Media and Crime

We hear a lot about how media and its portrayals can change our views and influence our actions in real life. To what extent does this apply to crime?

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Table of contents
    • We will go over the relationship between media and crime in sociology.
    • Next, we will look at labelling theory and the social construction of crime.
    • We will then consider the influence of mass media on crime and look at examples of how media can influence the audience.
    • Lastly, we will evaluate the media as a cause of crime.

    Relationship between media and crime in sociology

    It is important to study the relationship between media and crime in sociology because the audience builds its perception of crime based on the media’s representations. Let's start with the labelling theory.

    Labelling theory: media process and the social construction of crime

    How does do media processes show that crime is socially constructed? According to interactionists, people become criminals and crime emerges as an outcome of ‘labelling’ by authorities.

    The key idea within labelling theory is that crime is a social construction, and the agents of social control - police, people in powerful positions, authorities, media, etc. - label the ‘powerless’ as criminals based on stereotypical assumptions.

    Labelling theory is applicable to mainstream media’s representation of certain groups. Interactionists believe that the media’s portrayal of the deviance of youth subcultures is often exaggerated, which creates a ‘moral panic’ among the masses. This results in restraining or stopping the activities of these subcultures, and that triggers them to respond with more deviant behaviour.

    Moral panics

    Youth subcultures have been frequent targets of moral panics, which are exaggerated responses and concern for the public over the morality of a group within society.

    Interactionists argue that mass media, such as newspapers, television, etc., plays a crucial role in creating moral panics by overstating the deviance of youth subcultures to the extent that certain groups appear as ‘Folk Devils’ – people who are a threat to public order.

    The fact that the public responds by showing anxiety about ‘youth crime’ suggests that they subscribe to the media representation of young people as a threat to society/social order.

    Media and the simplification of crime

    There are a number of reasons why it can be argued that media oversimplifies and dramatises crime.

    • The media tends to highlight the psychological state of criminals in its coverage rather than the social context which causes the crime. For example, crime stories mostly quote the police, the victim(s), and their families, instead of quoting the experts in the field for 'newsworthiness'.

    • Media coverage generally lacks objectivity e.g. analysing actual risks associated with the crime. Instead, it makes the audience ‘emotional’ or ‘angry’ by overexposing the victims of the crime story featured. Consequently, unrealistic fear of crime gets spread through media coverage.

    • The media tends to focus on harsher punishments for criminals and negates discussion on alternative methods of punishment, even though evidence suggests that harsher punishments are not always necessarily the most effective means to control crime.

    Media and Crime, Image of fingers pointing to silhouette, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The media often stirs up moral panics, blaming certain groups or individuals for crimes unnecessarily.

    Mass media's influence on crime

    There have been a number of studies on the intersection of media and crime. Let's look at a few.

    Stan Cohen’s study of the Mods and Rockers (1972)

    In relation to labelling theory, let’s go through Stan Cohen’s (1972) study of mods and rockers, which looks at how moral panics created by mass media influence crime.

    • The two youth subcultures, namely, mods and rockers, were working-class groups. The mods rode scooters and wore suits, whereas the rockers rode larger motorbikes dressed in leather. The two groups were youth subcultures, in a consumer society, that existed peacefully and were mostly inclined towards music and style, primarily interested in having a good time.

    • Mods and rockers visited Clacton on a bank holiday weekend to party, during which they engaged in minor acts of violence and vandalism. This alerted the media, who turned up at the next big bank holiday weekend in Brighton.

    • Once again, there were acts of violence between mods and rockers, and since the media was present this time, Cohen argued that they produced exaggerated reports on the disturbance between the two groups. This created tension and panic among the masses.

    • In response, the police perceived this as a threat to social order, and started policing more aggressively to prevent similar events in the future. This meant they were more likely to convict youths from either group for deviant behaviour, thus increasing unrealistic public fear of crime.

    • Also, the inflated media reports turned the mods and rockers against each other, which wasn’t the case before the media got involved.

    The Hypodermic Syringe Model's influence on audiences

    The theory claims that media productions can use their content to influence audiences to think and act in certain ways.

    According to the hypodermic syringe model, media influences the audience directly. The model suggests that the audience consists of passive homogeneous masses who unquestioningly believe the content that the media presents.

    The culture industry's influence on audiences

    In Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s opinion, popular culture in the USA was more like a factory that produced stereotypical content used to influence or manipulate uncritical mass audiences.

    They claimed that the utilisation of this ‘dumbed down’ culture made audiences passive and triggered false emotional needs that could only be met by the consumption of capitalist products.

    Essentially, the objective of the culture industry was to manipulate the public to become ideal consumers and maintain the capitalist structure of society.

    Studies on media and crime in sociology

    Let's look at some studies that have explored the relationship between media and crime in sociology.

    War of the Worlds: The Radio Adaptation

    An example of how media influences the passive audience is the response of audiences to the radio adaptation of ‘War of the Worlds' by Orson Welles in 1938.

    This was a fictional story where aliens from Mars invade Earth and kill numerous people in the process. The radio adaptation was narrated in the manner of a news report. A few listeners tuned in a little late and missed the introductory part of the narration, and some of them actually misinterpreted it to be a news report. Consequently, they believed they were under invasion.

    Bobo Doll experiment: example of media violence

    Another illustration of how media violence can actually ‘cause’ people to behave aggressively in real life is Bandura’s ‘Bobo doll’ experiment. The experiment is evidence that children influenced by violence in media act more aggressively when given the opportunity.

    • As part of this experiment, there were three groups of children. One group was shown aggressive behaviour towards a bobo (inflatable). Another group was shown non-aggressive behaviour towards the bobo doll, and the third (control) group of children was not shown any behaviour towards the doll at all.
    • Children from the first two groups were taken to a room full of toys but were told that the toys weren't for them. Later, they were taken to another room where there was a mallet and a bobo doll. It was observed that the children who were shown violence started attacking the bobo doll out of frustration for not being allowed to play with the toys in the previous room, whereas those who weren’t shown any violence did not attack the doll.

    It was deduced that children copied or imitated the violent behaviour shown through media and started behaving aggressively in real life.

    Desensitisation to media violence

    There are real-life incidents of children committing violent crimes after being influenced by media violence.

    Consider the case of Jamie Bulger, a 2-year-old boy in the UK who was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by two young boys, both aged only 10. It was an apparent outcome of watching a film from the horror franchise Child's Play.

    Newson (1994) suggested that the effects of media violence on children are more subtle and happen gradually. She argued that continued exposure to violent media - through films, series, etc. - for several years desensitises children to violence, so they don’t get shocked by it but rather see it as the norm, or as a way of solving problems.

    Newson further believed that aggression shown through media encourages people to relate to and identify with the offenders or the perpetrators, and not with the victims. Her research led to an increase in censorship in the industry, for example, applying age certificates to shows featuring sexual or violent scenes.

    Media and Crime, Remote and blurry tv screen, StudySmarterFig. 2 - There is evidence to suggest that violence in the media can influence violent crimes in real life.

    Evaluating media as a cause of crime

    • Although watching violence might influence some acts of brutality, it is evident that many people watch violent movies or series or even play video games that feature crime, but do not commit any crimes themselves. So, media violence is unlikely to be a direct cause of crime.
    • Another perspective is that instead of being desensitised, people are sensitised by watching aggression onscreen. The horrifying outcome of violent acts actually influences people to not act in the same way.
    • According to pluralists and postmodernists, audiences today are a lot more active than what the hypodermic syringe model portrays. For them, the audience decides what they want to watch, and to what extent they wish to engage with it.

    Media and Crime - Key takeaways

    • According to interactionists, people become criminals, or rather crime emerges, as an outcome of ‘labelling’ by authorities.
    • Interactionists argue that mass media, such as newspapers, television, etc., plays a crucial role in creating moral panics by overstating the deviance of youth subcultures, to the extent that certain groups appear as ‘Folk Devils’ – people who are a threat to public order.
    • The media simplifies crime by highlighting criminals' mental states rather than social context. Their reporting lacks objectivity and focuses on harsh punishments.
    • According to the hypodermic syringe model, media influences the audience directly. The model suggests that the audience consists of passive homogeneous masses who unquestioningly believe the content that the media presents.
    • Examples of how media can influence crime are seen in the reaction to the War of the Worlds radio adaptation, the Bobo Doll Experiment, and how children can become desensitised to violence.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Media and Crime

    What is the relationship between media and fear of crime?

    Media coverage generally lacks objectivity e.g. analysing actual risks associated with the crime. Instead, it makes the audience ‘emotional’ or ‘angry’ by overexposing the victims of the crime story featured. Consequently, unrealistic fear of crime is spread through media coverage. 

    What are the main distinctions with crime and media?

    There is evidence to suggest that crime might be somewhat influenced by media portrayals.

    Why should we study the relationship between crime and media?

    It is important to study the relationship between media and crime because the audience builds its perception of crime on the basis of media’s representation of the act. 


    Crime is a social construction, and the agents of social control - police, people in powerful positions, authorities, media, etc., label the ‘powerless’ as criminals on the basis of stereotypical assumptions.

    How does the media portray young people and crime?

    Interactionists argue that mass media, such as newspapers and television, plays a crucial role in creating moral panics by overstating the deviance of youth subcultures to the extent that certain groups appear as ‘folk devils’ – people who are a threat to public order. 

    How does the media cause crime in sociology?

    A classic example of how media violence can actually ‘cause’ people to behave violently in real life is Bandura’s ‘Bobo Doll’ experiment. The experiment is evidence that children influenced by media violence act more aggressively when given the opportunity.

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    Team Media and Crime Teachers

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