Mass Media, Crime, and Justice

Kevin Buckler & Patti Ross Salinas. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. 2009.

Crime and justice issues have been a stable fixture of mass media portrayal of American society. From the 1920s onward, crime appeared very frequently in tabloid journalism, especially in the context of photographic accounts of crime scenes. Since television became popularized in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, crime has been featured extensively on television programming, including both entertainment and news programming. In terms of local television news, coverage of crime has intensified as local stations have shifted to “eyewitness” and “action news” formats (which rely on live, from-thescene footage) beginning in the 1970s (Lipschultz, & Hilt, 2002). Crime also occupies a prominent position on many of the “infotainment”-oriented cable news network programs (on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC) that infuse entertainment elements with news elements.

This chapter focuses attention on mass media and crime and justice. This topic is very broad and encompasses too many multifaceted aspects to cover them all in the space that a book chapter provides. Media and crime studies have covered such diverse issues as the sheer volume of crime coverage by mass media (relative to other topics), the ideological content of mass media artifacts concerning crime and justice, how media organizations select certain crimes for coverage, the impact of media coverage on high-profile criminal trials, the impact of crime coverage on public opinion and public policy, and the impact of mass media consumption on how fearful a person is with respect to his or her likelihood of victimization, to name a few. In addition, research has been done on news media and crime (relating to newspapers, national news programs, local television news programs), entertainment media and crime (relating to television programs, movies, songs, etc.), and “infotainment” media and crime.

This chapter will focus broadly on mass media and crime and justice. First, the chapter identifies a framework within which mass media behavior can be understood—from a market-oriented perspective. Distinctions between the market and public sphere models of mass media are noted. Justifications are next provided as to why it is logical to believe that market-oriented concerns have trumped public-sphere-oriented concerns in the production of mass media artifacts. This section of the chapter also illustrates how market-oriented concerns impact media decisions by discussing perspectives and research on “newsworthiness” criteria used by journalists. This section concludes with the application of the market model framework to research on entertainment media decision making.

Second, media decision making is assessed from the perspective of organizational imperatives of the mass media organization. This discussion is framed in the context of news organizations. This section focuses on how journalists create “news themes” in the reporting of news and how journalists are reliant on official sources of information. Third, research on the effects of media coverage of crime is discussed. Here, research on the concept of “moral panics” is presented. Finally, research on the link between media consumption and fear of crime is discussed.

The Importance of Market Demands in Mass Media Production 

The Market and Public Sphere Dichotomy

Personnel of mass media organizations face two overarching objectives in the production of mass media output. First, mass media organizations have an obligation to deliver information to the public in a thought-provoking manner that facilitates the further development of democracy. But even though mass media organizations have an obligation to the public they serve, in the United States these organizations are privately held companies. This fact creates a second, equally important role of media organizations—to earn profit for shareholders. In their book, The Business of Media: Corporate Media and the Public Interest, David Croteau and William Hoynes (2001) suggest that these two directives that media companies face often compete with one another over primacy when media personnel make decisions about what news items to cover and how to cover them.

Croteau and Hoynes (2001) call these two competing dynamics the market model and the public sphere model. In the market model of mass media, the media company is conceptualized as a private company that is selling a product. Based on this understanding of the role of the mass media organization, there is no real difference between media organizations and private retail companies (such as Wal-Mart or Target); both the retail organization and the media organization are manufacturing a product that they market to the public in hopes of maximizing profit. Since in the market model the primary purpose of the media is to generate profit for owners and shareholders of the company, the media company views the audience as consumers with tastes and preferences that need to be understood and addressed. The success of the media company is determined by the amount of profit that the company generates. In this model, the media company encourages “consumers” to enjoy themselves, view ads, and buy products. Information that is potentially presented to the public by the media company is deemed to be in the interest of the public only when the information is believed to be popular among citizens. Therefore, government attempts at regulating the mass media are viewed as interference with normal market processes involving supply and demand.

In contrast, Croteau and Hoynes point out that in the public sphere model, the media company is seen as a public resource that is supposed to serve the public. The main purpose of media in the public sphere model is to promote citizenship through information, education, and social integration. In this regard, the public sphere model of media addresses audiences as citizens who should be encouraged to learn about their world in order to become actively involved. According to the public sphere model, when media companies are acting in the public’s best interest, it is because they are delivering diverse, substantive content, even when this type of content is not popular among citizens. Thus, in this model, the ultimate success of mass media organizations is not tied to profits generated for owners and shareholders, but instead is measured by whether the media organization is serving the interests of the public. In contrast to the market model, regulation of media organizations is viewed as a useful tool for protecting the public interest.

Market-Based Criteria and Media Assessments of “Newsworthiness”

Media scholars typically argue that media corporation personnel make decisions about media content on the basis of the market model. They suggest that mass media personnel perceive that the general public is interested in crime; thus, the topic of crime is used as a method of attaining ratings and high sales of their products. While the elements of this model are certainly applicable to various forms of entertainment media, the tendency by mass media to use market-based criteria in decision making is most clearly evident when news reporting of crime is considered. In this regard, mass media personnel make assessments as to the “newsworthiness” of potential news items, and newsworthiness assessment is a function of marketbased criteria.

With respect to news reporting of crime, the concept of newsworthiness can be assessed in a variety of ways. Media researchers have consistently found that compared to other types of stories (e.g., business, foreign affairs, politics), crime stories occupy a prominent position in news reporting (Lipschultz & Hilt, 2002). Thus, one way of assessing newsworthiness is to compare media coverage of crime to media coverage of other topics of interest. Using this standard of newsworthiness, researchers generally conclude that journalists view crime events as quite newsworthy, in comparison to other story types.

But the main way that researchers assess the issue of newsworthiness is to compare the coverage of crimes with certain characteristics against coverage of crimes with other characteristics to determine whether there are differences across criminal events with respect to the intensity of coverage. In this respect, the notion of newsworthiness is synonymous with the intensity of the coverage. If a particular crime is covered more intensively than others, it can generally be said that the crime receiving more attention is deemed more newsworthy than the less covered story. Some researchers look at whether a particular crime receives any coverage as a way of understanding intensity of coverage. Others examine whether a story about a particular event was published on the first page of a newspaper or was the main story on a television news program. Some measure intensity of coverage by the number of words published or the amount of time devoted to a news item.

In terms of identification of the circumstances that would produce the most intense coverage, most commentators use the crime of murder to illustrate how marketbased criteria impact journalistic decision making. Journalist Pat Doyle of the New York Daily News (1995) suggests that a murder incident makes for a good human interest story when the murder (1) involves a socially prominent or respectable citizen who is involved as either a victim or an offender in the story; (2) the victim is an overmatched and innocent target; (3) the method of murder is either shocking or brutal or involves multiple victims or offenders; and (4) the narrative generates mystery, suspense, or drama. In addition, Steve Chermak (1995) argues that the decision criteria used by journalists to assess the newsworthiness of crime stories include (1) the relative violent or heinous nature of the offense, (2) demographic characteristics of the victim and offender (age, gender, race, social status), (3) the uniqueness of the event, (4) characteristics of the incident producers (the news agency and staff), and (5) event salience (e.g., whether the offense is a local crime).

David Prichard and Karen Hughes (1997) looked to synthesize these various perspectives into a concise theory to explain journalistic newsworthiness assessments pertaining to crime. They establish four different “forms of deviance” that they argue lead journalists to intensively cover certain types of homicides. First, they argue that the greater the statistical deviance from the norm, the greater the likelihood that a homicide will receive intense media coverage. In essence, they theorize that there are typical crimes (like theft), and there are atypical crimes (like murder). Typical crimes are less likely than atypical crimes to be covered. Similarly, there are typical and atypical offenses within certain categories of crime, such as homicide. Based on the statistical deviance hypothesis, atypical homicides (for instance, a stranger homicide) will receive more coverage than more typical homicides (for instance, those involving acquaintances or family members).

Second, they theorize that the higher the degree of status deviance, the greater the likelihood that journalists will intensively cover a criminal event. They define status deviance as the extent to which a person or a group of persons is different based on established social benchmarks. For instance, Prichard and Hughes (1997) wrote that in society, wealthy white males have more status than poor African American women. Thus, a crime committed against a wealthy white man would violate the established social benchmarks more than a crime committed against a poor African American woman.

Third, they hypothesize that the higher the degree of cultural deviance, the greater the likelihood that the criminal event is intensively covered. A crime is considered to be culturally deviant when it is unclean, unhealthy, or perverted when measured against mainstream social norms. They suggest that crimes that are linked to involvement with drugs can be considered culturally deviant. In addition, they suggest that a crime committed against a particularly vulnerable victim (an elderly victim or a child, for instance) is the type of crime that is most culturally deviant. The conceptualization of culture deviance by these two authors suggests that any crime involving certain circumstances that leads the average person to be repulsed to the point of experiencing negative emotional states (for example, anger, revenge, etc.) could be construed as culturally deviant.

Last, Prichard and Hughes (1997) identify the notion of normative deviance as a criterion that journalists use to assess the newsworthiness of a criminal event. Normative deviance is conceptualized as involving gradational levels of offense seriousness as determined by the level of punitive consequence dictated by statute. At its most basic level, the normative deviance hypothesis is an acknowledgment that society implements a gradational approach to sanctioning based on determinations of seriousness of the offense. Therefore, it is expected that crimes that are most serious (based on statute) will be judged by journalists to be the most serious; thus, the crimes and circumstances of crime that receive the most stringent punishments will be covered most intensively by news organizations. Even though Prichard and Hughes focus on the conceptual distinctions of these four types of deviance, they are not mutually exclusive. There can be overlap when applying these concepts to journalistic determinations of newsworthiness of crime events.

Croteau and Hoynes (2001) established the foundation for understanding what it means for a mass media organization to be what John H. McManus (1994) refers to as “marketdriven.” The perspectives of Doyle, Chermak (1995), and Prichard and Hughes (1997) facilitate an understanding of the criteria that journalists use to make assessments about the newsworthiness of a particular criminal event. But it is important to keep in mind that the processes that each body of work identifies are intricately connected. Journalists use newsworthiness criteria as a method of making a judgment concerning the types of news items the general public is interested in consuming. In essence, the development of newsworthiness judgments is based on shared understandings of what is marketable to the general public.

The research of Prichard and Hughes (1997) most powerfully illustrates the importance of market-based criteria in journalistic decision making. In their qualitative interviews with journalists in Milwaukee, they quote one journalist as saying,

This is just a guess [but] I don’t think we sell so many papers in the central city. But we do sell a lot of papers in the suburbs. So it is important that we give something to our readers that they can relate to as opposed to something that does not affect them. (p. 63)

The journalist was discussing why crime in the suburbs receives more coverage than crime in the central city, even though there is more crime in the central city. Another journalist stated, “In a mass-circulation paper, you need to consider what the reader wants” (p. 63). Another stated, “If the reader can say ‘that could have been me that was killed,’ then that has more news value” (p. 63).

While the connection between the market-based tendencies of journalism and use of newsworthiness criteria to cater to market demands is rather easily understood, precise propositions about what journalists and news editors view as a newsworthy crime story are not nearly this straightforward. Most of the perspectives about criteria of newsworthiness (for instance, the perspectives of Doyle, Chermak, and Prichard and Hughes discussed above) focus much attention on obvious factors about newsworthiness (heinous methods, multiple victims or offenders, well-respected people) and do not provide very specified direction about other factors (for instance, characteristics of the news producers and demographics of the victim/offender) that have been mentioned as those that influence news coverage of criminal events. In fact, the best-developed theoretical framework that has been set forth to date for understanding journalistic decision making (Prichard and Hughes’s 1997 article on “Patterns of Deviance”) makes competing predictions about newsworthiness criteria. For instance, the statistical deviance hypothesis predicts that homicides involving female victims will be most newsworthy, whereas the status deviance hypothesis predicts that crimes with male victims will be most newsworthy.

Sociologist Richard J. Lundman (2003) attempts to better understand how race and gender typification impacts journalistic assessment of newsworthiness. In his analysis of how gender and race affect newsworthiness of homicide cases, Lundman provides a framework for understanding the impact of demographic characteristics of the offender and victim on these decisions. He suggests that typification, or stereotypes, associated with gender and race provide journalists with templates, or “ready-made scripts,” for potential stories. In other words, according to Lundman, the more closely a crime story fits existing stereotyped understandings of race and gender, the more likely the crime will be judged to be marketable.

With respect to race, Lundman (2003) argues that homicides that involve an African American offender and a white victim will be perceived by journalists as more newsworthy because such a crime can be framed in the context of white fear of minority offenders. He also suggests that crimes involving a male offender and a female victim will be viewed by journalists as being highly newsworthy because these crimes can be covered by using “male sexism” and “male aggression and female submission” frames of reference. The logic of this argument is that the common understandings about gender and race (e.g., the stereotypes) that exist in society are more acceptable and easily understood by the market audience. Likewise, audiences are viewed as likely to reject “confusing” stories that do not conform to the dominant, easily understood, gender and race typification. Journalists are not likely to devote time, energy, and attention to stories that they believe the market audience will reject.

Research on news media decision making in the reporting of homicide cases suggests that market concerns do appear to impact the decisions of journalists and news editors in ways predicted by the literature on newsworthiness criteria. Prichard and Hughes (1997) examined newspaper coverage of 100 homicide cases in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that occurred in 1994. They found that homicides involving white participants, female victims, and victims that were either children or elderly received the most attention in the Milwaukee Sentinel and Milwaukee Journal.

In an analysis of media coverage of 249 homicides committed in Houston, Texas, in 2001, Kevin Buckler and Lawrence Travis (2005) discovered that homicides that involve female victims received substantial coverage, and they found that crimes involving minority offenders and nonminority victims received more intense coverage. But they also determined that circumstance characteristics of the crime increase newsworthiness as well. They found that intensity of coverage increases if the crime involves multiple victims, if it is a stranger homicide, if it involves the use of an unusual weapon, and if there is a robbery motive.

Lundman’s (2003) analysis of how gender and race impact media coverage of homicide in Columbus, Ohio, found that compared to the most common occurrence (black male offender, black male victim), situations involving a black male offender and a white female victim and situations involving a white male offender and a white female victim receive more intensive coverage.

The Market Model and Entertainment Media

While this discussion primarily focuses on mass media decision making in a news journalism context, it is not difficult to see the applicability of these theoretical perspectives to various forms of entertainment media. Indeed, an argument can be made that entertainment-oriented mass media companies that produce crime-related output are even more deeply entrenched in the market model. These companies may have less of an obligation than news media companies to inform audiences about their culture and society, and instead, conform to imperatives of the organization that are dictated by market concerns.

Television crime dramas have become increasingly popular with the general public. Crime shows like The Avengers; Baretta; Cagney and Lacy; The Commish; Colombo; CSI; Dragnet; Hawaii Five-O; Hill Street Blues; In the Heat of the Night; Kojak; L.A. Law; Law & Order; Magnum, P.I.; Miami Vice; Mod Squad; Murder, She Wrote; NYPD Blue; The Practice; The Rockford Files; Simon and Simon; Starsky and Hutch; and T. J. Hooker have proven to be immensely popular. Danielle Soulliere (2003) analyzed episodes from three of these shows (Law & Order, NYPD Blue, and The Practice) focusing on how the content of the episodes both diverges and converges with information on crime from official crime statistics. One of the most important conclusions from her research is that market factors may explain both divergence from the “reality” of crime and convergence with the “reality” of crime.

In terms of divergence, Soulliere (2003) found that these shows disproportionately focus attention on violent crime, and especially murder. Whereas murder makes up less than 1% of all crimes, in the episodes that were analyzed, murder was the focus in over 60% of the episodes. She concludes that this finding is attributable to the market demands of entertainment media organizations, noting that “violent crime, especially murder, strikes at the very core of our humanity and is therefore fascinating, dramatic, and entertaining. It is no surprise, then, that murder remains the most marketable crime in the entertainment television industry” (p. 30, emphasis added). In contrast, she found that there is convergence between official crime statistics and portrayal by these shows on the issue of victim–offender relationship (e.g., that most crimes are committed by acquaintances or family of the victim). She argues that this convergence may be “coincidental rather than intentional” (p. 31), noting that close relationships between the victim and the offender add drama to the plot and make it more marketable.

In addition, there is some evidence that entertainmentbased media organizations also behave as Lundman (2003) suggests in that they organize content around a script that is known, widely accepted, and socially safe (in that it does not offend the market audience). Buckler’s (2008) analysis of the 2005 film Crash provides an illustration using the framework established by Lundman. The film won three Oscars, for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Editing. The film Crash follows a group of racially and ethnically diverse characters in Los Angeles as they interact with one another, often in criminal ways. In his analysis, the author notes how the film was promoted as one that tackled the issue of race in a unique way, but Buckler goes on to show how the film conformed to existing racial and ethnic scripts.

Buckler (2008) conducted a content analysis of 29 separate instances of verbal and nonverbal discourse in scenes where raceor ethnically based behavior and stereotypes are present in the film. He concludes that the film was able to successfully (in terms of monetary sales and awards) tackle a controversial social issue like race/ethnicity and crime because it presents the issues in ways that are socially safe for white viewing audiences, by using the following techniques: (a) contextualizing and explaining white prejudice while presenting prejudiced actions by minorities as arbitrary and devoid of context, (b) reaffirmation of minority stereotypes, (c) portraying minority characters in interactions with police as the instigator, and (d) showing white racist characters in positive ways that redeem their behavior in some respect.

Organizational Factors Intrinsic to Media Production 

News Themes

Some research also implies that organizational factors that are intrinsic to the media production process impact mass media organization coverage of crime. Research by Mark Fishman (2006) suggests that organizational imperatives of news media production can create perceptions of crime waves. To Fishman, a crime wave is nothing more than a sporadic “social awareness about crime” and is essentially a “thing of the mind” (p. 42). In essence, Fishman saw crime waves as nothing more than media waves of coverage on crime topics. Thus, it can be said that Fishman believes that crime waves do not represent an objective reality, but instead, a subjective reality created by mass media behavior.

Fishman (2006) arrives at these conclusions in a study of a “crime wave” against elderly victims in the 1970s in New York City. In 1976, three daily newspapers and five local television stations began to report heavily on crimes committed against the elderly. These reports focused mainly on incidents where young African American or Hispanic offenders were victimizing elderly white people in and around ghetto areas of the city. Fishman noticed that the trend in official police statistics concerning crime against the elderly did not match the trend in the media reports; official statistics suggested that some crimes against the elderly were decreasing and other crimes against the elderly matched the trends for crimes against the general population. But the media reports were suggesting that this type of crime was increasing.

What accounts for the massive disconnect between media reports and official statistics? Fishman (2006) suggests that the organizational realities of news production contribute substantially to this disconnect. He explains that when news organizations create the day’s news, media personnel have countless stories that can potentially be reported as news items. There are national, state, and local possibilities. They can retrieve stories from the Associated Press and Reuters news services. In addition, they have potential stories that local journalists have developed. There are also countless other types of stories that could be reported: arts and entertainment, business, crime, health related, politics, and sports, to name a few. Thus, the job of the news editor is to develop “news themes” around which potential news items and reports are organized. A news theme is simply a broad idea that a group of news items are associated with because of a commonality that runs through each of the stories. In other words, a news theme is a technique of packaging a group of stories, each as a single instance of something broader.

A news theme can be applied to (a) how the news organization organizes a single day’s coverage or (b) coverage over a longer time period (for instance, a week, a month, or even a year). The best illustration of the first scenario is a themed news package identified by Fishman (2006) that was developed by a television station in its coverage of elderly crime in New York City. He observed that the news station covered the following stories:

  • Police apprehend juveniles who mugged an elderly couple in Queens.
  • Police and citizens in Queens meet to discuss crimes against the elderly.
  • Feature segment on Senior Citizens Robbery Unit.
  • Police seize guns and drugs that were intended for warring gangs.
  • Two members of a youth gang are arrested for robbery at knifepoint.
  • ROTC cadet arrested in stabbing death of another cadet.
  • NYC audit finds city police have been mishandling funds.
  • NYC police union working on contract at the same time that laid-off firemen and subway cops will be rehired.

In this package, there are two broad themes: crime and budget issues. But there is also a more specified theme with respect to the coverage of crime: crime against elderly and crime committed by young people. In essence, the likelihood that a potential news item is covered often depends on whether the news item can be clearly connected to other marketable news items. Fishman (2006) concludes that the use of news themes produces a situation where a journalistic search for knowledge mutates into a process of not knowing. What he means is that the process of developing news packages strips the criminal event of its actual context and places the occurrence within a new symbolic context: the news theme itself.

In terms of the second scenario, Fishman (2006) suggests that news themes can also develop over a longer period of time. In his research, he noticed that when one news organization reports a story, other news organizations are apt to look for stories that tie into the previously covered story. Journalists get story ideas by watching or reading media reports from other news organizations. If journalists are able to find other instances that can be tied into the theme, the theme can be kept alive for weeks or months. Fishman found evidence of this in his study of media coverage of elderly crime in New York City. The majority of the coverage on crime against the elderly occurred over a 7-week time period. Prior to this massive media wave of coverage, news organizations had been covering crime against the elderly at a pace of one story every other week. In addition, the data indicated that the coverage that appeared in the news outlets that were examined did not coincide with actual events; instead, there was evidence that news organizations were responding to the coverage of other organizations.

The tendency to develop news themes is an organizational aspect of mass media production that influences media outcomes. News themes are functional for news organizations. On a daily basis, editors face a mountain of raw material in the form of information (press releases, news from the wires). They must sift through this mountain of material and produce a clear and concise plan to deliver information to the public. They have no limit to the information that is available, but they can only filter a limited amount of information to the public. News themes aid editors in the task of processing massive amounts of information down to a usable form; in essence, news themes facilitate efficiency.

Reliance on Official Sources of Information

Another important organizational tendency of news organizations that influences crime coverage is their reliance on official sources of information over unofficial sources. Kevin Buckler, Timothy Griffin, and Lawrence Travis (2008) note how research suggests that news media personnel and government agencies/agents are “coupled.” This means that both have an interest in the coproduction of crime information presented to the public. Whereas the news media’s interest is in the actual production of news as a tangible output, government agencies and agents have a public relations interest in mass media production. The clearest example of this is the relationship that has developed between public information officers in police departments and crime “beat” reporters. News reporters rely on official sources for information, and those official sources often filter the information released to the press in an attempt to manage public understanding about official agencies of social control. The reliance on official sources of information about crime thus places the news organization in quite a conundrum. News media are supposed to perform a “watchdog” function, but reliance on official sources of information limits the capacity to do so in the context of crime coverage.

The research by Buckler et al. (2008) documents the extent to which news organizations and official sources of information are coupled. They examined the use of sources in crime coverage in two major papers, the New York Times and the Washington Post. They found substantial use of official sources of information in quotations and references to persons in crime stories, whereas unofficial sources (professors, nonacademic researchers, etc.) were used much less frequently.

Other scholars focus on how news organization reliance on official sources of information can impact the content of news media coverage of crime and criminal justice. Katherine Beckett’s (1995) analysis of news organization coverage of the war on drugs focuses on how the use of different types of sources of information was related to how news organizations framed the war on drugs. She found that the news media heavily relied on official sources of information and that most often these official sources advocated a “get tough/law and order” approach to handling drug offenses.

Similarly, Michael Welch, Melissa Fenwick, and Meredith Roberts (1998) focus on the differential content between official sources (e.g., state managers) and professors/nonacademic researchers (e.g., intellectuals) in feature crime articles that were published in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. They examined quotations along two different topical dimensions: crime causation and crime control. They found that quotes used by journalists taken from state managers were more likely to focus on the potential solutions to crime (e.g., crime control), whereas quotes used by journalists that originated from professors and nonacademic researchers were more likely to focus attention on the causes of crime (e.g., crime causation).

There were also notable differences between state managers and professors/nonacademic researchers within the “crime causation” and “crime control” categories of quotations. In terms of crime causation quotations, state managers were more likely to attribute the causes of crime to utilitarian explanations (individuals motivated by material and personal gain), whereas professors and nonacademic researchers were more likely to attribute crime causation to social conditions and personal pathology. With respect to crime control quotations, state managers were more likely to advocate for hard controls (e.g., expansion of enforcement, more incarceration), whereas professors and nonacademic researchers were more likely to advocate for soft control (e.g., rehabilitation, social reform, decriminalization).

Collectively, what this body of work suggests is that the ideas about crime and its control presented to the public may be slanted toward “crime as personal choice” understandings of the causes of crime and “get tough” solutions for the crime problem. But the influence of organizational factors of mass media production does not necessarily lead to a conclusion that such an outcome is purposeful or direct. The logic is not that mass media organizations are extensions of the government and look to force-feed the message of government officials to the general public in an effort to manipulate the public. Instead, the logic is that any bias or slanting of mass media content is more indirect and is the result of organizational imperatives to create news output in a fast, efficient, and cost-effective manner.

Effects of Media Coverage of Crime

Moral Panics

The work of Stanley Cohen (1972) suggests that one of the consequences of media attention to issues of crime and justice is the creation of moral panics. Cohen argues that a moral panic occurs when a “condition, episode, person, or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests” (p. 9). Russell E. Ward (2002) further describes moral panics as “rapid and intense emotional fervor toward an issue that media and other social control agents call to public attention” (p. 466). In addition, Cohen suggests that when a moral panic occurs, the media cover the event in a fundamentally inappropriate manner. In essence, Cohen describes the moral panic as occurring when there is a gap between the actual threat and the perceived threat that is created by the condition, episode, person, or group of persons. To Cohen, when there is a gap between the actual and the perceived threat, the gap needs to be explained.

Cohen (1972) developed this concept during a study of events that transpired in Canton, England, on Easter Sunday in 1964. On this date, adolescents and young adults were hanging out on the streets of the town. A rumor began to circulate about a bartender who had refused to serve several young people. Eventually, a fight started and several youths on scooters and motorcycles started to race up and down the streets. Police arrested nearly 100 young people on various minor charges.

Cohen (1972) became very interested, not in the behavior of the young people involved, but in the media reaction to the events. The disturbance was covered by several prominent newspapers in England. In addition, the story was picked up by newspapers in the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and the European continent. Youth fights and vandalism continued to be a news theme for news organizations in England for about 3 years following the original event. Cohen believed that much of the coverage was “fundamentally inappropriate” and was presented in a very stylized and sensationalized format. He noted that the press used loaded terms to describe what had transpired, such as “orgy of destruction,” “battle,” “smeared with blood and violence,” and “screaming mob.” One press report stated that all the dance halls in the city of Canton had windows broken out, distorting the reality that there was only one dance hall in Canton. Press reports also exaggerated the incidence of youth riding motorcycles and scooters, as most of the youth were on foot.

Cohen’s (1972) analysis of media coverage of the Canton incident led him to develop his theory of moral panic. In his theoretical framework, Cohen starts with the notion that a person or group emerges to be defined as a threat to societal values. The original behavior is sometimes a new phenomenon that suddenly emerges, but other times, the behavior has been in existence for a long period of time and has suddenly received more attention. He also argues that the nature of the act or action is presented in a very simplistic and stereotypical manner by the mass media. Next, he suggests that editors, special interest groups, and politicians begin to establish moral barricades. It is at this point that members of the media, politicians, and special interest groups can do and say things that either prevent the moral panic from resonating or enable the further development of it. If they contribute to the development of the panic, once the problem becomes clearly articulated, media, politicians, and special interest groups begin to promulgate diagnoses and solutions to the problem. Often, the solutions are a disproportionate or exaggerated response, or they reduce the civil rights of groups in society.

Cohen (1972) also argues that as time passes, the conditions (behavior) will disappear, deteriorate, or become more visible. A condition easily becomes more visible when there is other behavior that represents minor variations of the original behavior, which can be linked to the original behavior. In this respect, Cohen argues that once classes of people who engage in certain behaviors are designated as a social threat, small deviations from the norm are noticed, are commented on, and are judged by media, special interest groups, and politicians. Again, the main problem with situations where media, special interest groups, and politicians respond to behaviors in ways that are disproportionate to the actual threat is that often policy becomes created that is illogical or does more harm than good in the long run.

Gary Potter and Victor Kappeler (2006) identify the drug panic (which began with the Nixon administration in the 1970s and gained tremendous strength in the Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton administrations) as one of the most powerful moral panics in the history of the United States. Dan Baum’s book Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure (1996) provides a good review of the war on drugs in the context of moral panic. In a more narrow review, Ted Chiricos (1998) asserts that the crack cocaine “epidemic” that was widely reported in the mid-1990s constitutes a moral panic. He shows that media attention to crack cocaine escalated dramatically at a time when cocaine use was actually decreasing. He also shows that the main theme of the crack cocaine panic was that (a) cocaine use would spread to previously “safe” areas and (b) the spreading of the problem would increasingly impact children. Chiricos also notes the essential problem with the drug panics: “In an atmosphere of panic, building walls and stacking people behind them is faster and easier than doing the difficult work of restoring work and community to neighborhoods devastated by disinvestment and de-skilling” (p. 67).

Scholars suggest that moral panics can come in all different shapes and sizes, targeting the behavior of a wide range of social groups. Ronald Weitzer (2007) analyzed the discourse of leading activists and organizations that are opposed to prostitution and concludes that many of the assertions by these organizations are unsubstantiated. Burns and Crawford (1999) show how media and political attention to the issue of school shootings in the late 1990s led to widespread panic despite the fact that empirical evidence suggests that school violence was actually decreasing at the time of the panic. Barron and Lacombe (2005) argue that the heightened concerns about female violence can be characterized as a moral panic. Ward (2002) notes that some sociologists have described media attention to sports fan violence in terms of a moral panic; he argues that from a statistical standpoint, sports fan violence is not worthy of the attention it receives.

Fear of Crime

Research has also explored the impact of media coverage of crime on fear of crime. The “fear of crime” research is based on cultivation theory, which is credited to communication scholars George Gerbner and Larry Gross (1976). Cultivation theory suggests that exposure to the violence on television, over time, impacts viewers’ perceptions of reality. In this regard, one of the findings from research based on the theory is that higher consumption of mass media impacts fear of crime. For instance, Romer, Jamieson, and Aday (2003) found that high levels of consumption of local news programming were related to fear of crime, using data from the General Social Survey over a 5-year period. But the research appears to be split on the issue of whether media consumption has a general impact on public fear of crime. In a sample of Washington, D.C., residents Kimberly Ann Gross and Sean Aday (2003) found that mass media consumption did not cultivate fear of crime.

What appears to be a more promising area of research inquiry is the notion that the link between media consumption and fear of crime is not the same for all social groups and that some groups are impacted more than others. Chiricos, Eschholz, and Gertz (1997) found that consumption of radio and television news programs increases people’s fear of crime; but this effect was only found for one social group that was part of the study—white females. They attribute this to an “affinity effect” in that white females are disproportionately portrayed in mass media as victims. Because of this, they perceive themselves as having a greater likelihood of victimization than they do in reality. In addition, Eschholz, Chiricos, and Gertz (2003) found that in a sample of 1,490 Leon County, Florida, residents, the link between media consumption and fear of crime was dependent upon racial composition of the neighborhood. Residents living in areas with a higher composition of African Americans that reported high levels of media consumption reported more fear of crime than other areas in the sample.

Future Directions

Based on the existing research on news media and crime, there are a number of areas of research that could be conducted in the future. First, research should continue to develop theory concerning how journalists and news editors construct news through selection processes. As it currently stands, there is no strong theoretical framework for understanding these selection processes. One of the main problems, in this regard, is that few studies have attempted to understand these processes through qualitative research techniques. A deeper understanding of these processes may potentially be gained by research studies that use field methods and qualitative interviews with journalists and editors. Second, with respect to journalistic decision making, future research should look to theoretically and empirically address the potential differences in the approach of journalists depending on location characteristics of the news organization. To date, most studies have mainly analyzed the decision making of journalists in major urban areas.

Third, future research should focus attention on local television news. Most of the existing research focuses on newspaper coverage of crime. Fourth, research should continue to apply the “moral panic” frame of reference to the construction of different social problems, particularly with respect to creation of policy. Fifth, research should continue to explore the specific conditions under which media consumption impacts fear of crime. Research should also focus on exploring these issues in the context of the emerging “infotainment” media market. News-oriented programs have become increasingly popular since the 1990s. Programs like Hannity and Colmes, Hardball, Inside Edition, and The O’Reilly Factor have become deeply entrenched in American culture. Methods used to construct communication delivered by these programs need to be explored.


The purpose of this chapter was to review concepts and research findings relevant to the topic of media as it relates to crime and justice. This topic is rather broad, so the chapter narrowly focused on (a) the market model as a framework for understanding mass media behavior, (b) organizational imperatives that influence mass media decision making, and (c) effects of mass media coverage of crime. The market model of media suggests that media organizations make decisions about what to cover and the content of media output on the basis of monetary gains that will be generated from the selling of media products. Mass media decisions in the presentation of crime are also governed by organizational concerns intrinsic to media production processes. The pursuit of market and organizational imperatives often results in crime coverage that is disproportionate to the reality of the crime problem.