can cause crime and deviance through labelling. Moral entrepreneurs may use the media to put pressure on the authorities to do something about the problem. This can lead to negative labelling of the behaviour and a change in law. Thereby acts that were once legal become illegal. Part of this is the creation of moral panic – an exaggerated overreaction by society to a perceived problem, usually driven by the media where the reaction enlarges the problem out of all proportion to its real seriousness.

Stan Cohen’s work, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, illustrates this. His initial work focused on the minor confrontation in Clacton, 1964. The media overreacted in three seminal ways. Firstly, the media exaggerated the numbers involved and the extent of the violence via headlines like ‘day of terror by scooter gangs’. Secondly, the media regularly assumed and predicted that further violence would result. And finally, the media used symbolism; the hairstyles, clothes, bikes and scooters, the music of Mods and Rockers, were all labelled and associated with violence. The media portrayal of events produced a deviance amplification spiral by making it seem that the problem was spreading. This leads to calls for greater activity by the police and courts, and further labelling and marginalisation of Mods and Rockers. The media further amplified the deviance by defining the subculture, therefore many youths joined these groups and were involved in future clashes in what became a self-fulfilling prophecy of escalating conflict, due to polarisation. Individuals reading and seeing these reports felt that they were at risk from all young people who dressed as Mods or Rockers.

However McRobbie and Thornton say moral panics are so frequent that they have little impact on the audience. They suggest that the concept of moral panic as used by Cohen in the case of the Mods and Rockers is now outdated and no longer a useful concept in the contemporary world. This is because new media technology, the growing sophistication of media audiences in a media-saturated society, and intense competition both between different types of media and media companies, have changed the reporting of and reaction to events that might once have caused a moral panic. There is now a diverse range of media reports and interpretations of events and of opinions and reactions to these events by the public. People are now much more sceptical of media interpretations and less likely to believe them . This means that it has become more difficult for the media to define issues or evens in such a way that can develop into a moral panic. This is also made more difficult by the way that news reporting now involves 24/7 rolling news, which is constantly broadcast and instantly updated. As a consequence stories have a short shelf life and are unlikely to sustain an audience’s interest and are unlikely to be newsworthy for long enough to generate a moral panic.

Its important to adopt and take note of both of these schools of thought, for when combined and synthesis is found, we become weary of the news. Of course it is helpful to be informed of headlines in the news. But one must realise that this does not reflect the true extent of crime. The 2012 statistics for example show that, overwhelmingly, the guilty criminal for crimes such as homicide related to women is the husband, rather than the violent stranger that may be lurking in the dark alleyways. We must therefore digest the news but also stay vigilant.

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