Mass Media, Crime, and Criminal Justice

C. The Market Model and Entertainment Media

While this discussion primarily focuses on mass media decision making in a news journalism context, it is not difficult to see the applicability of these theoretical perspectives to various forms of entertainment media. Indeed, an argument can be made that entertainment-oriented mass media companies that produce crime-related output are even more deeply entrenched in the market model. These companies may have less of an obligation than news media companies to inform audiences about their culture and society, and instead, conform to imperatives of the organization that are dictated by market concerns.

Television crime dramas have become increasingly popular with the general public. Crime shows like The Avengers; Baretta; Cagney and Lacy; The Commish; Colombo; CSI; Dragnet; Hawaii Five-O; Hill Street Blues; In the Heat of the Night; Kojak; L.A. Law; Law & Order; Magnum, P.I.; Miami Vice; Mod Squad; Murder, She Wrote; NYPD Blue; The Practice; The Rockford Files; Simon and Simon; Starsky and Hutch; and T. J. Hooker have proven to be immensely popular. Danielle Soulliere (2003) analyzed episodes from three of these shows (Law & Order, NYPD Blue, and The Practice) focusing on how the content of the episodes both diverges and converges with information on crime from official crime statistics. One of the most important conclusions from her research is that market factors may explain both divergence from the “reality” of crime and convergence with the “reality” of crime.

In terms of divergence, Soulliere (2003) found that these shows disproportionately focus attention on violent crime, and especially murder. Whereas murder makes up less than 1% of all crimes, in the episodes that were analyzed, murder was the focus in over 60% of the episodes. She concludes that this finding is attributable to the market demands of entertainment media organizations, noting that “violent crime, especially murder, strikes at the very core of our humanity and is therefore fascinating, dramatic, and entertaining. It is no surprise, then, that murder remains the most marketable crime in the entertainment television industry” (p. 30, emphasis added). In contrast, she found that there is convergence between official crime statistics and portrayal by these shows on the issue of victim–offender relationship (e.g., that most crimes are committed by acquaintances or family of the victim). She argues that this convergence may be “coincidental rather than intentional” (p. 31), noting that close relationships between the victim and the offender add drama to the plot and make it more marketable.

In addition, there is some evidence that entertainment-based media organizations also behave as Lundman (2003) suggests in that they organize content around a script that is known, widely accepted, and socially safe (in that it does not offend the market audience). Buckler’s (2008) analysis of the 2005 film Crash provides an illustration using the framework established by Lundman. The film won three Oscars, for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Editing. The film Crash follows a group of racially and ethnically diverse characters in Los Angeles as they interact with one another, often in criminal ways. In his analysis, the author notes how the film was promoted as one that tackled the issue of race in a unique way, but Buckler goes on to show how the film conformed to existing racial and ethnic scripts.

Buckler (2008) conducted a content analysis of 29 separate instances of verbal and nonverbal discourse in scenes where race- or ethnically based behavior and stereotypes are present in the film. He concludes that the film was able to successfully (in terms of monetary sales and awards) tackle a controversial social issue like race/ethnicity and crime because it presents the issues in ways that are socially safe for white viewing audiences, by using the following techniques: (a) contextualizing and explaining white prejudice while presenting prejudiced actions by minorities as arbitrary and devoid of context, (b) reaffirmation of minority stereotypes, (c) portraying minority characters in interactions with police as the instigator, and (d) showing white racist characters in positive ways that redeem their behavior in some respect.

Browse criminal justice research papers or view criminal justice research topics.