Critically analyse the Media’s Focus on young people and Violent Crime

Published: 2021-09-30 07:10:05
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Category: Violence, Crime, Justice, News, Criminology

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Western society is fascinated with crime and justice. From films, newspapers, everyday conversation, books and magazines, there is a continual rhetoric regarding crime. The mass media plays a crucial part in the construction of criminality and the criminal justice system. The way the public perceive victims, criminals and the members of law enforcement is very much determined by the influences of the mass media (Roberts, Doob, 1990; Surette, 1998). It is therefore essential to take into account the effects that the mass media have on attitudes toward violent crimes, especially those concerning young people.
If we start with television programmes we find that there is a link between viewing crime shows on the television is in fact linked to a fear of crime. Fear of crime may be a natural reaction by viewers to the brutality, violence and sometimes even injustices that are portrayed within these programmes. Crimes on television shows reveal certain patterns; there is an overemphasis on violent crimes and offenders are often sensationalised or stereotyped. Murder and robbery are common themes also yet crimes such as burgurlary are less often seen (Surette, 1998).

Offenders are portrayed as psychopaths that target vulnerable and weak victims or as business people and professionals that are highly intelligent and violent, with victims being portrayed as helpless and weak (Surette, 1998). Many viewers may not understand the justice system and its process and are even less likely to understand (with some exceptions) the causes and motivations of criminal behaviour. The criminal justice system is portrayed largely as ineffective with the exception of selected heroes that provide justice or in some cases vengeance towards offenders (Surette, 1998). These programmes rarely focus on any mitigating circumstances of criminal behaviour and are unlikely to portray offenders in not only a sympathetic light but even a realistic fashion.
On television crime is freely chosen and based on the individual problems of the offender. Analysis of crime drama reveals that greed, revenge and mental illness are the basic motivations for crime and offenders are often portrayed as ‘different’ from the general population (Lichter and Lichter, 1983: Maguire, 1998). This leads to a possible belief by viewers that all offenders are ‘monsters’ to be feared. Consequently heavy viewers may perceive crime as threatening, offenders as violent, brutal or ruthless and victims as helpless. These inaccurate presentations, as well as the portrayal of crime as inevitable or non preventable may lead to an increase in the fear of crime.
The news media focus on violent crime is highly selective. Ferrell (2005:150) points out that news media representations highlight ‘the criminal victimization of strangers rather than the dangerous intimacies of domestic of family conflict’. Stanko and Lee (2003:10) note that ‘the violence in the media is constructed ‘as random’, wanton and the intentional acts of evil folk’. News reporting of crime and furthermore of the particular types of crime on which newspaper journalists disproportionately focus on, is selective and unrepresentative. News reporting of crime victims is equally so. Reiner et al stated that the foregrounding of crime victims in the media is one of the most significant qualitative changes in media representations of crime and control since the Second World War (Reiner et al. 2000a,b, 2003).
Not all crime victims receive equal attention in the news media. Ocassionally intense media coverage may be devoted to victims who can be discredited on the basis of criminal promiscuous or otherwise questionable past. More often, however media resources are dedicated to the representation of those victims who can be portrayed as ideal. Christie (1986:18) describes the ideal victim as ‘a person or category of individuals who-when hit by crime-most readily are given the complete and legitimate status of being a victim’. This group includes young people. These young people attract massive levels of media attention, generate collective mourning on a near global scale, and drive significant change to a social and criminal justice policy and practice (Greer, 2004; Valier, 2004).
In the summer of 2002, two 10 year old girls, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman went missing from their home in Soham. Their disappearance attracted the biggest ever manhunt in Britain and international media attention. In 1996 two boys of similar age, Patrick Warren and David Spencer, went missing from their homes. Their disappearance failed to register much outside the local press. Shortly after 13 year old Milly Dowler went missing in 2002, the body of a teenage girl was recovered from a disused cement works in Tilbury Docks (Jewkes, 2004). Amongst media speculation that it was another missing teenager, Danielle Jones, who had disappeared almost a year earlier, the body was identified as Hannah Williams, however it was Milly’s story that continued to receive attention whilst Hannah received only a few sentences n the inside pages.
Holly and Jessica were clearly seen as ideal victims. They were described using adjectives such as young, bright and energetic. They were from stable and loving middle class family backgrounds and had both achieved well at school. David and Patrick were working class, they were boys, brought up on a West Midlands council estate, in trouble at school and one of them had previously been caught shoplifting. While Holly and Jessica captured the hearts and minds of the nation, Patrick and David did not gain anywhere near as much interest and few people knew about their disappearance, much in the same way Hannah Williams was unknown. Hannah’s murder generated just over 60 articles in the British national press, mostly after she was found. In its first two weeks alone, the hunt for Holly and Jessica produced nearly 900 (Fracassini, 2002).
Whilst on one hand the media sensationalise when young people are the victims of violent crimes, it also sensationalises when there is a belief that these young people are in fact the perpetrators of violent crimes. A study carried out by Young People Now, (a publication for people working with children and young people) through research firm Mori, looked at tabloids, local papers and broadsheets over the course of a week. Seventy-one percent of articles concerning young people had a negative tone, while 14 percent were positive and 15 percent were neutral. In addition, 48 percent of articles about crime and violence depicted a young person as the perpetrator, whereas only 26 percent of young people admit to committing a crime, and of those only seven percent involved the police and only a minority were violent-the most common committed crime was petty theft. The picture being painted in the media is one of violent young men with nearly 70 percent of violent stories involving boys describing them as the perpetrator and 32 percent as the victim, while girls are described as the victim in 91 percent of cases and the offender in 10 percent (Ipsos Mori). In reality 31 percent of boys in mainstream schools admit to having committed a crime compared with 20 percent of girls and boys are more likely to be victims of violent crime than girls (Young people and the Media, 2004).
Peter McIntyre, a journalist whose 30 year career has included work on the Oxford Times and editing a Unicef book of guidelines for interviewing children states that children in trouble with the law have some legal protection, but in some cases, because journalists are not allowed to name young people, they feel free to misrepresent them, contributing to the monsterisation of young people (2004). If images of violent yobs predominate, there is a risk that policy makers will respond to stereotypes rather than the true diversity of young people’s needs.
The rise of the antisocial behaviour order (ASBO) was seized upon by local and national newspapers as a chance to name and shame young people. From the Sun newspaper’s proposal to hand out ‘SASBO’s (Sun Antisocial Behaviour Orders), to south London paper News’s Shopper’s Shop a Yob Bingo, papers were able to show pictures of these young people, because there were no automatic reporting restrictions on young people sentenced by civil courts, unlike youth courts. All of these reporting’s serve to further fuel media hype and moral panic surrounding young people as violent offenders.
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Christie,N. (1986) The Ideal Victim in Fattah, E. (ed), from Crime Policy to Victim Policy. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
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Ferrell, J. (2005). Crime and Culture in Hale, C. Hayward, K. Wahidin, A. And Wincup, E. (eds), Criminology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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