Research Proposal. Public perception of child sex offenders: has the media influenced our perceptions to the extent that it has made us paranoid in this obsessed society?
Criminology and Criminal Justice
Proposed research question
Public perception of child sex offenders: has the media influenced our perceptions to the extent that it has made us paranoid in this obsessed society?
Paedophilia is not recognised in the Sage Dictionary of Criminology (Silverman and Wilson, 2002) but other academics have given their version of a ‘paedophile’. In 1979 Paul Bebbington gave an explanation, using quotes such as ‘pre-pubertal children’, ‘mainly married’, ‘child participation’, ‘incest’ and so forth (Bebbington, 1979 as cited in Silverman and Wilson 2002:29-30) but as Silverman and Wilson suggest, Bebbington does not give a clear indication as to what age range ‘pre-pubertal’ is. Therefore in 1987 Donald West redefined paedophilia as a ‘significant erotic arousal on the part of a physically mature adult to pre-pubertal children or to a child in the early stages of pubertal development’ (West, 1987 as cited in Silverman and Wilson 2002:31). Given this clear definition, Silverman and Wilson declare that ‘West does at least help us better to define what we mean when we use the label ‘paedophile’’ (2002:31).
For many years there have been child sex offenders or ‘The Paedophile’ (Casher, 2007: 200) roaming our areas, whether it be within the family, in care environments or a ‘predatory stranger’ (Greer, 2003:2). All aspects of paedophilia are reviewed on a daily basis by journalists and newsmen who ‘decide routinely which stories are major lead stories‘(Hall et al, 1978 as cited in Greer 2003:43) and which are not. It has been said that the media ‘distinguishes the good from the bad and, in doing so, promotes social solidarity’ (2003:39). Is this really the case? This literature review focuses on the issue of whether or not the public perception of child sex offenders is influenced by the media and whether or not it makes us paranoid in civilianised society.
One very common area of this proposal is to analyse academics views on this topic and whether or not they agree with such suggestions. Casher (2007) has stated that there are many ways in which the media have influenced the public perception of paedophiles as they have been used across many sources which includes ‘newspaper coverage, television news, drama, comedy, magazine articles and films’ (2007:200). When looking at this it seems that media is dominating our lives as the above list consists of everything we read, watch or even listen to. Casher (2007) goes on to say that the terms used by the media have influenced us on our everyday lives as we too label child sex offenders with words used by the media such as ‘evil’, ‘monster’, ‘sicko’ and ‘weirdo’ (2007:200). Hodgetts and Rua (2008) tend to agree with this theory stating that ‘in countries such as the USA, UK and New Zealand tensions surrounding relationships between men and children in public life are worked through, in part, via media reports’ (2008:528). With Thompson (1995, as cited in Hodgetts and Rua 2008:530) stating that ‘citizens often explore the wider social world through media, our personal biographies are structured with reference to the shared experiences media provide. Illustrating that media reporting is a social way of connecting with the community and the outside world given the impression that the media do in fact dominate our lives.
This is a preview of the whole essay
Silverman and Williams (2002) declare that we as a society are more ‘concerned’ with paedophilia than we where ‘twenty or even ten years ago’ (2002:21-22). It has been said that the public’s main concern of paedophilia has been ‘cultivated via sensationalist media reports’ (Hodgetts and Rua, 2008: 528) declaring that over the past 30 years the ‘news media’ have created this profile of a ‘shadowy stranger or outsider who infiltrates public spaces and stalks children’ (Collier, 2001 as cited in Hodgetts and Rua 2008: 528). Although it seemed to have hit the headlines during the 1990s with Keith Soothill carrying out a national survey on how tabloid press (mainly middle class readers) and broadsheet press (primarily working class readership) had increased on the issue of paedophilia between the years of 1992–1998. It seems that this issue was dominating the headlines in 1997; Soothill also in his study calculated how many time the words ‘paedophile’ and ‘paedophilia’ was used in both papers concluding that a tabloid newspaper (Daily Mirror in this case) had 765 mentioned articles whereas the broadsheet (The Daily Telegraph) had 948 (Silverman and Wilson, 2002) articles. This illustrates that broadsheet readership seem to focus and react more on these stories compared to the tabloid press, this can be due to many reasons, one of which is because the broadsheet tend to sensationalise stories to sell more whereas tabloids tend to focus more on political aspects of cases. Curran (1998, as cited in Greer 2003:11) describes this perfectly stating that ‘news media can be seen as being shaped by consumer demand’ and as a result broadsheets over-sensationalise stories because it sells, but in actual fact it is these types of stories that tend to influence communities to this day in such a way that a sense of ‘paedophile paranoia’ (Casher, 2007: 201) is created (more so in working class communities).
According to the Home Office (2010:5) the perception that was shown by people living in communities with young children was a mixed one, going on to state that ‘by far the most common initial reaction was one of anxiety related’. Going by statistical analysis less than 20 per cent of child sex abuse cases was carried out by a predatory stranger with more than 80% of paedophiles being know to the victim either through family or in statutory care environments (Hodgetts and Rua, 2008). There are numerous problems ‘about using official statistics produced by the police’ (Silverman and Wilson 2002:19) as there is an under reporting of these cases as victims feel embarrassed of the situation and having to speak to someone about the occurrences. The NSPCC would be categorised as a national survey as they report on issues that children are worried about. From 2004/05 to 2008/09 ‘the annual number of children counselled by ChildLine regarding sexual abuse rose from 8,637 to 12,268, giving an overall increase of 42 per cent’ (NSPCC). This illustrates that statistically this is an ongoing issue that needs to be tackled. Thus with the media reporting constantly on child sex abuse cases it does add to public anxiety and for the public to question whether or not a new person in society is a potential threat to their children (Kitzinger, 2000 as cited in Hodgetts and Rua 2008: 541).
Throughout research it has become apparent that there is a gap in literature that uses both newspapers and a questionnaire in order to conclude whether or not the public perception of child sex offenders in society is influenced by the media. In using this method it is hoped that by combining both it should give a clear indication, as well as fill the gap within the literature. Overall it is evident that there are many forms of media we can be influenced by, but in this particular scenario when looking at tabloid press and broadsheets it is clear that there are two kinds of readership. Depending on the readership and community basis, there will be different feelings of paranoia surrounding the issue of paedophilia. Statistics have been shown, illustrating that child sex offenders are still in our society and with the press sensationalising new stories of these people it is putting public anxieties at an all time high.
The aim of this proposal is to focus on the public and how they view child sex offenders in society. The main aspect to be considered is the focus of the dissertation, demonstrating different approaches to the subject alongside questions that seek to be answered; how this thesis will fit into current literature and proposed topics that hope to be discussed, followed by a discussion of how this hypothesis relates to previous scholars in this field of work.
The content analysis will be very limited due to ethical issues but the main aspect will consider quantitative research, using different types of newspapers and how they report. Research will be carried out via Tabloid press, broadsheets and a questionnaire to examine public perceptions in this day and age. In doing this, the question to be answered is whether or not public perceptions have been influenced and whether or not this type of reporting makes people paranoid. Topics that will be addressed include child abuse within the family, professionals in society and the stereotypical male. These issues will be addressed according to academics who have studied this field of work. Theorists that study sex crime vary in different contexts but particularly for this dissertation certain academics have been chosen to fulfil the question that hopes to be answered. Research abuse within ‘statutory care environments’ (Greer, 2003:2) uses academics such as Campbell (1988), Nava (1988), Franklin and Parton (1991; for ‘predatory strangers’ (2003:2) Best (1990), Kitzinger (1999) and Websdale (1999) and for sexual abuse within the home academics to be considered, Kitzinger (1996) and Greer (2001 and 2003). Using scholars it is hoped that the research question in this dissertation proposal may be answered using different arguments towards the subject and show how this thesis will differ from others.
Research constructed in this field of work will consist mainly of quantitative methods but qualitative will also be used. This research topic depends specifically on information given from a member of the public and how they feel about this particular topic. Qualitative research (if not a vulnerable group) would have included participant observation which would have answered all questions in considerable detail. Due to ethical issues much of this research will be conducted under quantitative procedures, using statistical analysis as the basis; examples include the study of criminal statistics, opinion polls and a lot of major social surveys such as the British Crime Survey. A questionnaire will consider the public’s perception of child sex offenders and how they feel the media have portrayed this type of crime. This should also give an insight as to how the public feel about convicted paedophiles as well as raise issues about public concern that may be deemed important by respondents. The survey will be drawn up to supplement local feedback and no other reason.
Consideration of ethical issues
Ethical issues in this proposal will be considered by the university who receive guidelines from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in which students may or may not have verbal contact with particular groups (Crow and Semmens, 2008). This research topic depends specifically on information given from someone and their experiences. Qualitative research (if not a vulnerable group) would have included participant observation which would have answered all questions in considerable detail. Due to prisoners and convicted paedophiles being part of a vulnerable group, much of this research will be conducted under quantitative procedures, using statistical analysis as the basis (Crow and Semmens, 2008).
Timetable for completion
This timetable for completion has been set to suit demands around other subject areas that will have time dedicated to construct assignments as well as examination time and the Christmas holidays. The timetable set illustrates a set period of 24 weeks, starting on the 4th October 2010 with a proposed completion time of the 21st April 2011, this timescale includes both exam time and Christmas holidays, but I have extended these times as the dissertation will most likely not be first choice during other study regimes. This is an example of how the timescale will be spread out over the 24 weeks.
Casher, J., (2007). Pervasive Perversions: Paedophilia and Child Sexual Abuse in Media/Culture. Child Abuse Review, 16 (3), 200-201.
Crow, I., and Semmens, N., (2008) ‘Researching Criminology’. Berkshire: Open University Press
Greer, C., (2003) Sex Crime and the Media: Sex Offending and the Press in a divided Society. Collumpton: Willan Publishing
Hodgetts, D. And Rua, M., (2008). Media and Community Anxieties about Men’s Interactions with Children. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 18 (6), 527-542.
Home Office, (2010). Child Sex Offender Review (CSOR) Public Disclosure Pilots:
a process evaluation. United Kingdom: Home Office. Available from: [Accessed on 26th April 2010].
NSPCC, (2010). Children talking to ChildLine about sexual abuse.United Kingdom: NSPCC. Available from: [Accessed on 26th April 2010].
Silverman, J. And Wilson, D., (2002). Innocence Betrayed: Paedophilia, the Media and Society. Cambridge: Polity Press
Proposed information leaflet for the public
Hello, my name is Kersty Martin; I am in my final year at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown where I am currently studying Criminology and Criminal Justice. I am carrying out research based on public perceptions of child sex offenders.
For the purposes of this study, I would like to determine your views in relation to this topic and how the media may influence your perceptions.
It would be greatly appreciated if you could take the time to complete this questionnaire. If you feel uncomfortable with the topic or do not wish to participate, please leave blank. If you decide to participate, your details will not be relevant nor used in this thesis or any other write-up.
There will be three parts to this questionnaire. The first will be straight forward tick the box to determine what type of press you read etc., the second will consist of scenarios and how you feel about particular situations and the third will consider different images and slogans used by the press and if you could honestly answer which one caught your eye if you seen on a news stand.
If you have any questions please feel free to ask me.
Draft 1 Questionnaire
Public perception of child sex offenders
Please tick the relevant box:
- What press coverage would you prefer to read?
- On a weekly basis how often would you read the paper?
Once twice three four more than four
- Do you know what paedophilia is?
If you answered No, please advance to Question7.
If you answered yes to the above question, please specify what you believe the term means:
- How did you hear about the term paedophile? (in terms of media coverage)
- Do you think your perception of a paedophile has been influenced at all?
If you answered yes, please specify how:
- Do you think the media have influenced you? Or have you made up your own mind about the situation?
Media influence Personal perception
- If you were standing at a news stand looking for a paper to read, what headline would most catch your eye? Please tick one:
- Regarding these images, which would you read first?
Thank you for your time in completing this questionnaire.