Media And Crime: Increasing Fear of Crime

This sample essay on Media And Crime Essay reveals arguments and important aspects of this topic. Read this essay’s introduction, body paragraphs and the conclusion below.

Fear of crime is becoming as serious a problem as crime itself. According to the Government’s British Crime Survey (BCS) of 2001/2, 30% of the UK felt crime increased ‘a lot’, and a further 30% thought it increased ‘a little’ in the previous two years (Home Office, 2002), compared to 33% ‘a lot’ and 65% ‘a little’ in the BCS of 2006/7 (Home Office, 2007).

The media is a powerful way of getting messages across to citizens and many criminologists have studied the way crime is portrayed and how this affects levels of fear. The government’s 2002 BCS reported that “43% of tabloid readers thought the national crime rate had increased significantly, compared with 26% of broadsheet readers” (Home Office, 2002). These statistics have led me to investigate how the media reports crime, why they represent crime as they do and the potential consequences.

Crime is prominent in all media. Throughout history there has been a ‘fascination’ with crime. Robert Reiner (Maguire et al, 2002, p393) claims “the risk of crimes as portrayed in media are both quantitatively and qualitatively more serious in the media than the official statistically recorded picture.” Reiner argues that the media disproportionately represents violent accounts of crime, and focuses on events which are intense, exciting, arousing and extreme. From my research there appears to be a virtually universal finding that media representations exaggerate both the levels of serious interpersonal crime in society and the risk of becoming a crime victim.

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This representation of crime is largely event-oriented in that it focuses on specific criminal cases and incidents rather than wider debates around causes, prevention, or policy (Rock, 1973, cited in Hale). A study done in Scotland found that 6.5% of the news reported in newspapers involved crime, and 46% of this was violent and sexual crime, even though only 2.4% of reported crimes were actually violent or sexual (Williams and Dickinson, 1993).

Cohen (Kidd-Hewitt, 1995, p10) summarises that “….so much space in the mass media is given to deviance [crime] that some sociologists have argued that this interest functions to reassure society that the boundary lines between conformist and deviant, good and bad, healthy and sick, are still valid ones.” According to the Guardian newspaper “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” (Guardian, 2003). Tabloid’s news is generally found to include a greater proportion of crime stories reported in a more sensationalistic style than broadsheet news (Graber, 1980, cited in Hale).

My study leads me to believe that the tabloids are generally right wing, with the main consumers not reading to be intelligently stimulated and to have their views, values and politics challenged but instead reading to have their deep implanted values and opinions reinforced by the reporter. Tabloids generally lack informative information choosing instead to use emotive language aiming to have the reader ‘agreeing’ as they read and supporting the reporter’s opinions and view of the situation. For example, a report in The Sun newspaper on Saturday 10th May 2008 about Josef Fritzl (The Sun Newspaper, 2008) used eight emotive words including ‘Evil’, ‘Monster’ and ‘Beast’ in an article of approximately 80 words. This type of language induces what Stanley Cohen (1972) describes as ‘moral panic’ which stimulates an increase in fear of crime.

For an event to gain media coverage and attention it has to be classified as ‘newsworthy’. It appears that the tabloids are not interested in reporting the facts and reassuring society that crime levels are okay and consequently reducing fear, instead they are interested in selling their papers and increasing fear of crime helps achieve this aim. Looking at news values helps to explain the attention and broad profile crime and control gain in the media.

Interpersonal crimes of sex and violence can be more easily presented as dramatic and arousing than non-violent crimes such as white collar crime. Although names are generally included where possible, one of the most compelling images in crime is that of the ‘unknown’ predatory stranger. People will buy newspapers to read about crime because it’s stimulating, exciting, intense and emotional. Few stories can capture the public imagination as forcefully as the killer on the loose, especially when the potential victims are children.

Crimes which are considered spatially and culturally ‘close to home’, will generally be considered more newsworthy than the same crimes, or events, happening far away. This is also the case for non-western countries, which are widely perceived as more spatially and culturally distant. An example of this was on 26th December 2003, Iran was struck by an earthquake which killed more than twenty-five thousand Iranian Citizens. It was the second story reported on the UK evening News at Ten, the headlining story was that of an English police officer who had been shot (Hale, 2005, p165). The news value of proximity helps to explain why the story of one police officer being shot at home was considered more newsworthy than twenty-five thousand citizens being killed by an earthquake in Iran.

‘Cultivation analysis’ as discussed by Gerbner et al. (1976, pp.172, cited in Hale) looks at the influence of violence on prime-time US television. This study found that ‘heavy’ television viewers (those who watch more than four hours per day) cultivate a world-view which more closely resembles the ‘television message’ than ‘light’ television viewers (those who watch less than two hours per day) therefore heavy viewing is said to cultivate higher fear of crime. Television overstates both the seriousness and risk of criminal victimisation, portraying the world as ‘mean and scary’. Recent research on US television news concluded that local crime coverage generates more fear than national coverage (Chiricos et al. 2000, p.172, cited in Hale).

I believe that this is because we think we have a higher risk of becoming a victim when we are told of crime happening on our own doorsteps. However National crime coverage may relieve and reassure viewers as they believe that their own communities are comparatively safe.

We are living in an age of ‘media saturation’ with the media playing an increasing central role in everyday life and becoming more and more powerful within our society. The media today have the power and ability to develop awareness of an issue among the general public, and even manipulate the public response. Society’s response is what Stanley Cohen, 1972, describes as ‘moral panic’. This social reaction to the perceived threat to societal values is both disproportionate and hostile and involves sensational and stereotypical media coverage, public outcry and demands for tougher controls.

Cohen (1972) studied the media’s response and manipulation of a situation in his study of the conflict between the ‘Mods and Rockers’. To summarise Cohen’s argument, the media exaggerated and distorted the events, which resulted in them actually creating crime. Groups of youths were labelled as troublemakers by the media portraying them as ‘folk devils’. This stereotyped image was held by police and the public, creating ‘moral panic’, which further increased the fear of crime (Moore, 1996, p122-3).

Cohen demonstrated how the labelling and marginalisation of ‘Mods and Rockers’ created a ‘deviancy amplification spiral’ in which future disturbances were virtually guaranteed. These disturbances seemed to justify initial fears, resulting in more media coverage, more public outcry, more policing, and thus the spiral of reaction continued. This study highlights the power and manipulation the media can have on society, and in turn the overall fear the media can create in a deviant group.

A powerful example of the media manipulating, using fear and moral panic to boost sales is the ‘Naming and Shaming’ of paedophiles in the wake of Sarah Payne’s murder trial, published Sunday 23rd July 2000 in The News of the World. They released the pictures and names of 100 offenders. It boosted sales by 95,000 copies. Parents queued to buy several copies to find out if their neighbours were paedophiles, and consequently whether their children were in danger. This ‘irresponsible journalism’ led to vigilante behaviour, where ‘innocents’ were attacked. In one case Iain Armstrong was beaten to death by a mob in Manchester through mistaken identity. The News of the World acted negligently, they didn’t consider the long term effect and produced ‘out of control’ behaviour as a consequence. The Home Office described the public response as a “climate of fear and panic” (BBC, 2001).

Throughout history the media have created ‘folk devils’. They have divided and manipulated society to single out a group, in what is Foucault described as ‘the Other’. By labelling this deviant group as ‘the Other’, society is able to place the blame on them for the problems within society. The media have created many scapegoats throughout history including Teddy boys in 1950s, Mods and Rockers in 1960s, Skinheads, Hooliganism in 1970s, Mugging in 1970s, Joy riders in 1990s, Yob culture in 1990s, Teenage Pregnancies in 1990s and IRA in 1970s, 80s and 90s, plus many more (Muncie, 1987).

A frequently quoted statistic is that more than 70 per cent of studies claim to demonstrate that media portrayal of violence does cause real life violence (Andison, 1977 citied in Hale p168). Bandura’s ‘Bobo doll’ study found that children who saw aggressive behaviour rewarded, displayed aggressive behaviour more than those who viewed non-aggressive interactions, or interactions that were punished (Hale, 2005, p168). Media representation of crime has often been blamed for violent criminal acts.

One example is the case of toddler James Bulger, who was murdered by two ten-year-olds in 1993. A lot of attention was directed at the film Child’s Play III as a likely inspiration for this criminal act (Kidd-Hewitt, 1995, p6). The violent film Natural Born Killers (1994) has also been accused of inciting a number of copycat murders. A debate has risen among Criminologists, Psychologists and Sociologists around the nature, extent and significance of the influence of such violence in the media. The two main arguments are that of the political right, with the concern that the media images glamorise crime and violence, undermining respect for authority and the rule of law and encouraging criminality. On the other side, the political left argue that media images of crime and deviance increase public fears and anxieties, helping to win support for authoritarian measures of control and containment.


Following my research, I support the argument that crime reporting in the media creates a distorted picture of reality which is reflected in people’s beliefs and attitudes in society today. Although I am unable to demonstrate conclusively that media increases fear of crime I am convinced that without a doubt media has a profound influence. I have discussed how crime is reported and some possible explanations for the way in which the media select which crimes to report. My research shows that crime is grossly misrepresented and that there appears to be an institutionalised need in media to create moral panic in order to make ‘good copy’.

As discussed previously, tabloids in particular use fear inducing language with intense coverage and disproportional representation of violent accounts of crime in a bid to make the story ‘newsworthy’ and consequently increase newspaper sales. The creation of ‘Folk Devils’ and other scapegoats throughout history has enabled the media to continue to incite moral panic and even become the creators of crime itself. The growing trend of copycat crimes inspired through media such as television and video continue to cause concern and debate amongst academics as the media’s influence dominates society and impacts on fear of crime. This ability to bring disturbances, riots and increased fear into our homes is an issue of social concern and fear of crime has to be taken as seriously as crime prevention and reduction.

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Media And Crime: Increasing Fear of Crime. (2019, Dec 07). Retrieved from

Media And Crime: Increasing Fear of Crime
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