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Media and Crime: Shaping of Public Opinion

Critics admit a false and negative portrayal of victims of crime popularized by mass media. Crime, particularly violent and predatory crime, is not as common as often portrayed by journalists. Crime is uniquely debilitating because it destroys feelings of security and the sense of interpersonal trust that binds a community together. The term media involves all channels of communication and interaction used by mass media (radio, TV, press, the Internet, TV news, etc.). The media exaggerates and portrays false images of a victim and the consequences of crime for a common citizen.

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In recent years three factors have played major roles in shaping public opinion about crime. The first, the distortion of information by the mass media and the law enforcement establishment, was discussed earlier, but their role in this should not be interpreted as conspiratorial. The editors do not get together and decide to overrepresent violent crime. Instead, the marketing and sales analysts from one newspaper discovered that sensationalized violence increased sales, so it became editorial policy to concentrate on reporting the more sensational crimes. To remain competitive, other papers were forced to do the same (Leishman and Mason 2003).

This sort of collusion does not exist. What happens is that a police department receives a large federal grant to reduce crime and finds it politically advantageous to show a reduction to convince the public that their tax dollars are well spent. The reduction in official statistics is accomplished by simply changing the techniques for recording complaints. When the same departments are faced with budget cuts and fierce competition for scarce resources with the fire department, sanitation workers, and other local agencies, indications that crime is increasing and law enforcement are imperative becomes politically advantageous.

The media pick up on fluctuations, particularly when they are upward, and often sensationalize the figures by presenting them in doomsday trappings. Even though no conspiratorial effort among the elite of the national media and the law enforcement establishment may have taken place, the aggregate effect of their independent actions does much to shape an inaccurate public image of crime (McCulloch, 1997).

The main problem is that the media distorts its presentation of crime and victimization patterns by selecting particular incidents to report. Unusual, bizarre, violent, and macabre incidents and injured victims receive more media attention. Violent individual crimes are more often portrayed by mass media than common crimes. Mass media portrays victims as suffers who have not been protected by state and police.

Clear but perhaps unexpected differences have been discovered among different sex, race, education, occupation, and income groups. As might be expected, women are more afraid to become victims than men; women feel less safe in their homes and walk alone at night (McCulloch, 1997). This is interesting since men are twice as likely to be victims of violent crime. The crime of rape may play an important role in this relationship. Though rape is a low-probability incident, its effect can be so devastating that it may be worthy of the fear women appear to have of it.

In sum, media creates vivid and bright images of crime victims to impress a viewer and attract the attention of a wide target audience. The main categories of victims popularized by media are women and elderly, racial minorities, and poor. One might argue that variations in fear depend on the sense of vulnerability, real or imagined, that people have. False images of victims force women to perceive themselves to be physically more vulnerable to criminal victimization, and even though their rate of victimization is not as high as that of men, they are more afraid than men.

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Leishman, F. Mason, P. (2003). Policing and the Media: Facts, Fictions, and Factions (Policing and Society Series). Willan Publishing (UK).

McCulloch, Jude. (1997). “Behind the headlines: How does the media portray fatal shootings by police?’ Alternative Law Journal, 22 (3), pp. 133-137.

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