Does the media heighten fear of crime?
ASSc 322. Crime & the Media.
Does the media heighten fear of crime?
Fear of crime refers to the fear of being a victim of a crime as opposed to the actual probability of being a victim of crime. This fear of criminal victimisation can be fundamentally disturbing. In fact, in recent years policy debates have identified fear of crime as an issue potentially as serious as crime itself. (Ditton and Farrell 2000; Hope and Sparks 2000; Jackson 2004, Ditton et al. 2004; Chadee and Ditton 2005 cited in Maguire, Morgan & Reiner, 2007:321). Countless criminologists would agree that masses of people are haunted by the thought that a stranger could ‘pounce’ at any moment. This stranger lays no boundaries upon the place and type of their offence: One could be victimised in the home or on the street for the pursuit of robbery, assault, rape and so on. (Box, Hale and Andrews, 1988). Though, as Box et al (1988) discuss, this personal anxiety is not the outstanding reason why fear of crime over the last forty years has become regarded as a major social problem: This essay will explore both the contributory ingredients in the concoction for a crime fearing state of mind, and also the consequences of one’s fear of crime. Put together, this model will demonstrate fear of crime as a process: Ultimately, to assess whether this ‘process’ is significantly affected by the media.
Fear of crime itself is suggested to have an asymmetry with actual risk. (Ito, 1993). For instance, research by Kiyonaga, Inoue and Oda (1990) found that 54% of their respondents expressed a fear of being burgled, though in reality the actual risk was 0.9%. (Howitt, 1998). Another point they raise is that an even larger proportion feared assault despite the fact there was minimal objective risk of this sort of victimisation. (Howitt, 1998) Much research, particularly the early psychologically based media research produces an assumption that forms of the media, such at television and movies possess a violent and antisocial affect. Research suggests that this is direct and instant upon the viewer. (Howitt, 1998). However, the progression of this view became replaced by a dominant view that ‘the media are quintessentially integral aspects of modern society and that social factors attenuate any direct influence of the media.’ And as such, influences of the media are more likely to be of a long-term and cumulative nature. (Howitt, 1998:45). The view that the media causes a fear of crime originates in several masses of content analysis by Gerbner, 1972; Gerbner et al., 1977; Signorielli and Gerbner, 1988. (Howitt, 1998). The key argument is that crime portrayed on television dramas departed in numerous significant ways form real-world crimes. According to Gerbner, ‘message system analysis’ can identify the messages conveyed in the media. For example, ‘if young people are disproportionately represented as criminals on television, the message is that young people are criminals, and consequently, we should fear them. (Howitt, 1998:46). Also, according to Gerbner, those who watch the most television are the most likely to be influenced by the symbolic messages it transmits, hence those who watch the least will be the least influenced. Gerbner acknowledges that heavy and light viewers differ in terms of how much they actually accept television’s message and calls this the ‘cultivation differential’. (Howitt, 1998)
When The Independent (January 2008) asked ‘The Big Question: Does fear of crime reflect the reality of life on Britain's streets?’ Responses contributed comfortably with exising research. Morris reports that ‘There is a school of thought that the Government is the author of its own downfall over crime, that ministers' hyperactivity over law and order, with a succession of criminal justice bills and the creation of more than 3,000 new offences in a decade, is fuelling public anxiety’. (Cited in Morris, 2008). Tabloid headlines of the weekend foreshadow the installation of metal detectors in society’s inner-city schools. Diane Abbott, (Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington) accused the government of "feeding a culture of fear" Also, Enver Solomon, (the deputy director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies in London), said that the increasing general anxiety among the public over many aspects of their lives inevitably heightened the fear of crime. Solomon argues that "the biggest threat to children is from road deaths, but they might perceive that 'stranger danger' is the most likely way of their children being killed." (Cited in Morris, 2008) Such modern debate contributes conforatably to the crux of the debate on media and fear of crime. The Independent discuss contibutory facors as to why there is a gap between the public perceptions and reality of crime. Morris states that it is for reasons such as that the Government has no control over the everyday experience of crime, and moreover petty vandalism, or vaguely troublesome teenagers in public spheres or graffiti appearing overnight within these spheres wont ever be recorded as crimes, rather, they play into a wider feeling among the public whereby levels of law and order are declining. Morris adds that criminologists often argue that the reporting of crime, on a national or local level, ‘inevitably skews the public's perception of their vulnerability’. Also, ‘Home Office officials frequently protest wearily that journalists inevitably light upon the black spots in sets of crime statistics that are broadly positive’. (Cited in Morris, 2008).
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Gerbner’s development of a cultivation theory during the 1960s and 70s frequently lies at the heart of discussion between the role of the media in analysing fear of crime. He argues that television has long-term effects which are small, gradual and indirect but at the same time cumulative and significant. In short, Gerbner argues that heavy viewing ‘cultivates’ attitudes more consistent with the world of television than the physical world. (Chandler, 1995).
Gross (1977) discusses the view that 'television is a cultural arm of the established industrial order and as such serves primarily to maintain, stabilize and reinforce rather than to alter, threaten or weaken conventional beliefs and behaviours' (Cited in Boyd- Barrett & Braham 1987:100). This supports Gerbner’s angle in that the mass media cultivate attitudes and values which were never absent within a society. He argues that the media merely maintains and propagates such values and as such acts as a bind.
Tyler (1984) argues that to hear about an event of victimisation or know of others who have been a victim of crime may raise one’s perceptions of the risk of victimisation. Taylor and Hale (1986) discuss that this heightened perception of risk, otherwise know as a ‘crime multiplier', 'spread' the impacts of criminal events. Skogan (1986) contributes to the issue: He claims that evidence supports that becoming aware of the victimisation of a friend or neighbour may heighten an anxiety that indirect experiences of crime may play a stronger role in anxieties about victimisation than direct experience. However, Skogan highlights that many individuals only know of a crime indirectly for instance through television programmes that might inflate, deflate, or even distort the true picture. For instance, crime accounts for up to a quarter of television news coverage. The media displays violent crime in disproportion to the other more minor crimes to which they proportionately neglect. In addition, theres is also distortion in relation to the profiling of offenders in the media. Ultlimately causing a misunderstanding of crime and offending behaviour. (Maguire, Morgan & Reiner, 2007).
It is evident that at times the media are aware, and do not deny that their representations of crime can be somewhat abstract. For instance, shortly after the 2002 British Crime Survey figures, the BBC contemplates the question ‘Do tabloids feed on crime fear?’ The BBC acknowledges what the BCS have long since suggested: the ways in which newspapers, (tabloids in particular) portray crime and thus help to widen the gap between what the public fears and the actual reality of experience. In this particular article they discuss British Crime Survey statistics such as that 43% of tabloid and 26% of broadsheet readers think the national crime rate had increased significantly. Adding that overall, around 75% of those 40,000 people surveyed perceived crime to have increased over the two years previous. Evidently the BBC is aware and state that this perception exists even despite that the same survey found a drop in overall recorded crime rates. (BBC News Channel, 2003).
Williams and Dickinson (1993) conducted an extensive multivariate analysis and concluded that a significant relationship appeared between fear of crime and reading newspapers with a focus on violent crime. This research survived numerous demographic variables such as gender age and socio-economic status. (Maguire, Morgan and Reiner, 2007).
On the flip side, some criminologists do not subscribe to Gerbner’s cultivation theory as a sufficient explanation of the media and fear of crime. Wober (1978) and Gunter (1985) argue that British attempts to replicate the findings of Gerbner have been unsuccessful: Even though the debate about empirical validity of the cultivation hypothesis continues, though there is only a limited amount of evidence to confirm this plausible idea that ones exposure to the media is associated with a fear of crime. (Box, Hale and Andrews, 1988). Criticism regarding the empirical and theoretical validity of claims that the media heightens fear of crime is extensive. Howitt (1998) and Ditton et al (2004) are to name but a few.
Particularly, Gerbner has been criticized for over simplified ideas. McQuail, for example argues that ‘it is almost impossible to deal convincingly with the complexity of posited relationships between symbolic structures, audience behaviour and audience views, given the many intervening and powerful social background factors' (Boyd-Barrett and Braham 1987: 99-100).
Chandler (1995) adds that another major criticism lies in that the cultivation theory tends to ignore the importance of social dynamics in television use such as one’s viewing experience, the individual’s general knowledge, their gender, ethnicity, viewing contexts, family attitudes, and their socio-economics and so on. Chandler argues that such factors all contribute to shape the ways in which television is interpreted by individual. ‘When the viewer has some direct lived experience of the subject matter this may tend to reduce any cultivation effect’. There also appears to be evidence that the lower socio-economic groups have a tendency to use television as a source of information more so than other groups. Having said this, Chandler highlights that the viewer's framing of television 'reality' also must be considered. For it is often argued that it is possible that cultivation is enhanced when the person viewing interprets the content as reality. Another social variable to consider is ethnic minorities. Chandler stated that ethnic minorities exhibit more sophistication in 'perceived reality' than others do (This is a subject van Evra 1990 expands much more thoroughly upon). In addition, evidence suggests that working class mothers are more likely to acquire a perceived reality of programmes which offer a negative depictions of undesirable behaviour so as to discourage such behaviour. Chandler collated some very relevant points in considering the affects of the media and the actual fear of crime.
Hirsch (1980) also argued that the noticed relationship between the viewing of violence on television and fear of crime may be explained by the particular demographics of an individual. For instance, Hirschi highlights that people living within areas of high crime rate may be more likely spend more time indoors at their own home watching television. Furthermore this combines with the geographically specific notion that they have a greater chance of being a victim of crime compared to people living in a lower crime area. It is argued that Gerbner’s theory of cultivation brings not enough attention to the point that the frequent and less frequent television viewers do vary in other ways than said viewing habbits. For example, age, gender and social class. (Hirschi (1980) cited in Livingstone 1990).
Criminologists such as Chadee (2001) and Roberts (2001) question how much the relationship between exposure to the media and fear of crime survives when other control variables such as gender, race, class and actual experience are brought into the equation. (Maguire, Morgan and Reiner, 2007). Though the Williams and Dickinson research (1993) appears to survive such demographic variables, their argument that the relationship between fear of crime and reading newspapers focused on violence failed to comply with behavioural characteristic of fear such as going out after dark. Furthermore the study fails to decipher whether that fear arising from reading newspapers focussed on violent crime concluded in the reader approaching newspapers with more crime as opposed to the approaching media material with less focus on violent crime.
Hawkins and Pingree (1983) failed to uncover definite evidence of the direction of the relationship between the viewer’s viewing of television and the viewer’s view of social reality: It is argued that even if there is a correlation between viewing television and the fear of the viewer, this does not prove there is a causal relationship. It does mean that one could assume it a possibility however there could also be other contributory factors that influence the apparently associated relationship between television and fear of the viewer. (Cited in McQuail and Windahl, 1993). Hawkins and Pingree (1983) also argue that contrary to beliefs of Gerbner et al it may be that the more fearful people are drawn to watching a greater amount of television than the less fearful rather than that generous viewing of television leads to a more crime fearing state of being. (Cited in McQuail and Windahl, 1993).
Not only are there arguments against concepts such as the cultivation fear of crime, but also argument that the very statistics researchers use to compile these argument are in fact, often inaccurate. Although it would appear women have a higher fear of crime than men, the statistics are problematic: Robbie and Sutton (2005) draw attention to the fact that within self report surveys, women report a higher level of fear than men. However, with reference to their own statistical data, they highlight that for men, though not for women, reported levels on fear of crime are inversely related to scores of a so called ‘lie scale’. That is, men do not sincerely report their levels of fear. According to Smith and Torstenton (1997), this is due to the fact men are less accurate in their own risk assessment and so therefore experience lower levels of fear: This is supported by Goody (1997) who argues that men are condemned to a state of false consciousness. Robbie and Sutton do not completely agree and rather conclude that beneath their bravado, men may actually be more fearful of crime than women: But for reasons such their perceptions that men should not express one’s fear, they are suppressed from expressing the truth. Therefore, it remains unsettled whether the difference lies in the sentiments genuinely held, or in that women have a systematic tendency to exaggerate their fear, slash that men have a systematic tendency to suppress it. (Robbie and Sutton 2005).
Research methods are unquestionably problematic. In conclusion to their finding that men lie much more when being questioned about their fear of crime, they suggest that future surveys should, where possible, include a lie scale. This would allow researchers to statistically control for socially desirable responding when looking at the responses of participants. They do however, appreciate that the efforts to conduct a much more problem-proof model would be expensive and time consuming.
Before Robbie and Sutton’s article (2005) there was no quantification on the impact of distorted responding of men and women’s responses: Further research to refine this information would serve ideal, though, it is at least a first attempt to locate a ‘smoking gun’.
Robbie and Sutton (2005) highlight the long since known issue that one cannot take statistics as ‘gospel truth’. Therefore, one must consider whether an accurate decision can be made as to whether the media heightens fear of crime: If crime affects ‘some of the people, some of the time’ (Heath and Gordon, 1996), then who are these people? As Robbie and Sutton discuss, statistical data is very problematic and erects many hurdles when trying to answer such questions. Furthermore, when looking at the British Crime Survey, more grey areas become prominent. (Very grey areas). For instance, the 1984 British Crime Survey’s dependant variable for measuring fear of crime complied with reseponse to questions such as ‘how safe do you feel walking alone in this area after dark’. Problematically, the possible influence of the media on fear of crime has to remain somewhat unexplored within such popular (yet ever challenged) research methods and findings because no suitable item appeared in the survey questionnaire.
Glassner (1999) argues that we need to decentre the media in any analysis of fear of crime. He suggests that in some cases news organisations run stories which allay the very fears they aroused in order to lure audiences. For example when the New York Times published articles which were specifically allaying fears of shooting on school grounds. Glassner states that as a social scientist he is impressed, but also somewhat embarrassed to discover that it is journalists more often than it is the media scholars who identify the ‘jugglery’ in making slight dangers appear huge, and huge hazards diminish from our sight. (Lee, 1999). Such as the arguments of Glassner does not mean that the media should be ignored as a sight of knowledge in fear of crime: Young (1996) argues that the individual perceives crime via a ‘multiplicity of discourses, practices and institutions she calls the ‘crimino-legal complex’.’ Within this complex, Young does not dismiss the media. (Lee, 1999:191).
In summary and as discussed, there is argument to support that the media heightens fear of crime; however the general consensus appears to be that media effect is in general, limited and minor. Although nothing is empirical in swaying the argument either way, research by Sacco (1982, 1995) highlights that acquisition of any sort of relationship between the media and fear of crime is a somewhat vague matter. Sacco (1995) argued that fear of crime may not be strongly affected by the news media. Rather, he suggests that media effect may be significantly broader, a reflection of ideological matters: For instance, ‘by presenting crime as an individual matter, the blame is directed away from social structure variables’. (Cited in Howitt, 1998:57). If Sacco is to be credited then as follows, Heath and Gordon (1996) summarise the cultivation effects on crime in a moderate and quite accurate manor:
‘The media do not affect all of the people all of the time, but some of the messages affect some of the people some of the time’. They add that this age of ever-expanding technological options within the mass media, means that one must recognise that cultivation is ‘as complex on the human side as it is on the technological side’. (Cited in Howitt, 1998:57).
However, whether Heath and Gordon’s contemporary theory is an accurate summary of the media impact upon fear of crime is somewhat dependant upon the perspective one adopts: For example, Potter (1993) (cited in Howitt, 1998:57) suggests that since current research lacks impressive cultivation effects, it would not be unacceptable to assume that our theories and empirical evidence for establishing relationships leave much to be desired: It is possible that cultivation may be stronger than current research has allowed criminology to demonstrate. Potter supports this in highlighting that there are significant difficulties in defining the sort of television and alternative media content that is likely to be most influential upon it’s audience: Potter ties this to the fact that content analysis provides no guarantees that the audience perceives media content in the same way.
It seems unfortunate that despite copious amounts of literature on media effects on crime, little material has been produced regarding how representations of crime circulate within society. There is little material on how these representations are transmitted and perhaps manipulated by the media. Limited discussion on such effects which in certain theory produces personal fear of crime. It seems the individual’s fear of crime resides somewhere along a ‘production line’, which ofcouse is different for every person: Where one individuals fear has been produces through knowledge of a friend’s victimisation, another’s may have come through the same but also some form of media knowledge. In other words, there are many ways to bake a cake! Our attitudes are likely to be influenced not just by TV, but also through other forms of media, through direct experience, through the word-of-mouth, and so on: It is not accurate to pin point a specific formula for the production of a crime fearing individual since it happens in all different ways: And so, as with most criminological issues one cannot really specialise a concrete yes or no in consindering whether the media does heightens fear of crime. Rather, and to adapt those useful words of Heath and Gordon (1996), the title to this question would have a more specific answer had it been worded ‘Does some of the media affect some people some of the time?’ I would say yes, 3,500 times. Evidence of a theoretical or statistical basis thus far will not suffice to make a more accute summary. It remains possible that study in the future may take account of the production lines through which representations, beliefs and attitudes about fear of crime are propagated in different social and cultural contexts. Only then would it be valid to make a sharper generalisation. As it stands, Heath and Gordon got the right sentence. Some people, some of the time.
ASSc 322: Bibliography.
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