Social media has revolutionized how we communicate information. Within the last three decades, the media’s outreach has increased dramatically. Shifting from the use of telegraphs, post offices, newspapers, magazines, and radio, to television, cell phones and tablets to increase the accessibility to content. However, in this new era of technological innovation and inevitable exposure, few are aware of potential flaws in the construction of entertainment sources and the reporting of news stories. The purpose of this essay is to shed light upon the ethical dilemma arising from the media’s misrepresentation of crimes, offenders and victims. More importantly, this essay will strive to make the argument based on Alice Minium’s article: The Morality of Misrepresentation: When Bad Reporting Has A Body Count, which exposes how the distortion of society’s criminal reality prompts a significant transformation of behavioural standards and ethical boundaries within the community. Critical attention to how crime is reported in the news is necessary given the way in which the media represents these events, heavily influences our understanding of crime in society. From the social construction of crime to the way it’s reported, as well as its representation in news compared to television, the misrepresentation of crime by the media incites a greater and unrealistic fear of crime.
Although this essay attempts to expose the dilemma concerning the flawed representation of crime in the media, it would be inaccurate to discredit the importance of reporting it. While crime reported may be flawed, to an extent, it is important to remain objective and be critical about the importance of media, since it helps keep the community aware of the state of security and important information. However, as suggested by Miss Minium’s article, media images help shape our view of the world and our core values, going further as to define what we consider good or bad, positive or negative, moral or unethical. Reality is socially constructed, in large part, through the media, which provides a way for dominant values in society to be communicated to the public. In particular, when the news media becomes a platform for power institutions to distribute information to a large audience. In 2018, during his final speech, Dr. Tim Soutphommasane, Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission, declared the return of race politics: “ Politicians are enthusiastically seeking debates about immigration, multiculturalism and crime. This is dangerous territory. When politicians resort to using race in advancing their agendas, they inevitably excite racial anxiety and stir up social division” (Roich 137). The commissioner maintains that, as long as power structures within society promote or insinuate that a specific social group is responsible for violence and insecurity, unrest and tensions will inevitably ensue. The best way to define this reality would be as a media hegemony, referring to the dominance of a certain way of life and how it is diffused through society (Oxford). The media depicts a large proportion of offenders as racial and ethnic minorities, even though a much smaller percentage are involved in the criminal justice system (Minium). Minorities, therefore, are overrepresented as offenders in the news. Black suspects, for example, will be less likely to be identified by name and as so dehumanized, to be well dressed, and are more likely to be physically restrained, opposed to their white counterparts. Furthermore, while African-Americans are overrepresented as offenders, they tend to be underrepresented as victims in the news. Alice Courtauld, a law student at King’s College London, states in her article: How the Media Controls our Perceptions of Crime, that “Even if much of what is reported is untrue or exaggerated it may be enough to whip up a moral panic” (ShoutoutUK). Courtauld makes a point to acknowledge the massive influence and power within the media’s grasp, which corroborates Minium in her statement on how the veracity of the information is conclusively irrelevant, since whatever the media states as truth, will become the ultimate truth. A 2000 study published by Stanford University and the University of California entitled Prime Suspects: The Influence of Local Television News on the Viewing Public, goes beyond and talks about the crime script followed by every news channel “First, as seen in the news, crime is violent. Second, coverage is episodic in the sense that the news focuses on discrete events rather than collective outcomes or general context. Third, crime ‘episodes’ often feature a central causal agent, namely, the suspected perpetrator. Given the visual nature of the medium, the importance of the suspect to the script means that crime news is often accompanied by racial imagery” (Gilliam, Jr. 3-4). Conclusively, as previously mentioned, the news media does not reflect actual crime statistics on several dimensions, after all, “racism sells” (Bloyd) and violence too. While this discussion applies to the reporting of crime in all types of media, it remains true that news sources differ in various ways regarding the construction of crime.
Crime has long been source of popular spectacle and entertainment. Modern television is flooded with crime shows available at all hours, resulting in an abundance of accessible crime media. Crime dramas attempt to appear largely realistic in an effort to create a sense of familiarity in viewers by basing episodes on true stories, referring to specific laws and regulations, or situating themselves in an identifiable setting such as a popular geographic location. As stated in the article Clearing Crime in Prime-Time: The Disjuncture Between Fiction and Reality, “A primary issue with the media’s inaccurate depiction of crime and the criminal justice system is that it socially constructs people’s perceptions about the nature of crime and how the criminal justice system works. Since most people rely on the media for their information about these topics, their perceptions about the system are skewed by this inaccurate information” (American Journal of Criminal Justice). Therefore, the media focus on crime is received by audience members as both informative, entertaining and most importantly as factual. Viewers may subconsciously believe what they see on television is a reflection of reality. On television, ﬁctional narratives tend to featured violent crimes more prominently than other oﬀences, American media consists mainly of murder, assault, or armed robbery and when there is a lack of it the media compensates by the appearance of prostitution and other crimes such as pornography, and drug-related crimes. Stephen Mann, a marketing coordinator at Oxford University Press, states that “At the same time, TV networks are intertwined with crime shows, which blended crime news and entertainment… Other studies show that viewers see reality shows as providing information, rather than entertainment. Audiences interpret crime-based reality programming as similar to the news”. Mann suggests that while in news and entertainment, crime is at the forefront, people’s faulty dissociation between the two, results in the lines between fact and fiction being blurred.
In conclusion, the inaccurate portrayal of crime in media has been prominent in society over the past few decades as television content has risen in both popularity and quantity. By providing audiences with constant stereotypes and redundant crime scripts, as well as a lack of differentiation between reality and fiction, viewers are potentially unable to see beyond the predefined profiles of offenders and victims, compared to reality. Therefore, viewers are likely to regard all crime as being the same with little concern about statistics. However, these instances of violent crime and homicide are considerably different than actual occurencies as they are highly overrepresented. Finally, when horrific crimes are overly depicted a social construction of victimization is likely to develop, possibly leading to a greater and unrealistic fear of crime.
Gilliam , Franklin D. D., and Sahnto Iyengar. Prime Suspects: The Influence of Local Television News on the Viewing Public . http://www.uky.edu/AS/PoliSci/Peffley/pdf/491Gilliam&IyengarAJPSPrimeSuspects2000-44(3).pdf.
“How the Media Controls Our Perceptions of Crime.” Shout Out UK, 7 Nov. 2014, https://www.shoutoutuk.org/2014/11/08/how-the-media-controls-our-perceptions-of-crime/.
Mann, Stephen, et al. “Crime and the Media in America.” OUPblog, 3 Apr. 2018, https://blog.oup.com/2018/04/crime-news-media-america/.
“Media Hegemony - Oxford Reference.” Media Hegemony - Oxford Reference, 3 Nov. 2019, https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100146560.
Minium, Alice. “The Morality of Misrepresentation: When Bad Reporting Has A Body Count.” Medium, Medium, 16 May 2019, https://medium.com/@aliceminium/hands-up-dont-shoot-how-mass-media-s-narrative-of-the-unnamed-black-suspect-legitimizes-racial-12d0e7ec66c4.
Rhineberger-Dunn, Gayle, et al. “Clearing Crime in Prime-Time: The Disjuncture Between Fiction and Reality.” American Journal of Criminal Justice, 27 June 2015, http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=26&[email protected].