The depictions of race in crime stories have tremendous effects apart from perpetuating stereotypes and biases towards minority groups. Its effects are reflected in the public's perception of being victimized by minority individuals, despite the fact that statistics indicate that a white person is three times more likely to be victimized by another white person
Interest in crime and criminals is not a recent phenomenon.Watching news reports about a school shooting, sexual violence or serial murder seems to be condemned by us all, and yet, its power to fascinate and pique the interests of many depicts the obsession we have with such incidents of violence. Perhaps we believe we will feel safer in our homes and communities once we understand "why" such violence takes place and can distance ourselves from the criminal. The content exhibited by the mass media proves just how much this insatiable interest in crime by these mass societies has become.
Whether it is in our daily news reports, movies, soap operas, books, video games or music, crime and deviance have become an indispensable theme for consumption. Furthermore, with the development and expansion of the mass media and different forms of reporting, individual interests have soared further with the content they are now able to access whether it be through TV shows like reality programs, actual images obtained from CCTV cameras or even through social media like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
The interest in the relationship between media and crime, particularly for the past century, has galvanized the interest of many social scientists and criminologists and has led them to question the fascination of the public with crime as both entertainment and information.
Since the early 1920s, researchers have tried to shed light on the question of the media and its power. The initial debates questioning the power of the media in influencing behavior of people and its use as a propaganda tool surfaced through the works of many psychologists and with certain events like World War I. Perhaps one of the most important and ironic events was in the United States of America in 1938. It was during a radio broadcast of Orson Welles´ "War of the Worlds," which caused massive hysteria and panic, leading people to pack up and cover their heads with aluminum foil, as they thought that the radio broadcast was an actual report of an attack by aliens. Such incidents further channeled researchers to study the direct effects the media have on the behavior of people. Numerous research studies continue to take place in the academic arena and likely will continue to do so. Leading criminologists in this field claim that there is no formal and concrete theory to explain media and crime relationship, but this matter will still continue to cause much heated debate. However, a crucial question that has caused much concern is the issue of the construction of crime news, questions of its reliability and its popularity amongst its consumers.
Media constructions of news have been said to set the agenda and form public opinion. Individuals consume news reports, advertisements, obtain information on political campaigns and make choices about consumer products based on the information received through the mass media, consequently forming our opinions on the issue and acting in accordance.
One of the most serviced topics that the media uses through various forms like news, newspapers, radio broadcasts, soap operas or popular shows is about crime. As individuals, most people obtain their knowledge about crime and the criminal justice system through these deliveries, even though its accuracy and construction has been a concern for many.
Crime has always been and always will be a current topic of interest in every society, as the mass media presents it for the purposes of both information and entertainment, thus the coined term "infotainment." The fact that crime has the potential for being newsworthy or a topic for a TV series is due to the fact that it contains negative features and values that are crucial in the construction of news. News reporters must evaluate the value of a news story and test to see if it meets certain news structures and elements to make it a newsworthy piece. Crime news meets most of these necessary news values that include elements of a story's threshold, predictability, simplification, individualism, the involvement of risk, sex, celebrity or highstatus persons, its proximity, violence, graphic images, the involvement of children and its political or ideological value. Even though every crime report may contain most of these features, some stories may not be explored in the mass media. That is why a crime story has a major element that brings a certain attention with it, and this is the fact that it has "novelty" or "newness" that teaches something new to its audience.
Despite crime news carrying most of the elements necessary for its broadcast or presentation and the fact that it is a leading theme in news and TV series, the truth is that the media presents a distorted image of the reality of crime and criminals. Many researchers have supported this approach of the mass media and claimed that crime news is distorted and overrepresented, and particular crimes are portrayed extensively, although they may be uncommon events. For instance, violent crimes like serial or mass murder or those with children as victims of sexual crimes are overrepresented compared to corporate or white-collar crimes. However, the truth is that crime reports are a fixed news commodity, and the popularity of such themes of violent crimes are ones that the public is fascinated with, and thus, the mass media distorts its images, facts and statistics about crimes in order to meet this public fascination, and this "hidden" and "unknown" public demand suddenly becomes intriguing.
The purpose of mass media productions, whether in magazines, books, news channels or newspapers, is to achieve a certain amount of sales or ratings. Other purposes include economic reasons, social change and informing the public of the criminal justice system. On the other hand, some researchers have claimed that the purpose of informing the public about very serious and violent crimes is due to the fact that the mass media aims to produce fear within the public, causing moral panics. This is easily caused by the constant feeding of crime stories, which leads the audience to fear the community and develop the idea that every single person may easily become a victim of such crime.
Fear of crime and moral panic waves have been a significant part of research in media criminology, as research has determined a significant relationship between fear of crime and media consumption. This significance is said to form the perceptions of society on crime, victimization and criminal justice policies. However, a more significant issue here is how the perception of individuals, who must rely on information from the media due to their lack of knowledge and experience with crime, form stereotypes of certain criminals and crimes in our society due to the moral panics that the mass media creates. As a result, people start to believe the myths and distortions of the mass media and associate certain minorities or individuals with certain crimes. Age is one of the most salient elements in crime reporting. In other words, the age of a criminal strongly influences the manner in which the crime story will be produced. The language used in news reports, on the other hand, is also a crucial feature that adds to the distortion the media intends to paint the story with. For instance, when youth violence is an occurring theme in crime reports, a specific choice of language leads to the construction of a reality and ideas regarding crimes committed by young people. Research suggests that when young people are portrayed as criminals, the language used in the reports concentrates on the irrationality of the offense, past crimes of the youth, their victims as innocent individuals as well as an obsession with safety and security against young people. The effects of this style of peculiar narrative draws a picture in consumers' minds that young people are dangerous and that violence is so pervasive that an immediate intervention needs to be taken.
In the context of crime news, racial stereotyping by the mass media has also caused certain ethnic minorities the most harm.
For instance, research has shown that when Black individuals are in question, TV news reports are less likely to identify them by name and are depicted when they are physically restrained or arrested, compared to white suspects. On the other hand, when ethnic minorities are victims, they are also underrepresented in the news compared to White victims. Researchers claim that the purpose of this distortion in race and crime is due to the fact that the media participates in a policy of ethnic blame, and this is done with the intention to appeal to a wide White TV audience, which seems to support Gramsci's white supremacist hegemony ideology.
The depictions of race in crime stories have tremendous effects apart from only causing stereotypes and biases towards minority groups. Its effects are reflected in the public's perception of becoming victimized by minority groups, despite the fact that statistics have proven that a white person is three times more likely to be victimized by another white person compared to one from a minority group. Another crucial effect of sensationalizing the racial ethnicity of a criminal is its eventual effects on policy and laws. For instance, following the Sept. 11 incidents in the U.S., many countries passed Anti-Terrorism Acts that clearly further victimized ethnic minorities and played a crucial role in the media portrayal of all of them as potential "terrorists." Perhaps we can see this form of propaganda nowadays leading to the targeting of ethnic minorities, immigrants, refugees and further leading to the stereotyping of all Muslims and Arabs as criminals and potential terrorists.
Despite the fact that there is not any actual media crime theory, the effects and influences of the media in relation to crime continues to be a thoroughly researched area of study by many sociologists, psychologists and criminologists. This interest in the academic world continues due to the fact that crime is a popular theme that is used in great proportions whether it be in news reports, newspapers, radio or TV series, as it carries news value. It is an undeniable fact that the media has the power to cause moral panics and fear of crime in the public through their depictions of certain crimes and criminals, particularly based on their age, ethnicity, gender and social class. However, though these depictions have been widely criticized for not reflecting the true facts and statistics of crimes and criminals, but rather for the purposes of entertainment, economic gain, public demands of fascination and policy change in the criminal justice system, the media has been successful in making the public believe that violent crime by certain individuals are widespread and at its highest. It is for this reason that crime is a theme that is widely used by the mass media. However, distortion and exaggeration through the tools of narratives for certain crimes and criminals like youth, women and ethnic minorities are not the only deformity made by the mass media.
These distortions by the mass media in relation to crimes and criminals have played and seem likely to continue to play a crucial role in the future of many criminal justice systems, as such false projections and illustrations of crimes and criminals have the power to set public agendas, form public opinions and even change policies and laws. So in the context of the influence of the media on crime and for the purposes of achieving a properly functioning criminal justice system, safer communities with less crime, less fear of crime and efficient criminal policies, some of the burden lies on the shoulders of the media and their approach in covering a criminal event.