At the start of a new semester, criminal justice professors face the daunting task of demystifying media myths
Danielle Reynolds, Crimcast Correspondent
The media, through various means, has become the primary source of news and entertainment for many Americans. Each day the media reaches millions of viewers, listeners and readers throughout the world and provides a rapid broadcast of knowledge and information. Although the ability to have “the world at our fingertips” is beneficial, the inaccuracies and rash portrayals of current events can lead to inadvertent consequences.
Crime in the news
Crime is portrayed in the media on a daily basis, whether it is in the newspapers, on television, via video or written blogs, among other means. As criminologist Ray Surette explains, news regarding crime may be general, referring to broad trends and issues, or specific, in reference to a particular crime incident. The media has one objective, to sell stories. Therefore, it chooses which crimes, victims and court cases merit attention, often choosing to expose the most sensational, emotional, and significant crime stories. Unfortunately, the media does not always broadcast information in an objective or accurate manner, which can lead to unintended consequences.
How the media portrays crime
The media increases crime salience through agenda setting, priming and framing the “best-selling” stories. The public is exposed to certain crime issues and then primed to believe that those issues warrant more political attention. The media chooses which social problems merit greater attention and relies on the government and experts to interpret and contextualize these problems to the public. As viewers, we rely on the government and experts to frame the news for us and determine the criteria by which we judge public policies or crime related issues. Lastly, the media encourages its audience to arrive at certain conclusions by promoting a particular treatment recommendation or moral evaluation to the problem. It often focuses blame on a particular individual or larger social or political institution, which ultimately affects punitiveness and future policy preferences.
Representations of the police in the media are often overdramatized and romanticized. Research has shown that police are often presented favorably in television and movies; as fictional television dramas show the majority of cases solved and criminal suspects successfully apprehended. Unfortunately, crime presented as entertainment distorts viewers understanding of criminal investigations. Subsequently, the public develops unrealistic expectations regarding the investigation process, police use of force and forensic evidence. Such portrayal reinforces traditional law enforcement tactics including increased police presence, harsh penalties and increasing police power.
The effect on viewers
It has been argued that heavy television viewers have an altered perception of the “real world”, shaped by the media. Therefore, these viewers feel a greater threat from crime and believe that crime is more prevalent than statistics indicate. Violent crime is disproportionately broadcast and portrayed as more violent, random and dangerous than in the “real world”. Subsequently, viewers internalize these crime stories and develop a “scary” image of reality. Unfortunately, this threatening perception of society initiates fear, mistrust, and alienation, causing viewers to support more “quick-fix” solutions against crime.
Leading to punitive policies
Misinformation dispersed by the media heightens public sensitivity to the crime problem, reinforcing public sense of immediate and inescapable danger. Subsequently, fear and anxiety develop as the public pressures politicians for a “quick-fix” and extreme solution to the crime problem. These “quick-fix” solutions focus on short-term crime relief, resulting in more punitive rather than preventative polices and encourage more policing, arrests and longer sentences.
The media coverage of minorities and crime demonstrates the disproportionate portrayal of minorities shown in menacing contexts. Blacks are more likely than whites to be shown in mug shots, in physical custody of the police and victimizing strangers and members of different races. Media representations of minorities result in exaggerations of crime statistics including the number of blacks arrested for crimes and the likelihood that the public will be victimized by minorities. This ultimately attributes the crime problem to blacks as a group. This false depiction of minority criminals leads to public fear and mistrust of minorities, allowing for the expansion of punitive policies based on race.
This culpability was demonstrated by the media’s coverage of the “War on Drugs”. The media exposed an imminent and threatening national crisis and recommended the use of power and mobilization of massive resources to curb the threat and vanquish the “enemy”. Images and stereotypes of the “enemy”, exposed by the media, included young, inner-city, minority males in gangs terrorizing communities and innocent citizens while conducting illegal drug deals and committing various crimes. Subsequently, the public became fearful and began to alienate themselves from the community, while pressuring politicians for an immediate “quick-fix” solution. Consequently, the police crackdown on street-level drug dealers and harsher sentences resulted in additional arrests and longer prison sentences. However, the underlying conditions leading to the drug problem remained unidentified and unaffected. In addition, the punitive “quick-fix” solution lead to unintended consequences, including angry and hardened attitudes towards offenders, increased costs of the criminal justice system and intensified racial tensions, resulting from targeting minorities. Concerns about constitutional and civil rights waned, citing more immediate concerns for public safety. Respect for the law eroded, as the public encouraged more aggressive policing strategies, exposing citizens to expanded discretion of law enforcement and infringements of their Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights.
Danielle Reynolds, Crimcast contributor, teaches Criminal Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Danielle earned her Master’s degree in Criminal Justice in 2011 from John Jay College where she was awarded the Claude Hawley Medal and Graduate Scholarship. She currently lives in New York City.