Criminologists have debated the effects of news power and media and crime, however, there is one statement which is widely accepted by many and that is crime media creates a distortion and distraction of the ‘true’ picture of crime and the criminal justice system. This distortion is important as it has been proven to be in many ways detrimental to society. Dominating the UK crime news research are two key concepts: news values and moral panic. These concepts are key to understanding news power, and its effects on society. Due to the rise of the technological age we have seen the ‘death of print news’. This has by no means stopped the distorting news stories as now news stories are available to read and be updated 24/7. The emergence of ‘scandal hunting’ and ‘trial by media’ are examples of the news power in our digital market which provides the public with an alternative forum for delivering ‘justice’ to victims believed to be failed by the state, this can however cause potentially devastating and irreversible reputational damage to any individual or company involved.
The media is a big influence on our society today and there have been many debates as to whether that is an advantageous or destructive element for our society. A way in which media has been seen to be damaging to our society is through the theory of learnt aggression. This theory was developed by Bandura and demonstrated in his Bobo doll study in which he found children were more likely to behave aggressively after watching another individual behaving in an aggressive manner than the children in the control group that were not exposed to the aggressive acts. This showed that aggression can be learnt and therefore, violent media can be damaging especially to young children who learn by copying others (Bandura 1961). Medias affects at times can be seen as criminogenic. There are many examples of the ways in which media can cause crime however I will only highlight a few, such as, desensitisation which refers to the diminished emotional response to a negative or positive stimulus after repeated exposure to it. In the criminological study of media this could be seen to refer to individuals being desensitized to criminality due to the constant exposure to it therefore making them more likely to commit crime. Another example of a way in which media can cause crime is emphasized through Becker’s labelling theory which states that being labelled as a “deviant” leads a person to engage in deviant behaviour (Becker 1974) Therefore, if an act in the media is labelled as deviant it can promote deviant behaviour as the individual would be acting in the way the media have labelled and expected them to act. Labelling theory links to deviancy amplification which along with moral panics I shall discuss accordingly.
Another negative effect of crime media on society is ‘trial by media’, which is used to describe the impact of television and newspaper coverage on a person’s reputation by creating an extensive perception of guilt or innocence before, or after, a verdict in a court of law. Some well-known examples of this are Amanda Knox who was on trial for murder and was so widely disliked by the public she was presumed guilty before even entering the court, this was due to article such as: ‘Secret diary reveals Foxy Knoxy was ‘always thinking about sex’ (Mail online 2008). Most of the vicious stories written about her were later proven to be largely fictional. However, these incorrect news stories brainwashed the public against her to the point she was almost jailed for life for a crime she has now been proven to be not guilty of committing. Another example of negative press effecting a person’s reputation is the media placing the culpability of the disappearance of Madeline McCann on her parents. This created a huge amount of bad press for the family and distracted from the search for Madeline altogether. Both of these cases can also be seen as an example of scandal hunting which consists of journalists looking for a scandal to create better stories. For the most part, these scandals are usually later disproved but not before the reputational damage has already been done as these public revelations triggers powerful negative social reactions that can have life changing consequences.
Due to the high volume of news in the world the media have a highly selective process to ensure news is interesting and appealing to its audience, this is known as newsworthiness. An accurate definition of this comes from Jewkes ‘a term that encapsulated the perceived ‘public appeal’ for ‘public interest’ of any news story’ (Jewkes 2004) This definition was developed due to Chibnalls theory of the eight professional imperatives he believes the media use to determine the ‘newsworthiness’ of a story. The first is Immediacy, this refers to the changes of technology and the internet, and the spreading use of mobile media such as news apps on mobiles meaning the news can be checked anywhere and anytime and constantly updated. The second is Dramatization, which highlights the need for reports of dramatic crime events. The third is Personalization, this touches on our celebrity obsessed society. As stories involving celebrities and criminal acts have a high readership. An example of this is Katie Prices high profile rape allegation which was widely reported on. The fourth is Simplification, emphasizes the fact stories need to be easily digestible containing facts not speculation. An example of this is the simplification of a particularly ‘high-profile week of crime’ by the Sun newspaper in 2007. The fifth is Titillation, which touches on the high selling point of sex and anything forbidden, examples include stories on drugs, murder, sex scandals and the porn industry. The sixth is Conventionalism, this emphasizes the need to uphold the status quo and present something new in an old way for example, the tax avoiding celebrities scandal. The seventh is Structural Access, alludes to the importance of using trusted sources such as, police and scientists to give their expert opinions on issues such as drugs, outbreaks, deviant behaviour etc. the eighth and final imperative is Novelty, this highlights the journalistic need to build a story around a specific angle. For example, the cannibalistic ‘twist’ to the serial murders committed by Stephen Griffiths. (Chibnall 1977).
Other factors that have been seen to make a news story ‘newsworthy’ are women, children and victim variables. This is due to the stereotypical image of a woman as good and nonviolent, therefore when a woman commits a crime it is seen as doubly deviant and thus female offenders are highly newsworthy. Children have become exceedingly newsworthy since the 1990s due to the increasing reports of serious crime committed by pre-teens such as the Jamie Bulger case. It has also been noted that the victim variables in a case are usually more important to the audience than the suspect variables in determining newsworthiness. Crime will however always be newsworthy and therefore profitable as a news category due to the emotional registers of fear, anger and fascination it creates amongst its audience.
The news media has a frightening power to shame crime consciousness, a dramatic demonstration of this power comes in the form of moral panics. Stanley Cohen stated that moral panic happens when “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” (Cohen1972). In Stanley Cohens (1972) book ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics’ he describes his mods and rockers study which was the first empirical study of moral panic due to media amplification and its public consequences. He examined the reaction to mods and rockers in 1964. He found that the media exaggerated and simplified the problems as what he witnessed was not matched by the media reports. In cases of moral panics created by media those involved are stigmatised, in the case of the mods and rockers the media initially over reported the confrontations with the use of phrases such as ‘beat up the town’, ‘orgy of destruction’, ‘siege’, ‘battle’, ‘screaming mob’ and ‘battle’ this then caused a media campaign for action. When the authorities respond it caused the redefinition of the original problem, escalating the panic over the situation (Cohen 1972). In addition, Wilkins (1964) developed the theory of deviancy amplification, also known as the ‘deviancy spiral’. Wilkins stated that social reaction amplifies deviance, in other words, the way in which information about a deviant act is communicated can lead to distortion and exaggeration of the original problem, this can then cause deviancy to be amplified. Subsequently, Hall et al (1978) revisited moral panics, identifying a number of social problems created by deviancy and not helped by the moral panics created by media. He studied street robbery and found that the media had redefined robbery as mugging and claimed the rise in muggings was by young black males. However, this portrayal was not matched by the criminal justice statistics and was therefore creating societal fear and issues based on false information. A final example of moral panics created by the media was the paedophilia outbreak in the early 2000s. This can also be seen as an example of trial by media. The panic surrounding this subject began after the rape and murder of 8-year-old Sarah Payne in 2000, News of the World created a campaign that was front page of their newspapers demanding that sex offenders be ‘named and shamed’ and they eventually began releasing details of sex offender’s names and whereabouts in their paper which prompted a number of vigilante attacks and caused a great deal of social unrest. After the realisation of the heightened panic which resulted in beatings and deaths by mob attacks the paper stopped releasing the details of sex offenders and instead campaigned for ‘Sarah’s law’. These are dramatic demonstrations of the news media’s power to shape crime consciousness.
Although it is clear crime news’ distortion has negative consequences for society, news power and crime media still remain under-researched and under-conceptualised as a result of criminology’s failure to keep up with the recent transformations to technology making crime news more accessible. As explained previously there is also a growing importance to further our knowledge of justice via media and find a way to end the medias power of destroying the credibility and reputation of ‘guilty’ individuals or institutions as it is detrimental to the individual and can affect criminal proceedings due to factors such as jury bias. This could then in effect cause a miscarriage of justice. Due to crime medias growing ascendancy over society, it’s important for criminologists to continue researching the process in which crime news is produced and the emotional reactions it creates in order to find a way around the distortion of crime it presents to society and get across the image of ‘true’ crime.