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What do media representations of crime and crime statistics tell us about the way that the problem of crime is constructed?

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Nishaa Mckinney X0129538 D315 TMA01

What do media representations of crime and crime statistics tell us about the way that the problem of crime is constructed?

“A young woman who has been out drinking with footballers alleges rape - and the courtroom is packed with celebrities. “ (Jeffries, 2007 [online])

In a time where reality TV shows dictate “essential” television viewing, a new show aired this month depicts true to life court room scenarios. The first programme involves a rape case; however all the cases are not real it is merely for televised “entertainment”. The concept involves captivating and involving the audience in an attempt to publicise the difficulties involved in such trials and perhaps enlightening the viewers with a celebrity filled jury.  The show is to be screened in conjunction with the Home Office production of a document stating the conviction rates of rape cases and the upcoming changes to improve thus. This show in some way is considered a pacifier for the public. Hollway and Jefferson (1997, in McLaughlin et al, 2003, p573) suggests that if risk can be measured and the public can put a face to the perpetrators, they can decide how to react to and how to deal with such behaviour.

In order to fully expand on the assignment title, I will explain the definitions of crime, how statistics are created, how the statistics are interpreted by the media, and how this effects society’s perception of crime, criminals and crime control.

The Oxford English dictionary’s definition of crime is:

“An act punishable by law, as being forbidden by statute or injurious to the public welfare... An evil or injurious act; an offence, a sin; esp. of a grave character.” (cited in Muncie 2001 Pg. 9)

This definition is vague as it does not determine what is considered injurious, what is considered an offence or a “sin” or indeed a “grave character”.  The definition needs to incorporate who is the victim, is there a need for a victim, what is considered an offence, where did it occur, by whom, their age, social status or their ethnicity. The questions are endless but the definition of what is a crime can be summarised by “behaviour which is prohibited by the criminal code” (Michael and Adler, 1933; as cited in Muncie, pg. 10 2001).  There are several schools of thought in relation to the study of crime. Some of these are classicism, which is based on humans having free will and rational thinking, positivism which is behaviour based on uncontrollable forces, interactionism where criminality resides in the response to certain behaviours and radicalism whereby the ruling elite stigmatises certain behaviour as criminal. (Pond, 1999. Pg. 10).  While theoretical inputs allow for understanding of criminality, modern day activities would suggest that the fact of crime itself is interpreted through higher mediums.

In order to establish criminal activity, criminologists turned their attentions from studying offenders to observing the victims in light of the introduction of the victim survey; which suggested criminal acts were in fact more than official statistics proved.

The Home Office produces crime related statistics from data that has been sought from criminal justice agencies and also victim reports of crime via the British Crime Survey (BCS).  Patterns of crime can be determined by breaking down such figures, in relation to offender groups, crime type and offender type (Muncie, 2001. Pg. 24).  The collation of these statistics from such agencies suggests that this is by far the most reliable format as it incorporates several different types of statistical data.  However, there are serious flaws in relation to such statistics.  Criminal offences are prudently defined by law, but their meaning within society may be considered very differently, for example, the legislative difference between the offences of robbery and theft may be construed as being the same offence by society; however such statistics are recorded separately by police. Some members of society may not consider a particular action or event as a crime, and they may not report it as such to anyone else (including the police or a survey interviewer). Also, changes in legislation over the years may cause confusion as to what is considered criminal behavior.  For example, recent alterations in the Sex Offences Act now mean that the offences of gross indecency, which originally made it illegal for homosexual acts to take place, have now been altered.  Such confusion or ignorance regarding legislation can be determined by numerous factors including personal opinion on crime, which in turn may be influenced by the general public opinions or the media. There are certain crimes that may go unreported, such as sexual assaults which are infamously misrepresented in official statistics. The Home Office produced a survey in 2004 which proved that almost 99 percent of possible sexual assaults were unreported. (Garside 2006 [online]). In 1994, the BCS revealed that 19 million crimes were committed which quadrupled the official crime statistics. The “Dark figure” (Pearson, 1983; cited in Muncie, 2001. Pg.30) of unreported crime, can be partially revealed by the BCS by interviewing victims  “...the bad news is there is a lot more crime than we thought, the good news is that most of it is petty” (Maguire, 1994, as cited in Pond 1999, pg81) .  This allows for misrepresented crimes as the statistics provided by the police are only of crimes that have been reported and recorded by the police.  Bottomley and Pease (1986; as cited in Pond 1999, pg.80) stated that as many as 40 per cent of crimes that have been reported were not recorded by the police.  They refer to this as the “grey figure”, whereby the police take the reports but in order to prevent excessive paperwork, do not record the crime. With such inconsistencies, the portrayal of crime figures in the media plays an integral part of creating ill feeling in society.  For example, the article from the Sun newspaper seems to make the “Drunk and Disorderly” article almost movie like, accentuating detrimental words such as “trebled”, portraying a photograph of men brawling and damning the reputation of ministers and MP's.  In comparison, the articles from the Times and the Guardian newspapers state the same story but more diplomatically and more “user friendly”.  The conservative led Guardian highlights the positive side of crime figures whilst citing police officials statements; whilst the left-liberal Times tends to focus on the negative rises in crime figures and quotes ministers or Home Office officials. The stories were similar in many aspects and they came to similar conclusions in relation to police recording techniques.   (D315 Policy File; Jewkes, 2006, pp7-9, 13).

Despite such newspaper publications, many people argue that the media has no adverse effects on society; there have been numerous amounts of documentation, experiments and studies that prove otherwise. It is apparent that today's media is filled with criminal content, salacious materials and extreme violence.

Despite crime figures depicting higher rates of “petty” crimes such as shop lifting, parole violators or street crime, it seems adamant to produce details of violent crimes, homicide and terrorism which can lead to detrimental factors.  The media seems to prey on society's fears and therefore the tabloids are filled with such stories.  The terrorist attacks of “9/11” were exploited in the press and now several movies have been created on the “real life” events, it’s almost a morbid fascination which unfortunately affects society's quality of life. So begins the domino effect, created by excessive negative exploitation  and “media saturation” (Hale et al 2005, pg 6) of the attacks which in turn increased fear in society; the general consensus then suggesting that anyone from a Muslim community must have terrorist connections and therefore a reported increase in racially motivated attacks.  This type of behaviour usually occurs when there is a form of moral panic, ie, a media, political and public over-reaction to certain events for example witnessing the Mods/Rockers of the 1960s, or the ‘muggings’ of the 1970s (Muncie, 2001, p54) The effect of media violence was utilised within the court case during the Jamie Bulger trial, whereby two 10 year old boys kidnapped, abused and murdered the young toddler. The two boys were arrested and instantly the story had massive media coverage, soon after, it was alleged that the two boys had recently seen the film “Child's play 3”, the media instantly sensationalised this and the film was seen as the cause and reason for the murder. (Harrower, 1998, pg. 89)  The media enjoys more interaction with the police and so can develop a new repertoire of reporting (Muncie, 2001, pp48-49) and when the media legitimated a more opinionated and official stance against all offenders, this gave the police freedom to pursue social order with an increase in custodial statistics (Muncie, 2001, p50).  Although the relationships between media and violence are not the sole causes of criminality, the BBC called the Bulger case a "landmark case" as it created  a moral panic about children and their safety in the company of other children. Newspapers portrayed images of Jamie being led away by the two children and this promoted the sale of toddler reigns and increased parental awareness of abduction.  “The social reaction to deviance was therefore an essential part of the process of maintaining social order…” (Hall & Scraton 1980; as cited in Routledge et al 1981) Albeit that media generated crime statistics are sourced from criminal justice agencies, the role the media plays in biasing people's concepts and predilections is therefore apparent.   “It is a function of the media to search continually for the 'new', the unusual and the dramatic.  This is what makes news...” (Chibnall, 1977; as cited in Muncie, 2001; pg45) Although the police possess the power to feed the media it also has the power to oppose publicity in certain cases, which provides the media with the power to address the target audience in a way deemed suitable to sell news.  

So what do media representations of crime and crime statistics tell us about the way that the problem of crime is constructed? Today the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester police sent a message of reassurance to his colleagues... “In light of recent arrests made in the West Midlands, there has been concern and speculation expressed in the media about the risk posed to Muslim people working in various Government and other public organisations, including the police… I do, however, recognise that such speculation can cause concern and potential distress…”  This message was prompted as a result of kidnapping plots that are currently being investigated by police in the West Midlands.  I think this statement speaks volumes in relation to the media interpretation of crimes to the extent that excessive coverage can create unstable societies.  In relation to statistics, there are candid oversights due to data recording techniques as well as implied additions due to police workload pressures, legislative changes/improvements, individual definitions of crime etc…  Whilst the media overindulges in “high profile” crimes such as murder, rape or terrorism the more “petty” but higher committed crimes are less publicised, therefore creating a panic that high profile crimes are on the increase.

The purpose of the media is to affect the thought processes of society. Just because scenarios presented to society are not always deemed plausible, it would be too simple to disregard such media as this would suggest disregarding the world of advertisements, where actors simulate “real life scenarios!” In order for a movie or a news bulletin to be effective, the audience must identify in some way with the characters and what they are doing, such as the earlier mentioned court room reality TV show.  Society has become enthralled with the representations of crime and this is a concept that the media has exploited, as in any business, supply to demand.  The relationships between criminal justice agencies and the media has proved to support the ideal of social control and changes in legislation, such as with the Jamie Bulger case.

Michel De Certeau said“The media transforms the great silence of things into its opposite. Formerly constituting a secret, the real now talks constantly. News reports, information, statistics, and surveys are everywhere.”

(2389 including bibliography – 371 bibliography )


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Garside, R (2006) ‘Making sense of criminal justice failure’ Crime and society article [online] Available from: http://www.crimeandsociety.org.uk/articles/renewalaug06.html  (Accessed on 03 February 2007)

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