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Crime in the Media

The expansion of the criminal justice system is a consequence of two decades of "get-tough" policy making. New policies include those targeted at violent and repeat offenders, such as the death penalty and three strikes laws. They also include new mandatory sentences and policing strategies that target nonviolent property and public order offenders, especially drug users. Much of the growth of the prison and jail populations is a result of policies and practices that target these nonviolent offenders. Indeed, the U.S. now arrests and incarcerates a much larger proportion of those accused of property, public order, or drug offenses than do other industrialized countries, and it does so for significantly longer periods of time.

How did we get to this point? How did get-tough policies come to be defined as the best solution to our crime and drug problems? Many popular and academic explanations of this pattern identify high or rising rates of crime and the popular outrage crime engenders as the key explanatory factor . one difficulty with these explanations is that the most reliable data indicate that U.S. crime rates have been stable or in decline since the mid-1970s, and that they are comparable to those of other countries that incarcerate far fewer of their inhabitants. Another problem with these explanations is that expressions of popular outrage about crime are more closely related to shifts in the quantity and tone of crime-related media and political discourse about crime than to the volume of crime in society.

We argue that prominent politicians declared was on crime and drugs as part of a broader political and economic strategy aimed at rolling back the reforms of the 1960s. Their efforts in these areas were successful, in part, because of the media's receptivity to the tough-on-crime rhetoric and eagerness to amplify its core messages. The capacity of politicians and media to shape popular policies, however, is not unlimited. Although not the driving force behind the new punitive policies, the public was, for the most part, receptive to the assumptions and images upon which they rest. We attribute this receptivity to a variety of factors, including . a new and more subtle form of racism and the ongoing popularity of individualistic understandings of and solutions to complex social problems.


  • Between 1990 and 1999, the major networks (ABC, NBC and CBS) devoted more coverage to crime than any other topic on their nightly national newscasts. On local television news, crime consumed 30% of all news time, displacing coverage of other pressing issues. In comparison to crime, topics like government (11%), health (7%), education (4%), and poverty (2%) receive far less attention.
  • Nationwide, surges in media coverage of crime and drugs have typically been triggered by increased attention to crime-related issues by public officials and politicians.. Because the news media tend to identify government officials as authoritative sources, drug coverage increased dramatically on the major television networks and news weeklies.
  • The rate of violent crime in the United States began its decade-long decline in 1992. Nevertheless, between 1993 and 1994, as the White House and Congress struggled over a new national initiative on violent crime, television and newspaper coverage of the issue increased by more than 400%. Between 1990 and 1998-a period in which the homicide rate declined by 33%-network news coverage of homicide increased by 473%.
  • According to one study, although they comprise less than two tenths of 1% of all arrests, murders account for between 27% and 29% of all crimes reported on the evening news.. Other kinds of illegalities, such as corporate and state crime, tend to be either reported as "business news" or ignored in favor of violent "street crime."
  • In the news, when crime victims are depicted, they are typically white, female, and affluent. In fact, young men of color-especially those living in poor and urban areas-experience the highest rates of victimization, and white females report the lowest.


In general, crime-related news stories provide detailed accounts of individual criminal events. Comparatively little attention is paid to broader trends in crime, and few stories attempt to put the crime problem in a larger perspective.

In the 1980s and 90s, however, the most common frame treated crime as a consequence of the failures of the criminal justice system: Criminals escape punishment because of legal technicalities, liberal judges, and permissive laws. According to this perspective, the best way to lower the rate of crime is to impose more certain and more severe punishment and to incapacitate offenders for longer periods of time.

There is evidence that the dominance of this way of framing crime-related issues has much to do with the media's tendency to define government and law enforcement officials as "authoritative" and "objective" sources. One analysis of news media representations of the drug issue, for example, found that stories featuring state officials as news sources were far more likely to depict the drug problem in ways that imply the need to get tough on drugs and drugs users, and that the predominance of these sources account for the overwhelming depiction of drug use as a law-and-order issue during this period.

One fascinating study suggests that the tendency among reporters to frame crime-related stories in terms of criminal justice leniency may also be related to issues of race and class. In the early 1980s, the typical cocaine-related network news story focused on white recreational users who snorted the drug in its powder form. These stories frequently relied on news sources associated with the drug treatment industry and emphasized the possibility of rehabilitation (the "recovery" frame). By late 1985, however, this frame was supplanted by a new one, depicting cities in a state of siege (the "siege" frame). Increasingly, cocaine-related news stories featured poor and nonwhite users and dealers pf crack cocaine. At the same time, law enforcement officials demanding tougher responses to the drug problem took the place of the medical and treatment experts previously identified as drug authorities.


How do we understand the media's growing preoccupation with violent crimes committed by predatory strangers? How do we make sense of the media's tendency to frame crime in terms of failures of the justice system? Three main factors help to account for these tendencies:

News values. Journalists define news as that which is out of the ordinary. By definition, criminal events involve the violation of official rules and therefore satisfy this criterion. Stories about crime provide society with a fascinating and never-ending series of conflicts between good and evil. This conflict is captured most dramatically in stories about violent, predatory crimes committed against people believed to be vulnerable and blameless, and this helps to explain the overrepresentation of white, female victims in the news.

Organizational needs. Given that the mass media are for-profit enterprises with an interest in increasing market share and advertising revenue, the apparent popularity of crime stories certainly helps to explain why the news media focus on crime.

Reliance on official sources. The tendency of journalists to rely on law enforcement agents, politicians, and government officials for information also influences the volume and content of crime news.. Officials are often seen as authoritative and thus lend legitimacy to the often ambiguous journalistic enterprise.. Officials are also able to supply journalists with a steady diet of appropriately formatted and timely information-a necessity in the deadline-driven world of modern journalism.


Much to the chagrin of social critics and reformers, fictional stories about crime and law enforcement have long been staples of American popular culture.. Some observers now worry that the "surplus visibility" of violence and crime in popular entertainment has become a key source of popular fear and anxiety about crime. According to these critics, media depictions of violence are problematic not because they cause crime, but because they generate fear and reinforce popular support for harsher punishment.

The difference between crime rates on television and in the real world is most striking with respect to murder. Over the past four decades, the rate at which Americans have killed one another has varied between 5 and 10 murders annually per 100,000 population. On prime-time television, the average homicide rate has varied between 7 and 10 for every 100 characters-bout 1,000 times the real-life rate.

Therefore, in general, most contemporary crime narratives still resonate with key elements of the conservative discourse on crime. In particular, entertainment crime narratives encourage three ideologically loaded notions:

  • Offenders are professional criminals-clever, clear-headed, and motivated by unadulterated greed.
  • The interests of public safety and justice are ill served by liberal judges and lawyers who are-sometimes to the point of absurdity-preoccupied with the rights of defendants.
  • Hard-working, dedicated cops are out there every day doing their best in the face of these difficult challenges.

Katherine Beckett is associate professor at the University of Washington and Theodore Sasson is associate professor at Middlebury College. This article is adapted from chapter five of their book The Politics of Injustice: Crime and Punishment in America (copyright 2004, Sage Publications). Printed with permission.



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