This post is 900 words and can be read in about 4 minutes
Emotional public reactions to crime have always played an important role in shaping criminal justice. This post draws from ten recent studies (listed and linked at the end of this post) to illustrate some of the ways in which media representations of crime lead to inaccurate public perceptions which in turn drive poorly thought-out laws and policies. Three of the studies are by UK researcher Craig Harper, who has written quite a lot about the media and crime, especially sex crimes.
Some main points made in these studies:
Media coverage of crime is extensive and emotional
– Crime often accounts for more media stories than any other kind of news (Cucolo & Perlin). These stories tend to focus on unusual and violent crimes, or on sex offenses, although these are a small minority of all crimes. For example, Harper & Hogue (2016) find that in the UK sex offenses were 2% of all crimes but 20% of all media stories about crime. In Canada, Crocker found that half of media stories were about violent crimes even though these were only 7% of all crimes. Many newspapers also have columnists who often discuss crime stories beyond the normal news coverage. These patterns shape a distorted public understanding of patterns of crime – for example a belief that crime is much more common than it actually is – and can lead to ineffective and expensive public policies (Cucolo & Perlin, Podlas).
– Not only are certain kinds of crimes vastly over-reported, but they are often reported in highly emotional language. “…newspaper interests when reporting (sexual) crime are related to popularity and profiteering, as opposed to representativeness, accuracy, and informed public debate.” (Harper & Hogue, 2014). Several studies have found that people’s views are different when media talk about ‘a person who committed a sex offence’ as opposed to using ‘sex offender’, let alone words such as ‘monster’ that are also frequently used in media reports of crime.
– While the media have always covered crime extensively, at least in the U S crime only became a national political issue in the 1960s, playing relatively little role before that.
– One story may lead to many others in a similar vein. For example, Harper (2018) notes a 300% increase in media stories about sex crimes in the UK in the year following the accusations against high profile entertainer Jimmy Savile.
Coverage pushes in certain directions
– Media coverage typically focuses on individuals with little discussion of the social context that contributes to criminal actions. Stories often quote police and victims or their families, but rarely include any comment from people with expertise in the relevant areas (BMSG). There is often a strong emphasis on emotions such as anger or loss but little attention to the real level of risk to the public.
– Coverage of crime is often associated with only one policy option – harsher punishments for offenders – even though there is now a lot of evidence that harsher sentences are ineffective in reducing crime (Drake & Henley). There is much discussion in the media of punishment but very little of any alternatives such as treatment or prevention strategies (BMSG) even when these are more effective in reducing crime.
– These portrayals evoke different emotional responses in people – especially fear and anger. They create misleading ideas about how much crime, and what kinds of crime are actually taking place. Public attitudes to crime are more influenced by emotion than by reason or knowledge. These responses may in turn be used by political and other interests to promote particular policies or views of the world, or even to sell products and services.
– The way people respond to media coverage of crime also depends in part on a general orientation towards political and moral issues (King and Maruna). Typical coverage appeals to people who already tend to favour punitive approaches, or to people who favour clear story lines with ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. Media coverage of crime, as for other issues, is most influential where people do not have personal knowledge or experience.
Media coverage has real effects
– A French study (Phillippe and Ouss) found that juries gave longer sentences when there had been very recent TV coverage of a crime but gave shorter sentences when there had been TV coverage of a judicial error.
– New laws are often created based on highly unusual crimes leading to many unintended negative consequences. These laws are often named after the individuals in the cases. Podlas shows how alarmist media coverage of teen sexting led to many US states adopting new laws that resulted in teenagers being declared lifelong sex offenders for sharing pictures of themselves. Canada has also created new criminal laws driven by individual cases without any evidence that these laws will actually achieve their intended purposes – for example sex offender registry laws, or the new federal law on jury selection and preliminary hearings.
Media play an important role in promoting public understanding of issues, and it’s easy to criticize the inevitable shortcomings in the way this is done. However criminal justice is a field where media portrayals have an especially strong influence not just on how people think but on policy decisions and even court practices that can have wide and long-lasting effects.
A few steps that would be improvements include more effort in media coverage to place crimes in social and historical perspective, giving more voice to people with expertise, and trying to reduce the emotional content and language in reporting.
Berkeley Media Studies Group. 2015. What’s missing from the news on sexual violence?
Diane Crocker. 2012. Crime in Canada. Oxford University Press.
Heather Cucolo and Michael Perlin. 2013. They’re planting stories in the news: The impact of media distortions on sex offender law and policy. Denver Criminal Law Review
Deborah Drake and Andrew Henley. 2014. Victims vs offenders in British policy and media: The construction of a false dichotomy. The Howard Criminal Law Review
Craig Harper. 2018. The role of the media in shaping responses to sexual offending. In H. Elliot et al (editors). Sexual Crime and Circles of Support and Accountability.
Craig Harper and Todd Hogue 2014.The emotional representation of sexual crime in the national British Press. Journal of Language and Social Psychology.
Craig Harper and Todd Hogue. 2016. Press coverage as a heuristic guide for social decision making. Psychology, Crime and Law.
Anna King and Shadd Maruna 2006 The function of fiction for a punitive public.Chapter in P. Mason (editor). Captured by the Media.
Kimberleanne Podlas. 2011. The legal epidemiology of the teen sexting epidemic: How the media influenced a legislative outbreak. Pittsburgh Journal of Technology, Law and Policy.
Arnaud Phillippe and Aurélie Ouss. 2018. “No Hatred or Malice, Fear or Affection”: Media and Sentencing. Journal of Political Economy.