An important component of this course is the attempt to uncover what impact the media has on our perceptions of crime and criminal justice. However, prior to analyzing the impact of crime-related media images, we must briefly discuss the overall role of the media within our society. Paradoxically, while most social theorists assert that the media is indeed pervasive and helps create our understandings of reality, when it comes to empirically studying the effects of media images on individual behavior, the studies are ultimately inconclusive.
Some social scientists assert that the media plays a very important role in the "social construction of reality." This phrase, coined by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman in their book with the same title, presumes that ultimately reality is unknowable except as a mediated phenomenon. In the Sociology of the Absurd, Stanford Lyman and Marvin Scott asserted that reality is "absurd" in the sense that it is unfathomable. However, Lyman and Scott also recognized that to accept reality as absurd ran counter to most people's common sense understanding of the world in which they live. Most people (except for the insane and some existential philosophers) assume that "reality" is indeed knowable. But, how do we know? Obviously, some of the knowledge of reality we possess is based on experience. Some even go so far as to claim that experience is the only basis for understanding reality clearly. I have witnessed this in classes when students who work in the criminal justice system caution others about presuming they know something about policing, the courts, or corrections when they have never been a police or corrections officer. Unfortunately, most people will never have the opportunity to be police officers or even to take part in ride-along programs or jail tours. However, every citizen in this society has an opinion about police and prisons; and their thoughts form part of their understanding of reality. People in everyday life claim to know about many things they have never experienced themselves. While few have ever been to Antarctica, most could describe it.
So, how do people come to their understandings of reality? The traditional answer given by sociologists is through socialization. Individuals interact with others and internalize their experiences and conversations. Certainly the media plays a very important part of the socialization process within our technological society because of its ability to provide images of experiences most people are unlikely to have (like going to Antarctica or being arrested, going to jail, being a criminal defendant, or being sentenced to prison). When considering things few of us experience directly, media images must of necessity play a very important part. Graber's study found that mass media was credited with providing 95% of the information the public receives about crime.
However, for most topics we would be mistaken to conclude that media images alone constitute the whole picture of reality available for anyone. What other factors influence people's perceptions? We must return to the socialization model for a more complete understanding of how we "acquire" reality. As children, we come to understand the world around us because it is mediated for us by parents, teachers, siblings and peers. As we grow older we continue to rely on personal experiences and the experiences of others (as communicated in personal conversations, books, newspapers, television, and movies).
What types of personal experiences do citizens have with the criminal justice system? For most people the only personal experiences they have with police are in situations such as traffic stops or crowd control at sports contests. If citizens have had "negative experiences" during these interactions, they may harbor an overall negative image of police. The major benefit of community-oriented policing, school resource officers, and programs such as DARE may be that these programs offer people positive experiences with police officers. This may in turn change attitudes toward law enforcement.
The experiences of others and their retelling can also be important in shaping a person's view of reality, and in some cases the reality shared by any entire community. For example, while not all black males have had a "bad experience" during a police stop, enough have that the accounts of such experiences are ubiquitous in the black community and a pervasive fear/dislike of the police may exist as a result. When black celebrities like baseball announcer Joe Morgan or Blair Underwood, formerly of L.A. Law, discussed for the national media how they were stopped while driving expensive cars in upper middle class neighborhoods, a logical conclusion was that minorities continue to harassed by the police needlessly.
The Mark Fuhrman tapes only added to what minorities "already know" is true. While a number of police department spokespersons appeared in the media to claim that Furman was an aberration among police officers, most minority members continued to think otherwise. Diop Kamau, formerly police officer Don Jackson, maintains PoliceAbuse.com, a site that documents continuing incidents of "driving while Black."
A number of questions emerge as we begin to think about these issues. What is the overall impact of the media upon reality? Does the media reflect reality or create it? Can the media actually change reality? The best answer seems to be that the relationship is reciprocal; the media sometimes changes culture while cultural changes are reflected (and legitimated) in the media. We see this clearly with phenomenon such as fashions or fads; punk styles in fashion or music were adopted by a few but became more popular as the media focused on them. While original punkers took themselves seriously, middle class "posers" soon infiltrated the punk nightclubs on weekends. Also, media attention can have the unintended consequence of legitimating bad taste, even when the attempt is to eliminate it. For example, 2 Live Crew's album sales doubled as a result of the publicity generated by efforts to label the music as obscene.
The above questions arise frequently when discussion turns to depictions of crime and violence in the media. For example, is media violence merely a reflection of the real violence that exists in our society or does it help to legitimate and foster additional violence? The media, particularly the news media, defends itself from the charge of fostering violence by stating they are simply reflecting what exists. Real people are murdered every day. Those who create fictionalized views of violence (movies or TV dramas) rely on the argument that what they are producing should not be taken literally. Only the mentally inadequate would assume the violence was real or try to copy the behavior. (Later in the course we'll specifically talk about copycat crimes.)
A number of theories have been developed concerning media effects. They vary in the degree to which they believe in the "power" of the media to shape reality and influence behavior. There are 4 major models according to Lotz: 1) hypodermic needle 2) limited effects 3) spiral of silence 4) cultivation theory. To these a 5) vicarious release or catharsis model could be added.
1) The hypodermic needle model assumes that the media is indeed powerful and directly contributes to people's perceptions of reality and behavior. It's like they're being injected with a drug. This model is based on a premise of atomized individuals who turn to the media for answers. Media violence creates additional violence. An example of the application of this model can be seen in the great comic book scare of the 1950s (discussed by Gilbert).
Crime comics were blamed for increasing violence among adolescents who it was believed read of the lurid violence and other criminal behavior in comics and then acted it out themselves. Psychologist Frederic Wertham claimed this could be proved; a congressional hearing resulted and laws were introduced in 18 states restricting the comics. Similar hypodermic needle type arguments emerge from parents and pressure groups in today's attempts to sticker CDs or censor TV.
2) The limited effects model was first put forward by Klapper. Based on the socialization model, Klapper argued that media portrayals are considered by individuals in light of what they already know from other sources. In fact, people judge the accuracy of media portrayals based upon past experience. A number of examples come to mind. Herbert Gans in his book The Urban Villagers described his experiences of watching TV with Boston Italian-Americans. He found they "talked back" to the set whenever they found something which didn't jive with their preconceived view of the world. While attending movies with predominantly black audiences in Manhattan (which I did because 42nd Street theatres were cheaper), I experienced the same thing. Audience members talked back to the screen when they found a portrayal "unrealistic." Another personal experience occurred while watching Oprah with police officers at an Oklahoma City station house. Some officers made racial comments about black guests on the show which were meant to undercut what the person was saying if it ran counter to stereotypes. Finally, whether pornography has an effect on male behavior has been tested repeatedly.
3) The spiral of silence model of Noelle-Neumann argues that the media is a powerful tool in changing attitudes because people want to agree with the current predominant opinions. Out of fear of being different people can easily be swayed by media opinions. Media consumers are depicted as the ultimate "other-directed" individuals, whose greatest fear is not siding with the majority. There are several problematic assumptions of this model. It presumes people don't have strong opinions about anything. On some issues this is patently false. For example, most people have a position on abortion, and nothing that is said or done will change their opinions. Second, spiral of silence presumes that personal opinions are not reflective of those of parents, friends, or other reference groups. Many opinions and beliefs clearly are.
4) Cultivation theory was put forward by George Gerbner at the Annenberg School of Communications. He also sees the typical viewer as isolated and atomized, thus highly influenceable by the media. The result of a heavy diet of media violence is that people perceive our society as a mean, scary, and dangerous place when it is not. The unintended consequence of media violence, is that citizens respond by overly supporting conservative crime control agendas (e.g. electing legislators who run on platforms that they will be tough on crime, supporting laws that toughen criminal penalties, etc.) The ultimate result has been the massive buildup of our jails and prisons. Gerbner compared heavy viewers to light viewers, saying heavy viewers showed greater fear responses. Senior citizens trap themselves in their own homes and watch a steady diet of murder and mayhem on the evening news. Researchers disagree with Gerbner's hypothesis that the media creates the fear response in viewers and have criticized his methodology. (see Chandler below)
5) An alternative model has its origins in Freud's concept of catharsis. By vicariously partaking in violence through media depictions and descriptions, individuals experience a cathartic release, making actual participation in violence unnecessary. People need such releases or they would likely become violent. The model is sometimes bolstered by a believed biological propensity to violence humans acquire as part of their animal heritage. The extreme stresses caused by contemporary civilization are also frequently cited as violence enducing. Twitchell used the catharsis model to explain the male adolescent preoccupation with "preposterous violence." The principal audience for "shoot-em-ups," whether westerns, outerspace adventures, or cop action films, has always been adolescent males. Like the other models, catharsis has been hotly debated. Some studies have supported it, while others found it inadequate.
However, even if studies conclusively proved that media violence had an overall detrimental effect (which to date they have not), we could not very quickly do anything about it. It has always proven easier to ban sexual materials than violent ones. Any attempts to censor the media result in strong opposition from the media itself and civil libertarians. The First Amendment's freedom of speech clause protects citizens from the whims of those who find certain materials objectionable (see Heins essay below).
Legal concerns will continue to be an important component of this course, particularly those which relate to freedom of the press, police investigations, pretrial and courtroom proceedings, and access to correctional institutions. Law, crime, and media are very much intertwined in the United States and shape the real world in which we live.
Question 1. Which of the media effects theories do you think best explains the relationship between media and crime? Why? Which least? Which best explains the findings discussed in Violence on Television?
Question 2. What is Heins' opinion on how we should handle the problem of violent media content? Do you agree or disagree with her position? Use one of the media effects theories to support your position.
Question 3. Discuss Surette's chapter 5 in light of the media effects theories discussed in the lecture. What is Surette's position on issues such as copycat crimes?
Page last updated
Monday, April 21, 2003