Mass Media, Crime, and Criminal Justice

IV. Effects of Media Coverage of Crime

A. Moral Panics

The work of Stanley Cohen (1972) suggests that one of the consequences of media attention to issues of crime and justice is the creation of moral panics. Cohen argues that a moral panic occurs when a “condition, episode, person, or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests” (p. 9). Russell E. Ward (2002) further describes moral panics as “rapid and intense emotional fervor toward an issue that media and other social control agents call to public attention” (p. 466). In addition, Cohen suggests that when a moral panic occurs, the media cover the event in a fundamentally inappropriate manner. In essence, Cohen describes the moral panic as occurring when there is a gap between the actual threat and the perceived threat that is created by the condition, episode, person, or group of persons. To Cohen, when there is a gap between the actual and the perceived threat, the gap needs to be explained.

Cohen (1972) developed this concept during a study of events that transpired in Canton, England, on Easter Sunday in 1964. On this date, adolescents and young adults were hanging out on the streets of the town. A rumor began to circulate about a bartender who had refused to serve several young people. Eventually, a fight started and several youths on scooters and motorcycles started to race up and down the streets. Police arrested nearly 100 young people on various minor charges.

Cohen (1972) became very interested, not in the behavior of the young people involved, but in the media reaction to the events. The disturbance was covered by several prominent newspapers in England. In addition, the story was picked up by newspapers in the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and the European continent.Youth fights and vandalism continued to be a news theme for news organizations in England for about 3 years following the original event. Cohen believed that much of the coverage was “fundamentally inappropriate” and was presented in a very stylized and sensationalized format. He noted that the press used loaded terms to describe what had transpired, such as “orgy of destruction,” “battle,” “smeared with blood and violence,” and “screaming mob.” One press report stated that all the dance halls in the city of Canton had windows broken out, distorting the reality that there was only one dance hall in Canton. Press reports also exaggerated the incidence of youth riding motorcycles and scooters, as most of the youth were on foot.

Cohen’s (1972) analysis of media coverage of the Canton incident led him to develop his theory of moral panic. In his theoretical framework, Cohen starts with the notion that a person or group emerges to be defined as a threat to societal values. The original behavior is sometimes a new phenomenon that suddenly emerges, but other times, the behavior has been in existence for a long period of time and has suddenly received more attention. He also argues that the nature of the act or action is presented in a very simplistic and stereotypical manner by the mass media. Next, he suggests that editors, special interest groups, and politicians begin to establish moral barricades. It is at this point that members of the media, politicians, and special interest groups can do and say things that either prevent the moral panic from resonating or enable the further development of it. If they contribute to the development of the panic, once the problem becomes clearly articulated, media, politicians, and special interest groups begin to promulgate diagnoses and solutions to the problem. Often, the solutions are a disproportionate or exaggerated response, or they reduce the civil rights of groups in society.

Cohen (1972) also argues that as time passes, the conditions (behavior) will disappear, deteriorate, or become more visible. A condition easily becomes more visible when there is other behavior that represents minor variations of the original behavior, which can be linked to the original behavior. In this respect, Cohen argues that once classes of people who engage in certain behaviors are designated as a social threat, small deviations from the norm are noticed, are commented on, and are judged by media, special interest groups, and politicians. Again, the main problem with situations where media, special interest groups, and politicians respond to behaviors in ways that are disproportionate to the actual threat is that often policy becomes created that is illogical or does more harm than good in the long run.

Gary Potter and Victor Kappeler (2006) identify the drug panic (which began with the Nixon administration in the 1970s and gained tremendous strength in the Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton administrations) as one of the most powerful moral panics in the history of the United States. Dan Baum’s book Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure (1996) provides a good review of the war on drugs in the context of moral panic. In a more narrow review, Ted Chiricos (1998) asserts that the crack cocaine “epidemic” that was widely reported in the mid-1990s constitutes a moral panic. He shows that media attention to crack cocaine escalated dramatically at a time when cocaine use was actually decreasing. He also shows that the main theme of the crack cocaine panic was that (a) cocaine use would spread to previously “safe” areas and (b) the spreading of the problem would increasingly impact children. Chiricos also notes the essential problem with the drug panics: “In an atmosphere of panic, building walls and stacking people behind them is faster and easier than doing the difficult work of restoring work and community to neighborhoods devastated by disinvestment and de-skilling” (p. 67).

Scholars suggest that moral panics can come in all different shapes and sizes, targeting the behavior of a wide range of social groups. Ronald Weitzer (2007) analyzed the discourse of leading activists and organizations that are opposed to prostitution and concludes that many of the assertions by these organizations are unsubstantiated. Burns and Crawford (1999) show how media and political attention to the issue of school shootings in the late 1990s led to widespread panic despite the fact that empirical evidence suggests that school violence was actually decreasing at the time of the panic. Barron and Lacombe (2005) argue that the heightened concerns about female violence can be characterized as a moral panic. Ward (2002) notes that some sociologists have described media attention to sports fan violence in terms of a moral panic; he argues that from a statistical standpoint, sports fan violence is not worthy of the attention it receives.

B. Fear of Crime

Research has also explored the impact of media coverage of crime on fear of crime. The “fear of crime” research is based on cultivation theory, which is credited to communication scholars George Gerbner and Larry Gross (1976). Cultivation theory suggests that exposure to the violence on television, over time, impacts viewers’ perceptions of reality. In this regard, one of the findings from research based on the theory is that higher consumption of mass media impacts fear of crime. For instance, Romer, Jamieson, and Aday (2003) found that high levels of consumption of local news programming were related to fear of crime, using data from the General Social Survey over a 5-year period. But the research appears to be split on the issue of whether media consumption has a general impact on public fear of crime. In a sample of Washington, D.C., residents Kimberly Ann Gross and Sean Aday (2003) found that mass media consumption did not cultivate fear of crime.

What appears to be a more promising area of research inquiry is the notion that the link between media consumption and fear of crime is not the same for all social groups and that some groups are impacted more than others. Chiricos, Eschholz, and Gertz (1997) found that consumption of radio and television news programs increases people’s fear of crime; but this effect was only found for one social group that was part of the study—white females. They attribute this to an “affinity effect” in that white females are disproportionately portrayed in mass media as victims. Because of this, they perceive themselves as having a greater likelihood of victimization than they do in reality. In addition, Eschholz, Chiricos, and Gertz (2003) found that in a sample of 1,490 Leon County, Florida, residents, the link between media consumption and fear of crime was dependent upon racial composition of the neighborhood. Residents living in areas with a higher composition of African Americans that reported high levels of media consumption reported more fear of crime than other areas in the sample.

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