Media & Reality



Image by Ivan Sanford

Lecture 1




Knowing Reality

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, 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.)



Media Effects Theories

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.

Hypodermic needle: overview

Sometimes also referred to, after Schramm, as the Silver Bullet Model (1982), this is the idea that the mass media are so powerful that they can 'inject' their messages into the audience, or that, like a magic bullet, they can be precisely targeted at an audience, who irresistibly fall down when hit by the bullet. In brief, it is the idea that the makers of media messages can get us to do whatever they want us to do.

In that simple form, this is a view which has never been seriously held by media theorists. It is really more of a folk belief than a model, which crops up repeatedly in the popular media whenever there is an unusual or grotesque crime, which they can somehow link to supposedly excessive media violence or sex and which is then typically taken up by politicians who call for greater control of media output.

If it applies at all, then probably only in the rare circumstances where all competing messages are rigorously excluded, for example in a totalitarian state where the media are centrally controlled.

As you read through the various approaches, however, you will find that a rather weaker version of the hypodermic needle model underlies many of them, notably the 'cultural effects' approaches.

The Hypodermic Needle Model

Advertising and World War I propaganda

The 'folk belief' in the Hypodermic Needle Model was fuelled initially by the rapid growth of advertising from the late nineteenth century on, coupled with the practice of political propaganda and psychological warfare during World War I. Quite what was achieved by either advertising or political propaganda is hard to say, but the mere fact of their existence raised concern about the media's potential for persuasion. Certainly, some of the propaganda messages seem to have stuck, since many of us still believe today that the Germans bayoneted babies and replaced the clappers of church bells with the churches' own priests in 'plucky little Belgium', though there is no evidence for that. Some of us still cherish the belief that Britain, the 'land of the free', was fighting at the time for other countries' 'right to self-determination', though we didn't seem particularly keen to accord the right to the countries we controlled.

The Inter-War Years

Later, as the 'Press Barons' strengthened their hold on British newspapers and made no secret of their belief that they could make or break governments and set the political agenda, popular belief in the irresistible power of the media steadily grew. It was fuelled also by widespread concern, especially among élitist literary critics, but amongst the middle and upper classes generally, about the supposed threat to civilised values posed by the new mass popular culture of radio, cinema and the newspapers.

The radio broadcast of War of the Worlds seemed also to provide very strong justification for these worries.

Concern also grew about the supposed power of advertisers who were known to be using the techniques of behaviourist psychology. Watson, the founding father of behaviourism, having abandoned his academic career in the '20s, worked in advertising, where he made extravagant claims for the effectiveness of his techniques.

Political propaganda in European dictatorships

1917 had seen the success of the Russian Revolution, which was followed by the marshalling of all the arts in support of spreading the revolutionary message. Lenin considered film in particular to be a uniquely powerful propaganda medium and, despite the financial privations during the post-revolutionary period, considerable resources were invested in film production.

This period also saw the rise and eventual triumph of fascism in Europe. This was believed by many to be due to the powerful propaganda of the fascist parties, especially of Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels had great admiration for the propaganda of the Soviet Union, especially for Eisenstein's masterpiece Battleship Potemkin. Though himself a fanatical opponent of Bolshevism, Goebbels said admiringly of that film: 'Someone with no firm ideological convictions could be turned into a Bolshevik by this film.' The film was generally believed to be so powerful that members of the German army were forbidden to see it even long before the Nazis came to power and it was also banned in Britain for many years.

After the war, Speer, Hitler's armaments minister, said at his trial for war crimes:

[Hitler's] was the first dictatorship in the present period of modern technical development, a dictatorship which made complete use of all technical means for the domination of its own country ... Through technical devices like the radio and the loudspeaker, eighty million people were deprived of independent thought. It was thereby possible to subject them to the will of one man.

quoted in Carter (1971)

While bearing in mind that Speer was concerned to save his own skin, we have to recognise that this view of the manipulative power of propaganda was fairly typical.

Post-War and the present day

With the development of television after World War II and the very rapid increase in advertising, concern about the 'power' of the mass media continued to mount and we find that conern constantly reflected in the popular press. That concern underlies the frequent panics about media power. In the popular press, Michael Ryan was reported to have gone out and shot people at random in Hungerford because he had watched Rambo videos, two children were supposed to have abducted and murdered Jamie Bulger because they had watched Child's Play. After the 1992 General Election, The Sun announced 'It's the Sun what won it' - a view echoed by the then Conservative Party Treasurer, Lord McAlpine, and the defeated Leader of the Opposition, Neil Kinnock.

Horror comics

This kind of concern has a long history. Even the Greek philosopher Plato was prepared to exclude dramatists from his ideal republic lest they corrupt the citizens. He wasn't prepared to have any truck with new music either: 'one should be cautious in adopting a new kind of poetry or music, for this endangers the whole system .... lawlessness creeps in there unawares,' he wrote in his Republic, in terms depressingly familiar to anyone who has heard what our guardians of public morality have had to say about Elvis, Hendrix, Sid Vicious, Madonna and the rest, not to mention the waltz and the tango!In the 1950s there was a sustained campaign in Britain against American horror comics, a campaign which saw an unlikely alliance of the morally outraged right and the British Communist Party, concerned about the American, anti-Communist messages in the comics (Barker 1984a)) an alliance reminiscent of the rather odd anti=pornography alliance today between some radical feminists and the religious right. The campaign resulted in the Children and Young Persons Act 1955, which is still in force today; the 1958 film The Wild One with Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin was banned because it might lead to juvenile delinquency; Alan Watkins' brilliant The War Game was banned because it might unduly alarm the public (though most likely because it told some unpalatable truths about nuclear warfare). The concern is always with the effect the questionable messages might have on those who are most susceptible - children, adolescents, the mentally unstable - and, of course, those who express the concerns are not themselves corrupted by those messages. The prosecuting counsel in the trail on obscenity charges of D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover famously asked the jury if it was the sort of thing they would 'want their servants to read'. Would the servants be corrupted by the use of the word 'fuck' while their masters wouldn't? I suspect that the unspoken question was whether they would perhaps be corrupted by the tale of a servant 'fucking' a master (mistress in this case). It's not difficult to see how a concern with moral standards can be close to a concern with keeping people in their place.

Today those concerns would probably strike most of us as laughable when we read the comics and watch the movies that were banned. Will it seem silly in twenty years' time that in the '90s the sale of hard-core porn was limited to licensed sex shops, that various European governments tried to ban the Red Hot Dutch Channel and that software was available to screen out rude words on the Net?

Video nasties

It might, but there was a re-run of the horror comics campaign during the 1980s with the video nasties campaign, which led to the Video Recordings Act. Just as the 1955 Act had been supported by an unlikely alliance of the right and the CPGB, so we find that the video nasties campaign was spearheaded by the Conservative MP, Winston Churchill, with the support of many feminists (Barker (1984b)).

Whether or not these concerns will strike us as silly at some time in the future, they are used by the 'moral entrepreneurs', such as Mrs Whitehouse of National VALA, Winston Churchill MP, or Nicholas Alton MP, or feminists like the American Andrea Dworkin, to determine what limitations there should be on what you and I see, read and listen to. And those people are in part responsible for the existence of the BSC, BCC, ITC, the various Royal Commissions on the Press, the BBFC, National VALA, the Video Recordings Act, the ASA, the Obscene Publications Act and all the other regulations which make Britain's media one of the most restricted in the 'free world'.


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.

Limited effects

In Towards a Sociology of Mass Communication (1971), McQuail summarises some of the main findings of the research which confirms this 'limited effects' view:

bullet'persuasive mass communication is in general more likely to reinforce the existing opinions of its audience than it is to change its opinion' (from Klapper (1960))
bullet'people tend to see and hear communications that are favourable or congenial to their predispositions' (from Berelson & Steiner (1964))
bullet'people respond to persuasive communication in line with their predispositions and change or resist change accordingly' (from Berelson & Steiner (1964))


bullet'political campaigns tend to reach the politically interested and converted', as shown for example in Lazarsfeld's research
bullet'mass media campaigns against racial prejudice tend to be unsuccessful', as demonstrated in Kendall and Woolf's analysis of reactions to anti-racist cartoons. The cartoons featured Mr Biggott whose absurdly racist ideas were intended to discredit bigotry. In fact 31% failed to recognise that Mr Biggott was racially prejudiced or that the cartoons were intended to be anti-racist (Kendall & Wolff (1949) in Curran (1990)).
bullet'effects vary according to the prestige or evaluations attaching to the communication source', as demonstrated by Hovland
bullet'the more complete the monopoly of mass communication, the more likely it is that opinion change in the desired direction will be achieved' - as in totalitarian societies, such as Nazi Germany, for example
bullet'the salience to the audience of the issues or subject matter will affect the likelihood of influence: "mass communication can be effective in producing a shift on unfamiliar, lightly felt, peripheral issues - those that do not much or are not tied to audience predispositions"' (from Berelson and Steiner (1964)). This is also supported by the recent research of Hügel et al, who confirm other studies' findings that media agenda-setting effects are limited to unobtrusive issues. (Hügel et al (1989))
bullet'the selection and interpretation of content by the audience is influenced by existing opinions and interests and by group norms', as suggested by Hovland's research
bullet'the structure of interpersonal relations in the audience mediates the flow of communication content and limits and determines whatever effects occur', as suggested by Katz and Lazarsfeld's research.
bullet(For more comment on limited effects, see the conclusions of the more recent research conducted on behalf of the BBFC)


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.

Noelle-Neumann, E. (1974). The Spiral of Silence: A Theory of Public Opinion. Journal of Communication, 24 (2), 43-51.
In her article, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann outlines and based on twelve surveys from 1971 and 1972 illustrates the interactive relationship between our own opinion and a perceived public opinion in the society. The spiral of silence process is driven by a fear of isolation, which overrides the worth of our own judgment (p. 43) and triggers us to permanently scan our environment for clues of opinion distribution now and in the future. Our major scanning tool, the mass media that we “almost totally” depend on (p. 51), provides a distorted picture of the true distribution of opinions in the society because not all voices are equally represented. The stronger the voice of a perceived majority, the more likely the dissenters (who may numerically be in majority!) to adapt silently the “ruling” opinion. Thus, we mistakenly perceive the most vocal minority as the majority! Equipped with such a quasi-statistical perception of the opinion climate, we weigh the chances of success for the own view and choose to speak out or remain silent.


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.



Legal Concerns

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.



Additional Readings:



bullet Violence on Television
bullet Critique of Cultivation Theory by Daniel Chandler
bullet Media Violence and Free Speech by Marjorie Heins


Discussion Questions:

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?

Answer these questions on the course Campus site under Communication: Discussion Board: Week 1


Copyright 2001 Cecil Greek



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Copyright 2001
Cecil Greek