The following will discuss the influence of the press and media in shaping the public’s fears about crime and will use examples from recent press and media coverage of crime to illustrate how newspaper headlines and media reporting can make the public fearful of crime in society. Newburn (2007) says that television, radio, newspapers and the internet all play a significant role in our lives. They carry stories about crime, provide us with information about crime and are a potentially important influence on the way in which we see the world. This essay will look at the following areas: defining what fear of crime is, media representations of crime, newsworthiness and moral panics. The conclusion will focus on whether people’s fears are influenced by the role the press and media have in today’s society.
Garofalo (1981:840) defined fear of crime as an:
‘emotional reaction characterized by a sense of danger and anxiety…produced by the threat of physical harm…elicited by perceived cues in the environment that relate to some aspect of crime’
Lee and Farrall (2009:153) state that ‘the mass media and interpersonal communications are obvious sources of second hand information about crime. They say that it seems unlikely that people’s representations of risk stem from their own personal, first-hand experience of criminal incidents. By contrast, according to Lee and Farrall, a good deal of research suggests that hearing about events (via the mass media) plays a stronger role in raising the public’s fears of crime’.
Lee (2007:187) says that when it comes to news coverage there is little doubt that the old adage of ‘if it bleeds it leads’ remains largely accurate. Lee also states that when it comes to crime reportage there is no doubt that crime involving violence makes good ‘bad’ news stories. Most importantly specific stories can become discursively connected to the broader arguments around ‘crime’ and law and order. Lee uses the example of the panic in Britain in 2005 around incidents of ‘happy slapping’, the identification of ‘hoodies’ and ‘anti-social behaviour’.
Reiner (2012:262) writes that news content is generated and filtered primarily through reporters’ sense of news-worthiness – what makes a good story that their audience wants to know about. In a classic early study Chibnall (1977 cited in Newburn 2007:86) eight ‘professional imperatives’ were identified as implicit guides to the construction of news stories. They were: Immediacy, Dramatisation, Personalisation, Simplification, Titillation, Conventionalism, Structured Access and Novelty. Hall et al (1978) in their study of moral panic surrounding mugging argued that violence played an important role in determining the newsworthiness of particular events. They (1978:67-8) argued that any ‘crime can be lifted into news visibility if violence becomes associated with it since violence is perhaps the supreme example of the news value “negative consequences”.
Attitudes to crime are hugely influenced by newspaper reports, with tabloid readers almost twice as likely to be worried about crime as those who favour broadsheets ( Cozens 2003).
Berger, Free and Searles (2005:4) talk about how a new genre of television crime reporting appeared on the scene: the tabloid-style infoainment. Shows such as Cops, Americas Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries. These programmes present “true crime” stories that blur the traditional distinction between news and entertainment. They promote a “shared disgust for anyone alleged to be a criminal” and serve to heighten our fear by suggesting that crime is all-pervasive. Newburn (2007) suggests that all media appear to exaggerate the extent of violent crime in Britain.
Marsh and Melville (2008:40) say that ‘Moral panic is such a well-established term, both in academic and everyday vocabulary, that it is surprising to recall it has only become widely used since the work of Cohen in the early 1970s on youth subcultures. Since then the term has been regularly used in the media to refer to all sorts of anti-social and/or criminal behaviours. According to Marsh and Melville essentially a moral panic refers to an exaggerated reaction, from the media, the police or wider public, to the activities of particular social groups. These activities may well be relatively trivial but have been reported in a somewhat sensationalized form in the media; and such reporting and publicity has then led to an increase in general anxiety and concern about those activities. So a moral panic is an exaggerated response to a type of behaviour that is seen as a social problem – the term indicates an over-reaction on the part of the media and/or other social institutions. Furthermore, this over-reaction magnifies the original area of concern. Indeed, it leads to the social group (and, as a consequence, the behaviour and activities they engage in) being viewed by the wider society as ‘folk devils’ – another term coined by Cohen.
In Lee (2007) he writes that Stan Cohen’s (1972) argument about crime stories still rings true. His analysis saw the media as very central to the production of moral panics.
‘The mass media operate with certain definitions of what is newsworthy. It is not that instruction manuals exist telling newsmen that certain subjects (drugs, sex, violence) will appeal to the public or that certain groups (youths, immigrants) should be continually exposed to scrutiny….’(Cohen 1972:45)
In his discussion of paedophilia as a moral panic, Critcher (2003 ) makes the point that there are few academic and secondary sources of information on paedophilia and that an examination of newspaper coverage is the clearest way of showing how the panic emerged and developed. By the late 1990s, the press coverage of paedophilia reached what might be termed moral panic level. Critcher cites 25 headlines referring to child abusers and paedophiles in one month in one newspaper, the Daily Mail. He cites a Daily Mail editorial, from 13 March 1998 arguing against the release of paedophiles, asking ‘what kind of law is it that plays Russian roulette with the lives of our children?’. By 2000, the coverage of paedophilia in the British press had reached unprecedented levels following the sexual murder of Sarah Payne, an eight-year-old girl who had been missing for two weeks.
To conclude there is strong evidence to show that fear of crime is real and affects people’s lives. The way that the press and media portray crime stories does appear to have a direct effect on what the public think about society and the crime that surrounds them. The way that broadsheet and tabloid newspapers report their stories would seem to have an influence on how people react. Tabloids, for example, tend to focus on violent and sex crimes to grab reader’s attention and sensationalise topics like paedophilia or murder. Moral panics would then seem to be a result of this type of hysteria caused by the media showing that indeed the press and media can shape the public’s fears about crime.
Berger, J., Free, M and Searles,P. (2005) Crime , Justice and Society: An Introduction to Criminology (2nd ed) London: Lynne Rienner Publishers
Cozens, C., (17th July 2003),http://www.guardian.co.uk, ‘Tabloids ‘stoke’ fear of crime’ (accessed 4th November 2012)
Critcher, C. (2003) Moral Panics and the Media, Milton Keynes: Open University Press
Garofalo, J. (1981). The fear of crime: Causes and consequences. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 72(2), p. 839-857.
Lee, M. (2007) Inventing Fear of Crime: Criminology and the Politics of Anxiety, Cullompton: Willan Publishing
Lee, M and Farrall, S. (2009) Fear of Crime: Critical Voices in an Age of Anxiety,Oxon: Routledge
Marsh, I. and Melville G. (2008), Crime, Justice and the Media, Oxon: Routledge
Mason, P. (2003) Criminal Visions, Media Representations of Crime and Justice, Cullompton: Willan Publishing
Newburn, T. (2007) Criminology, Cullompton: Willan Publishing
Williams, P and Dickinson, J. (1993) ‘Fear of Crime: Read All About It? The Relationship between Newspaper Crime Reporting and Fear of Crime’, British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 33, p. 33-42