When it comes to crime reportage, the media has a heavy burden to carry writes Nicola Mitchell
The role the media plays in reporting crime and influencing the public’s perception of crime has received a lot of attention over the years. Much of the research has focused on the link between watching violence and perpetrating criminal acts of violence. There has been no definitive answer to the question “does watching violence on tv propagate violence in real life?” It is impossible to state that a causal effect exists between individuals who are exposed to violence on screen who subsequently commit violent crimes. However, much of the research has found at least an association between viewing violence on TV and carrying out violent acts in real life. Studies of young people who watch violent crime dramas, or programmes which contain graphic violence, found that their levels of aggression increased after viewing. Despite this, other studies have found no long-term link between TV viewing of violence and real life aggressive acts.
However, this is not to say that exposure to violence via the media doesn’t have some influence on certain individuals. A study carried out in a southern US jail found that of 574 respondents, 22% had committed a copycat crime. 20% of these crimes were violent. While approximately 19% perceived the media as a “highly helpful source of information on how to commit a crime,” 14% also indicated they had a high interest in crime-related media content. The term ‘copycat’ can be a misnomer as often these violent perpetrators are not attempting to reconstruct someone else’s crime exactly but more likely want to emulate their violent ‘role models.’
The Columbine High School, Sandy Hook, Aurora movie theatre, Virginia Tech, and Pulse night club massacres were all committed by killers who had previously publicly discussed their admiration for other notorious mass shooters. These killers are inspired by other killers and often declare a desire to outdo them. In a world where the public hungers for knowledge about the killers, the media is only too happy to feed them with constant looping news stories and minute details about the killer’s life. It is no wonder that people like Timothy McVeigh and Adam Lanza are practically household names, while the general public would struggle to name even one of their victims.
That leads to the chicken and egg question; does exposure to violence on TV lead to real life violence, or do individuals with a propensity for violence seek out those with similar violent tendencies? In the years after the Columbine High School massacre, an analysis of subsequent massacres and plots led to the ‘Columbine effect’ which found at least 74 plots were inspired by the worst high school massacre in the US. The stated goals of these mass murder plots ranged from attacking on the anniversary of Columbine to outdoing the original body count. Law enforcement agencies prevented 53 of these plots before anyone was harmed; the other 21 however, resulted in gun attacks leaving 89 people dead, with 9 of the perpetrators killing themselves.
As Surette (2013) highlighted there are multiple factors that lead to an individual committing violent crimes, such as age, gender, real life experience of violence and a relative being imprisoned. Therefore, the influence of media on violent behaviour is greater among individuals who are predisposed to behaving violently. Recommendations by criminology experts to reduce the copycat effect include minimal usage of the killers’ names in the news media, and using their image even less so. They also stress the importance of calling the perpetrators what they are – mass murderers or lone domestic terrorists. The ‘lone wolf’ or ‘school shooter’ labels appear to validate their cause; elicit sympathy from other ‘disaffected’ young men, while also feeding the notoriety and recognition they crave.
Not all media outlets are accused of sensationalising and glamourising crime, but the red top tabloids and cable network news sites who provide 24 hour looping segments come in for the harshest criticism. One aspect of media reporting which fuels the notoriety of criminals among the public as well as within the criminal world, is assigning nicknames to the most violent and sought after criminals. Often this is done to circumvent the possibility of libel proceedings by publicly identifying a suspect where the evidence against them is not substantial. Nicknames create a mythology around the criminal that they strive to live up to and others strive to outdo them. Johnny Adair the notorious UFF leader was apparently so flattered by the ‘Mad Dog’ moniker that he nicknamed his then two-year-old son ‘Mad Pup’ when he first introduced him to the media.
However, giving criminals nicknames can be beneficial to policing authorities in apprehending criminals. Bill Rehder, a retired FBI agent who spent his career investigating bank robberies and burglaries, assigned a nickname to anyone who robbed a bank more than once. He credits this strategy with keeping the criminal in the public eye, and thereby making his or her identity and capture more likely. The ‘Barefoot Bandit’ was so named because he never wore shoes when he broke into houses, while the ‘Double Dip Bandit’ earned his name because he always robbed the same bank twice.
How the media reports crime not only has an influence on other criminals or those with a propensity for violence, but on the public at large. Surveys exploring the public’s perception of crime consistently show that most people inaccurately assume that crime is higher than it is. This may be due partly to the fact that while violent crime only accounts for a tiny percentage of overall crime committed, it receives greater coverage from the national media in particular.
A public attitudes survey by An Garda Síochána in 2014 found that respondents’ concerns about serious crime was greater when they were asked about crime at a national level, but were less concerned that crime was a serious problem at local level – except where respondents had been victims of crime. This perception of the seriousness of crime at national level may be related to the fact that local newspapers focus more on local crimes which tend to be non-violent, as well as minor offences and humorous stories. While young males are significantly more at risk of being victims of violent crime, they are less likely to worry about the possibility of becoming victims. Older people and women are statistically less likely to become victims of crime but worry more. This may be fuelled by reporting of violent crimes which creates an impression that violent crime is more prevalent than it actually is.
While the media should be held accountable for how it reports on crime and the criminals responsible, public bias can be hard to dismantle even when the facts are indisputable. Recently the US President Donald Trump confidently stated that the murder rate in the US was at a 47-year high. Thanks to the media’s fact-checking of Trump’s ‘alternative facts’ it quickly became clear that the US murder rate was in truth at an almost 45-year low. However, those that believe the mainstream media is biased against the President or is peddling false information will choose to ignore the truth and be more likely to believe a false narrative. A ‘boomerang effect’ suggests that negative attention to a particular issue can potentially backfire in shaping public perceptions. A US study which examined the impact of media coverage of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church on public opinion, found a boomerang effect among both Catholics and non-Catholics. Those who had extensively read media reports on the subject stated they had greater confidence in the church’s ability to prevent sexual abuse. This was despite persistent systemic failures by the Church’s hierarchy to protect children in the past and limited cooperation with authorities in bringing clerical sexual abusers to justice.
Therefore, positive media effects on the public may not always be based on the media reporting objective reality but by a determination not to be influenced by the media, even when the true nature of crime is reported accurately. It appears that the ongoing relationship between the media, how they report crime, and the influence it has on the public is destined to remain ‘complicated.’
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