12. Cultural Criminology

12.7 Crime Media and Popular Culture

Dr. Steven Kohm

Visit Los Santos & Blaine County. A true paradise of golf courses, strip malls, environmental degradation and trailer parks – including … Peace of Mind. The Los Santos Police Department is famous for tackling crime in the most aggressive and unhinged way possible. This is through community outreach like stop and frisk, spectacular police chases and liberal use of stun guns and service revolvers.   -Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar Games

Violent, immersive video games such as those offered by Rockstar Games—including Manhunt, the wildly popular Grand Theft Auto series, and True Crime: Streets of LA—have captured the attention of cultural criminologists (Rowlands et al., 2016; Steinmetz, 2018; Fawcett & Kohm, 2020). Video games have for decades been a source of spiralling mediated moral panic about the presumed corrosive effects of violent media on youth (Rowlands et al., 2016). As Ferrell et al. (2008) point out, moral panics about video games and other violent forms of culture today follow many features of Stanley Cohen’s (1972) classic model. However, the moral panic of late modern times unfurls “faster and more furiously” (Ferrell et al., 2008, p. 133). Rather than something to be avoided, the logic of capitalism in late modern times sees great benefit in harnessing the media attention spawned by a moral panic because, as the old adage goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Today, “panic-inducing images of crime and deviance are now prime marketing tools for selling products in the youth market” (Ferrell et al., 2008, p. 140), a process identified in earlier time periods (e.g. McRobie & Thornton, 1995) but is accelerating in late modern times along with the proliferation of interactive digital technologies and social media. For example, Hier (2019) suggests that digital media logic produces a new kind of panic akin to a wildfire or firestorm that burns intensely, but ends quickly.

Cultural criminology sees in crime media, such as violent video games, something more telling about contemporary culture and the nature of global capitalism in late modern times. Video games like Grand Theft Auto and others “exemplify the broader trend toward the commodification of violence and the marketing of transgression” (Ferrell et al., 2008, p. 139). Atkinson and Rodgers (2016) argue that violent video games and explicit online pornography are appealing in late modern times precisely because of the longstanding historical trend toward what Norbert Elias called the civilising process. Over time, violence moved from being a visible and commonplace part of our lives to being largely invisible and the exclusive domain of state authorities. Michel Foucault (1977) vividly described this shift in his book Discipline and Punish, which begins with a detailed description of the public torture, dismemberment and execution of a criminal in France. However, just a few short years later, Foucault showed that punishment had been transformed. No longer a public spectacle, punishment moved behind the walls of newly developed penitentiaries and rituals of violence were replaced by self-regulating forms of discipline enforced by new surveillance technologies. Thus, Atkinson and Rodgers (2016) argue that as life has become more sanitised, safe and generally free of the threat of everyday violence, new forms of entertainment like violent videogames have become an outlet for our repressed violent impulses. The cultural industries have responded by offering a wide variety of products that play on our interest in participating in or witnessing forms of violence and humiliation that were once a common feature of public life. So while public executions are long gone, these public rituals have been replaced by violent first-person videogames and the public humiliation and punishment of putative criminal offenders on reality TV programs like Cops and Dateline NBC: To Catch a Predator (Kohm, 2009).

Media and pop culture are important sites for cultural criminology to analyse the collision of culture, crime and control. Drawing from postmodern theory, cultural criminology asserts that reality and representation can no longer be analytically separated:

In this world the street scripts the screen and the screen scripts the street; there is no clearly linear sequence, but rather a shifting interplay between the real and the virtual, the factual and the fictional. (Ferrell et al., 2008, p. 123-124)

Previously, cultural meaning was thought to be linear. In other words, reality comes first and its representation in media comes only after the fact. For example, a crime takes place, and then the news media reports the facts of that crime. But what if this linear order of meaning was disrupted? For example, Kohm (2009) showed how the popular NBC TV news magazine Dateline NBC: To Catch a Predator staged phony criminal situations to entrap men chatting online with actors pretending to be minors. The television program not only created the story it would later broadcast as “news,” but TV producers also choreographed police officers on the scene to ensure dramatic arrests for the camera (Kohm, 2009). This example shows how a simple linear conception of meaning may no longer be tenable in late modern times where news and entertainment have merged into “infotainment” and news programs actively create the content they report as news (Kohm, 2009). For a more detailed look at this issue, see part 1 of this two-part series by 20/20 that investigates the program To Catch a Predator.

Cultural criminologists employ the concept of loops to encapsulate the complex and non-linear way meaning flows through media and popular culture. They describe “an ongoing process by which everyday life recreates itself in its own image” (Ferrell et al., 2008, p. 130). Jeff Ferrell (1999, p. 397) describes this state of affairs as akin to a “hall of mirrors.” If you can imagine the disorienting effect of a fun house filled with multiple mirrors, reflected images, and images of images, you get a sense of the cultural and media loops that characterise late modern life, wherein “images… bounce endlessly one off the other” (Ferrell, 1999, p. 397). When a crime or a reaction to a crime is taken up by media, the effect is to “amplify, distort, and define the experience of crime” (Ferrell et al., 2008, p. 130). Nowhere is this more evident than in so-called reality TV, a genre of television purporting to show real-life situations and events. For example, several reality programs used footage from ride-alongs with police claiming to realistically depict crime and urban policing in North America. The long running American series Cops is the best known of these reality TV police programs, while in Canada, To Serve and Protect imitated the formula using footage from police ride-alongs in Surrey, BC, Edmonton, AB and Winnipeg, MB. To Serve and Protect initially aired in the 1990s and early 2000s, but was rebranded and rereleased on Netflix in 2017 as Under Arrest. To bolster its claim to reality, each episode begins with a voiceover: “This program contains actual police footage. No reporters, no recreations” along with the caveat that “Any suspects shown are innocent unless proven guilty in a court of law.” However, once a suspect is captured on camera, any distinction between legal innocence or guilt becomes a moot point as often shirtless (and frequently non-white) bodies with blurred faces are tackled and violently subdued by uniformed officers who speak directly to the camera claiming the righteousness of their actions. As Doyle (2003) points out, reality TV police programs are far from reality and depict policing from the point of view of law enforcement, who exercise control over the content of the TV program. However, reality policing programs result in a looping effect whereby police, suspects and the general public come to believe that “appropriate law enforcement correlates with high-speed chases, blocking and tackling, drawn weapons, and a shoot-first, think-later mind set” (Rapaport, 2007, as cited in Ferrell et al., 2008, p. 132). Even more telling, Pamela Donovan (1998) describes a scene in a suburban neighbourhood where crowds of onlookers watching police serve an arrest warrant spontaneously break into the chorus of Full Circle’s “Bad Boys,” the theme song of Cops (Bad Boys (Theme From Cops)).  In that case, it seems clear that the screen was indeed “scripting the street” (Hayward & Young, 2004).

Another concept employed by cultural criminology to describe the dynamic interplay between crime, control and media representation is that of the spiral. Like the discarded items Jeff Ferrell (2006) found during his time as an urban scrounger, cultural criminology has re-discovered an older concept in the sociology of deviance and put it to new use in analysing crime and media in late modern times. As far back as the early 1970s, interactionists documented the interplay between media, moral entrepreneurs, and subcultural groups resulting in a deviance amplification spiral that, in effect, caused those labelled deviant to become more entrenched in behaviour deemed troubling by authorities and news reporters (Young, 1971; Cohen, 1972). We can think of media loops building over time into a spiral that in turn feeds back into society through politics, public opinion about crime, and the actions of police and other agencies of crime control. And while the contemporary mediated spiral resembles the moral panic of the early 1970s, cultural criminologists like Ferrell et al. (2008) claim that late modernity fosters the conditions for a sustained spiraling panic that is ongoing, rather than the short-lived episodes described by Cohen (1972) and others. Whether conceived as a moral panic or a spiral of media representation, cultural criminology continues the analytical tradition begun 50 years ago in seeking to explain the seemingly irrational effects when crime, media and culture collide.


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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Steven Kohm is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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