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Why should criminologists be concerned with how crime, criminals and the criminal justice

system are ‘represented’ in the media?


Why should criminologists be concerned with how crime, criminals and the criminal justice

system are ‘represented’ in the media?

Television and print media usually provide massive information to the public on social issues
including crime and justice. Nevertheless, most of the information provided is not always
accurate. As a matter of fact, researchers in the criminal justice system posit that the information
relayed through the media concerning crime in the United States is mostly inaccurate and it has
the potential of fueling misconceptions about crime and criminal justice. Accordingly, the public
uses information provided by the media to make judgments and decisions with regard to crime
and crime policy (Roberts, 2004).
Media coverage of crime is explained in terms of three models which are the market model, the
manipulative model, and the production model. Under the market model, media covers what the
public say are interested in and what is in the public interest. These two issues are often not in
harmony. The public is usually interested in crime news because of a complex psychological
process that triggers downward comparison in an individual and makes him or her feel better at
self by seeing others worse off. Secondly, the public is interested in crime news because it seeks
to speak to profound moral questions as with regard to the limits of human nature and the moral
integrity of the community. On the other hand, crime is a matter of public interest because all
societies have collective consciousnesses and the daily reading and watching of crime news
serves similar purpose (Greer & Reiner, 2012; Marion & Oliver, 2011).
From the manipulative perspective, media acts in furtherance of the interests of owners. A
capitalist society is maintained through coercion and consent. The dominant class usually
exercises control over intellectual means of production, including the media. Accordingly, media

is used to manipulate the perceptions of the public on crimes in order to deflect attention from
the activities of the dominant class (Marion & Oliver, 2011).
The production model explores the nature and extent of crime news and how news is collected.
Since there are large numbers of crime stories, media have to make production of crime news
manageable by taking positions to give easy access to crime news. The media retain autonomy
on the information retained and therefore they decide the kind of stories that are newsworthy.
The media generally select the novel, unexpected or dramatic stories as their preference.
Criminologists, sociologists and media scholars are increasingly concerning themselves with the
influence of media representations on crime and criminal justice. According to Ray Surette
(2014), it is important to study media, crime and criminal justice together because they are
‘wedded together in a forced marriage’. There are concerns among many scholars that crime is a
massively covered subject and its coverage significantly influences public views about illegal
acts and criminal justice.
According to Greer, the media portrays a society whereby crime occurs frequently and it is
constantly and overwhelmingly increasing, irrespective of what the statistics show (2003).
Scholars also argue that media misrepresent the nature of crime. In addition, tabloid papers and
commercial television programs present violent crimes as the norm, thus serving many people
with a daily diet of information on drug abuse, rape and murder (Greer & Reiner, 2012).
Research also shows that commercial pressures are shaping media’s contemporary treatment of
crime and violence. The resulting coverage has significantly reshaped public opinion and
eventually the criminal justice policy. The content of media is influenced by economic and
marketing aspects that often override traditional journalistic criteria for newsworthiness. The

exaggeration of the nature and extent of crime by media expands the size of the problem and
leaves the public alarmed about public order and safety. Owing to the fact that the popular media
is the most consumed source of information, it also plays an important role in inflaming public
opinion at certain points when such opinion can sway political decisions. Accordingly,
sensational crime reporting for newspapers guarantees increased ratings, which ultimately
increases profits. The purpose of mass media productions is to increase sales or ratings (Fleming,
Some researchers claim that mass media inform the public on very serious and violent crimes for
purposes of producing fear and causing moral panic. These are easily caused by constantly
feeding the audience with crime stories that result in fear of community and development of the
idea that every single person is capable of becoming a victim of such crime (Marion & Oliver,
2011). Fear of crime and moral panic waves have received enormous research in media
criminology. These studies indicate that most individuals who rely on information from the
media develop poor judgments and decisions with regard to crime and criminal justice.
The criminal justice system should be concerned with media coverage of crime because there are
many ways in which media distorts crime. The media often gives impression that crime is
increasing and that violent crime is more common than it actually is in the real sense.
The media also indicates that crime is committed by sociopathic predators that are significantly
different from the rest of the people. Media portrays these criminals as having individual
problems and that they commit the crimes freely from a wide range of alternate choices. This
portrayal links the causes of crime majorly in the individual criminal and promotes existing
social arrangements and advances toward crime control. The media also suggest that whites,

elderly, and women are the most frequent victims of crime. In addition, the media suggest that
crime is become more random and more likely to be committed by strangers. Media insinuates
that the public should fear others due to the fact that the criminal individual is not easily
recognizable. These images significantly destroy the public perceptions on law enforcement and
crime control policies (Greer & Reiner, 2012).
The reality of crime constructed by the media provides an opportunity for crime to be easily
divorced from other social problems and perceived as the greatest threat to society. The media
fail to provide the public with sufficient knowledge for direct evaluation of the performance of
the criminal justice system. Media content triggers the public toward certain policies and
The manner in which the media portrays the criminal justice system is very far from reality
(Surette, 2014). The information that the media provides to the public is highly selected,
distorted and generally uncritical. Despite the dramatic information presented by the media, a
larger percentage of the public still only have a substantially limited experience of the criminal
justice system and its workings (Roberts, 2004). As with the public knowledge and
understanding of criminal behavior, the public understanding of criminal justice system is
majorly obtained from the mass media. Due to the fact that the media mostly concern itself with
the most spectacular crimes which result to the most severe punishments, the image portrayed by
the media about law enforcement and punishment is likely to be distorted as well.
Most of the media coverage of punishment centers on prisons, the most severe form of penalty
available under the criminal justice system, despite the fact that most sentenced offenders rarely

receive prison sentences. Media perceive fined offenders as not able to make interesting reading
or viewing as the films and stories about imprisonment (Roberts, 2004; Surette, 2014).
There are concerns that media greatly distorts the image of the criminal justice system to the
public. Though the public is entertained and impressed, the information received from the media
does not accurately reflect the real world. The constructed reality of predatory crimes, high-
stakes trials and violent riots by the media contradicts sharply with the criminal justice system’s
daily realities of property crime, plea bargains and order maintenance. In an ironical sense, the
media suggests that the traditional criminal justice system is not effective and it is constantly
reminded that the best solution to crime is for it to improve (Robinson, 2011; Surette, 2014).
The lack of accuracy in media information mystifies and obscures criminality and the criminal
justice system. Media often stresses individual personality traits as the causes of crime and
violent exclusion as the best solution. Media tends to favor crimes that involve weapons and
solutions that involve violence and sophisticated technology. As a result, though the criminal
justice system is not shown favorably, the solutions proposed by media for crime control include
the expansion of the existing criminal justice system through harsher penalties and increased law
enforcement. Accordingly, the media-constructed criminal justice system is used by the public to
assess the performance of the real criminal justice system.
In conclusion, since media plays an important role in the outcome of public policy, it’s prudent
that all the information it relays to the public be accurate and in accordance with the criminal
justice system’s efforts to curb crime. A well coordinated collaboration between the media and
the criminal justice system can help tremendously controlling crime, as long as the public is fed
correct information (Surette, 2014).



Fleming, T. (2007) The History of Violence: Mega cases of Serial Murder, Self-Propelling
Greer, C. (2003) Sex Crime and the Media: Sex Offending and the Press in a Divided Society,
Cullompron: Willan.
Greer, C. and Reiner, R. (2012). Mediated mayhem: media, crime, criminal justice (pp. 245-
278). Oxford University Press.
Marion, N. E. and Oliver, W. M. (2011) Public Policy of Crime and Criminal Justice. Pearson
Higher Ed.
Narratives and Reader Engagement. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 14(3),
Roberts, J. V. (2004) Public Opinion and Youth Justice. Crime and Justice, 31, pp. 495-542.
Robinson, M. B. (2011). Media coverage of crime and criminal justice. Carolina Academic
Surette, R. (2014). Media, crime, and criminal justice. Cengage Learning.

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