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The media presents a distorted picture of crime however media reporting only has a minor effect on people’s knowledge about crime and criminal justice responses. Discuss. Essay Example

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The media presents a distorted picture of crime however, media reporting only has a minor effect on people’s knowledge about crime and criminal justice response. Discuss.

Introduction/Brief background

How media present a distorted picture of crime and shape the attitude, knowledge, and views of the public may be best describe by steady stream of sensational and shocking crime stories often intended to entertain and boost patronage rather than informing the public of a serious social problem. For example, media tend to give certain types of crimes such as those involving sex or violence prominence than others resulting to distorted picture of reality particularly public perception of actual risks, crime rate, high levels of fear about crime, and pessimism on law enforcement capabilities.

Relationship between distorted media depictions of crime and people’s knowledge about crime and criminal justice responses

Study of media coverage of crime and justice issues since the 1980s suggest that about 30% of their time is devoted in gathering and delivering crimes news which is often disproportionate, unfairly depict the perpetrators of a particular behaviour, contrary to actual police statistics and social reality of the prevalence of that crime . According to , detailed analysis of criminal justice database conducted by The Building Blocks for Youth in the United States suggest that depictions of crime in the news are not reflective of either the rate of crime or the proportion of crime committed by people of colour. For instance, most media coverage of crime were from ethic minority groups such as African Americans while Black and Hispanic groups are over-represented as violent offenders.

The lack of knowledge about crime and the criminal justice system are important factors contributing to widespread public misperceptions and understanding . This is because most people do have direct access to first-hand information thus they tend to learn from the information delivered by the mass media regardless of accuracy and completeness. According to , most of the public acquire their knowledge of crime and criminal justice system from images presented by media thus inaccurate and misleading information result to faulty public opinion and inappropriate public policy. For instance, the sharp decline in the parole use rate Louisiana, U.S., is partly due to heightened public awareness and fear of crime in the streets that significantly influence criminal justice system responses. This false public impression of parole is created and aggravated by news media that are misreporting ex-convicts committing a crime while on parole .

Another consequence of media’s distorted depictions of crime is widespread public support for punitive measures. According to , since media coverage is often biased towards serious crimes such as murder, sexual offences, and others, severe punishment is also presented as normal, necessary, and effective way of reducing crime. Crime and justice is media seems to influence people’s belief that the world is actually full of predators ready to attack for no reason other than pure hatred . This distorted impression of the world that is strongly influenced and protracted by media resulted to public withdrawal of support to public policies designed to help people in poverty and criminal victimization. In the United States for instance, public reluctance to help poor African American community is the belief (as depicted by media) that “blacks” are criminals and therefore deserve punishment rather than help . explain that absence of true pictures of crime often result to severe punishment as well as incarceration policies that are counterproductive and costly.

Ways in which distorted media presentations of crime affect people’s knowledge about crime and criminal justice responses

Fear of Crime

Different types of media such as crime news, movies, television crime stories, and others likely shape fear of crime. According to , research on media influence suggest that while television crime stories create an illusion of crime that it actually occurs, news program creates greater fear of crime from graphic, sensational, disturbing, and live presentation of crime scenes.

In a study of Chicago newspapers, researchers found that reported crimes had little in common with actual crime while media often fail to report on the workings of the criminal justice system or provide detailed information about the offender and victim, concentrate on the spectacle of the offence, and ignoring potential harm such as increased fear of crime . Aside from media’s overemphasis on serious and violent crimes that often lead to irrational fear and increased support on counterproductive punitive measures , it creates public awareness by presenting crime in stereotypical fashion where criminals are depicted as violent, immoral, a threat to the social order, and continually breaching out society’s normal expectations .

In the function of media presented by Chibnall in 1977 as cited in , the search for new, unusual, and dramatic news is somewhat normal behaviour for media. This is because in the informal rules of relevancy (a principle copied in court’s rule of evidence demanding reliable and admissible evidence) that governs professional imperatives of popular journalism, media should above all search for, gather, and deliver news that is visible (evident) and spectacular. These in particular are crimes with sexual or political implications, and graphic in nature. Moreover, media cannot simply present a true reflection of events because they need to select which aspect of the crime to report or omit and present them in a spectacular manner. Otherwise, such report will not make it to the headline and make profit for the media company. For this reason, most media company has tendencies to create their own version of the crime and associated fear of crime by stereotyping typical offenders, victims, and criminal acts repeatedly. For instance, a person frequently seeing similar images of crime over a long period may eventually perceived a particular race or gender as criminals or groups that are more likely to commit crime.
In similar manner, extensive images of women victims and assailants in media shaped and enhanced women’s fear of crime .

Similarly, European media has its share public awareness but this time presenting a distorted picture of organised crime. According to , these include sensational cases such as gunfights between rival gangs. Consequently, public opinion survey in Czech Public Research Opinion shows 95 to 99% of respondents fear organised crime and consider it a major security threat. In fact, in a study carried out in 2001, organised crime, violence, and aggression was rated 3.1 and 2.9 respectively on scale of 0 to 4.

Media depictions affect people’s knowledge and criminal justice responses significantly

By analysis, it can be argued that in contrast to the statement that media reporting has a minor effect on public knowledge about crime and criminal justice response, media indeed has a very important role in disseminating fear that in turn affect the responses of criminal justice system. As discussed above, there are reasons for media to carry false depictions and sensationalised a simple crime regardless of potential harm. Note that most media are business enterprises selling unusual and dramatic information particular those with sexual and political connotations to boost their sales. Moreover, the above empirical evidence is somewhat clear that media depictions of crime significantly affect people’s knowledge and criminal justice response in a number of ways. However, this argument may be best supported by statistics as discussed below.

Research conducted in 1996 and 2003 suggest that most people are frightened by street crime particularly the possibility of coming across individuals under the influence of alcohol. This phenomenon suggests that perceptions of disorder in the local community are in part contributing to the fear of crime. In Australia however, although many are concerned about street crime, official criminal statistics and victims’ survey suggest that it is comparatively rare. One explanation offered to this variation is the assumption that once intoxicated people commit a crime in the street, the incident is considered a phenomenon for that particular area. For instance, street crime due to intoxication is mostly feared in the metropolitan area but statistics in 2002 shows that such cases is only 3.5 per 10,000 population which is far more less frequent compared to non-metropolitan areas with 6.6 per 100,000 population. In the United Kingdom, study of street crime in 1993 reveals that the source of irrational public fear is none other than the media (British newspaper in particular) concentrating on reporting violent offences. 64.5% of crime stories reported in British newspapers over a one-month period are mostly concern with violent crimes while the actual British Crime Survey for the same period found only 6% of crimes involved violence. Internationally, review of 56 crime related news from 15 different countries found consistent over-representation of violent crimes in the media. These statistics are far from being coincidental as other study shows that 52% of participants ‘ knowledge of crime came of the media while 3.2% got their information from personal experience.

Media presentation of distorted picture of crime result to inappropriate public policies and criminal justice responses to crime

Media’s inaccurate depiction of crime not only results to fear of crime as public opinion generally is given weight when creating policies and developing responses. A good example is the 1985-1995 crack cocaine epidemics that were largely concentrated in poor neighbourhood in Harlem, New York. Initially, policy makers and the public were concerned that crack problem will sweep across the United States. However, since public opinion was largely focused on the epidemic as a crime crisis rather than health related problem, the subsequence public policy and responses are directed toward controlling drug use and sales instead of death and diseases, emotional and social cost of the epidemic . Similarly, fear of crime can trigger different responses from the public such as demands to increase police presence; more budgets should be allotted to criminal justice system, and harsh punishment for wrongdoers. Moreover, some of those who fear crime may decide to buy firearms and support political proposals on the need for self-defence against feared criminals .

Evidently, people’s perceptions of the threat and their state of fear can lead to numerous responses. For instance, public opinion taken from a survey with majority of participants fear street crime will likely result to public policy and criminal justice responses endorsing arrest and locking away offenders to reduce threat of crime. According to , people tend to take different perspectives and based their opinion on their knowledge of crime rates regardless of reliability and accuracy. Similarly, they tend to generalise their feelings toward crime particularly when they are favouring a type of prevention such as harsher prison sentences even though it is too excessive for a particular crime. Study shows that most people support deterrence and incapacitation as means to control crime because media has shown them the crime and the typical punishment it deserves.

Fear of crime in a society dominated by penal populism is more dangerous in terms of criminal policies and criminal justice responses. For instance, media shaped public opinion about a certain violent crime can lead to political reaction that would later affect the working of criminal justice system such as stipulation of mandatory sentencing and severe punishment for offenders charged with that particular violent crime. Another is restrictions and criminalisation of certain behaviour, which the public view as a threat, and stigmatisation of wrongdoers who media-shaped public opinion recognised as criminals and separate from law-abiding citizens .


By analysis, media presentation of distorted picture of crime leads can directly or indirectly affect public policy and criminal justice responses. Direct in the sense that media is powerful enough to sensationalise crime, influence, and trigger political reaction. In contrast, irrational fear of crime shaped by popular media’s inaccurate depiction of crime can indirectly influence policies and punishment to a certain crime as public opinion counts. This public opinion as discussed earlier is highly reliant on information provided by media and therefore based on distorted pictures of crime that in turn will be considered as facts because large majority of the population endorsed it. Consequently, confident with “facts” and public support, the criminal justice system will move towards prescribed direction and apply inappropriate responses. Evidently, the effect of media presentation of distorted picture of crime is more than just fear and public misperception of crime but political disorder and injustice.


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