Society has always been interested by crime, though equally disapprove of it as discussed by Bonn (2014) who detailed why society enjoys programmes about serial killers, Bonn (2014) believes this is because crime elicits a basic emotion of fear, both enjoyable and unpleasant. The content that the mass media distributes proves just how much this fascination with crime and criminals has grown Van Arendonk (2019) questions whether tv has become addicted to crime; whether it’s in news reports, television soap operas, books, movies, video games or music, crime and deviance have become a major theme, therefore Van Arendonk (2019) believes it is because media can control the comfort at which we engage with crime, the audience is not genuinely feeling the terror of being a victim of crime, but they can empathise.
This has caused some to question the role of the media and has been the topic of many debates about how the media effects individuals. This essay, with the use of theories and already reported stories will explore how the mass media portrays offenders and crime the way that they do. Following these theories, this essay will also illustrate how the media depicts criminals and their crimes depending on their age, gender, ethnicity and social class. Therefore, the aim of the essay is to answer the question, how are ex-offenders and their crimes portrayed in the media?
Trueman(2015) ‘The Media and Crime’ states that ‘the media frequently reports on criminal activity as it has a right to do. However, some think that the media sensationalises crime to create a moral panic and that it is used as a way of controlling the publics behaviour’. In the 1950’s ‘Teddy Boys’ were portrayed by the media as young men hell-bent of turning society upside down. This continued into the 1960’s because of the media’s portrayal of the clashes between the Mods and the Rockers. The whole idea of the media’s coverage was to convince society that these youths were acting outside of the norms desired by society. Cohen (1972) found that some minor fights between Mods and Rockers in were very much sensationalised by the media. One headline was “Wild ones invade seaside town – 97 arrests”.
There was in fact only 24 arrests. Cohen(1972) found that the media reporting led to increased policing which intensified the problem rather than the opposite effect. More recently moral panics have appeared about football hooligans, girl gangs, raves as well as terrorist threats. The media play an important role in helping the public to understand matters of criminal justice and crime. The media construction of crime will define what are thought to be the causes of crime, what acts are regarded as criminal, and what policies of crime control should be adopted. By giving voice to authority figures in their commentary, the media are able to set the agenda and influence the publics decision making.
A lot of people depend on information from the media, which will sometimes create a negative perception of ex-offenders because of their lack of experiences or knowledge of crime (Ditton, 2008). The mass media reporting can sometimes form in the mind of the consumer, stereotypes of the reported criminals, and therefore, individuals start to believe the stories and then link certain sorts of crimes with certain types of minorities or individuals (Altheide, 1997) Pollak and Kubrin (2007:61) claim that “the language used in a news report is critical in constructing the consumer’s reality and perception of crime”. The language of news reports is a pivotal feature which adds to the distortion of the story that the media means to tell.
Therefore, when youth violence is appearing in crime reports, a choice of discourse leads to the portrayal of a certain way of thinking towards the crimes committed by the youth. In reports where the youth are portrayed as offenders, the language used in the story focus on the extremeness of the offense, the criminal history of the youth and their victims as innocents. The effects of this way of reporting portrays a picture that young people are dangerous, and that an immediate intervention is needed.Baur et al (2017) noted that Ex-offenders are routinely stigmatised in society and this happens through the following ways; the individual are primarily labelled as a ‘criminal’ which they are then stereotyped against according to prejudices and biases associated with criminal looks and behaviours, thus resulting in discrimination.
Criminals on the television do typically get casted according to the theory of atavism Lombroso(1876), which therefore stereotypes the character and prompts the idea that offenders look and act a certain way. Jones and King (2014) highlight that criminal offences are a concealable stigma that an individual can largely choose to hide and disclose at their leisure, however, in television episodic dramas, this is typically not the case. They are perceived by the public as the ‘baddy’ returning, or the criminal offense was so paramount it produces a dramatic storyline for example the famous ‘who shot Phil’ in Eastenders, and other such storylines. The ‘moodiness’ of media can create ‘dark’ ‘murky’ ‘negative’ imagery which contribute to societal perceptions of offenders in real life being synonymous with such emotional moods.
In contrast some media contributes to the ‘bad boys’ or the attractive side of crime, criminals and ex-offenders such as the Peaky Blinders brothers – This is the reason that crime as a theme is widely used in the media. Brennan & Vandenberg (2009) offer a useful summary in describing what is known as the ‘mad/bad dichotomy’, their research indicates that the media is quick to categorize women as “either mad, that is mentally unstable and not fully responsible for their actions”, or bad- “women who wilfully defy traditional gender role expectations” (Brennan & Vandenberg, 2009). However, exaggeration through narratives for certain criminals like youth and females are not the only abnormality made by the media. Crimes that involve white collar and corporate crimes, are reported less and the language used for these stories are almost in a positive light.
These distortions by the media have played a crucial role in the past of the justice system and will continue to do so because distorted portrayals and projections of crime have the power to mould agendas, form public opinions and even manage to get laws and policies amended. Dorna(2016) states “for females (and it is usually women) there is a biological basis, this is because risky behaviour was, in cavemen societies, behaviour that would help preserve the pack. For instance, the male that would go out hunting for the biggest animal would be thought of as the most attractive because he was willing to risk the most in attaining the trophy for his family. This risky behaviour has been linked to the release of testosterone; the hormone females are attracted to.”
In conclusion, the influences and effects of the media in relation to crime continues to be a deeply examined area of study by many experts. Crime and criminals are a popular theme that is used in large amounts in the newspapers, radio broadcasts, TV series or in news reports as it holds the greatest news value. It is undeniable that the media has the power to cause moral panics and imprint a large fear of crime in the public eye through their style of reporting on crimes and criminals, in particular based on their age, ethnicity, gender and social class.
However, although these reports and stories have been widely criticised for not reflecting the true statistics and the facts of crimes and criminals but instead for the need of economic gain and for the publics need for excitement and even to make policy changes in the criminal justice system. The media is extremely successful at making the public believe that violent crimes are being committed by a certain sort of person and are widespread, and so, the media represent ex-offenders and crimes in whatever light they and think will push their agenda in the direction that they would like it to be heading.