‘The media invents rather than simply misrepresents the real nature of crime.’ Discuss
There have long been claims that the media, in one form or another, has had an overarching effect upon society, and especially so in regards to the portrayal of crime. Still, whilst this claim is not in dispute, what is of interest to us is not only the presentation of crime per se, but how and why it is created. Moreover, this approach will then enable us to consider the consequences such processes have on the public at large. To help us with this task we shall consider Stanley Cohen’s, Folk Devils & Moral Panics, (1980) and Stuart Hall et al, Policing the Crisis, (1978). What is more, we shall situate both studies within a theoretical framework of moral panics as proposed by Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda (1994). The rationale behind this consideration is to establish the extent to which the media is seen to not only simply misrepresent the real nature of crime, but may actually construct false realties of crime.
Crime consumes an enormous amount of media space as both entertainment and news. Whether it be TV cop shows, crime novels, docudramas, newspaper articles, comics, documentaries, or ‘real-life’ reconstructions, crime criminality and criminal justice appear to have an endless capacity to tap not only into public fear but also public fascination…’ (Muncie, 1996:44)
The portrayal, and distribution of crime via the media, whether it has been by pamphlet, newspaper, or television has a relatively long and polemical heritage. Nonetheless, whilst it may true to say that media activity in earlier periods was moderately contained, the advent of the automated printing press and later, electronic mediums (television, internet, etc) have significantly extended the reach, and influence of the media. Yet whilst this development has heightened the awareness of the general public in regards to crime, such awareness can only be measured in proportion to coverage. That is to say, if media coverage of crime is distorted, then this will ultimately be reflected in the mind-set of society. For instance, both police, and the British Crime Survey (BCS) figures reveal that ‘Property crime accounts for the majority (78%) [of all] recorded crime.’ Furthermore, ‘Violent crime represented 23 per cent of all BCS crime and 19 per cent of police recorded crimes in 2003/04.’ Nevertheless, press coverage of the latter far exceeds that for the former. What is more, if we were to flick through the majority of broadsheet, tabloid, and local press then we find an over reporting of violent crime, and especially so in regards to homicide, and sexual offences, yet in reality these offences constitute less than 1% of the above figures for violent crime. (HO, 2004) What this illustrates then is not only is media coverage of particular crimes unbalanced and may lead to a “fear of crime”, but it is because the actual presentation of crime has to conform to formulas of newsworthiness. According to Chibnall (1977) ‘presentation’ and ‘selection’ are key processes in the formulation of newsworthiness: ‘selection – aspects of events to report, and which to omit; and presentation – choosing what sort of headline, language, imagery, photograph and typology to use.’ (Muncie, 1996:45)
The above serves to give us some idea of how the dynamics of media interpretation of crime works, and more significantly, how this may actually lead to misrepresentation. We shall now endeavour to add a little flesh to the bones of this statement and develop this theme further as we consider two formative studies involving the media, the portrayal of crime, and the link to moral panics. What is more, we will contrast both accounts with three distinctive theories of moral panics developed by Goode and Ben-Yehuda, (1994) these are known as: interest-group model, elite-engineered model, and grassroots model.
The publication of Stanley Cohen’s, Folk Devils & Moral Panics, in 1972 was seen as a seminal work, highlighting the role of the media in creating moral panics, and has influenced subsequent studies and debates. Specifically, the study examines the media, and public reaction to a series of what seemed to be superficial disturbances across a number of English seaside towns involving Mods and Rockers, on bank holidays between 1964 and 1966. The initial disturbance in Clacton, compromised of scattered fights, stone throwing, smashed windows, somebody letting off a starting pistol, and the like. Now, Cohen’s approach to his study was to adopt a reaction sequence/ disaster analogue model, ‘…this means starting off with the inventory, moving on to other phases of the reaction and then returning to the warning and impact.’ (Cohen’ 1980:25) Firstly, in Cohen’s inventory, as you would expect to find in the aftermath of a disaster, was a lot of exaggeration and distortion of the actual facts. Cohen states: ‘The major type of distortion in the inventory lay in the exaggerating grossly the seriousness of the events, in terms of criteria such as the number taking part, the number involved in violence and the amount and effects of any damage or violence.’ Such distortion was shown to emanate from the media, and particularly so from the emotive language used in newspaper headlines. For example, ‘screaming mob’, ‘orgy of destruction’, and ‘beat up the town’. (Cohen’ 1980:31)
The second reaction phase of opinion and attitudes was intended to show how distortion in the inventory, briefly described above, was ‘…crystallised into more organised opinions and attitudes.’ (Cohen’ 1980:49) Again, as with any disaster people try to make sense of what they have experienced, moreover, with the expansion of time individual sentiment is replaced by that of the group. Here we can see how the interaction of the two phases, fuelled by media distortion, and over reporting, generates the illusion of a perceived threat from the Mods and Rockers ( folk devils) to societal values, and indeed to society itself (moral panic). So much so that society and corresponding interest-groups seek to restore the moral balance of society. For Cohen this can be seen in the third rescue and remedy phase, and adopting the language of Becker (1963) told how ‘moral entrepreneurs’ such as the ‘Safeguard Committee’ felt that ‘something should be done’. (Cohen’ 1980:124)
What is interesting to us here, and will aid our understanding of moral panics, is the justification for moral panics. For Cohen and Becker alike, moral panics are generated by interest-groups. ‘Another influential aspect of Cohen’s thesis is the argument that moral panics are generated by the media, or by particular interest groups using the media to publicize their concerns.’ (Hunt, 1997:631) In fact we can say that the media itself is an interest group as it is the first to pass a moral judgement, and almost inevitably offers a solution. Still, in general, interest groups may be the police, charities, religious groups, or public associations (Safeguard Committee, for instance) etc, and their interest in moral panics acts a vehicle to forward preconceived notions of morality, and/ or ideology. ‘Advancing a moral and ideological cause almost inevitably entails advancing the status and material interests of a group who believes in it…’ (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1994:166) We shall now go on to consider Stuart Hall et al, Policing the Crisis, and the link to the elite engineered model of moral panics.
‘The second theory of moral panic is described by Goode and Ben-Yehuda as the ‘elite-engineered model’ and is developed at length by Stuart Hall and others in Policing the crisis: Mugging, the state, and law and order (1978)’ (Hunt, 1997:634) Hall, who was at that time the director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University, was part of the emerging critical/ radical criminology. Although it should be stated that according to (Downes and Rock 1995:275) ‘Policing the Crisis is by no means the complete expression of the kind of ‘critical’ criminology urged by Taylor, Walton, and Young…’ Still, the beginning of the study included compiling 13 months of press coverage on the “new” crime of “mugging”, and examining the dynamics behind the introduction of the term “mugging” into Britain’s popular press. In America the term was used to describe street crime, and was mainly associated with those living in the black, urban, and decaying ghettos. Thus it was through this kind of association that the British press, ‘reproduced the idea of American mugging for British consumption.’ (Hall et al, 1978:21) Moreover, as “mugging” seemed to reach moral panic proportions in Britain (it has been shown that other street crime was conflated into “mugging”) so there appeared to be a consensus between the media, police, and judiciary. That is, on the one hand the media is seen to stand for the judiciary, thus being a voice for the public, and on the other, the judiciary used the media as ‘evidence’ of public opinion. It was to these ends that Hall et al. conceived the media as being part of the state apparatus.
What was to bring all the above processes together in regards to Hall’s et al. study was the arrest, and imprisonment of Paul Storey (half W-Indian) and two accomplices (one Cypriot), for the “mugging” of an elderly man in Handsworth. ‘The case made for saturation media coverage, in part because the boys returned to inflict further injuries on the victim two hours after the original attack.’ (Downes and Rock 1995:278) And also because it confirmed the stereotype the media, both local and national, had projected in much of its coverage. That is, “mugging” was a “race”, as much as a moral issue. Nonetheless, while Cohen’s and Hall’s studies both sound similar in content up to this point; societal disunity, amplification and distortion of media coverage, and the resulting moral panic, supposedly created by folk devils (Mods and Rockers and “muggers”) we can however, relate Hall’s et al. study to a elite-engineered model of moral panic.
The theory that moral panics are elite engineered argues that a small and powerful group or a set of groups deliberately and consciously undertakes a campaign to generate and sustain fear, concern, and panic on the part of the public over an issue they recognise not to be terribly harmful to the society as a whole. (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1994:164)
So, although Hall et al. would agree with Cohen that the media was a powerful agent in shaping the public consciousness, it was not however, central to the generation of the moral panic, they were merely a pawn in a much larger game. Specifically, Hall et al. ‘went on to argue that moral panics about law and order typically originated in statements by members of the police and the judiciary, which were then amplified by the media.’ (Hunt, 1997:634) The significance of this to critical criminology, and another divergence from Cohen, is that moral panics do not relate to a societal crisis, and rising crime per se, but was a tool to be used to disguise the crisis within capitalism. ‘To use Marxist (more precisely, Gramscian) terminology, that process is the ‘crisis of hegemony’, the breakdown of consensus which forces the ruling class to resort to new techniques of exercising control and repressing dissent.’ (Hunt, 1997:635)
We turn now briefly to Goode and Ben-Yehuda’s final theory of moral panics; the grassroots model. This model deals less with the impact that the media and/ or other groups have on moral panics, but specifically identifies moral panics as emerging from the public, or from the grassroots, and as an approach has been likened to the position held by left realism. The Left realist perspective was an offshoot that emerged from the divisions of critical criminology in the 1980s. Such divisions were born out of the ‘…discrediting of orthodox Marxist theories of the state and its conception of power.’ (Matthews and Young, 1992:7) Moreover, an adoption of Michel Foucault’s theories led to evaluation that power was not in essence a discriminatory force used by elite groups for class domination, a position held by critical criminologists. Instead left realists, through such enterprises as the Islington Crime Survey sought to reveal the true nature of crime and victimisation, and especially so in regards to working class crime. For it is at the grassroots level, left realists believe, that the fear of crime really exists, and not from the media distortion of crime, which only succeeds in creating a moral panic.
The same forces which make for the increase in crime fuel a moral panic about crime. That is, the real fear about crime is intimately related to the moral hysteria about crime. It not only provides a rational kernel for alarm, but its genesis lies at the same source; and the mass media serve and exaggerate such public fears. (Lea and Young, 1993:49,263)
On reflection, the portrayal of crime via the media is seen to conform to formulas of newsworthiness. This is particularly the case with violent crime which on the one hand only represents a minor proportion of recorded crime, yet on the other, is a permanent fixture on the media quota. We continued this thread as we considered Stanley Cohen’s, and Stuart Hall’s et al. seminal studies into the media formulation and presentation of crime, and the link to moral panics, respectably. This approach, and by way of adopting a theoretical framework, enabled us to illustrate how the media, either as an interest group, or as a lesser, but willing party, distorted the realities of crime, thus was party to creating moral panics. It is to these ends that we can say that the media invents rather than simply misrepresents the real nature of crime. That is, the media not only misrepresents an unbalanced portrayal of crime, but in so doing invents a distorted reality of crime that only stokes the fear of crime at grassroots level.
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