It appears that the media is responsible for much of our thinking of crime, influencing our beliefs and fear, whether or not these are substantiated. In addition, the media have a strong hold in how we define crime and tend to influence police operations and crackdowns, in particularly street crimes. “Crimes of violence, which are very uncommon in actuarial terms, are accorded much greater coverage” (White et al, 2011: 34), “amplifying the deviance” (Rothe, 2004: 328).
Crimes such as murder are very rare but may linger in the media for weeks or months at a time and due to the randomness of victims for violent crimes, it tends to increase our fear that we could be the next victim. In actual fact, the crime rates may be consistent over a set time but the media tends to falsify this by creating various crime waves and moral panics, which tend to motivate politicians into increasing penalties for crime, particularly when judges appear soft on offenders.
Moral panics have been described “to characterise the reactions of the media, the police, the public, politicians and action groups” (Cohen, 1972:9). This definition was influenced by the incident at Clacton in 1964 when a disturbance broke out between large crowds of young people, leading to the arrest of 100 youths. Followed with heavy reporting in the media regarding delinquent youths, mob violence and out of control youths, pressure was placed on the Home Secretary to take firm action to deal with the problem (Goode et al, 1994: 6).
The concern for a particular threat becomes widespread, the media stirs up concern, politicians pledge their dedication to resolving the issue by proposing new or amended laws which may lead to law enforcement agencies targeting particular crimes and offenders. It is “inherently media driven but incorporates a wide variety of stakeholders and opinion-makers” (White et al, 2011: 40).
Congregations of young people or ethnic communities can bring about the same result. Cohen expands on his definition by adding “ . . . person or groups of persons emerge to become defined as a threat to societal values and interest” (1972:9). A group of Aboriginal youths or Muslims may cause the community fear, despite their innocent congregations at a local park or public place. In contrast, if a group of Caucasian people were replicating this event, the media wouldn’t even think about taking a second glance. “Moral panic arouses intense hostility toward an identifiable group or category or people who become vilified as social outcasts” (Welch, 2002:10).
This may lead to heavy reporting in the media, widespread fear to avoid particular areas at particular times of the day or night, lead police and local agencies to target this group for regular personal detail and weapon checks. In addition, to encourage the politicians to recommend curfews and loitering laws in order to quiet the media uproar.
“Once race is determined, news coverage does not have to repeat such information because the public already knows the racial configuration of the crime” (Welch, 2002:13). This was seen in the case of the Lebanese Muslim gang rapists who preyed on women in south-western Sydney in 2001. Although it was said the boys “have completed disaffiliated themselves from their culture or their religion” (Devine, 2002), the bulk of Lebanese Muslim boys as a result, have been tainted with this reputation, causing widespread fear in the community.
Radio reports claimed “one morning Sydney woke to be told it was a city at the mercy of Islamic gangs”, “Bin Laden groups in our suburbs” and “home-grown form of systematic ethnic cleansing” (ABC, 2002). “Members of the public are relied upon to express contempt for the folk devils and support for the rule enforcers, to consumer the media coverage . . .” (Rothe, 2004: 330). We, the public as consumers, are not given reason to doubt what the media informs us, which in turn increases our fear to the possibilities of crimes and those labelled as “folk devils” infiltrating our lives and causing harm to us.
Crime wave reporting
Although the media have a strong influence on public perception when it comes to reporting crime as minor as it may be in nature, it was found that “90 per cent of crime stories were presented in the absence of substantiating evidence” (White et al, 2011: 38). Crime waves begin with a social awareness of crime, causing fear to be rife within the community. Reporting of elderly people mugged and violently bashed in their own homes can cause fear for a wide selection of the public, in particularly elderly people who could randomly be the next victim.
Regardless of their consistency with reported crime statistics, the community may feel that there is a rise in the particularly crime. “Two attacks in four days led to calls for mandatory jail terms for thugs who assault seniors” (Parker et al, 2011).
Crime waves “may or may not be related to something happening ‘on the streets’ or in the police crime rates” (Fishman, 1978:4). The media does not need evidence of a rise in crime for the fear of crime to rise as a result of its reporting. “News workers make crime waves by seeing ‘themes’ in the news” (Fishman, 1978:5). Continued reporting of unrelated crimes tend to create the crime waves, exaggerated as it may be, it produces the effect the media are looking for.
The chances of a similar crime being reported to what is already covered in the media is highly likely, as the media describes them as emerging trends that require an increased action on the part of the politicians and law enforcement agencies. “A news organization cannot make a crime wave without the collaboration of other media reporting the same crime theme” (Fishman, 1978:8). As a result, it becomes entrenched in the community of media organizations.
The media play a central role in increasing the fear into everyday citizens who feed on the crime stories, whether justified or not. They make money to sell us stories and take advantage of ordinary crimes, turning them into a large-scale event. Fear sells, which is how the media organizations work. Whether writing about ethnic ‘youth gangs’ loitering in the public arena to an alleged increase of bashings on the elderly, we are lead to believe that we could be the next victim. Much of our crime education is sourced from the newspaper, television and crime dramas, most consumers take this information readily without feeling the need to assert the truthfulness or accuracy of the story. Which in turn gives the media the power to create fear.
ABC. (2002). Stories in 2002. Retrieved from the ABC Web site: ABC Media Watch: Criminal Gang or Islamic Gangs - Stories in 2002
Cohen, S. (1972). Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The creation of the mod and rockers. London: MacGibbon & Kee.
Devine, M. (2002). Racist Rapes: Finally the truth comes out. Retrieved from the Sydney Morning Herald Web site: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2002/07/13/1026185124700.html
Fishman, M. (1978). Crimes Waves as Ideology. Social problems. 25(5), pp.531-543.
Goode, E., & Ben-Yehuda, N. (1994). Moral Panics: Culture, politics and social construction. Oxford, England: Blackwells.
Parker, G., & Emerson, D. (2011). Government Targeted Over WA Crime Wave. Retrieved from The West Australian Web site: https://thewest.com.au/news/wa/government-targeted-over-wa-crime-wave-ng-ya-146446
Rothe, D. (2004). Enemies Everywhere: Terrorism, moral panic and US civil society. Critical criminology. 12(3), p. 327.
Welch, M. (2002). Moral Panic Over Youth Violence. Youth & society. 34(1), p.3
White, R., & Perrone, S. (2011). Crime, Criminality & Criminal Justice. South Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.