Dr. Chantal Faucher, Langara College
I am a white, middle-class, cisgender female educator teaching criminology and criminal justice at snəw̓eyəɬ leləm̓ Langara College, Vancouver, BC, which is situated on the unceded traditional territory of the Musqueam First Nation. I grew up in the traditional and unceded territory of the Abenaki people and the Wabenaki confederacy in an almost exclusively white family and community, several generations removed from my French ancestors who settled in that area. I had the privilege of being fluently bilingual (French/English), which opened up a broader range of books and television options to me than most people in Québec could access at that time. My main early exposure to people different than myself, particularly in terms of race, ethnicity, and culture, was in fact through the television screen. It was mesmerising! My uncritical acceptance of the images on the screen was an uncomfortable realisation when I moved away and continued my formal and informal education. My principal research interests have been in critical examinations of media representations of young offenders, women and the law as well as cyberbullying.
Introduction: Why should criminologists study media content?
You may wonder why criminologists would bother studying crime and justice in the media since their work consists of studying these phenomena “in real life.” Although media may not offer a thorough or accurate depiction of crime and justice (as is discussed in this chapter), it is important to examine the ideas and images they produce. Most of us do not have direct, ongoing experience with crime (Carter, 2013; Henry & Tator, 2002; Jewkes, 2015). We rely on other sources of knowledge, such as things we hear from family, friends, and acquaintances or things we learn about from our government, school, religious institutions, and especially from the media (Surette, 2015). Most people, when asked about their main source of knowledge about crime and justice, will cite various forms of traditional and/or social media.
In this chapter, the term “media” is used in the broad sense to include the range of mass communication products people use: 1) to find out what is happening in their community and in the world, 2) for entertainment purposes, and 3) to share their ideas, news, photos, etc. with others, all of which are not mutually exclusive. However, the focus is on news media, whether in the form of newspapers, radio, television, Internet or other, as most of the research on media representations of crime have focused on news content.
The ways media represent crime and justice may leave us with a skewed perception. Nonetheless, it is important to study media images because, for most people, these images represent most of the information they receive about crime and justice. This reality makes media messages powerful vehicles for influencing public perceptions of crime and justice. Further, even though the public may be misinformed about crime and justice, it is rare to find a person who does not have an opinion about what should be done about crime, how it should be handled, whether we need more police or longer sentences, etc. Public opinions, regardless of how they are informed, have an impact on politicians, law, and policy. Criminologists have access to detailed and empirically based information about crime, which can enable a critical stance and, hopefully, help educate the public about crime and justice.
This chapter examines the ways in which media content shapes, and is shaped by, public understandings of crime and justice. Media portrayals are very consequential, as they are the public’s main source of knowledge about crime and justice issues. The chapter pays particular attention to the ways crime stories are filtered to become crime news as well as whose interests are served by those choices. To this end, to start, five theoretical perspectives and some of their key concepts related to media content are examined: the market model, the social responsibility model, the propaganda model, the organizational model, and the cultural studies perspective. The chapter then turns to the process of framing and examines examples of the ways crime, criminal offenders, crime victims and law enforcement personnel are framed in media representations. While this chapter is primarily concerned with news media portrayals, it ends with a brief consideration of the ways new media, such as social media, may disrupt some long-held media theories and allow a more diverse set of voices and perspectives to be considered.