Criminals: Media Images



Lecture 3

rime and Criminals:
Media Images



Over the next several weeks our focus will be media depictions of criminal behavior. We will look at the following issues: (a) the social construction of "crime waves;" (b) the frequency at which certain types of crimes are reported; (c) the explanations given for what motivates criminal behavior; (d) and victimization patterns as reported in the media. In each case, we will compare the media depictions to what is known from criminological research. Both news and entertainment media will be discussed. Next week we will begin our analysis of specific types of crimes including satanic crimes, hate crimes, juvenile delinquency, and drug-related crimes.

Media Generated Crime Waves

The criminologist who first discussed how media reporting leads to the social construction of "crime waves" was Mark Fishman in his essay "Crime Waves as Ideology". He analyzed the NY news media, one of the country's largest, and argued that crime waves are frequently media constructions. Although you can't be mugged by a crime wave (but, only by a real criminal), a crime wave can certainly increase citizens' fears. It can also directly lead to increased efforts at law enforcement, the enactment of new laws and penalties, and impact the correctional system as well.

In 1976, the NY news media created a major crime wave that resulted in an entirely new category of crime, one we are all now familiar with, "crimes against the elderly."; The wave lasted for seven weeks and was a major news theme covered by three daily newspapers and five local TV stations. The reported muggers, murderers, and rapists of the elderly were usually Hispanic and black juvenile delinquents, who came from ghetto neighborhoods near areas in which the victims, characterized as elderly whites, resided. The media crime wave began with the reporting of a series of gruesome murders against elderly victims. The NY Daily News started the crime wave and the other media followed suit, even the usually circumspect NY Times. The raw number of reports went from about one story a week by each media organization before the wave began to over 4 per week per media outlet carried during the wave period.

The response from the community and the political establishment was immediate. The Mayor of NYC publicly pledged to "do something about it." The NYPD increased the efforts of its already existing Senior Citizens Robbery Unit by creating a new plainclothes operation. The NY state legislature introduced bills to deny 16 to 19 year olds juvenile court status if they victimized a senior citizen, to enact mandatory prison sentences for crimes of violence against the aged, and to make previously closed juvenile records available to the judge when elderly victim was attacked. If teens, the attackers were to be tried in adult court as adults.

But, were crimes against the elderly really on the rise? When Fishman reviewed the NYPD crime statistics for the period of time covered by the media crime wave, he found the statistics did not show that crimes against the elderly were increasing. In fact, homicides against the elderly were down 19% from the previous year.

So, why did the crime wave occur? Adopting a news theme (not the theme music played by TV news shows), in this case "crimes against the elderly," is an example of how the news media makes sense of events for us all the time. The media do not want to simply report haphazard events, but try whenever possible to make events fit news themes. Elderly victims are newsworthy in that they are easily depicted as innocent victims, just like small children killed accidentally at the scene of a drive-by shooting. By reporting on such crimes, the media can also claim that it fulfilling its public trust to warn the public of possible dangers, so that precautions can be taken.

News themes allow journalists to cast an incident as a specific instance of something; in this case the murder of an elderly victim becomes an instance of a crime wave against the elderly. Once the media identifies a new news theme, they become sensitized to future reports of similar incidents. They may do a series of stories on a particular newscast or in one edition of the paper linked by the theme. A piece on the latest attack may be followed by one showing the formation of a citizens' neighborhood watch group, followed by a story on action in the legislature, etc.

How does the media get the type of information it needs to construct a crime wave? Of course, the media cannot report on crime waves or upon the topic of crime at all without the aid of the local police department. While the police are under no obligation to fully report to the media daily on all the crimes that occurred in a city, most police departments are willing to help out. All departments must make certain public information available to the media, an issue we will discuss in a later lecture. The NY media had come to depend upon the NYPD's summaries of the crimes that occurred each day. In other cities, the DA's office may also send summaries to the media as well. Philadelphia is an example. In Oklahoma City, the designated police press spokesperson called every newspaper and local TV station whenever a "major" crime took place. In NYC, the NYPD's Office of Public Information used a teletype "police wire" to send its daily report to the media. The police wire fed the media a steady diet of street crimes because the police department believed these were the stories the media wanted. Shootings and stabbings accounted for 42% of the felony crime reports sent over the wire, with 66% being robberies and burglaries.

Today many police agencies maintain Internet press release sites, some updated through out the day and night. For example, the FBI has a press room, Tallahassee PD has a press release page, while non-governmental organizations (NGO's) such as Amnesty International publish press releases on human rights atrocities around the world.



The Office of the Deputy Commissioner, Public Information is operational twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, to receive police related information from the NYPD Operations Unit, other department commands, outside governmental agencies, and to disseminate information to the media. The initial receiver of information is usually a DCPI staff member assigned to press liaison duties. The appropriate details from information received are entered into a computer on an "Action Sheet" and placed on a clipboard for perusal by reporters or read to members of the media on the telephone. In cases of homicide, high profile arrests or major occurrences, the basic information is put on the "press wire" (facsimile) and transmitted to all major news outlets. DCPI personnel respond to follow-up inquiries and updates by adding additional information on the "Action Sheet." A reasonable estimate of telephone traffic in and out of the office ranges from six hundred to one thousand calls on weekdays to several hundred per day on the weekend. Approximately ten thousand "Action Sheets" are logged in per year.

However, there are a number of types of crimes which were never reported over the police wire. These included consumer fraud, price-fixing, environmental crimes, political bribery and corruption, etc. As a result, such crimes were reported on less frequently, because more time intensive investigative reporting by the media would be required. Also, obviously, agencies other than the city police enforce these types of violations of law. The kinds of things the police wire provided plenty of examples of were: crimes between strangers, crimes in public places, and crimes specific to age. From such reports the media could create a number of new crime waves (i.e., subway crime, school yard crime, youth gang crime, drug crimes, etc.) Since the police wire rarely mentioned if the victim and offender knew each other, an impression was given that crimes occurred among strangers more frequently than they do in reality.

Why didn't someone simply expose the fact that the media had concocted the crime wave against the elderly? The media helped perpetuate the satanic crime hoax of the 1980s, but then reversed itself and exposed it as fantasy. However, one would first have to ask whose interest would be served if the media reversed its position on elderly victimization? Certainly, it was not in the interest of the media, the police, or public officials to do so. Public officials were willing from the outset to assume that the crime wave represented something real. Even the elderly may have benefited from the stepped up police protection and the citizens' action groups that sprouted as a result of the media campaign. Nevertheless, fear of victimization did rise as a result of the reports, along with the negative over-responses this engenders.

Elderly woman rarely leaves her home.
Photo by Reuter's News Service

Journalism is not a discipline without self-awareness, though it sometimes seems like its self reflection is underdeveloped. Organizations like the Poynter Institute for Media Studies run seminars for crime reporters. Criminal Justice Journalists is an organization that maintains a Web site on aspects of crime reporting, aimed at improving the practice.


Criminality on Primetime Crime Dramas

Media crime news coverage is not a wholly accurate portrayer of crime trends as our discussion of crime waves showed. However, local TV news focus on street crimes as largely a phenomenon among the poor, and as a result impacting minority victims, does approach reality. In our quest to investigate how the media defines the crime problem, another area ripe for investigation is prime-time crime dramas. These have been a staple of network TV since its inception. (Note: Website Episode Guides lists over 2000 TV shows with every episode. For example the current U.S. TV networks' schedule list 19 crime-related shows. Law & Order and its spin-offs, Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and 2 CSI shows are most watched.)

When we turn to Hollywood made prime-time crime dramas, we discover that portrayals of neither criminals nor victims were accurate, particularly before the emergence of "reality-based" crime dramas such as Hill Street Blues, LA Law, or NYPD Blue. Steven Bochco, producer of all these programs, may still be an exception.

When Ben Stein looked at prime time crime in his 1979 analysis The View from Hollywood Boulevard, he found it in no way mirrored reality. He found that the typical "street crime" on prime time TV involved a well-to-do white person (often a businessman) murdering another well-to-do white person. If one thinks of the programs of that era; e.g. Columbo, Dallas, Dynasty, Hart to Hart, Starsky and Hutch, Quincy, etc. one could only conclude that violent crimes are committed every day by the wealthy and the powerful. (For more, watch the documentary Hollywood's Favorite Heavy: Businessmen on Primetime TV. In this documentary high schoolers are interviewed about whether to be successful in business one had to lie, cheat, steal, and even kill for the company. Most agreed! One wanders whether a generation raised on these shows moved into corporate jobs with the mindset that the bottom line is showing a profit.) In comparison to these media depictions, in reality both perpetrators and victims of street crime are usually poor, and frequently from minority groups. Reality-based TV dramas put an end to this era, but led to new claims that TV was falsely depicting minorities as criminals. 

It is also important to investigate what explanations of the origins of criminal behavior dominate on night time crime shows. When we do we discover that few of the explanations developed within the field of criminology ever appear. Of course, criminologists have developed a number of theories over the last 100 years to explain criminal behavior. We may actually have developed too many good explanations of why people commit crime, but few that explain why criminals whose behavior is largely determined by forces outside their control sometimes desist from crime when they become adults (see Matza's Delinquency and Drift). Among the major theoretical schools are:

1. Biological and genetic explanations that see criminals as mutants victimized by faulty heredity.
2. Psychological models explain that criminals are sick or suffering from early childhood or familial traumas.
3. Social environmental theories see criminals trapped in poverty or participating in an underclass subculture that fosters and celebrates criminal activity.
4. Conflict explanations see criminals are poor persons fighting back against an established societal elite that keeps them down.

In comparison, prime time crime dramas prior to the "reality era" drew upon few of these explanations. By locating crime in the upper class, a number of criminological explanations for crime were rarely employed. Prime time crimes were almost always premeditated, with careful planning taking place weeks or even months prior to the event. There were no sudden impulses of rage or anger that motivated prime time criminals. The motivation was simply greed. If the white perpetrator was not well-to do (e.g., a white punk) they are most frequently presented as mentally ill. An overbearing mother or a traumatic childhood was often introduced to explain criminal motivation. For example, the premiere episode of Unsub, a drama created to simulate the work of the FBI's forensic unit, featured a white serial killer who killed to erase the pain of an overly demanding mother. She had forced him to watch her take baths.


 Nicole Rafter on Criminology in Crime Films

In comparison to TV, Rafter would argue that Hollywood feature films have used a broader array of criminological explanations. These include environmental, psychological, free will, and biological. Modern crime films (those Rafter labels as alternative) have also adopted a "crime may be unexplainable" hypothesis. (see chapter 2)

Maybe TV crime shows represented a version of classical criminology? To a significant extent Americans, including our criminal justice system, do not take positivistic criminological explanations seriously. Instead most accept a classical free will model of criminal motivation. Criminals have a choice in whether or not to commit crimes. Criminals must get something out of it, certain advantages (e.g., money, property, the pleasure of dominating and inflicting pain on others), or they won't commit crimes. If punishments are swift, certain, and severe enough, a reasoning criminal would desist. Such a model goes back to Beccaria and Bentham, and is based upon the utilitarian pleasure-pain principle and the assumption of rationality. Criminals will continue in their ways as long as the advantages outweigh the potential disadvantages. Prime time's fascination with greed as the motivation for middle-class white criminals is in fundamental agreement with the classical model. Only when TV offered us up mentally ill criminals, did it differ with the beliefs of the American majority.

If Hollywood portrayals are dominated by the classical model, Ben Stein still wondered why prime time crime consisted almost exclusively of white upper-class violence. After watching thousands of hours of TV crime shows, he reported never to have seen a major crime committed by a poor, teenage, black, Mexican, or Puerto Rican youth, even though in reality they account for a high percentage of violent crime. The question he asked was, why? To get an answer Stein interviewed the persons most directly responsible for the images portrayed on prime time shows, TV writers and producers. The answers that he received astounded him.

He found that the overwhelming majority of TV writers had rejected the classical free will explanation of crime. They believed that the blame for violent street crime rested not in the criminals themselves, but on some larger social failure. Our society had failed to adequately integrate a significant portion of its population or to offer a real opportunity to succeed. (Maybe they had read Robert Merton's anomie essay.) In the eyes of TV writers, the inequity of the situation in which the poor are forced to live was cited as more detrimental than neighborhood crime. The former simply produced the latter. Their explanations for street crime included the following: 


the poor lack the opportunity to fully participate in desirable lifestyles 


their frustration from not getting the good things of life leads some to seek their goals through crime


the real cause of crime is the gap between the American dream and American reality; crime begins with unemployment (a man without a job is an angry man)


the white power elite is not about to give up any of their wealth or power

Only a minority of TV writers blamed street criminals themselves for their criminality.

Far more serious than street-level crime to TV writers were white-collar crime, organized crime, and political corruption. The Hollywood TV producer sees crime as being rooted in the upper class or upper middle class. The elites which control society are responsible for the production of crime. Although a 15-year-old minority group member may actually wield the gun, it is the well-off suburbanite who stops him from going to medical school and instead to become a vicious killer. Thus, Hollywood TV writers were closet conflict theorists.

Stein also noted that these ideas, while told to him, were not directly communicated on prime-time crime dramas. Writers and producers, who almost universally treated their TV audiences with disrespect, believed such an argument was too complex for TV drama. So, producers developed a shortcut for the message. The suburbanite as street criminal is a metaphor; since he is ultimately to blame anyway for our society's crime problems, Hollywood places the gun directly in his hand. The poor, minority groups, and youths are thus relieved of any responsibility for their actions. In fact, they were never shown as criminal at all.

Another explanation considered by Stein but ultimately rejected for the paucity of minority criminals on TV until the mid-1908s was interest group pressure. Minority group organizations lobby against negative portrayals of their members in TV and movies. If a number of black criminals showed up on prime time, the NAACP would protest. Stein was told this by studio heads, who claimed they feared minority protests. However, Stein points out that minorities actually had nothing to protest about because they were not being portrayed negatively on prime time TV anyway.

In the current TV era,
 minority criminals appear on shows like NYPD Blue

Empirical Comparisons From the Pre-Reality Era

While Stein's account was largely journalistic, Rhonda Estep and Patrick McDonald did an empirical study of how primetime crime evolved on TV from 1976 to 1983. They made three major points, all of which differed from reality: 1) there was an overemphasis on violent crime and an under representation of property crime 2) there has been an overrepresentation of white, middle-aged, middle-class whites in both suspect and victim roles 3) crime on TV was (and is) almost always unsuccessful and the criminals are always apprehended (or killed) by the police. Some of their findings appear below.

* a.) On 1981 TV shows, 26% of all crimes depicted were murders, 19% were robberies, 11% were assaults. Compare that to UCR figures. Aggravated assaults accounted for 60 percent and robberies comprised 33 percent of all violent crimes reported to law enforcement in 1994. The rate of 716 violent crimes for every 100,000 inhabitants is rather small in comparison to a 1994 property crime rate was 4,658 offenses per 100,000 population. Larceny-theft comprised 65 percent of property crimes reported,

* b.) For murders the suspect was most likely to be a white, middle class, middle aged male. Official police records reveal that the typical suspect arrested for murder to be a young, lower class male, and about equally as likely to be black as white. Thus, the only characteristic on which TV depiction is accurate is gender. In 1976, 100% of the TV murderers were white compared to UCR data for that same year which showed the actual racial breakdown at 46% white and 45% black. In 1981, 79% of the TV murderers were white, 3% were black, and 17% other. On TV the average age of killers was 42 with only 6% under age 25; according to UCR the average age was 20-24 with 44% under 25. Average age gradually went down on TV dramas, but remained 10 years too old. On TV, middle class murderers predominated, while UCR indicates lower class.

* c.) Murder victims were also wrongly stereotyped as to sex, race, age, and social class. In 1976 70% of TV's murder victims were male and 30% female; UCR found 76% male versus 24% female. While the 1976 comparison was similar, by 1981 TV had changed dramatically. 65% of all murder victims were female and 35% male. Was there a backlash against the feminist movement? In 1976, murder victims on TV were 84% white and only 2% Black; UCR reported 51% white and 47% Black stats. By 1981, TV had changed somewhat; 71% of murder victims were white with 18% black . The average age of murder victims was higher on TV than in reality. In 1976, the TV average age was 37, with 36% under 30. UCR reported an average age of 20-29, with 45% under 30. On TV the typical murder victim is middle class; according to UCR they are lower class.

* d.) Robbery suspects and victims showed similar discrepancies when TV and real life criminals are compared. Only the sex of suspects is presented accurately. In 1976, TV robbery suspects were 92% white and averaged 40 years old, compared to UCR's 32% white and average age of 15-19. The typical motive for robbery on TV is greed, not need. In the TV profile of crime victims the most glaring errors occurred in race (TV 90% white, UCR 24% white), and age (TV around 40, UCR 12-15).

* e.) Probably the biggest fallacy communicated by TV crime dramas is that "crime never pays." Most suspects on TV are either captured or killed. With respect to murder suspects such depictions are fairly accurate. Around 90% of TV murder suspects are caught, UCR arrests average in the mid 70's (72%-79%). However, on TV most robbery suspects are caught (near 90%). The FBI reports police departments as clearing by arrest only about 25% of all robberies. Law enforcement agencies nationwide recorded a 21-percent Crime Index clearance rate in 1994. The clearance rate for violent crimes was 45 percent; and for property crimes, 18 percent. Among the Crime Index offenses, the clearance rate was highest for murder, at 64 percent, and lowest for burglary, at 13 percent. TV gives the false impression that the police can solve most crimes, which they can not.

What are we to make of these differences? Hollywood writers would defend their craft by stating they are telling stories for entertainment purposes, not trying to recreate a statistically accurate reproduction of the Uniform Crime Reports or National Crime Victimization Survey. However, not surprisingly, when asked by Ben Stein where they got their ideas for story lines many writers responded from the newspaper or TV news. So, it appears that the relationship between Hollywood and the news media may be reciprocal. What people make of media accounts, and whether they recognize the inaccuracies in media coverage which focuses on violence, street crime, and the unusual is another question; one we will return to later.


End of an Era: The Coming of Reality TV

What I am referring to as reality TV has two components: (1) reality-based crime dramas and (2) TV crime documentaries (reality programs). Both have become staples of network and cable TV station offerings since the mid-1980s. 

1. Reality-based crime dramas began with Hill Street Blues, and continue today in programs like Law and Order, NYPD Blue, and 100 Centre Street. These shows feature plots ripped from newspaper headlines, camera angles purposefully used to look more amateurish, and ongoing character development made to simulate careers within criminal justice.

(2). Reality programs on television are defined as nonfictional programming in which the portrayal is presumed to present current or historical events or circumstances. The production presents itself as being a realistic account.

Included are news and public affairs programming, interview and talk shows, entertainment news-and-review programs, documentaries, and other programs presenting themselves as recreations of "real-world" events, such as those depicting scenes of police or emergency workers, or humorous events or circumstances. Programs may be either actual or recreated depictions of events or circumstances, but in the case of the latter, the context must make it clear that efforts have been made to recapture a past event as it happened. Although not coded for this project, instructional programs featuring live actors and quiz and game shows are also considered reality programs.

The two continue to become less distinct as Hollywood TV producers copy many of the documentary video/film styles and reality shows are edited to appear more movie-like. Hybrids like America's Most Wanted feature both documentary-style re-enactments spliced with real photos and surveillance camera footage. Confused viewers have frequently spotted the actors playing the criminals and turned them in to the FBI.

In the reality TV era, minorities are depicted as criminals during primetime much more frequently than in the past. If producers fed viewers a steady diet of white-only criminals, they would be charged with being unrealistic, the most serious charge that could be leveled at them. Activist groups have challenged what they see as stereotyping.



January 25, 2001

NBC Apologizes to Latinos


Filed at 11:50 p.m. ET

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A ``Law & Order'' episode about violence during New York's Puerto Rican Day parade provoked angry complaints from Hispanic groups and a promise from NBC never to air the hour again.

``We sincerely apologize for offending members of the Latino community regarding the portrayal of Latinos and the Puerto Rican Day parade ... we have agreed not to repeat the episode on NBC,'' the network said Thursday.

The episode that aired Wednesday depicted a parade day rampage by Puerto Rican youths in which women are molested and one is killed. A Brazilian youth is shown convicted in the death.

NBC made the decision after a meeting in New York with Hispanic representatives, including Manuel Mirabal, head of the National Puerto Rican Coalition, and Maria Roman, parade president.

Mirabal said he was pleased with the decision and apology but that more would be expected.

``We're no longer going to allow the networks to shrug off their responsibility to ensure this doesn't happen again,'' he said.

In a statement, NBC said that ``we realize we still have further improvements to make'' and will do so.

The network's action was swiftly criticized by Dick Wolf, executive producer of the long-running legal drama.

``The bedrock of American democracy is free speech and lack of censorship,'' Wolf said. ``The network has caved in to the demands of a special interest group and I am extremely disappointed with this decision, about which I was not consulted, as I think it sets an extremely dangerous precedent.''

Mirabal said the drama distorted a real occurrence on parade day last year in which groups of men sexually assaulted women in Central Park.

The attacks occurred after, not during, the parade and the majority of those arrested were not Latino, Mirabal said.

``Every Puerto Rican shown in that show was portrayed negatively as a criminal, as a delinquent, as someone who abuses women,'' he said in a telephone interview from New York.

Such depictions reflect negatively on all Hispanics because many viewers fail to distinguish between different groups, he said.

Wolf said in its 11 years of ``ripped from the headlines'' stories his series has offended many ethnic and political groups.

``The show reflects real life,'' he said.




Additional Reading:

1. TV Violence in Reality Programming by NTVS Research Team



Discussion Questions:

Question 1. Why is the media so likely to generate false crime waves? create moral panics? propagate urban legends?

Question 2. What do you see as the major discrepancies between media accounts of crime (TV news, primetime fictional and reality based TV) and the reality of crime?

Please demonstrate that you have read this week's required text readings in your answers.

Answer these questions on the course Campus site under Communication: Discussion Board: Week 3




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Copyright 2001
Cecil Greek