3. Media and Crime

3.1 Theoretical Perspectives on the Relationship Between Crime, Media, and the Public

Dr. Chantal Faucher

It is not possible for the media to tell us about everything that happens in the world, the details of every crime committed, the harm done to every victim, the behaviour of every law enforcement officer, the decisions of every court, or the rehabilitation of every offender. There is necessarily a selection process, a filtering of the range of stories available to determine which ones are “news.” Theorists from different perspectives argue that the stories that become news normally carry one or more features called news values or newsworthiness criteria  (see Figure 3.1).

A graph that lists things that might make a story newsworthy. See long description.
Figure 3.1: Newsworthiness Criteria (Sources: Buckler, 2015; Gushue et al., 2018; Hall et al., 1978; Intravia et al., 2017; Jewkes, 2015; Lee & Wong, 2019; Surette, 2015; Wong & Harraway, 2020) [Read the text in this image in the Image Description]

Therefore, even if we adhere to the belief that news reporters are impartial and objective truth-tellers, we must still accept that there will always be parts of the story that are left out and some stories that are never told. The question here is: Who decides on which stories to tell and how to tell them? The theoretical perspectives discussed in this section offer different views of the filtering process that leads to the creation of crime news content.

Market Model

The market model suggests that the basis for deciding which stories become crime news is market demand. What does the public want to see/hear/read about? What interests them? This model is premised on the idea that media are a business, and their focus is on profitability. For media to be profitable in a competitive marketplace, they must publish the stories that will attract the largest audience to maximise advertising revenue (Buckler, 2015; Manning, 2001; Surette, 2015). Proponents of this theory suggest that if media content is dominated by stories about violence, sex, money, and celebrities, it is due to audience preference. There is, therefore, no need for media regulation that requires media businesses to report information that may be less entertaining, but serves public interests.

Public Sphere/ Social Responsibility Model

While the market model suggests the media give the public what it wants, the related social responsibility model argues that the media should give the public what it needs. Media are one of the main pedagogical tools through which the population can become informed about the events and issues taking place in society. In the public sphere/social responsibility model, the media have a responsibility to serve the interests of democracy (Manning, 2001). The media benefit from certain protections in carrying out their duties; for instance, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the freedom of the press and other communication media (section 2. (b)). However, because the media are also seen as a public resource, media industry regulations and codes of ethics (such as those set out by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council) are in place to ensure a diversity of content that is not necessarily solely based on popularity (as the market model suggests) (Buckler, 2015).

Within this model, news media are viewed as playing a key role in keeping the public informed about what is happening in society and, in particular, holding authorities accountable for their decisions and actions. For instance, the media raise awareness about political and judicial decisions that may otherwise go unnoticed by most members of the public.

Propaganda model

The propaganda model (also called the manipulative model) suggests that media content is determined by those who own the media. It is their prerogative, as owners, to determine the editorial line, the types of stories reported, and the perspectives used. Further, this model argues that the media owners will select stories according to what serves their best interests (Herman & Chomsky, 1988; Manning, 2001; Surette, 2015). They will present a distorted version of reality to shape public views. However, there is a need to avoid the overt appearance of bias as the audience will question the credibility of the media if the bias is too obvious. Nevertheless, according to this model, powerful elites can use the media to filter out certain events and perspectives in favour of those that the government and powerful elites wish to disseminate (Hackett & Gruneau, 2000). In doing so, they divert the public’s attention away from certain issues, such as political maneuvering and corporate wrongdoing, and onto stereotypical street crimes, for example.

For instance, the media can be described as a colonial tool and source of narrative control that can represent stereotypes and misrepresentations of Indigenous peoples (and other minority groups) (Anderson & Robertson, 2011; Baker & Verrelli, 2017; Beckermann, 2020; Clark, 2014; Fleras & Kunz, 2001; Henry & Tator, 2002; Monchalin & Marques, 2014). The propaganda model reflects the balance of power in the media, and Indigenous peoples are not in control of mainstream media content (Walker et al., 2019). In the mainstream media, protests against the development and extension of pipelines have tended to receive minimal coverage until the protests turn into physical confrontations (Crosby, 2021). Focusing on the protests only once they turn into violent clashes tends to legitimise the authorities and cast the protesters in a negative light, thus leading to a lack of serious consideration of the reasons for protesting in the first place (Corrigall-Brown & Wilkes, 2012). Also, the media often portray these protesters as “environmentalists” while overlooking that many of the protesters are Indigenous peoples (Clark, 2014). By neglecting to emphasise the Indigenous peoples’ actions when upholding their rights, the media also fail to provide reasons, other than environmental motivations, for why these events are happening. The media may generally overlook the destruction and damage to territories and waterways that are relied upon by Indigenous peoples in the exercise of their rights to a way of life that includes hunting, fishing, trapping, and other cultural ceremonial and traditional practices; the violation of treaty rights and other agreements; unsettled land claims; and self-determination (Clark, 2014; Crosby, 2021; Monchalin & Marques, 2014; Walker et al., 2019). This failure of the mainstream media to provide decolonising context for Indigenous peoples’ assertion of rights and awareness-raising efforts in attempts to protect lands and waters serves to perpetuate and reinforce stereotypes that have been in place for more than a century (Anderson & Robertson, 2011) and prevent Indigenous voices from controlling the narrative (The truth behind First Nations pipeline protests video is an example of media coverage that fails to incorporate Indigenous voices in contrast, see Get Off Our Territory: Wet’suwet’en Land Defenders Condemn Canadian Police Raid on Pipeline Protest for how some sources do incorporate Indigenous voices).

Organisational model

Another model suggests that neither market demand, nor social responsibility, nor media ownership can have as much influence on the content of news as the routines of day-to-day news production. The organisational model is more pragmatic in pointing out that the constant need for news material and the pressure of deadlines in the news cycle lead to certain media practices that shape news content. News media will favour stories that have been previously reported upon and have an established background, such that they do not need to be constantly starting from zero in shaping a story the audience can understand.

This habit of favouring stories that have already been reported upon is connected to the use of simplification, personalisation, and stereotyping (Buckler, 2015; Ericson et al., 1991). Simplification stems from the inability of media institutions to do extensive research before producing a news story due to deadlines. The tendency in news stories is to stay away from explanations, particularly ones that may be complex. For example, stories about homelessness will rarely examine the structural causes of homelessness but rather focus on individual factors (Calder et al., 2011; Schneider, 2014; Truong, 2012). Personalisation relates to the dramatisation of news: How did people feel when this event happened? How would you feel if it happened to you? Making a story relatable makes it easier for the audience to understand. Canadian journalists reporting on homelessness indicate that they try to bring individual stories to light to help readers understand the types of challenges underhoused people experience (Schneider, 2013). Stereotypes are also easily understood by audiences. For example, the stereotypes of homeless people as mentally ill, drug-addicted, unwilling to work, and engaged in criminal behaviour are commonly circulated in society (Calder et al., 2011; Schneider, 2014; Truong, 2012). Media stories that resonate with these stereotypes are easy for the audience to understand as they do not challenge their views.

Not everyone will necessarily interpret a news story the way the media producer intended. The media may suggest an interpretation that many will accept, but the audience retains autonomy in terms of interpreting content. For example, a story about police use of force may be interpreted by different segments of the population as:

  1. a legitimate exercise of force required in the course of police carrying out their duties;
  2.  an instance of a “bad apple” police officer who abused their authority, that is not reflective of how most officers would have handled the situation; or
  3.  an example of the corrupting influence of power in the hands of an institution that routinely abuses its authority.

This example of various possible interpretations based on a single story points to the fact that the media do not dictate how we are to think. The media “leave space for different moral readings by diverse audiences” (Ericson, 1991, p. 231). They provide us with information that allows us to form our own interpretations based on our own beliefs, sensibilities, and perspectives shaped by our personal and social experience. Thus, individuals or groups who have had negative interactions with police may lean more towards the third interpretation above, whereas those who have not may favour one of the first two interpretations.

The reason the dominant meanings may be more in line with those of the authorities can be found in the voices selected for defining news stories. Becker (1967) describes a hierarchy of credibility, whereby certain individuals are more readily accepted as being “in the know” and more readily given a voice in news coverage (e.g., government officials, police, academic experts). Ironically, the more widespread reporting of what these sources have to say lends them even greater credibility, and it legitimises and reinforces their views as the ones most likely to be relevant for further reporting. While the propaganda model might view the over-accessing of people in positions of authority as an indication that the news is purposely trying to have these voices influence the public, the organisational model views the preference for these sources from a different perspective.

Here, again, it is the routines of news production that contribute to the over-accessing of these sources (Corrigall-Brown & Wilkes, 2012; Hall et al., 1978). Firstly, journalists report on various topics about which they may have little expertise. For their reports to appear legitimate, they must cite people who are or appear to be credible and legitimate sources. Secondly, journalists must appear to be unbiased and objective in their reporting. They can do so by reporting on what these ostensibly knowledgeable sources have to say about the topic, instead of sharing their own thoughts. Thirdly, the authorities are more organised and available to reporters. When reporters are working with a deadline, they will rely on sources who take their calls/emails, who answer their questions in a direct way, and who are prepared with a sound bite on the topic in question. Many organisations, such as police departments, have developed media relations strategies with specific personnel dedicated for that purpose (Schulenberg & Chenier, 2014). Police are a steady source of crime news stories, so the media have an interest in maintaining a good relationship with them to continue to have access to this source. Police also have an interest in building good relationships with the media, as media representations can contribute to the public image of police. In this way, we can see a symbiotic relationship that exists between media and police (Barak, 1996; Gushue et al., 2018).

The over-use of authorities as sources does not mean that other sources cannot be included. Becker (1967) describes the authorities as primary definers of the news. Other sources (e.g., community organisations, protesters, victims’ rights advocates, criminal offenders) may be secondary definers, meaning that their voices can be included but usually as a response to the ways the primary definers have established the parameters of the issue at hand. Secondary definers are not given the status of being able to set the tone or construct the issue. They can merely argue against or offer an alternate interpretation of the problem as defined by the primary definers.

Cultural studies perspective

The cultural studies perspective (see 12 Cultural Criminology) views media production as a cultural practice imbued with meaning. Theorists from this perspective are particularly focused on the work of representation that takes place within the sphere of media and how this meaning can be deconstructed and resisted. They examine the ways in which individuals and groups are portrayed and the impacts these portrayals have on the individuals and groups themselves as well as on the media audience. They are interested in how some people come to be constructed as dangerous or risky and how some issues come to be constructed as one type of problem (e.g., a crime problem) rather than another (e.g., a health problem).

One major contribution to our understanding of media representations of crime and other social problems is moral panics theory (see New Media and Moral Panics for more on moral panics). The term moral panics was originally used by Jock Young but is more often attributed to Stanley Cohen who most significantly developed it in his work Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers (1972). He examined the frenzied news coverage of fights that had taken place between two youth groups, the “mods” and the “rockers,” identified through their stylistic choices. Cohen (1972, p. 9) defined a moral panic as when “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” Moral panics occur when there is a gap between people’s perceptions of a problem and the reality of the problem, and the difference can be explained ideologically (Hall et al., 1978). Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994, p. 156-159) further clarified that an episode can be defined as a moral panic based on five crucial elements: heightened concern about an issue or group, increased hostility toward those portrayed as responsible for the problem, a rapidly emerging consensus about the problem, the disproportionality between the perceived threat and actual threat posed, and a volatility in that the panic subsides quickly without any necessary resolution.

Folk devils was the term used within this theory to refer to people or groups presented in media as deviant outsiders and the cause of social problems. As was the case in the moral panic described by Cohen, youth often find themselves cast in the role of folk devils. Moral panics around youth are nothing new; many researchers have documented such panics revolving around youth over several decades (Chibnall, 1977; Cohen, 1972; Faucher, 2007; Gilbert, 1986; Killingbeck, 2001; Schissel, 2006; Silcox, 2022). Other groups have also been constructed as folk devils at different times. Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Muslim people in general came to be targeted as folk devils, despite the attacks being the work of a small group of extremists (Morgan & Poynting, 2012). More recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, people from China and Asia faced hate crimes and xenophobic attitudes in reportedly greater numbers and “covidiots” were also targeted as threats to society more broadly (Capurro et al., 2022; Gover et al., 2020).

Another key concept within moral panic theory is the moral entrepreneur, a term used to refer to individuals or groups who attempt to draw attention to and impose their moral perspective on behaviours they deem deviant or criminal in order to advance their own interests or political agendas. Becker (1963) divided moral entrepreneurs into two groups: rule creators who advocate for legal change to have their moral views reflected in law and rule enforcers who work to ensure the new laws are followed, such as police and enforcement agencies. To the extent that moral entrepreneurs can access the media, their position is reinforced and legitimised. Mothers Against Drunk Driving is a classic example of moral entrepreneurs engaging in awareness-raising campaigns about the harms of driving while drunk and advocating for legal changes to reflect more serious punishments for those who engage in such behaviours. The Pro-Choice, Pro-Life, Black Lives Matter, and LGBTQ+ movements can also be viewed as moral entrepreneurship.

In terms of the timing of moral panics, Cohen (1972) suggested that they can arise at any time if there is nothing of greater interest going on at a particular moment. In other words, the timing has more to do with a slump in the news than with any objective reality of the threat posed by the folk devils. Schissel (2006) suggested that timing, particularly in regard to moral panics about youth crime, had more to do with the economic and political context, diverting public attention onto these ready-made targets at strategic moments.

Table 3.1 – Key points of the five models
Market Social responsibility Propaganda Organizational Cultural studies
Media is a business

Crime news is a product that meets market demand

No need to regulate media

Media as a tool for developing an informed citizenry

People should be aware of crime in their community and what is being done about it

Media requires regulation

Media content reflects the interests of the powerful

Street crime news serves to divert attention away from other more serious matters

Content of news is dictated by the routines of news production

Reliance on established sources and story lines

Media content is a cultural product that serves to socially construct meaning

Media representation may produce and reproduce social constructions and may be contested



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

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