Does the media heighten fear of crime?

Authors Avatar

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).

Join now!

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 ...

This is a preview of the whole essay