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Final Exam: This exam is worth 100 points and is directly related to your reading assignments. Questions
are to be answered in essay form. You will answer these questions in “take-home” format, type it in a Word
Document, and submit it to me via E-mail as an attached file on or before the day they are due. You must
answer both questions.

All written exams must be typed and double spaced, include page numbers, be in Times New Roman 12
point Font, have Standard 1 inch Margins, and MUST BE WELL WRITTEN AND ORGANIZED. Use
citations when needed and do not plagiarize, your exams will be submitted to Turn It In and checked for

Failure to follow these instructions will result in a grade reduction. Failure to turn in these exams on time will
also result in a grade reduction (one letter grade for every day an exam is late.)

You must answer both questions and complete the exam in one file. Do not create two separate files to
answer both questions and do not write your answers in the body of an email.

Question 1: (Answer Length 2 to 3 pages)

In using the readings for guidance, I want you to discuss why negative media coverage about crime, policing
and corrections is more newsworthy than positive news stories and address what you think can be done to
change the public perception about crime, policing and corrections. Think in terms of what can be done to
reduce fear and improve perceptions. Furthermore, I want you to address who is most responsible for the
narrative that is told within the media about crime, policing and corrections and what if anything can be done
to present a more fair and truthful narrative about these issues within the criminal justice system.

Question 2: (Answer Length: 2 to 3 pages)

Again, in using your readings for guidance, I want you to take a local or national criminal event (limited to
United States) and discuss how competing narratives or constructions of the issues were framed within the
media. In your discussion, I want you to focus on both the positives and negatives of how this event was
covered and how the media may have used pieces of the event you have chosen to manipulate public
perception. Finally, I want you to discuss how coverage of this event within the media made it more or less
likely to generate positive social change and positively impact criminal justice policy.

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Media, Crime, and Criminal

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University of Central Florida

Media, Crime, and Criminal

Images, Realities, and Policies


Australia • Brazil • Japan • Korea • Mexico • Singapore • Spain • United Kingdom • United States

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52609_00_fm_pi-pxxvi.indd ii52609_00_fm_pi-pxxvi.indd ii 2/1/10 11:37:43 PM2/1/10 11:37:43 PM

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Printed in the United States of America
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 13 12 11 10

Media, Crime, and Criminal
Justice: Images, Realities, and
Policies, Fourth Edition
Ray Surette

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Henderson Meier

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© 2011, 2007 Wadsworth, Cengage Learning

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of this work covered by the
copyright herein may be reproduced, transmitted, stored, or used in
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including but not limited to photocopying, recording, scanning,
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To my wife Susan and my children Jennifer, Paul, and Tim

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About the Author

Ray Surette has a doctorate in criminology from Florida State University and
is a Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Central Florida. His crime
and media research interests revolve around the media’s effects on perceptions of
crime and justice, criminogenic media, and criminal justice policies. He has pub-
lished numerous articles and books on media, crime, and criminal justice topics
and is internationally recognized as a scholar in the area. He has published
research on the development of public information officers in criminal justice
agencies, crime and justice infotainment programming, copycat crime, the effects
of news coverage of celebrity trials on similarly charged non-publicized trials and
on police recruits, the effects of news coverage of corrections on municipal jail
population trends, media oriented terrorism, and the use of computer-aided
camera surveillance systems in law enforcement. He is currently working on a
book on copycat crime as well as studying the use of camera surveillance systems by
law enforcement in neighborhoods and other public areas and the relationship
between media and criminal justice policy support.


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Brief Contents



1 Predators, Pictures, and Policy 1

2 Social Constructionism 29

3 Crime and Criminality 52

4 Crime Fighters 84

5 The Courts 105

6 Corrections 132

7 Crime Control 155

8 The Media and Criminal Justice Policy 180

9 Media and Crime and Justice in the Twenty-First Century 200






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1 Predators, Pictures, and Policy 1

Media and Criminal Justice: A Forced Marriage 1

The Blurring of Fact and Fiction 4

A Brief History of Crime-and-Justice Media 5

Print Media 6

Sound Media 10

Visual Media 11

New Media 13

Types of Content 15

Entertainment 15

Advertising 16

News 16

Infotainment 19

Crime and Justice as a Mediated Experience 24

Chapter Summary 27

Writing Assignments 28

Suggested Readings 28

2 Social Constructionism 29

The Social Construction of Crime and Justice 29

The Sources of Social Knowledge 30


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Experienced Reality 31

Symbolic Reality 31

Socially Constructed Reality 32

The Social Construction Process and the Media 32

The Concepts of Social Constructionism 34

Claims Makers and Claims 34

Frames 37

Narratives 41

Symbolic Crimes 42

Ownership 43

The Social Construction Process in Action 44

Social Construction of Road Rage 45

Reconstruction of Driving Under the Influence 45

Competing Constructions of the Arrest of Rodney King 46

Social Constructionism and Crime and Justice 48

Chapter Summary 50

Writing Assignments 50

Suggested Readings 51

3 Crime and Criminality 52

Criminals, Crimes, and Criminality 52

Criminals 53

Predatory Criminality 54

Crime Victims 55

Crimes 57

White-Collar Crime 58

Criminological Theories and the Media 61

Criminality in Today’s Media 64

Criminogenic Media 66

Violent Media and Aggression 67

Media and Criminal Behavior 69

Copycat Crime 70

Media-Oriented Terrorism 77

Criminogenic Infotainment 79

Chapter Summary 81

Writing Assignments 82

Suggested Readings 82

C O N T E N T S ix

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4 Crime Fighters 84

Law Enforcement: A House Divided 84

Media Constructs of Professional Soldiers in the War on
Crime 86

Lampooned Police 86

G-Men and Police Procedurals 87

Cops 90

Police as Infotainment: “Who you gonna call?” 92

Dusting for Saliva: The CSI Effect, Forensic Science, and Juror
Expectations 95

Police and the Media 97

Media Constructs of Citizen Soldiers in the War on Crime 99

Private Investigators 99

Private Citizens 99

Professional Versus Citizen Crime Fighters 101

Chapter Summary 103

Writing Assignments 104

Suggested Readings 104

5 The Courts 105

Media, Infotainment, and The Courts 105

Courts, Attorneys, and Evidence 106

Crime-Fighting Attorneys 107

Female Attorneys 108

Media Trials 109

Media Trial Effects 110

Merging Judicial News with Entertainment 114

Live Television in Courtrooms 117

Pretrial Publicity, Judicial Controls, and Access 119

Pretrial Publicity 119

Judicial Mechanisms to Deal with Pretrial Publicity 121

Media Access to Government Information 125

Reporters’ Privilege and Shield Laws 125

The Courts as Twenty-First-Century Entertainment 126

Chapter Summary 130

Writing Assignments 131

Suggested Readings 131

x C O N T E N T S

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6 Corrections 132

Historical Perspective 132

Sources of Correctional Knowledge 135

Prison Films 135

Correctional Television and Infotainment 138

Corrections in the News 140

Corrections Portraits and Stereotypes 148

Prisoners 149

Correctional Institutions 150

Correctional Officers 150

The Primitive “Lost World” of Corrections 151

Chapter Summary 153

Writing Assignments 153

Suggested Readings 154

7 Crime Control 155

Media and Crime Control 155

Public Service Announcements Join the War on Crime 156

Victimization-reduction Ads 159

Citizen-cooperation Ads 160

Case Processing Using Media Technology 163

Judicial System Use 163

Law Enforcement Use 165

Surveillance 166

History and Issues 167

Benefits and Concerns of Increased Surveillance 171

Balancing Police Surveillance and Public Safety 174

1984: An Icon Before its Time 176

Chapter Summary 178

Writing Assignments 178

Suggested Readings 179

8 The Media and Criminal Justice Policy 180

Slaying Make-Believe Monsters 180

Media Crime-and-Justice Tenets 181

The Backwards Law 182

Media’s Crime-and-Justice Ecology 184

C O N T E N T S xi

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Immanent Justice Rules the Media 186

Technology Enhances Crime Fighting 187

Real-World Crime and Justice Problems 188

Criminal Justice Policy and Media Research 189

Crime on the Public Agenda 189

Beliefs and Attitudes about Crime 190

Crime-and-Justice Policies 191

The Social Construction of Crime-and-Justice Policy 195

Chapter Summary 198

Writing Assignments 199

Suggested Readings 199

9 Media and Crime and Justice in the Twenty-First
Century 200

Crime-and-Justice Media Messages 200

Media Anticrime Efforts 202

Two Postulates of Media and Crime and Justice 204

Expanded Public Access to Criminal Justice Procedures 206

Mediated Reality 207

The Future of Crime-and-Justice Reality 209

Spectacles 209

Surveillance 211

Mediated Criminal Justice 213

What You Have Learned 215

Chapter Summary 217

Writing Assignments 218

Suggested Readings 218





xii C O N T E N T S

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Everyone who studies crime and justice shares a sense of frustration about the
way media depictions dominate the common viewpoint on crime and crim-

inal justice, often in ways that distort reality. The television show CSI, for exam-
ple, is great entertainment but hardly fits the way 99 percent of crimes are
solved. So-called real police stories follow some officers as they go about their
duties, but even though the film is real, the portrait of police work that results
is distorted by the focus on chase scenes and angry encounters. Judge Judy bears
little resemblance to actual judges in demeanor or behavior. The Practice always
presents cases with some sort of twist, but such cases are the exception rather
than the rule. The nightly news covers crime with an eye to generating high
ratings, not great insight. American culture has an affinity for crime as a source
of stimulation and even entertainment, but the result is that what we think we
know about crime and justice from the way our media portray it often corre-
sponds poorly to the everyday reality of crime and justice.

For those who are professionals in the business of criminal justice—those who
wish to reform or improve justice practices and crime prevention effectiveness—
the media portrayals are often an impediment. It is not so much that the media get
it wrong as that they focus on aspects of crime and justice that are, in the scheme of
things, not so important. Of course we all want to apprehend serial killers and stop
predatory sex offenders, but they are uncommon in the life of the justice system.
The more pressing themes of improving the effectiveness of treatment programs,
youth prevention systems, crime control strategies, and so forth can get lost in the
way the media focus on images of crime that are much more engrossing to the
everyday citizen.

It is, therefore, with extraordinary pleasure that I welcome the fourth edition
of Ray Surette’s Media, Crime, and Criminal Justice to the Wadsworth Contempo-
rary Issues in Crime and Justice Series. Created to provide detailed and effective
exposure of important or emerging issues and problems that ordinarily receive
insufficient attention in traditional textbooks, the series also provokes thought


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and changes perceptions by challenging us to become more sophisticated consu-
mers of crime-and-justice knowledge. Its titles seek to expose myths about crime
and justice, deepen understandings of the nature of crime and the processes of
justice, and inspire new perspectives on these topics.

For those who seek a book that will make you an informed student of crime-
and-justice policy and practice, you could not do better than the one you are now
holding. Professor Surette is an astute student of popular culture, the social power
of symbols, and the effect of media on public imagination. In this book, he provides
a detailed examination of the ways that media coverage affects our popular under-
standing of justice. The results are sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant. For
example, the way the nightly news covers crime creates a subtle bias on the part
of the public that our cities are dangerous and that the justice system is incapable of
protecting innocents. By contrast, the way punishment is covered creates a much
less subtle bias that our system of justice is lenient. Both of these biases are partly
right, but mostly wrong. And the reality—much more complex than the public
perception—is often not widely understood.

Surette writes about every aspect of crime and justice. The book opens with
a thorough and authoritative description of the way our “realities” about crime
and justice are constructed from social sources of knowledge. It is this fact that
makes the media portrayal of crime and justice so important, because media are
among the most powerful sources of social information. The book then consid-
ers in turn the three main agencies of criminal justice: the police, the courts, and
corrections, with a chapter devoted to each topic. The final chapters consider the
broader problem of crime prevention and criminal justice policy in the context
of a media-dominated social construction of crime.

In the end, this is a book that helps us to rethink crime by offering a critical
perspective on how we go about understanding it. Crime is not popular culture,
and criminal justice is not entertainment. On the contrary, crime is a crucial so-
cial problem rooted in related social problems such as inequality and poverty.
Criminal justice is a key function of the state that is less powerful with regard
to our safety than we might like but more important to our everyday rights
than we would ordinarily think.

This is an important book, a book that carves out new areas for thinking and
challenges the popular mind-set about crime and justice. I commend it to you.

Todd R. Clear
Series Editor

xiv F OR E W O R D

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The fourth edition of Media, Crime, and Criminal Justice is written for under-
graduate criminal justice students. It is my belief that to understand contem-

porary crime and justice, students have to understand the role the media play in
the life cycle of criminal justice issues and policies. Maturing in a culture where
crime and justice media content is pervasive, students are naturally attracted to a
course that helps them understand the media ocean they swim in. They also
bring a priceless enthusiasm and interest in the subject. This revised fourth edi-
tion taps into that enthusiasm and employs an expanded number of recent and
visual examples to connect the material to the students’ lives. While engaging
them, this book helps students to become critical media consumers and insightful
observers of the ongoing relationship between media, crime, and justice. After
finishing the book, students who previously had not considered the linkages
between the media, crime, and justice will be unable to sit through a crime
show or newscast without a thoughtful reaction and recognition of the underly-
ing processes that generate the crime and justice media they receive and the
criminal justice policies they experience.

The knowledge covered in this text is drawn from criminal justice, criminol-
ogy, sociology, political science, law, public administration, journalism, medicine,
psychology, and communication research. Sources include traditional academic
and professional journals as well as numerous pop-culture media such as magazines,
newspapers, music, video-games, films, and Internet sites. As an undergraduate
introductory text, the fourth edition serves as an entrée to the research questions
and social concerns without the weight of extensive graduate level coverage of
statistics and research designs. The book discusses the vast and disparate research
but does not go into methodological, measurement, or statistical issues in great
depth. Instead, the discussions provide basic understandings of the theoretical ideas
and concepts that frame the research, the major findings that have been generally
accepted by researchers in the field, the issues that are still under debate, and the
questions that remain unaddressed.


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Massively covered criminal trials, advances in media technology, new types
of media content—and new ways of delivering the content—are especially
important in the construction of crime-and-justice reality and continually in-
crease the impact of media on crime and justice. However, most people interact
with the media as passive consumers. They are conditioned to receive the media
knowledge without considering where this information comes from, what effect
it has on their attitudes and perceptions, or how it affects society. This book
encourages readers to ask questions about the media such as why certain images of
crime are linked together in newscasts, why similar crimes will be sensationalized
in one instance and given scant attention in another, and why some explanations
of crime and some criminal justice policies are forwarded in the media over others.

The fourth edition serves as a main text in a media, crime, and justice course
and as a supplementary work in courses where the instructor wishes to feature
connections between media, crime, and justice. It is a particularly useful supple-
mentary text for “introduction to criminal justice,” “introduction to law
enforcement,” “criminal justice policy,” “victimization,” and “crime prevention”
courses. The text can be used by students with and without substantial back-
grounds in communications, journalism, criminal justice, law, and the additional
disciplines that make up this inherently interdisciplinary subject.


Organized into nine chapters, the book follows the content and influence of the
media from the committing of crime through the sequential components of the
criminal justice system as typically covered in undergraduate criminal justice
courses. Within this organization, the connection between media and criminal
justice policy is a running theme. The book makes that point that pervasive
media images of predatory criminals work as steering currents on our criminal
justice policy. Each chapter includes discussions of how media renditions affect
a particular area of criminal justice policy. Recognition of this policy linkage is
vital because the media determine in important ways what behaviors we crimi-
nalize, how we approach crime control, how we handle criminal cases, how we
sentence convicted offenders, and what correctional conditions and programs we
create. In addition, the media’s portraits of crime and justice sway the public’s
beliefs and expectations, as well as the demands placed upon the system. In a
very real way the media construct our crime-and-justice reality and derived
criminal justice policy.

Below is a summary of each chapter:

Chapter 1, Predators, Pictures, and Policy The first chapter serves as an
introduction to the media, crime, and justice relationship and provides
historical and conceptual overviews. Differing types of media and of content
are introduced and defined, and the argument for the importance of study-
ing the relationship between media crime and justice is made. Discussions of
crime and justice as a mediated experience are included.

xvi P R E F A C E

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Chapter 2, Social Constructionism To help students understand how the
media relate to crime and justice, the book employs the theoretical
perspective of social constructionism and devotes an entire chapter to its ideas
and concepts. The demonstration of how social constructionism works in the
crime and justice realm is the chapter’s goal. The chapter provides crime-and-
justice social construction applications within discussions of “road rage,” “killer
drunks,” and the “Rodney King arrest” and other more recent examples.

Chapter 3, Crime and Criminality This chapter covers the “criminological
theory” that one finds in media content. It discusses how crime, criminals, and
explanations of criminality are portrayed in the media and how these media
portraits can be criminogenic and related to real-world criminal behavior.
Copycat crime and media-orientated terrorism are discussed in detail.

Chapter 4, Crime Fighters This chapter focuses on the media portrait of
crime fighting. Describing the professional sworn law enforcement officers
and the civilian crime fighters found in the media, the chapter contrasts the
images of crime fighters in their media constructed worlds to the real world
of law enforcement. Material on the unique nature of the portrait of polic-
ing found in the infotainment media and a “CSI” effect is also included.

Chapter 5, The Courts This chapter covers the judicial system as portrayed
in the media, focusing on the media co-optation of the courts as infotain-
ment vehicles within massively covered “media trials.” In addition to
discussions of long-standing issues like pre-trial publicity, courtroom
control of news media, and reporter access to proceedings and offenders,
discussions on new media and the public image of courtrooms and male
and female attorneys are included.

Chapter 6, Corrections Chapter 6 covers the media portrait of correc-
tional institutions, correctional officers, and prisoners. A discussion that
reviews the limited sources of knowledge the public has regarding correc-
tions and the implications of this limitation on the social construction of
corrections and correctional policy is included. The stereotypes of prisoners,
correctional officers, and correctional institutions found in the media are
discussed. In addition, material on the interactions between terrorism, cor-
rections, and the media is included.

Chapter 7, Crime Control In this chapter, how criminal justice practi-
tioners increasingly use media venues and media technology to reduce
crime, gather information, patrol communities, deter offenders, and process
cases is discussed. The recent explosive expansion of camera-based public
surveillance systems (CCTV surveillance) is discussed in depth. Sections on
Madison Avenue–style anticrime advertisements and the judicial use of
cameras and videotapes in court proceedings are also included.

Chapter 8, The Media and Criminal Justice Policy Chapter 8 provides
both an overview of the media content of crime and justice and details the
explicit connections the content has to criminal justice policy. The chapter
explores the two main tenets of crime-and-justice media that have direct

P R E F A C E xvii

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implications for criminal justice policy: the backwards law and the operation
of immanent justice in crime-and-justice media content. Discussions of the
research on media effects on the public’s beliefs and attitudes about crime
and justice, the rank of crime and justice on the public agenda, and direct
and indirect media effects on criminal justice policy are included.

Chapter 9, Media, Crime, and Justice in the Twenty-first Century,
The final chapter distills the main points of the book and offers projections
about the future of the media, crime, and justice relationship as the impact
of new communication media makes itself fully felt. Designed and offered
not as serious prophecies but as platforms to launch discussion, forecasts are
developed of what readers might find over the next decades using two
opposing worst-case scenarios. In scenario 1, “Spectacles,” totally free-
wheeling interactive, instant infotainment driven media dominates in a
society having little social control on the media. In scenario 2, “Surveil-
lance,” strict social control on the media exists with rigid restrictions on
crime-and-justice content along with extensive media-based anticrime and
public surveillance efforts. The lessons of each scenario and the new media
age of “criminal justice pixel policy” are discussed.


The primary difference between the third and fourth editions of Media, Crime,
and Criminal Justice is that in the fourth edition recent examples are plentiful and
material covering contemporary media and crime issues, particularly new com-
munication media, are emphasized. Entire sections of chapters are devoted to
new topics including the CSI effect; the production of crime news; the dynamics
of copycat crime; the effect of video games; celebrity crime news; terrorism and
the media; the impact of new personal and mobile media, public space surveil-
lance, and memorial criminal justice policies; and mediated criminal justice.
Every chapter has had its text thoroughly edited, revised, and updated and has
new and updated photos.

New material in Chapter 1 include new boxes on Amber Alerts and the
death of Michael Jackson; updated video game, reality TV, and comic book
images; new discussions of the creation of crime news and new media; and
revised updated tables, figures, and boxes on the history of media, crime, and
justice and the contemporary crime-and-justice-mediated experience.

New to Chapter 2 are boxes on Tiger Woods’ car accident and adultery,
politician crime claims, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks as symbolic crimes.
Revised and new passages on the concepts of social constructionism are
included. DUI, road rage, and Rodney King as examples of social
constructionism theory applied to crime and justice have been revised.

Chapter 3 has new discussions of crime victims and white-collar crime added
and new material on Martha Stewart, the D.C. snipers case, and Grand

xviii P R E F A C E

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Theft Auto and copycat crime. The discussions of criminogenic media and
copycat crime have been substantially expanded with additional examples
and figures included.

New to Chapter 4 are a revised box and a separate expanded in-text
discussion on the CSI effect. In addition, revised material on the differences
between media-portrayed police and real-world police officers and a new
box on crime fighting and terrorism in contemporary media appear.

Additions to Chapter 5 includes new material on media trials. One is a
revised box on the seminal media trial of O. J. Simpson. Boxes on the Italian
murder trial of U.S. college student Amada Knox and on the CourtTV (aka
TruTV) network are available as well. New and updated images for all boxes
are added. A revised updated table of media trial examples now includes the
Bernie Madoff Ponzi scam, Kobe Bryant sexual assault, Khalid Shaikh Mo-
hammed terrorist, and the Scott Peterson and Dennis Rader murder trials.

Chapter 6 has new boxes on the growth of incarceration rates in the United
States and media developments; Paris Hilton’s jail term; terrorism, corrections,
and the media; and new media and corrections. Revised and new passages on
infotainment and corrections; prison films and correctional news; and the media
portraits of female inmates, correctional institutions and officers are included.

New material in Chapter 7 includes a new box on anticrime Internet Web
sites and a new box on profiling and camera surveillance. A revised box on
daily life in a surveillance society is also found. A new passage on the judicial
use of media technology is included as well as an expanded and revised dis-
cussion of surveillance.

New to Chapter 8 are boxes on Megan’s Law and memorial criminal justice
policy and the news value of celebrity crimes. Revised boxes discuss “Three
Strikes and You’re Out” and a new figure details the media role in the social
construction of criminal justice policy. An extensively revised, substantially
expanded discussion of the tenets of crime and justice found in the media
and their connection to criminal justice policies is included.

Chapter 9 has a discussion of new media—the new communication and
interactive media devices that are changing when and how individuals gather
media content. Associated new boxes on twitter activity by jurors affecting
trials, virtual reality–linked crimes, and YouTube and justice are included.


Each chapter is supplemented with a number of learning tools. Chapters begin
with a listing of chapter objectives that target the themes running through each
chapter. Each chapter ends with a set of learning tools:

A bulleted chapter summary which restates and re-emphasizes the main
points of each chapter.

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A set of writing assignments related to each chapter’s content for stu-
dents to extend the lessons of each chapter to outside of the classroom.

A list of suggested additional readings that explore the main themes of
the chapter in additional depth and can be used as entrées into the lit-
erature for term paper assignments.

Additional imbedded chapter learning features are:

Boxes containing supplemental media-based examples to demonstrate
concepts and points from each chapter and to highlight connections
between what students are reading in the text and what they are seeing,
hearing, and reading in their daily lives.

Photos to link chapter concepts and themes to visual imagery.

Bold faced in-text key terms which link to an end-of-book glossary.

Lastly, the fourth edition includes:

An updated bibliography and end-of-book footnotes.

A separate Instructor’s Manual with chapter overviews, question pools
with objective, short-answer and essay items, and lists of Internet sites
and popular music for each chapter is available.


Instructor’s Resource Manual with Test Bank. The manual includes learn-
ing objectives, key terms, a detailed chapter outline, media activities, and a test
bank. Each chapter’s test bank contains questions in multiple-choice and true-
false formats, with a full answer key. The test bank is coded to the learning
objectives that appear in the main text, and includes the page numbers in the
main text where the answers can be found.


I would first like to thank the individuals at Wadsworth who contributed to the
development and production of this book. Carolyn Henderson-Meier provided
encouragement and support and was especially helpful in the transition from the
third to the fourth edition. I would also like to thank our Content Project Manager,
Remya Divakaran for her help and patience. Megan Lessard diligently acquired the
photographs assisted in obtaining permissions. PreMediaGlobal created the artwork
and graphics. I am also grateful to Gail Humiston, University of Central Florida
Doctoral candidate in Public Affairs who prepared the Instructor’s Manual. I thank
all of them for their patience and professionalism.

xx P R E F A C E

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Also deserving thanks are the reviewers, both those who reviewed and
offered suggestions in response to the third edition and those who reviewed
drafts of the fourth edition. I extend my sincere appreciation, for the final work
is much improved and strengthened due to their suggestions.

Finally, my family deserves special thanks. My wife Susan and my three
children Jennifer, Paul, and Tim provide continual love and understanding.
Without them, my own socially constructed reality would be uninspired.

Ray Surette
Orlando, Florida

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Predators, Pictures, and Policy


After reading Chapter 1, you will

Understand the relationship of media to crime and criminal justice

Appreciate how criminal justice policy is impacted by the media

Know the history of crime-and-justice media

Understand the basic differences between the types of media

Understand how different media content is related to media crime and
justice portraits



Why should one study crime, justice, and the media? There is one good reason and
many secondary ones. Before we explore those reasons, try a quick experiment.
Pick up today’s newspaper and look at the local television schedule. Note the num-
ber of shows that deal with committing, solving, or fighting crime. Next turn to
the movie listings and do the same. Check out an Internet news site and count the
number of crime-and-justice stories. Do the same with the evening’s televised local
and national news programs. If you subscribe to any magazines, check their con-
tents for articles that are crime or justice related. If you are reading a novel, is a
crime or a criminal an important element of the story? Count how many of your
e-mails, mobile communications, or blog postings refer to crime or criminal trials.
Write down the names of five people you can think of who received a lot of pub-
licity within the past two years. How many of the five were connected to a crime,
investigation, or trial? Finally, note what people talked about at work or school
yesterday and today. How often are crimes and justice issues discussed?


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I’m willing to bet that much of your television and movies, your written and
TV news, your pleasure reading, your Internet content, your electronic commu-
nications, and your personal conversations involve crime-and-justice issues. In
fiction and fact, crimes, criminals, investigations, and trials course through our
media.1 At the most basic level, crime, justice, and the media have to be studied
together because in twenty-first-century America they are inseparable, wedded
to each other in a forced marriage. They cohabitate in an unavoidable raucous
and riotous relationship.

How did the marriage come about? Crime and justice has always provided a
substantial portion of the media’s raw material. Criminal trials and heinous
crimes, along with their victims, investigators, judges, attorneys, and citizens pro-
vide the popular crime-and-justice stories, which are packaged and marketed.
The images, ideas, and narratives that dominate the media influence how people
think about crime and justice. The behaviors we think should be criminalized;
who we feel should be punished; what the punishments should be; and how we
think the police, judges, attorneys, correctional officers, criminals, and victims
should act are all influenced by the media portraits of crime and justice.2 Com-
pounding these influences, the technological ability of media to gather, recycle,
and disseminate information has never been faster or broader, and mass media has
never been more diverse. More crime-and-justice media content is available to
more people via more avenues and in more formats today than ever before.
A flood of technologies—from personal digital assistant devices (PDAs), to
cable television and satellite networks, to VCRs, to the Internet, to electronic
games, to virtual reality devices—create a fast-paced hyperactive media. This new
high-speed media world dominated by entertainment values and visual images is a
special concern in the area of crime and justice.3

However, the fact that a contentious relationship exists between media and
criminal justice is not the most important reason to study crime and the media.
The most important effect of this marriage is on criminal justice policy. The media
have had important effects on criminal justice policy in America for a long time.
For example, the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin had an effect on slave laws in the
mid-1800s, the film I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang affected U.S. correctional
practices in the 1930s, and movies and books like the Silence of the Lambs influ-
enced policies aimed at a “rampant” serial killer threat in the 1980s. That ability
has risen to new heights. Today we live in a criminal justice policy era where
media renditions frequently drive crime-and-justice practices at blinding speed.4

The media and criminal justice policy link is easily seen in memorial criminal
justice policies, which are named for individuals, usually victims (see Box 1.1).
We have Megan’s Law and Amber Alerts due to massive publicity of a heinous
crime and its innocent victim.5 Even when not named after an individual, much
of our criminal justice policy exists because of the impact of high-profile crimes
being co-opted as symbols for specific policy campaigns.6 The “Three Strikes
and You’re Out” legislation that followed the co-optation of the kidnapping
and murder of twelve-year-old Polly Klaas in California in the late 1990s is a
classic example of this media-driven policy process.7 Today no politician can be
“soft” on crime. It was not that long ago that crime was seen as a local problem

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Janet Chase

Janet Chase

Janet Chase

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and a state-level policy issue. But in today’s media environment, the public
expects national policies addressing local street crime, neighborhood school
violence, municipal police needs, and lower-court criminal proceedings.

That local criminal justice issues are seen as needing national policy responses
is due to the national character of the media–criminal justice marriage. Contempo-
rary media cover local crime through a national lens where a neighborhood crime
is portrayed as an example of society-wide failures. In addition to raising selected
local crimes to national prominence, local crime is portrayed in the media as being
beyond the ability and resources of local criminal justice. The solutions to crime
painted as sensible are given a punitive federal orientation. “What must the nation
do about crime?” is the question of the day rather than “What does my commu-
nity need to do about crime and other connected social problems?” Hence, the

B o x 1.1 Memorial Criminal Justice Policy—Amber Alerts

Nine-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted in 1996 while bike riding near her home
in Arlington, Texas. Her body was found four days later in a ditch with her throat
slashed. The Amber Hagerman Child Protection Act was signed into law by President
Clinton three years later creating America’s Missing Broadcast Emergency Response
(AMBER) Alert system to solicit citizen tips and interrupt in-progress child kidnappings
(Miller, Griffin, Clinkinbeard & Thomas 2009). Other memorial crime control–targeted
legislation includes “Megan’s Law,” requiring community notification of sex offenders
residing locally; “Jessica’s Law,” requiring long prison terms and lifetime monitoring
for sexual crimes against children; “Carlie’s Law” for quicker revocation of federal pro-
bationers; and the “Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act,” which authorized
the creation of a nationwide sex offender database (Griffin & Miller 2008 pp. 161–162).






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most important reason for examining the often unhappy media–criminal justice
marriage is that it ultimately determines how we react to crime and how we spend
our tax dollars. As a result current criminal justice policy is another commodity
governed by what is newsworthy and salable via the media—what fits the needs
of the media and voters.8

Although most important in terms of actual social impact, the media–criminal
justice policy connection is not seen by the public as the most significant media
effect on crime and justice. The public worries most about a set concerns more
visible in the media. These concerns—media-orientated terrorist events, copycat
crime, coverage of media trials, and media-linked social violence—provide sec-
ondary reasons for studying the media, crime, and justice. The criminal justice pol-
icies we support and pursue due to the media ultimately affect these worrisome
but secondary issues as well. These are all significant issues, which will be discussed
in depth, but the media’s most significant impact is on how we spend our taxes,
what and who we criminalize, and how we deal with offenders.


What is the state of the media–criminal justice marriage today? First, everyone
appears to be wedded to the media in some fashion. Whether measured in terms
of Internet hours, television programs viewed, movie attendance, music down-
loads, or the popularity of video games, the exposure to media is enormous.
Today, virtually everyone is an audience member of some form of media. In a basic
way, media provide the broadly shared, common knowledge in our society
independent of occupation, education, and social status. The knowledge acquired
via mass media is generally perceived as less important and more transient, but
also as more entertaining and enjoyable. When compared to religious informa-
tion or institutional histories, which can extend for centuries, media-generated
knowledge has a shorter life span, usually not exceeding a generation. Indeed,
generations are often defined and—particularly true for popular music—can be
distinguished by the media that is current during their youth.

With technological progress and broadening media reach, concerns began to
grow. In addition to worries about direct criminogenic media effects on copycat
crime and media-oriented terrorism, concern that the extracts of reality the
media create were unduly influencing the public’s view of reality grew.9 The reason
for increased concern is that media snapshots of reality present a specific, narrow
slice of the world that has been chosen, reshaped, and marketed to the public.10

Although the bulk of media content is recognized by the public as unrealistic and
heavily edited, continued exposure to media content ultimately influences one’s
view of reality, and this influence increases in areas where alternate sources of
information are less available. Such is the case for crime and justice and, like
candy to cavities, a diet heavy on media will corrode your perception of reality.
Within this media-generated perception of crime-and-justice reality, a core set of
images, headed by the image of a predatory violent stranger, is exploited by both
the media and criminal justice policy makers.11

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The contemporary media serve as an accelerating and expanding knowledge
circulatory system; quickly moving ideas, images, and information. An important
development is the looping of media content. Looping results when events and
information are repeatedly cycled and recycled through the media into the cul-
ture to reemerge in new contexts.12 For example, a police car chase video cycles
from courtroom evidence to local news footage, to infotainment program con-
tent, to a clip inserted in a comedy movie, to sundry Internet Web sites. This
continuous looping and reformatting of content results in the blurring of fact
and fiction. People come to believe fictional events are real, that real events
didn’t happen, and hybrid—part real, part fiction—events flourish. Such effects
are common in the crime-and-justice arena.13 Many believe, for example, that
Hannibal Lector is a real serial killer and Jack the Ripper is fictional, and real
events such as the Kennedy assassination become hopelessly confounded in a
blur of factual and fictional portrayals. In an odd way, people no longer trust
the news (which is supposed to be true) but seem to be more willing to believe
entertainment and infotainment media (which don’t try to be truthful). Thus
many do not believe the news reports regarding the conclusions of the Warren
Commission Report on the Kennedy assassination but do believe a commercial
movie, JFK, about it.14

In the end, the direction of influence between crime and justice on one side
and media on the other is a two-way street—the mass media influence crime and
justice, and crime-and-justice events become grist for the media.15 In addition to
the myriad entertainment products that deal in crime and justice, the media and
media technology are simultaneously perceived as both a major cause of crime and
violence and a powerful potential solution to crime. While blaming the media for
many social ills, we also look to the media to help reduce violence and drug use,
deter crime, and bolster the image of the criminal justice system. In law enforce-
ment we look to the media to aid in criminal investigations, manhunts, and street
and vehicle patrols. In the courts, we look for assistance in processing criminal
cases, reducing case backlogs, conducting trials, presenting testimony and evi-
dence, and deciding guilt. In corrections, we look to media images for our per-
ception of correctional institutions, programs and personnel, and to enhance
security and surveillance. The media–criminal justice marriage is truly a love-
hate relationship, and as far as criminal justice policy is concerned, it is the most
important relationship that exists. To understand both the historical development
and the future of crime and justice in America, one must take into account the
influences of the media and understand how crime-and-justice events become
popular media products. Gaining that understanding is the basic goal of this book.


A necessary step in exploring the relationship between the media and crime
and justice is to first look at the basic structure of the media in America. The
media can be thought of as roughly structured along two dimensions: types of

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media and types of content. Four types of media are found in the United States:
print, sound, visual, and new media. As shown in Table 1.1, each media type has
enjoyed dominance during a historic period. Of course, all types are still found
today, and new media often combine print, sound, and visuals in new ways.
Table 1.1 also reflects the historic trend in the evolution of media to include
more information, which is more easily accessed, and which today makes the
mediated experience similar to actual experience.16 Each media type’s relation-
ship to crime and justice can be understood through a brief history.

Print Media

Print was the first medium to generate a mass market, usually dated as beginning in
the 1830s with the emergence of the U.S. penny press daily newspapers. One of
the first such newspapers, the New York Sun, began to include a daily police-court
news column in 1833 and experienced a notable circulation boost.17 Other penny
dailies followed suit, and human-interest crime stories quickly became a staple of
these inexpensive, popular newspapers. These early papers portrayed crime as the
result of class inequities and often discussed justice as a process manipulated by the
rich and prominent. They frequently contained due process arguments and advo-
cated due process reforms while presenting individual crimes as examples of larger
social and political failings.18 Helped by the success of the penny press, a market
for weekly crime magazines followed. By the twentieth century, magazines focus-
ing on crime, sex scandals, corruption, sports, glamour, and show business all flour-
ished.19 Providing an early model for contemporary news and modern television
programs, mass marketing, and consumption of crime infotainment was born.

Detective and Crime Thrillers. The two most popular print-based crime gen-
res to emerge in nineteenth-century print media were detective and crime thriller
magazines and “dime” novels. Significant social concerns with the popular media
also originated with these products. Both were escapist literature, and by the latter
half of the nineteenth century, they described crime as originating in individual
personality or moral weakness rather than being due to broader social forces. By
downplaying wider social and structural explanations of crime found in the earlier
penny press newspapers, these novels helped reinforce the existing social order—
the status quo. In addition, the “heroic” detectives in these works closely resem-
bled the criminals they apprehended—calculating and often odd loners.20 The
portraits of crime and justice produced during this time are surprisingly similar to
those found today; both present images that reinforce the status quo; promote the
impression that competent, often heroic individuals are pursuing and capturing
criminals, and encourage the belief that criminals can be readily recognized and
crime ultimately curtailed through aggressive law enforcement efforts.

Comic Books. Marketed to both children and adults, one of the more socially
influential print media to develop in the twentieth century was the comic book.
From their beginning, comic books featured crime-fighting policemen, private
detectives, and costumed superheroes. Combining pop art with printed texts,

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T A B L E 1.1 Crime-and-Justice Media History

Sound Media Dominate

Antiquity Theater, folktales,
and myths

Limited access and distribution to local
audiences so that content effects are not
extensive and media experience is clearly
different from real life. Urban legends are
a contemporary example.

1200–1500s Ballads Popular songs forward the criminal as celebrity
and aid in the development of a pop culture
focus on criminality. Hip-hop music provides
contemporary examples.

Print Media Dominate

1400–1700s Pamphlets and

The historical roots of today’s crime and justice
infotainment programming. Crime news reach is
wider though still limited to comparatively small
audiences. Gallows sermons were a
popular criminal justice example.

1830s Penny press Crime news begins to reach large markets and
become a central feature of news. First
mass-marketed media.

1880s Dime novels Detective and crime novels marketed to diver-
gent audiences. The profit in entertainment
crime media is recognized and exploited for the
first time.

1890s Yellow journalism News media makes significant shift to become
mass infotainment media. Dramatization of
crimes and criminals in infotainment formats

Visual Media Dominate

1910s Commercial film

Beginning of media audience homogenization
via shared content that is consumed regardless
of gender, language, race, religion, or social
status. The beginning of everyone having access
to similar information about the world.

1920s Commercial radio

Modern programming and economic structure
of for-profit media established as an unchal-
lenged assumption. First in-home electronic de-
livery of media content, which eases access for
children and allows media for the first time to
circumvent traditional socialization efforts of
parents, schools, and religion. Children can now
learn about the world directly from the media
without having to leave their living room or
learn to read.

1930s Film dominates U.S. commercial film industry is the dominant
media and its crime and justice content comes
under criticism. Social concerns arise about the
glorification of crime and criminals and copycat
effects of movies. First serious research of media
effects and censorship efforts by government.

(continued )

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comic books have constructed some of the more sophisticated images and analyses
of crime and justice found in the media.21 Evolving out of the newspaper-based
comic strips of the 1890s and combined with the twentieth-century pulp maga-
zine market, comic books first appeared in the 1930s. In addition to fictional
comic stories, reality-crime comics appeared in 1942, featuring stories about
actual criminals and their crimes. These criminal point-of-view comics became
the most popular comic book genre between 1947 and 1954.22 Similar to con-
temporary popular music and video games, comic books regularly underwent

1930–1940s Comic books peak Comic books fill a reality-defining niche for crime
and justice and are read by both adults and chil-
dren. Violent and graphic content generates
public crusades against comics as corruptors of
youth and demonstrates the structure of the
argument that subsequent attacks on other me-
dia such as pop music and video games will take.

1950s Television In-home, electronic live visual media quickly
dominate and forces other media forms to
change. Everyone can now easily see and access
the same information about the world. Crime
programming becomes a major portion of total

1970s Cable television Content choices expand enormously. Movement
from broadcasting to large audiences assumed
to be homogenous to narrowcasting to small
heterogeneous audience segments with focused
content interests such as sports, cooking, or
crime. More graphic content becomes easily
available for home consumption.

New Media Arrive

1980s Videocassette

Decision of where to consume content begins to
move from producers to consumers with uned-
ited home access to films.

Electronic games First interactive media where consumer has a
role in content development. Consumers begin
process of becoming collaborative content
authors such as deciding which crime and justice
role to assume—criminal or crime fighter—and
determining final story outcome.

1990s Computer games
and Internet

Electronic access to information goes global and
the development of a digital reality begins to
take form.

2000 to

Virtual reality

Media and computer-augmented experiences
begin to supplant real world experiences for
consumers. Much of the world is experienced
solely through media devices and content.
Fast-paced media-driven crime-and-justice policy
era emerges.

T A B L E 1 . 1 Crime-and-Justice Media History (Continued)

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periods of public concern and attack, the strongest coming in the late 1940s and
early 1950s. The outcry and criticisms resulted in a self-adopted industry code that
banned torture, sadism, and detailed descriptions of crimes. Comic books enjoyed
great popularity, particularly with young males into the 1980s because they filled a
media void. Comics could present criminals, heroes, and crime-fighting action





As this 1954 comic book cover illustrates, a morbid interest in heinous crimes
and their exploitation can be found in many time periods and many types of media.

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beyond the technical and censored limits of radio, film and television. Today
comic books have declined in popularity as electronic video games have gained
in popularity. But comic books persist as part of the multimedia web, and their
crime-and-justice portrayals still prosper via licensing deals that span films, video
games, toys, food, cartoons, and television shows.

The primary difference between contemporary print media in its varied forms
and contemporary electronic media is not found in their constructed images of
crime and justice but in audience access and social penetration of their content.
From the late-nineteenth-century media dominated by print to the contemporary
media dominated by electronically delivered visual images, the constructed mes-
sages of crime and justice have remained relatively constant. To access print media,
the consumer needs to be literate, gain access to the materials, and make a clear
decision to use or not use them. Exposure to their content has therefore always
been less “mass” and more selective. Exposure to the modern, electronically dom-
inated mass media images and messages, on the other hand, is difficult to avoid.
The first medium to have an omnipresent capability was audio, and it was distrib-
uted via radio broadcast networks.

Sound Media

First delivered and mass-marketed via radio networks, pure audio media have
evolved from vinyl records to 8-track tapes, to compact discs, to MPI files, and
other digital forms. Sound media are obviously neither print nor visual, but they
bridge the two by delivering information in a linear fashion akin to print while
evoking mental images and emotions analogous to visuals. In the 1920s, radio
networks dominated as the home entertainment and information medium.23

Despite coexisting with film, radio portrayals of criminality were different. The
primary difference being, of course, that violence could only be heard, not seen.
Their impact should not be underestimated however. As Orson Wells discovered
after his 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast caused social panic, for some,
“hearing is believing.”

Radio. Together with films, radio imagery established the business framework
that television would subsequently exploit. Exemplified by coverage of the Hin-
denburg explosion and disaster, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial, and the Scopes
“monkey” evolution trial, radio established itself as the first live, on-the-scene
news reporting medium. The television news format of 30- to 60-second news
spots presented within established categories (the world, the nation, sports,
weather, economics, crime, and so forth) originated with radio programming.
Within these news categories, the industry use of “news themes” was created in
which coverage of a particular type of crime would prevail. The news would give
a type of crime saturation coverage for a short time and then turn to something
new. Together with the producers of the film industry’s newsreels, which brought
weekly visual coverage of news to the public, radio producers created the style that
television would embellish: short-term, visceral, emotional news coverage of discrete
“crime events.”

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On the entertainment side, radio drama, particularly at its height during the
1930s and 1940s, included a substantial and popular—though never a dominant—
proportion of crime-fighting, detective, and suspense programming.24 During this
time, a number of classic programs such as The Shadow, Sherlock Holmes, and True
Detective could be heard. Other “Radio Noir” programs, as they came to be
termed, gave the culture a host of private detectives including Nick Carter and
Philip Marlowe, wise-cracking tough guys who disdained the police. Radio crime
programming also included hardened federal agents and reality programming. One
popular early show, Gang Busters, which began in 1935, is the forerunner of cur-
rent crime stoppers and Most Wanted–style programming. The best known of the
early radio crime shows was Dragnet, which made a successful transition to televi-
sion in the 1950s and established the format for the 1950s television docudramas
based on police procedures and investigations.

The suspense programming found in radio also foretold the more graphic
visual effects found in today’s media. Unrestrained by concerns about offensive
pictures, radio was able to conger up mental images via sound effects that could
not be shown in films of the time. These gristly sound effects preceded today’s
graphic visual special effects—sizzling bacon for an electric chair execution, life-
savers crushed between teeth for bones being snapped, chopped cabbages for
heads being severed, and wet noodles squished with a bathroom plunger
for the eating of human flesh. Collectively, radio crime-and-justice programming
provided the models for modern day crime-and-justice reality programming, the
contemporary stereotypes of criminals and criminal justice, the heavy emphasis on
law enforcement activities over other segments of the criminal justice system, and
the exploitation of sensational heinous crimes. All aspects of contemporary crime-
and-justice media that are berated today are traceable to early radio. Not surpris-
ingly, television programmers borrowed heavily from this tested and popular set of
narratives in developing their crime programming in the 1950s.

Visual Media

Film. It was films at the beginning of the twentieth century that first provided
the media with the ability to blanket all of society. The movie industry nationalized
media content by making its content available to every social, economic, and intel-
lectual stratum. Initially silent and inexpensive, the movies did not even require a
common language, as radio programming did. The images were universally avail-
able and widely consumed, and film rapidly came to reflect and shape American
culture. By 1917, the U.S. motion picture industry was established as the premier
commercial entertainment form in the world. By the 1930s, two of every three
Americans attended a movie weekly.25 With their immense popularity, the movies
were the first modern mass media, and their emergence heralded the creation of a
twentieth-century mass culture that crossed geographic, economic, and ethnic lines.
As both a social event and a source of social information, movies were the first
medium able to bypass the traditional socializing agents of church, school, family,
and community and directly reach individuals with information and images.

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Though not every movie, television show, or radio program produced dur-
ing a particular time frame portrayed the same crime-and-justice theme, domi-
nant themes have been identified with certain periods.26 Beginning with films
and carried on in radio dramas, the first media criminals were descendants of
Western outlaws, but unlike the “bandit heroes” and other gang members of
Western dime novels, early film criminals were usually portrayed as urban citi-
zens. Most of these early twentieth-century portraits depicted ruthless crooks
engaged in corrupt business practices in the pursuit of wealth, a motif that has
remained popular to this day. Also common in film plots between 1910 and
1920 were nostalgic portrayals of a simple youthful criminality, reflecting street
gang experiences among working-class immigrants. Such films reflected the
social impact of large immigrations into the United States during the early part
of the twentieth century. From the 1920s to the 1950s, the media criminal
slowly evolved from an early-twentieth-century immigrant into a sullen return-
ing World War I veteran, again transformed in the 1930s into a high-rolling
bootlegger and Depression-era gunman, and finally into a modern corporate or
syndicate executive-gangster. In the 1940s, depictions of violence, terrorism, and
murder also became more graphic as gangsters, policemen, and detectives
(many now with weapon fetishes) became more violent and less distinguishable
from one another.27 Following World War II, the new visual medium of televi-
sion came on the scene and combined characteristics of both film and radio to
quickly become the dominant media.

Television. Introduced between 1948 and 1951, television soon replaced radio as
the prime home entertainment medium, forcing the movie industry to restructure
and driving radio dramas into history.28 Television was not just radio and newspa-
pers with pictures, it was an entirely new medium that fundamentally influenced
the shape and content of all media and in doing so helped create a new and differ-
ent society.29 Television’s growth and public acceptance was phenomenal, and the
existing business models for commercial radio facilitated television’s emergence. Be-
cause the nature and needs of the market dominated programming decisions from
the beginning, television programming has always aimed at attracting and holding
large audiences. Borrowing its basic themes and programming ideas from film,
radio, and stage, and reformatting them in broadly palatable, noncontroversial pro-
ducts, television quickly came to be described as a vast wasteland of recycled, mediocre
programs. Despite the critics, Americans embraced television. In 1977, the number
of television sets to Americans reached a 1-to-1 ratio and has never declined.30

Although computer, videogame, and DVD screens now compete for viewer
attention, television viewing remains an important activity for most Americans.31

In creating content, television executives found a gold mine in crime pro-
gramming. Although television was modeled after radio, crime was never a dom-
inant part of radio programming, but crime and justice was a substantial portion
of programming and the amount devoted was a social concern from television’s
inception.32 Crime shows became a staple of prime time television entertainment
in the late 1950s. Prompted by the success of adult Westerns and later by a pro-
gram called The Untouchables, crime shows accounted for around one-third of

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all prime time shows from 1959 to 1961.33 This trend leveled off during the
1960s but began to increase again during the early 1970s until it reached a peak
in 1975, when almost 40 percent of the three then dominant networks’ prime
time schedules contained shows focusing on crime and law enforcement.34

While the major television networks periodically de-emphasize crime pro-
gramming, the total amount of crime-and-justice programming available via
television is greater than ever with crime themes found across all types of pro-
gramming. Special programming such as movies shown on television, miniseries,
program promotions, syndicated programs, and local, satellite, and cable network
programming all contain significant proportions of crime-related content.35 Col-
lectively, these varied sources of new and recycled programming make crime and
violence a significant element of television content.

New Media

In addition to the traditional print, sound, and visual media, we have today new
digital interactive media exemplified by the Internet, electronic games, and
PDAs. New media allow for faster and broader communications and encourage
the merging and looping of content between media.36 The globalization of infor-
mation has resulted, and the social reconstruction of crime news and crimes have
followed suit.37 Significant differences between new media and traditional media
make the new media less focused on large, passive, heterogeneous audiences. First,
they target small homogenous audiences that have a special interest in a narrow
type of content. This characteristic was first developed in the traditional media of
radio where you find jazz, classical, and classic rock stations and in specialized
magazines like True Detective. Described as narrowcasting as opposed to broad-
casting, the key is that new media do not try to attract everyone but instead target
a small but loyal audience that shares a content interest. The effect of this approach
is readily apparent on the Internet where one can find a large number of highly
focused, narrow content dedicated Web sites. A subject search of the best-known
serial killers, for example, will produce a number of such dedicated sites.

The second characteristic is the on-demand nature of the new media, which
means that the delivery of content is controlled and determined to a much greater
degree by the consumer. First available for music via phonographs and records, the
invention of the VCR was the major technological breakthrough that allowed
consumers of visual media content to determine the time and place of consump-
tion. Today a number of commercial products allow selective use of television
shows, movies, music, and games. People with a special interest in shows about
criminal forensics can have those programs automatically recorded for subsequent
viewing at their discretion. Except perhaps for live events that one wants to expe-
rience in real time, little media content must be consumed at a particular time and
in a particular place today.

The third characteristic that is most unique to the new media is that of inter-
activity.38 The new media allow the consumer to be an active participant in the
development of the content. Interactivity is most apparent in the realm of video
games where the electronic content is immediately determined by the actions of

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the players. Whether a victim is killed or spared, a crime solved or not, a criminal
caught or escaped is not predetermined by a story author but is post-determined
by gamers.39 In addition, chat rooms, blogs, and Internet sites all allow Web surfers
to create and influence the news content they consume.40

New media have hypothesized criminogenic effects when they provide
avatar-like criminal models to copy and stimulate interpersonal communications
about crime.41 For example, a rap song can generate interpersonal conversations
that encourage vandalism or violence within youth gangs or new media commu-
nications such as blogs, Twitter, and e-mails can encourage imitation among
geographically separated terrorist groups. The Internet is seen as a particularly
powerful criminogenic influence due to it having both mass and interpersonal
elements. As part way between mass media and interpersonal communication,
the Internet provides a unique one-to-many communication avenue.42 It provides
word-of-mouth communication with global reach. Where real world crimino-
genic instructors are not available, the Internet can substitute with interpersonal
communications and deliver detailed how-to crime information.43

The social significance of these characteristics is that the new media moves
the audience from passive media customers to active media co-producers.44

Combined with computers to generate virtual realities, new media experiences
are the closest to actual experienced reality available. For crime and justice, this
means that media consumers can experience committing a murder rather than
just observing one, help to catch an offender rather than just watch over the

The newest addition to crime and media concerns is the interactive nature of realistic
virtual reality video games. In these games, players participate in violent acts and are
rewarded for them within the game.





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shoulder of a crime fighter, and determine guilt or innocence of the defendant
rather than just follow a trial.45 A candidate copycat offender can search out like-
minded role models and interact with them on a personal level while anony-
mously learning crime techniques. With the technology of new media, crime
and justice media has passed from passive audience consumption to active audi-
ence participation.


In addition to the different types of media, four basic types of content appear
throughout the media. Figure 1.1 portrays the basic media content areas: adver-
tising, news, entertainment, and infotainment. As shown, today advertising con-
tent overlays and infiltrates all other content, and infotainment has emerged to
create a niche between news and entertainment. Traditionally, news, entertain-
ment, and advertising were sufficient to define the media content landscape, but
today infotainment is a significant addition. With content looping, the move-
ment of information and images into and between the four media content areas
today can be rapid and multidirectional, and the boundaries between media areas
are porous and increasingly blurred. The explosion of infotainment media vehi-
cles means that one can be hard pressed to decide which of the four content
categories some recent media products fit into.


Entertainment is escapism. It involves all of the media content that is not for-
warded as reflecting any specific reality or real event. Entertainment content is
popular because it provides a pleasurable escape from reality. Its narratives engage


News EntertainmentInfotainment
news magazines

reality shows
media trials

F I G U R E 1.1 Types of Media Content

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and transport. Entertainment provides views of realities that cannot be otherwise
seen and describes experiences that will not be personally experienced via medi-
ated events that do not happen. In the entertainment world of crime and justice,
you will see impossible crimes, fights, and adventures by people with abilities
that no humans possess. The entertainment products of the media are best
thought of as play, and crime-and-justice stories have been estimated to account
for about one-fourth of all entertainment output.46


Advertising is work. It is the lifeblood of the mass media. Advertising can be
conceived as all of the media content purposely geared to persuade monetary
decisions. Traditionally distinct from other content, the boundary between
advertising and the rest of mass media has dissolved. One now commonly sees
product placements in films, news stories produced by corporate public relations
offices, and infomercials disguised as talk and news shows. The sole media realm
found to be comparatively low on crime and violence, advertising has become a
pervasive, multiavenue, continuous media campaign interwoven into and through-
out other media content.


News has been marketed as true, current, and objective information about signifi-
cant world events. As such, it plays a strong role in one’s perception of reality and
deserves an extended discussion. Contemporary news is essentially voyeurism. In
crime-and-justice news, you are usually informed about real events and real peo-
ple, but these events are often rare and distant. They display the lives of people
caught up in extreme circumstances, involving bizarre crimes, spectacular trials,
and extraordinary situations. News provides filtered, molded snippets of the abnor-
mal criminal events of the world for voyeuristic consumption. Crime-and-justice
news today is an escape from the normal via a construction of the unusual. The
amount of contemporary news has markedly expanded due to the increased num-
ber of media outlets. For its part, crime news has been “social control” news, and
is often reported with accompanying information about law enforcement efforts
and new social control policies such as curfews or crack downs.47 A crime news
story normally unfolds in three segments.48 It begins with an announcement that a
crime has occurred. The viewer is then visually or verbally transported to the scene
of the crime. Finally, the focus shifts to the identity and apprehension of the of-
fender and related efforts of law enforcement officials.

Crime news has always been popular. It has been said that after 1575, “it
hardly seems possible that a really first-rate murder, especially if it was complicated
by an illicit love affair, or a hanging went unreported.”49 Historically, treason,
murder, and witchcraft were the most popular story lines. Early crime coverage
was laden with details of criminal acts intertwined with moral exhortations to the
readers about the dangers of sin within reports that are surprisingly similar to
the infotainment content of much of today’s crime news.50 Through the eighteenth

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and into the early nineteenth century, crime-related street literature (broadsides,
pamphlets, sermons and speeches) were the main vehicles for news of crime
and justice and maintained the idea that crime news was for profit and
entertainment.51 In the mid 1830s, crime reporting became a prominent—
though not highly regarded—specialty in the previously mentioned penny press.52

The emergence of specialized reporters marks the beginning of the aggressive
marketing of crime news to the public. The evolution since has been for news
to be produced more and more as a salable commodity.53 By the late 1800s,
newspapers came to be produced by modern corporations with large advertising
revenues, staffs, and circulations. Crime coverage increased further with the intro-
duction of a new type of mass entertainment newspaper collectively known as
yellow journalism.54 This new journalism emphasized the details of individual
crimes and with this shift, police officers replaced court personnel and witnesses
as the primary source of crime information.55 A shift that persists to this day.

An examination of the process by which news is created is revealing for
understanding the content of crime news. Two models for the process of news
creation—the market model and the manipulative model—compete.56 The key
for both models is newsworthiness—the criteria by which news producers
choose which of all known events are selected to be news. In the market
model, newsworthiness is determined largely by public interest, and journalists
simply and objectively report and reproduce the world in the news. Under this
model, reporters are regarded as reactive news collection agents who meet the
needs of the public interest. In the manipulative model, news is selected not
according to general public interest but according to the interests of the news
agencies’ owners. Under this model, the media purposefully distort reality and
proactively use the news as a means of shaping public opinion in support of large
social institutions and the status quo.57

Both models are inadequate because they ignore the organizational realities
of news production, which by its nature, makes rendering an objective, unbiased,
mirror image of reality impossible.58 Crime news displays characteristics that can
be interpreted as indicative of both the manipulative and market models but that
can best be understood within an organizational model of news production.59

Factors related to the organizational needs of news agencies steer the process.60

Because of the organizational nature of its birth, crime news is inherently subjec-
tive, though not necessarily ideologically biased.61 What the public receives as
news is capsulized, stylized, and commodified information.62

The bulk of news, then, is less discovered than formed by journalists working
under organizational pressures. One organizational pressure on news agencies is
that as organizations they need to routinize their work to plan and schedule the
use of resources. But news organizations are in the unique organizational position
of dealing with a commodity, news, that by definition is supposed to be unique
and unpredictable. Their core organizational task, then, is to routinize the proces-
sing of nonroutine events. To do so, news media personnel must become active
co-creators of the news. They cannot be totally reactive, nor can they be totally
proactive. In practice, they are somewhere in between—reactive to truly unex-
pected events, proactive and part of the creation process for the rest of the news.

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The construction of crime news can be understood as the coupling of two
information-processing systems—one being news agencies, the other being the
government.63 The reporter beat system—under which reporters cover specific sub-
ject areas (for example, state politics or downtown crime)—restricts a journalist’s
sources and perspectives so that, in general, news journalists report on those at or
near the top of the social hierarchy and those who threaten them—particularly
those at the bottom—to an audience mostly located in the middle.64 In addition,
as profits have fallen, contemporary traditional journalism has become more the
processing of news releases and press conferences than a news gathering endeavor.65

This means that in news of crime and justice we normally hear criminal justice sys-
tem and government officials talking about individual criminals and street crimes.66

Regarding which crimes get selected to be crime news, unexpected or
unusual events will be selected, but they will be presented in terms of previously
established stories and explanations.67 The better an event fits the established
themes, the more likely it is to be selected. Other, more specific criteria for
news selection include the seriousness of the event, whimsical circumstances,
sentimental or dramatic elements, and the involvement of high-status persons.68

In the case of crime news, seriousness is the primary factor. In that crimes occur
in the opposite proportion to their seriousness and that the news criterion for seri-
ousness is harm to individuals rather than overall social harm, the media report
those crimes that are least common and thus construct a crime reality at odds
with the social reality of crime.69 The result is that to the extent that reporters
are encouraged to report the unique crime, it is more difficult for the public to
estimate the typical crime.70

Within the news production process, there are checkpoints through which
crime news is processed and passed along. Those that are processed to the final
checkpoint become crime news. First coined in 1950, the term for a person con-
trolling the processing checkpoints is gatekeeper.71 Shown in Figure 1.2, a key
gatekeeper in the crime news process is the crime reporter. To provide a steady
stream of crime stories, a crime reporter must develop reliable police sources and
maintain their trust.72 Although sometimes critical of law enforcement, successful
crime reporters develop a working relationship with the police that benefits
both.73 Over time, the two sides develop similar work experiences and outlooks.
second key gatekeeper has evolved on the law enforcement side—the public
information officer (PIO). Prior to the development of PIOs, interaction with
the media was an ad hoc, idiosyncratic process. As the marketing of crime news
has heightened, the competition among sources of crime and justice information
for news media attention has sharpened. While law enforcement agencies still hold
the central position in the construction and defining of the crime problem, other
public agencies and private lobby and pressure groups have joined the competi-
tion. In addition, new media and the Internet have allowed private individuals to
enter the crime news gatekeeping process.74 The public information officer
emerged as the criminal justice system’s response to this competition.

New media and other participants notwithstanding, crime news still comes
largely from information supplied by the police. And crime news, because it is
prepackaged and popular, helps news organizations in their routinization task75,

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and can be gathered at little cost76, makes up a large part of the total news. The
gatekeeping process filters out the vast majority of crime from becoming crime
news and makes any correspondence between crime news and actual crime un-
likely. News, entertainment, and advertising are still what most people think of
when they consider the broad categories of mass media content, but a fourth
content type, infotainment, which crosses all of the traditional media boundary
lines, has emerged as a significant area for contemporary crime and justice.


The most important change in contemporary crime-and-justice media is the
explosion of infotainment products. Infotainment can be defined as the mar-
keting of edited, highly formatted information about the world in entertainment
media vehicles. The feel with infotainment media is that you are learning the real
facts about the world; the reality is that you’re getting a highly stylized rendition
of a narrow, edited slice of the world. In that infotainment combines aspects of
news, entertainment, and advertising under a single umbrella, its emergence
makes it less sensible to discuss the three traditional media components sepa-
rately. News, entertainment, and advertising are no longer unique media spheres
due to infotainment’s influences.77

Crime perfectly fits infotainment demands for content about real events that
can be delivered in an entertaining fashion, and infotainment content based on

Internet images
and reports of


receives news

of crime
in society

or editor


Crimes known
by police

in society

and reports


Police public



Printed or

crime news

F I G U R E 1.2
The Internet Has Altered the Crime News Gatekeeping Process By Allowing News of Crime
to Bypass Victims, Police, and Even News Agencies and Flow Directly to the Public.

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crime and justice has existed for centuries. Crime pamphlets and gallows sermons
are two early examples, but infotainment has always played a minor role in the
media’s crime-and-justice content. Why did infotainment explode in the late
twentieth century? The basic answer to this question is that as the media, led
by television, became more visual, intrusive, and technologically capable, the
viewing audience simultaneously became more voyeuristic and entertainment
conscious.78 The ability of satellites to instantaneously beam information around
the world has allowed the public to watch riots, wars, and other events as they
happen, heightening the dramatic entertainment value of what previously would
have been reported as after-the-fact news events, or not reported at all. For
example, with the use of news helicopters, it is now common for local television
stations to follow high-speed car chases and broadcast them live. Irrespective of its
social importance, a visual event that might not have been mentioned in the news
a decade or two ago can be a contemporary lead news story as a result of simply
having been videotaped. Along the same lines, the growth of surveillance cameras
provide the footage for a bevy of television programs that rely on showing crimes
as they happened. By providing a large inexpensive pool of visual events to mar-
ket, such technological improvements have allowed for much of the infotainment
programming that exists today. However, while improved technology increased
the potential amount of infotainment, it does not explain its current popularity.

The quantity of infotainment programming is tied to the second reason that
news and entertainment has blurred. With expanded hours and new networks com-
peting for narrowing audience shares, many more hours of programming were
needed and networks had greater difficulty attracting and holding an audience.79

The addition of entertainment elements to news content was embraced as a
solution.80 Beginning in the late 1980s, modern crime-related infotainment programs
began to appear on television, and the line between crime-and-justice news and
entertainment dissolved.81 Today a clear demarcation between news and entertain-
ment in the media no longer exists, and consumers are hard pressed to differentiate
crime-and-justice news from crime-and-justice entertainment. This blurring is partic-
ularly apparent in traditional news content as even the most serious and violent crimes
are often given an entertaining slant. We still look to news to provide a reliable
record of what’s real, but today’s stew of journalism, entertainment, and infotainment
makes establishing what is real regarding crime and justice a haphazard process.

These programs have never been hugely popular (Cops enjoying the highest
ratings), but they continue to have substantial audiences and are extremely prof-
itable. Led by television, print and radio followed suit, and today all media pro-
duce substantial amounts of infotainment content across a broad spectrum of
shows such as celebrity sports, lifestyles, interview, game, and pseudoscience
shows. Some of the more successful are found within the host of crime-
and-justice infotainment vehicles and reality programs were the among the first
pseudo–news programming. As a result, the crime-and-justice media landscape is
populated with varied infotainment products that did not exist a decade ago.
Within this media crime-and-justice infotainment world, the crime control
model dominates.82 Employing real crimes, reenactments, and documentary-
like formatting, the realism in which these shows cloak themselves encourages

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their acceptance as accurate pictures of the world.83 However, contrary to their
image of reality, these programs are clearly structured along entertainment lines.
They commonly employ the oldest entertainment crime story structure known:
“crime chase capture”84 in which the commission of a crime is followed by
its investigation and the pursuit of offenders, climaxing in their arrest or death.
Three types of crime-and-justice infotainment are common: news magazines and
Web sites, reality-based crime shows, and media trials. Collectively they domi-
nate the contemporary mass media crime-and-justice infotainment market.

Newsmagazines and Web Sites. News magazines and Internet news Web sites
extend the application of the entertainment values found in lesser degrees in
much of the daily news content. Daily newscasts, because of time and format
constraints, cannot afford to spend much time on any single story. They therefore

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cannot fully develop an entertainment context. However, newsmagazines and
Internet news sites can devote more content to the most interesting (that is, the
most sensational, violent, dramatic, or scandalous) stories. They provide access to
large amounts of information, visuals and opportunities to share opinions about
crimes. Within these avenues, an event can be fully constructed as an entertainment
vehicle with stereotypic story lines, plots, characters, victims, villains, and dramatic
endings.85 At one end within this genre is voyeuristic content. Electronic versions
of the supermarket tabloid newspapers, these include trash-TV talk shows emphasiz-
ing confrontation and sexual deviance, tabloid news shows emphasizing bizarre,
violent crimes, and Web sites advocating bizarre content and theories. At the higher
end is informational content exemplified by weekly newsmagazine shows such as
60 Minutes and Web sites associated with established news agencies.

Other than matters of taste, what makes programs at both ends of the spec-
trum worrisome is that by presenting expanded, apparently in-depth stories they
convey the impression that an issue is being discussed from multiple sides and
that a full contextual review of a topic is being provided. However, as in regular
news, in newsmagazine programming high-profile, sensationalist crimes and
criminals are emphasized, with a focus on individual, random, stranger-on-
stranger acts of violence. They continue the broader popular media’s painting
of crimes and criminals with portraits that are simplistic and individualistic. As
within these other media outlets, newsmagazines and Internet crime news sites
reflect the process of commodification, the packaging and marketing of crime
information for popular consumption and commercial profit. The impact that
the economic goals of commodification have on media crime and justice content
cannot be overemphasized. When a significant source of public knowledge about
crime and criminality is steered by what is popular and profitable the public’s
ability to evaluate criminal justice policies unavoidably suffers.

Reality-Based Crime Shows. As news drifts more toward entertainment,
entertainment programmers looked to traditional news formats to design talk shows
and documentaries that would be accepted as credible and realistic by their audi-
ences. In doing so, they have produced some of the more successful television pro-
gramming thus far in the twenty-first century, and virtually all aspects of life have
been presented as a reality program at one time or another. Reality-based crime
shows that entertain by sensationalizing real stories about crime and justice are of
particular interest. These shows typically employ dramatizations of actual crimes
interspersed with police narrative and interviews or actual video footage that fea-
tures police officers investigating crimes, questioning suspects, and making arrests.86

Concerns with these programs arise directly from their claim to be present-
ing reality—that they are objective purveyors of true stories about crime and jus-
tice. Despite their use of the trappings of traditional news and journalism, crime
reality shows are thinly disguised entertainment, and the reality that they
construct is not pretty. They mix reconstructions, actors, and interviews and
employ camera angles, music, lighting, and sets to enhance their dramatic and en-
tertainment elements. Viewers are further encouraged to accept the content as
straightforward through the use of self-labeled “correspondents” and “reporters.”

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Law and order, social control, and the point of view of law enforcement officials
dominate within stereotyped portraits of crimes, criminals, and victims.87 The
crime-and-justice world found in reality-based crime shows appears as a violent,
crime-prone underclass held in check by the police.

Media Trials. Society has long been intrigued by the inner workings of the
criminal justice system. Prior to cameras being allowed into America’s court-
rooms in the late 1970s, the most realistic-looking views of judicial proceedings
came from courtroom television dramas and classic films like To Kill a Mocking-
bird. Today the drama is often “real,” or at least not based on fictional cases (see
Box 1.2). Cameras have moved into courtrooms to cover deliberations, to record
the emotional responses of participants, and to conduct interviews with partici-
pants. Some made-for-TV courtroom shows are more akin to game shows than
to judicial proceedings. The media hijacking and dramatization of actual criminal
cases has invigorated the media trial—the co-optation of a regional or national
crime or justice event by the media, which are developed and marketed along
entertainment style storylines as a source of drama, entertainment, and profit.88

B o x 1.2 Michael Jackson Homicide Case

Due to the victim’s immense celebrity status, popularity, bizarre aspects of his lifestyle,
and prior legal problems, the homicide prosecution of his personal physician, Dr. Conrad
Murray, for the death of the “King of Pop” Michael Jackson by acute Propofol intoxica-
tion has generated another heavily covered media trial. Media attention began with the
discovery of Jackson’s body and continued through the coroner’s autopsy and report, a
police manslaughter investigation, and the Los Angeles District Attorney’s filing of
charges. Media spin-offs, such as the This Is It film, Michael Jackson’s brother’s reality
show, and numerous interviews and stories by people variously connected to the singer
began to appear long before the case proceeded to trial.









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Media trials are distinguished from typical news coverage by the massive and
intensive coverage that begins either with the discovery of the crime or the arrest
of the accused. In a media trial, the media cover all aspects of a case, often highlight-
ing extralegal aspects. Judges, lawyers, police, witnesses, jurors, and defendants are
interviewed, photographed, and frequently raised to celebrity status. Personalities,
personal relationships, physical appearances, and idiosyncrasies are commented on re-
gardless of legal relevance. Coverage is live whenever possible, pictures are preferred
over text, and text is characterized by conjecture and sensationalism. A media trial is,
in effect, a dramatic miniseries developed around a real criminal case. The history of
these media trials reveals that they occur with regularity. In the twentieth century
more than two dozen trials were declared the “trial of the century” by the press.89

Proto media trials can even be found in the late nineteenth century, the best known
being the 1893 Lizzie Borden ax murder trial. Over the course of the twentieth
century, interest in these trials by the media, the public, and the marketplace grew
steadily. Following their period of intense public and media scrutiny, the trials pass
into popular folklore and relative obscurity. Recognition of names such as Fatty
Arbuckle, Sacco and Vanzetti, Bruno Hauptmann, the Rosenbergs, Patty Hearst, and
others have faded after onetime mesmerizing public interest and media attention.

In the coverage and marketing of these trials, the trials become palettes for
the social construction of the criminal justice system.90 They provide simplistic
explanations of crime within the authoritative and dramatic vehicle of a “real” trial.
In practice, crime in these productions is nearly universally attributed to individual
characteristics and failings rather than to social conditions. Media trials represent the
final step in a long process of merging news and entertainment—a process that now
often results in extensive multimedia and commercial exploitation. That the source
of media trials is the judicial system eases the merger, for media trials allow the
media industry to attract and entertain a large general audience while maintaining
its public image as an objective and neutral reporter of news. The end result is that
in media trials the merging of information and entertainment is fully achieved.



Each step in the evolution of types of media and their content brings the medi-
ated experience—the comparative experience that an individual has when he
or she experiences an event via the media—versus actually personally experienc-
ing an event a bit closer to each other.91 More than ever before, an individual
today can experience crime and criminal justice through the media and come
away with the sensation of actual experience. Media presentations are evolving
toward a media reality that is ever closer to an actual real-world experience and,
thus, is more popular and more profitable. Radio provided sound, live coverage,
and home delivery. Films provided continuous action and eventually sound and
were therefore closer to actual experience than either print or radio. Television
provided a combination of image, sound, live coverage, and home delivery—a

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mediated experience that was both similar to actual experience and easy to
access. Recent media technological developments have evolved to create new
media delivery vehicles that increase access and choice in media consumption
and move the media-created realities closer to experienced reality. The World
Wide Web, Ipods, and other new media have immensely increased the choices
people have regarding media content. Lastly, introduction of electronic interactive
games and computer-generated images have moved the mediated experience via
virtual and augmented reality to be physically competitive to a real-world experi-
ence while simultaneously shifting the audience from passive observers of events to
electronic participants.

This evolution of the media has had a significant impact on the criminal justice
system; today mediated crime-and-justice experience and knowledge dominates
real-world crime-and-justice experience and knowledge. Despite media impressions
to the contrary, most Americans have limited direct experience with crime and the
criminal justice system. Receiving a traffic ticket remains the most common form of
contact between citizens and law enforcement. Of those victimized by crime, hav-
ing something stolen is far more common than violent victimization. Violent vic-
timization also tends to be concentrated in lower class social groups. Thus, for most
Americans the mediated experience is the main source of their crime-and-justice
experience and knowledge. In addition, for most of us, experiencing crime and
justice via the media is preferable to experiencing crime-and-justice events directly.
Few seek out the experience of being a crime victim, but many enjoy seeing crimes
committed in the media. The mediated experience—where one is warm, dry, safe,
and able to see and hear from multiple points of view with the capacity to pause
and replay the experience—is also preferable to actual experience for many other
criminal justice events such as working a street patrol, attending a criminal trial, or
serving a prison sentence.

The cumulative result of this ongoing media evolution is that today we live
in a multimedia web where content, particularly images, appear ubiquitously
throughout the media landscape in a vast unavoidable morass of mediated infor-
mation, events, personalities, and products.92 Caught in the mutations, the nature
of contemporary crime and justice has changed. In some instances the mediated
event blots out the actual event so that what people believe happened based on
widespread media renditions supplants what actually happened. The facts of an
event such as the videotaped beating of Rodney King become irrelevant in the
face of the mediated rendition of the event. This trend toward media portrayal
over reality is particularly powerful in crime and justice where pop news, enter-
tainment, and advertising combine with the pervasive infotainment content found
in newsmagazines and Internet sites, reality-based shows, and media trials to con-
struct our mediated crime-and-justice reality. And from this mediated reality we
create our crime-and-justice policies.

Today, we live in a multimedia culture with media driven crime-and-justice
policies. What we believe about crime and justice and what we think ought to
be done about crime and justice is based on a view of reality that has been fil-
tered and refiltered through the electronic, visually dominated, multimedia web.
Thus a crime will appear on the news, its reenactment in film and television

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programming, its 911 dispatch tape in a pop song as background; its participants
will be interviewed in print and on radio and television talk shows and their
experiences discussed and dissected on the Internet and chronicled in books. In
such ways mediated crime-and-justice experiences become more socially signifi-
cant and influential then actual experiences.

In sum, five realities of twenty-first-century media are important for crime
and justice

1. Our mass media is an electronic, visually dominated media. Print and audio
are secondary in social impact. Content is fluid and moves quickly from
medium to medium. Images have more value than other media content, and
multimedia renditions of events are the norm. The evolution of the media
has been toward the goal of making mediated experience indistinguishable
from actual experience. Within this evolution, new media is altering the
manner in which crime-and-justice information is collected, disseminated,
and interpreted.

2. The current marketing structure of the media is geared toward narrowcast-
ing, or targeting smaller, more homogenous audiences than were previously
the focus. However, content is constantly reformatted, reused, and looped to
ultimately reach multiple and varied audiences.

3. The media must be understood as a collection of for-profit businesses.
Each media business must make money to survive, and the primary
purpose of media is not to entertain or inform an audience but to
deliver an audience to an advertiser. From a media business perspective,
advertising is the most important content. From the consumer and social
impact side, the most important content is often infotainment. New media
has begun to drastically change the profitability of older media, especially
print-based ones.

4. Media businesses exist within a highly competitive environment. Most new
media ventures fail, and the life spans of media outlets and products are brief.
Content must be marketable and must quickly attract an audience. Crime
content remains a high-profit area.

5. The U.S. media resides in a nonpaterrnalistic relationship with the govern-
ment. The government is not prone to directly involve itself in determining
content (though the government does enjoy holding periodic hearings about
content). Generally, except for some broad parameters, the media deter-
mines both content and marketing. The government role in the mass media
is largely as a hands-off regulator, issuing licenses and controlling access
to broadcast frequencies. Profitable content that may have negative social
effects will remain common.

What these media realities collectively mean is that the U.S. mass media is
driven by market considerations. The media environment is best understood as a
multimedia knowledge commodity web existing in a freewheeling marketplace.
Within this market, content appears and reappears in varied and dispersed con-
texts, and images have the greatest value. Crime and criminal justice content has

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become a particularly valuable media commodity. The real world of criminal
justice has reacted to this media commodification process, and the two sides
have entered a twenty-first-century ballet in which each leads the other, spinning
off criminal justice policies. In this dance, two views of the media’s impact on
justice coexist. In one popular perspective, the media are criticized as crimino-
genic and as undermining the values of law and order. In the second perspective,
popular among academics, the media are criticized as purveyors of fear, moral
panics, factual distortions, and supporters of the status quo.93 Being many things
with diverse content, contemporary media in reality does both.

In that the criminal justice system is a process that runs from criminality through
law enforcement, courts, and corrections to criminal justice policies, the balance of
this book explores this media—criminal justice relationship within a systems per-
spective. Media constructions of crime, law enforcement, the judicial system, and
corrections as currently portrayed in the mass media are presented first, followed
by chapters dedicated to media’s relationship to crime control and policy formation.
Lastly, the expected impact of new media on crime and justice is discussed.


Much of our knowledge about crime and justice come from the media, and
media and crime and justice are intertwined.

The knowledge we gain about crime and justice from the media influence
our criminal justice policies.

New media has accelerated the flow of crime-and-justice knowledge and

Crime-and-justice content has been historically popular in all types of media.

Print media was the first media to generate a mass market. Print also allowed
stricter control of access to information.

Sound media established the business model of today’s media and was the
first broad-based home media. Radio also popularized crime infotainment
programs and live coverage of criminal justice events.

Visual media was the first media to blanket society and with the introduc-
tion of television brought crime images directly into the home.

New media has changed the nature of the media-consumer relationship via
narrowcasting, on-demand access, and interactivity.

Crime news remains a profitable commodity, which due to the nature of its
creation unavoidably provides an inaccurate picture of crime. Gatekeepers fil-
ter the crimes of the day and pass along the most unique newsworthy ones.

Infotainment is the most important recent media development, with
newsmagazines and Web sites, reality-based crime shows, and media trials
dominating contemporary crime and justice content.

As with much of the world, crime and justice is a mediated experienced for
most Americans.

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1. Write an essay of the changes that you have observed since your childhood in
the way crime and justice is portrayed in the media. Discuss which changes
you see as positive and which ones you feel are negative and the reasons for
your view. As part of your essay discuss whether you feel that the media today
more often promote crime control or due process goals.

2. Compile and give a short description of a list of events that have been
looped in the media. Note how many are originally real versus fictional
events and how the original event has been altered and used in new media

3. Write up a list of criminal justice memorial policies and note the charac-
teristics of the persons and events they memorialize and the policies they
established. Discuss what the characteristics of the crimes and victims say
about criminality and crime in America and what the resulting policies
suggest as a general philosophy of criminal justice.

4. List some common social experiences, such as attending a concert, a
football game, or meeting new people, that you prefer experiencing via
new interactive media. Discuss why you prefer the mediated experience
over the real-world experience and the advantages and disadvantages of
mediated experiences over real ones.

5. Keep a media diary for one week, noting how much and what types of
media you consume. Note in your diary your individual preferences for
different types of media and why you prefer particular types of media
(music over films possibly), certain types of content (action over romance
maybe), and different types of programming (reality crime shows over
situation comedies perhaps).


Bailey, F. and D. Hale. 1998. Popular Culture, Crime and Justice.
Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Carrabine, E. 2008. Crime,Culture and the Media. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Greer, C. 2009. Crime and Media: A Reader. London, UK: Routledge.

Jewkes, Y. 2004. Media and Crime. London, UK: Sage.

Meyrowitz, J. 1985. No Sense of Place. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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Social Constructionism


After reading Chapter 2, you will

Have a theoretical foundation for exploring media, crime, and justice

Understand the primary concepts of social constructionism

Know how to use social constructionism to follow developments in criminal
justice policy



Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Blink, describes the shooting of Amadou Diallo
by four New York undercover officers, providing an example of a social con-
struction with tragic consequences. Applying stereotypes and cultural narratives,
the late night officer-citizen meeting was rapidly socially constructed by the
police officers with Mr. Diallo erroneously constructed as a gun-wielding threat.
The unarmed Diallo was shot forty-one times.1 This capability for social con-
structions to drive social behavior for good or ill has been long recognized. In
his 1922 book, Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann remarked: “For the most part
we do not first see, and then define. We define first and then see.… We pick out
what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which
we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.”2 By pointing
out that society sees reality largely as society has constructed and agreed to see it,
Lippmann insightfully described the core idea of social constructionism.3 By
detailing the consequences of the process in one case, Gladwell points out its
importance. Under social constructionism, people create reality—the world
they believe exists—based on their personal experiences and from knowledge


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gained through social interactions.4 Sometimes the process is rapid as was the
case in the Diallo shooting, other times it reflects a slow lifetime long construc-
tion effort. The process is the same for everyone although the end result, your
personal idea of reality, can contain highly individualistic elements. Understand-
ing the social construction of reality process and the concepts of social construc-
tionism helps to understand the impact of the media on crime and justice.5

The traditional Western viewpoint is that reality and knowledge of the
world are independent of human processes and grounded totally in autonomous,
freestanding events. Social constructionism sees reality in a different light. Social
constructionism views knowledge as something that is socially created by peo-
ple. Beginning from the premise that accepted knowledge about the world need
not mirror an objective reality, social constructionism focuses on human relation-
ships and the way relationships affect how people perceive reality. Social con-
structionism emphasizes the shared meanings that people hold—the ideas,
interpretations, and knowledge that groups of people agree to hold in common.6

In the social constructionist view, shared meanings are invariably the result of
active, cooperative social relationships and may or may not be tethered to objec-
tively measured conditions in the world.7 In social constructionism people tacitly
agree to see the world in a specific way.

It follows that in social constructionism, the degree to which a given con-
structed reality prevails is not directly dependent on its objective empirical
validity but is instead strongly influenced by shifting cultural trends and social
forces. The world may be in one state, but people can believe it is in another
state and act accordingly. In fact, social conditions may be seen as major social
problems at one time and then subside, without the physical situations they
concern having undergone any real change. Regarding crime, for example,
not only can social behaviors be criminalized or decriminalized independent
of changes in victimization or offense rates; in social constructionism such mis-
matches are expected.


Social constructionists seek to understand the process through which agreement
is constructed and the forces and conditions that influence when an accepted
construction changes—that is, when a society’s agreement about its reality alters.
Within the social construction perspective, perceptions of social conditions
change as social knowledge about those conditions change. People acquire social
knowledge from four sources: personal experiences, significant others (peers,
family, and friends—also called conversational reality), other social groups and
institutions (schools, unions, churches, government agencies), and the media. In
addition to personal experience, we also learn about and define reality from the
experiences of others, and to a considerable extent, from the portrayals found in
the media. The social construction of reality theory recognizes three kinds of
reality: experienced reality, symbolic reality, and socially constructed reality.

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Janet Chase

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Experienced Reality

The first source of knowledge, experienced reality, is one’s directly experi-
enced world—all the events that have happened to you. Knowledge gained
from experienced reality is relatively limited but has a powerful influence on an
individual’s constructed reality. For example, in a survey of citizens in Los
Angeles, California, researchers found that nearly twice as many citizens credited
direct and conversational reality sources of knowledge as more important than
media sources in forming their views of the police.8 Along the same lines, per-
sonal victimization is the most powerful source for defining one’s view of how
serious a particular crime is. However, even in the fixated-with-crime society
found in the United States, personal victimization remains comparatively rare.
Serious victimization tends to be concentrated in high-risk groups of citizens
comprised mostly of lower income and minority persons. Irrespective of the
impression one might get in the media, crime-and-justice experienced reality is
not widespread. What is widespread is access to symbolic reality.

Symbolic Reality

The next three sources of knowledge—other people, institutions, and the media—
share their knowledge symbolically and collectively form one’s symbolic reality. All
the events you did not witness but believe occurred, all the facts about the world









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Janet Chase

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you did not personally collect but believe to be true, all the things you believe to
exist but have not seen, make up your symbolic reality. The difference between
experienced and symbolic reality can be illustrated with a few questions: Do you
believe the moon exists? Why? Because you can see it directly. You have experi-
enced reality knowledge of its existence. Do you believe the moon has an atmo-
sphere? Why not? Because you have been told it has no air, you’ve read it has no
air, and you have seen pictures of men in space suits on the moon.9 You have
based your belief about the moon’s atmosphere on symbolic reality knowledge.
Both experienced and symbolic knowledge can shape our view of reality. Now
let’s apply these ideas to crime. How many serial killers have you personally met?
For most of us the answer is none. Yet if asked to list some common characteristics
of serial killers, you would likely be able to offer an answer you believe to be cor-
rect. Your response would be based totally on symbolic reality knowledge. In fact,
most of what we believe about the world comes from symbolic reality. In large,
advanced, industrialized societies like the United States, media dominate our forma-
tion of symbolic reality, overwhelming our limited experienced reality knowledge
and symbolic reality information we receive from other people and institutions. It is
because so much of our social knowledge is gained symbolically from the media
that there is concern over media’s content. Media are centrally situated in the dis-
tribution of knowledge, and what we see as crime and justice is largely defined,
described, and delimited by media content.

Socially Constructed Reality

The knowledge individuals gain from their experienced and symbolic reality is
ultimately mixed together, and from this mix we each construct our own
“world.” The resulting socially constructed reality is perceived as the “real”
world by each individual—what we individually believe the world to be like.
This subjective reality differs to some degree between individuals because
their experienced realities differ and what they incorporate from their symbolic
realities varies. However, individuals with access to similar knowledge and who
frequently interact with one another tend to negotiate and construct similar
social realities. The pun “Reality is a collective hunch” is an apt summary of
this social construction process. The end result is a socially constructed subjective
reality that directs social behavior. People behave according to how they believe
the world is. Significant for crime and justice, the media comprise the most
important element in defining crime-and-justice reality for most people.10

The Social Construction Process and the Media

The role of the media in the social construction process is diagrammed in
Figure 2.1, which presents four stages of social constructionism. In Stage 1,
we have the actual physical world we live in. In this stage, events such as
crimes or terrorist acts occur and are noted by individuals and organizations.
The physical world and its properties and conditions provide the boundaries
that the following stages must normally work within. Competing constructions

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cannot maintain credibility if they obviously run counter to the physical reality
of the world. For example, a mayor of a city might wish to forward a social
construction of her community as peaceful and safe. However, if there is riot-
ing in the streets, her social construction would not be competitive for long.

In Stage 2, competing constructions first offer differing descriptions of what
the physical world is like—what the physical conditions and facts of the world
are. Frequently these descriptions are of social conditions that have been identi-
fied as social problems, such as drugs or crime. Hence, a social construction of
the crime issue might include statistics and stories to support the construction
that crime is out of control. Second, constructions usually offer differing expla-
nations of why the physical world is as it is purported to be. The constructions
will forward various histories and theories to map out how and why their
description of the physical world happened. Therefore, statements like “crime is
out of control because the criminal justice system is too lenient” might be part of
a construction. Finally, based on their descriptions of the world and their expla-
nations of why it so exists, these competing constructions often argue for a set of
public and individual policies that should be supported and pursued. “In order to
get crime under control, we must impose longer prison sentences” is an example
of one such policy position.

In Stage 3, the media help filter out competing constructions. This is where
the media play their most powerful role. Persons forwarding constructions com-
pete for media attention, and the media tend to favor positions that are dramatic,
are sponsored by powerful groups, and are related to preestablished cultural
themes. In this way, media act as filters, making it difficult for those outside the
mainstream to access the media and promote their constructions. By giving some

Stage 4

Winning social construction
criminal justice policies are determined by winning construction

Stage 3

Media as social construction competition arena
media-adept constructionists have an advantage

Stage 2

Competing social constructions
for example, “crime is out of control” versus “society is safe”

Stage 1

The physical world
conditions, events, and properties

F I G U R E 2.1 The Stages of Social Construction

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constructions more credibility and coverage than others, the media make it hard
for other constructions to gain legitimacy. Construction advocates who are not
adept with the media are effectively shut out of the social construction competi-
tion. In effect, they never get on the playing field. For example, disorganized,
poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods frequently find it difficult to get their other
community problems successfully constructed as serious social problems. They
are not seen as unimportant; they are not seen at all.

Stage 4 represents the emergence of a dominant social construction of the
world. Because most of us have very little direct experience with crime-
and-justice reality, the media play an important role in the construction that
eventually prevails. The most important result of the social reality construction
competition is that the winning dominant construction directs public policy. The
social policies supported by the public and the solutions forwarded by the policy
makers are tied to the successful construction.11 For crime and justice, this
socially constructed reality will define the conditions, trends, and factors accepted
as causes of crime; the behaviors that are seen as criminal; and the criminal justice
policies accepted as reasonable and likely to be successful.


The perspective of social constructionism involves a set of concepts that further
detail how the social construction competition works. Basic to the social con-
struction process are claims makers, who compete with one another and argue
for the social acceptance of their specific constructions of reality.

Claims Makers and Claims

Claims makers are the promoters, activists, experts, spokespersons, and sometimes
celebrities (see Box 2.1) involved in forwarding specific claims about a social condi-
tion.12 As long ago as 1916, Ivy L. Lee, a founding member of the American public
relations movement, noted:

It is not the facts alone that strike the public mind, but the way in
which they take place and in which they are published that kindle
imaginations. The effort to state an absolute fact is simply an attempt to
give you my interpretation.13

Hence, claims makers do more than just draw attention to particular social
conditions; they shape our sense of what the conditions mean and what the
social problem is. Every social condition can be constructed in many different
ways. For example, crime can be constructed as a social, individual, racial, sexual,
economic, criminal justice, or technological problem, and each construction
implies different policy courses and solutions. These solutions are imbedded in
the claims made by the competing claims makers.

Claims can be thought of as coming in two basic flavors: factual and interpre-
tative (see Figure 2.2).14 Factual claims are statements that purport to describe

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the world. These are statements about what happened and are promoted as objec-
tive “facts” about the world. For example, “crime is out of control” is a claim
about the physical condition of crime in society. Factual claims are also made to
categorize or type an event. A statement along the lines of “This murder is an
example of the rage that is common on our highways” would be a factual claim

B o x 2.1 Tiger Woods Accident and Social Construction

The aftermath of Tiger Woods’ traffic accident provides an example of how a minor
crime can become a major crime story when celebrities are involved as well as exam-
ples of claims-making and attempts to promote competing constructions of reality.
Excerpts from a statement from Tiger on December 2, 2009, reflect a
construction of the accident as a result of personal failings and claims of its after-
math as a private family matter. “I have let my family down and I regret those
transgressions with all of my heart. I am dealing with my behavior and personal
failings behind closed doors with my family. Those feeling should be shared by us
alone.… there is an important and deep principle at stake which is the right to some
simple, human measure of privacy.… Personal sins should not require press releases
and problems within a family shouldn’t have to mean public confessions.”

As the parade of women claiming relationships with Tiger Woods grew and the
pre-accident construction of Woods began to erode due to massive media attention,
a second statement acknowledging the affairs and an altered constructed reality was
shortly posted. Posted December 11, 2009: “I am deeply aware of
the disappointment and hurt that my infidelity has caused to so many people.… I am
profoundly sorry and ask forgiveness.… After much soul searching, I have decided to
take an indefinite break from professional golf.”








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forwarded to categorize a murder as fitting into a specific type of killing—in this
case, road rage. Factual claims are the descriptions, typifications, and assertions re-
garding the extent and nature of conditions in the physical world.

Interpretative claims are statements that focus on the meanings of events.
They do one of two things: either they offer an explanation of why a set of fac-
tual claims is as described, or they offer a course of action—a public policy—that
needs to be followed to address the conditions or events described in the factual
claims (see Box 2.2). Together, factual and interpretative claims target the beliefs
and attitudes that people hold about the world: what they think the conditions of
the world are, what they feel are the causes of those conditions, and what they
think the solutions are.

One strategy involving claims often used to get a social construction accepted
by the public is called linkage. Linkage involves the association of the subject of
the social construction effort with other previously constructed issues (see Box 2.3).
For example, drugs are often linked to other social problems such as crime. The
strategy of linkage would be to argue that a drug must be criminalized or other

Crime is out of control… because of the lax sentencing of criminal

Factual claim Interpretative claim that offers an explanation
of why crime is out of control

Factual claim

Cocaine is a dangerous drug… whose use and sale must be criminalized.

Interpretative claim with associated policy

F I G U R E 2.2 Examples of Factual and Interpretative Claims

B o x 2.2 Example of Crime Claims from Politicians

National candidates are expected to have policies on local crime issues as the follow-
ing claims about capital punishment reflect. President Obama stated in his book:
“While the evidence tells me that the death penalty does little to deter crime, I
believe there are some crimes—mass murder, the rape and murder of a child—so
heinous that the community is justified in … meting out the ultimate punishment.”
(Barak Obama, The Audacity of Hope, 2006, p. 58). Similarly, Sarah Palin stated: “If
the legislature passed a death penalty law, I would sign it. We have a right to know
that someone who rapes and murders a child or kills an innocent person in a drive by
shooting will never be able to do that again.” (Sarah Palin, Campaign Web site,, “Issues” Nov. 7, 2006). Both politicians combine a
factual claim about murder with an interpretative claim about what policy needs to

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types of crime will increase. The linkage of crime to danger and calamity is also
employed in the social construction process, and crime-and-justice issues are often
linked to the endangerment of health, welfare, families, and communities.15 The
acceptance of a claim of linkage between one social phenomenon and another
issue that is already seen as harmful raises the concern and public importance of
the linked social phenomenon.16 Hence, the social importance of drug abuse is
heightened when drugs are linked to crime, and the same linkage makes other
correlates of crime, such as poverty, appear less important.

Claims makers hope to have their claims accepted as the dominant social con-
struction of reality. For a construction to be successful, its claims must be accepted.
If the dominant social construction becomes “crime is out of control,” then those
who have made that claim have been successful. When forty-first President Bush
stated that the culture of violence in our schools must be addressed, he was for-
warding a claim about the world that also suggested a response to the claimed con-
dition of the world. New laws and policies directed against the “culture of school
violence” indicated the success of the president’s construction of a new social prob-
lem. To further enhance their likelihood of success, claims makers also frequently
make use of preestablished constructions, or frames, to advance their claims.


In the social construction of the crime-and-justice arena, prepackaged con-
structions, or frames, include factual and interpretative claims and associated
policies. A frame is a fully developed social construction template that allows
its users to categorize, label, and deal with a wide range of world events.
Frames simplify one’s dealing with the world by organizing experiences and
events into groups and guiding what are seen as the appropriate policies and
actions. Regarding crime and justice, preexisting frames make the processing,
labeling, and understanding of crimes easier for the person holding that frame’s

B o x 2.3 Linking Satanic Cults to Serial Homicide

Phillip Jenkins provides an example of an attempt to link satanic cults to serial

Estimates about the numbers of victims varied greatly, but one commonly cited
figure suggested that some fifty thousand ritualistic sacrifices occurred each
year. In 1988, for example, the American Focus on Satanic Crime (a work
especially targeted at law enforcement professionals) suggested that Satanists
are connected with ‘‘the murders of unbaptized infants, child sexual abuse in
day-care, rape, ritual abuse of children, drug trafficking, arson, pornography,
kidnapping, vandalism, church desecration, corpse theft, sexual trafficking of
children and the heinous mutilation, dismemberment and sacrifices of humans
and animals. [They are] responsible for the deaths of more than 60,000 Americans
each year, including missing and runaway youth.’’

SOURCE: Phillip Jenkins, Using Murder (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1994, 197) quoting Alan Peterson, “The
American Focus on Satanic Crime,” foreword.

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view of reality. If a crime can be quickly placed into a preestablished frame, it
will be seen as another example of a particular type of crime needing a partic-
ular type of response. A senseless murder, for example, might become “another
predator killing that resulted from a lenient criminal justice system.” Such
crimes can be cognitively dealt with and quickly tied to a policy position.
You do not have to spend a lot of time understanding a crime that has been
fitted into a crime-and-justice frame. The cause of the crime, explanations for
why it occurred, and what needs to be done are already built into the frame.
Certain U.S. crime-and-justice frames have deep historical roots and criminol-
ogist Theodore Sasson describes five long-standing crime-and-justice frames
that compete today in the United States.17 All five frames offer explanations
of crime, point to specific causes, and come with accompanying policies. These
frames are summarized in Table 2.1.

Faulty Criminal Justice System Frame. The first frame holds that crime
results from a lack of “law and order.” People commit crimes knowing they
can get away with them because the police are handcuffed by liberal judges
and the prisons are revolving doors. The only way to ensure public safety is to
increase the swiftness, certainty, and severity of punishment. Loopholes and tech-
nicalities that impede the apprehension and imprisonment of offenders must be
eliminated, and funding for police, courts, and prisons must be increased. The

T A B L E 2.1 Crime-and-Justice Frames

Frame Cause Policy Symbols

Faulty system Crime stems from
criminal justice leniency
and inefficiency

The criminal justice
system needs to “get

O. J. Simpson
police” “Revolving
door justice”


Crime stems from
poverty and inequality

The government must
address the “root
causes“ of crime by
creating jobs and
reducing poverty.

“Flipping burgers”
at McDonald’s;
low-paying jobs

Social breakdown Crime stems from
family and community

Citizens should band
together to re-create

“Take back the
streets” “Family

Racist system The criminal justice
system operates in a
racist fashion

African Americans
should band
together to demand

Rodney King; O. J.

Violent media Crime stems from
violence in the mass

The government
should regulate
violent imagery in
the media.

“Life imitates art”
Copycat crimes

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faulty system frame is symbolically represented by the convicted, repeat rapist or
by the image of inmates passing through a revolving door on a prison.

Blocked Opportunities Frame. This frame depicts crime as a consequence of
inequality and discrimination, especially in unemployment, poverty, and educa-
tion. People commit crimes when they discover that the legitimate means for
attaining material success are blocked. Unemployment, ignorance, disease, filth,
poor housing, congestion, and discrimination all contribute to a crime wave that
is seen as sweeping our nation.18 “If you’re going to create a sink-or-swim soci-
ety, you have to expect people to thrash before they go down” is an example of
a claim associated with the blocked opportunity frame.19 To reduce crime, gov-
ernment must ameliorate the social conditions that cause it. Blocked opportu-
nities are symbolically portrayed through references to dead-end jobs held by
inner-city youth, such as flipping burgers at McDonald’s.

Social Breakdown Frame. This frame depicts crime as a consequence of fam-
ily and community disintegration, skyrocketing rates of divorce, and out-
of-wedlock births. Social breakdown has both conservative and liberal versions.
The conservative version attributes family and community breakdown to “per-
missiveness,” which is exemplified by the protest movements of the 1960s and
1970s and government-sponsored welfare. The liberal version attributes family
and community breakdown to unemployment, racial discrimination, and the
loss of jobs and income. An example of a social breakdown claim was made by
then President Bill Clinton: “In America’s toughest neighborhoods, meanest
streets, and poorest rural areas, we have seen a stunning breakdown of commu-
nity, family and work at the heart and soul of civilized society. This has created a
vast vacuum into which violence, drugs and gangs have moved.”20

Racist System Frame. The racist system frame focuses on the criminal justice
system rather than on crime. This frame depicts the courts and police as racist
agents of oppression. In this frame, police resources are seen as dedicated more
to the protection of white neighborhoods than to reducing crime in minority
communities. Black offenders are more likely than whites who commit compa-
rable offenses to be arrested, convicted, and sentenced to prison, and the death
penalty is administered in a racist fashion. In radical versions of this frame, the
basic purpose of the criminal justice system is to suppress a potentially rebellious
underclass. An example of this claim was offered by then Undersecretary of State
Nicholas B. Katzenbach: “We have in these United States lived under a dual
system of justice, one for the white, one for the black.”21 The racist system frame
is symbolized by the beating of motorist Rodney King and the trial of O. J.

Violent Media Frame. It is not surprising in a culture swamped in media that
a frame reflecting concerns about the media exists. The media violence frame
depicts crime and social violence as a consequence of violence on television,
in the movies, in popular music and in video games. It is argued that violence

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in the mass media undermines respect for life. To reduce violence in society, this
frame directs us to first reduce it in the mass media. It is forwarded by claims
such as the following: “By the time the average child reaches age 18, he will
have witnessed some 18,000 murders and countless highly detailed incidents of
robbery, arson, bombings, shooting, beatings, forgery, smuggling and torture.”22

The media violence frame is symbolically referenced by allusions to violent visual
media, videogames, and musical lyrics. Theodore Sasson notes that despite being
perceived as the least important general explanation of crime and violence, media
violence is seen as at least a partial explanation of violent crime by nearly all
Americans. Violent media is not seen as the most important source of our
cultural violence, but there is a broad consensus that the media substantially con-
tribute to violent crime.

How Frames Influence Crime-and-Justice Policy. All five frames are sup-
ported by some portion of the public, and the frames are not mutually exclusive.
People often simultaneously support more than one frame, applying one frame
to one set of crimes and criminals and another frame to other events. Crime-
and-justice claims makers can guarantee a level of support if they can fit their
social construction within one of these frames. Analogous to a political candidate
running as a Republican or a Democrat, and thereby being assured of the votes
of loyal party members, these five established frames are resources that can be
tapped by criminal justice claims makers to forward individual claims and poli-
cies. By fitting their claims and desired policies within one of these preexisting
frames, they tap into a pool of public support. Many crime-and-justice events
can be differently constructed using different frames. For example, in Table 2.1,
O. J. Simpson’s murder trial is symbolic for two frames: Those who thought him
guilty of murder see his acquittal as evidence that the criminal justice system is
faulty and must be tougher; those who saw him as innocent see his arrest and
prosecution as an example of a racist criminal justice system. Similarly, the 1999
Columbine High School shootings were used as support for the social break-
down frame, with the shooters portrayed as coming from dysfunctional families;
the media violence frame, with the shooters portrayed as under the spell of vio-
lent videogames; and the faulty system frame, with the system blamed for not
recognizing dangerous youth and preventing their acquisition of weapons.

The five frames jockey with one another for influence over how criminality
is understood in society, which criminal justice policies enjoy public support, and
how new crimes and criminals are perceived. The process through which crime-
and-justice frames fall in and out of favor is closely tied to the social construction
competition that is constantly being conducted in the media. In addition to
being part of their own frame, by focusing on certain types of crimes or giving
access to specific frame promoting claims makers, the media can boost frames
ahead of one another.23 As will be discussed in later chapters, although all five
frames get some media play, recent crime-and-justice content and portraits tend
to favor the faulty system and social breakdown frames over the other three. In
addition to these fully constructed frames, less comprehensive social construction
tools, known as narratives, are available to claims makers.

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Central to entertainment media but also common in news and infotainment,
narratives are popular and useful in the social construction of crime-and-justice
reality. Not to be confused with genres or standard story lines, and unlike frames,
which are fully developed crime-and-justice constructions, narratives are less
encompassing, preestablished mini-social constructions found throughout
crime-and-justice media.24 Narratives are crime-and-justice portraits that the
public already recognizes and has embraced. Narratives are not broad explanations
of crime and do not include wide-scale public policy directions like frames; instead
narratives outline the recurring crime-and-justice types and situations that regularly
appear in the media.25 The “naive innocent” who stumbles into victimization is
one recurring crime narrative. The “masculine, heroic crime-fighter” who cannot
be swayed by corruption or hardship is another. The most popular, longest-
running criminal narrative is the “innately evil predatory criminal” highlighted in
serial killer movies. Table 2.2 describes additional common criminal justice narra-
tives found across the media. Narratives can be utilized to quickly establish the
characteristics of a criminal, a victim, or a crime-fighter and as supportive examples
for larger crime-and-justice frames. In practice, narratives are frequently linked to
the faulty system frame by inferring a simplified single-cause explanation of crime
and shared elements of random, predatory violence and innocent victims.26

The existing cultural stock of narratives that can be drawn upon also influence
what is said and not said about crime. They provide ready-made story lines to apply
to current crime-and-justice events and thereby give a sense of predictability and
understanding to even the most senseless criminality. As socially shared symbols of
crime and justice, their use reduces the need to explain cause and effect, and accom-
panying crime-and-justice interpretative claims can remain unstated yet implicitly
accepted. The evil predatory criminal narrative, for example, offers an explanation

T A B L E 2.2 Examples of Common Crime-and-Justice Narratives

Narrative Costume Characteristics

The PI Cheap suit and car Loner, cynical, shrewd, shady but

The rogue cop Plainclothes disguise, often
has special hi-tech equipment

Maverick, smart, irreverent, violent
but effective

The sadistic

Unkempt uniform Low intelligence, violent, racist,
sexist, perverted, enjoys cruelty and
inflicting pain and humiliation

The corrupt

Expensive suit and office Smart, greedy, manipulative,
dishonest, smooth talker and liar,
able to twist words, logic, and

The greedy

Very expensive office and
home, trophy wife

Very smart, decisive, and polished,
unquenchable sometimes psychotic
need for power and wealth

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of the most heinous crimes. In the same way that a wolf by its nature preys on
others, a violent crime needs no further explanation than to evoke the descriptor
“evil predator.” In the same vein that you don’t need an explanation for why a
wolf attacks sheep, but would need one to explain a wolf that did not, the preda-
tory criminal narrative supplies an explanation for why criminals attack the law-
abiding. Without having to expressly spell it out, the predator criminal narrative
explains that it is just the innate nature of criminals; it’s what they do and what
they are. In the crime-and-justice social construction competitive process, narratives
are often applied to specific criminal events, which are then attached to larger con-
structions and forwarded as examples of what is wrong in society.27 In crime-
and-justice social constructionism, these special focus events are called symbolic
crimes, and they play an important social construction role.

Symbolic Crimes

Symbolic crimes are crimes and other criminal justice events that are selected and
highlighted by claims makers as perfect examples of why their crime-and-justice con-
struction should be accepted.28 The beating of Rodney King, the kidnapping and
murder of Polly Klaas, the murder trial of O. J. Simpson, the Columbine school
shootings, and the September 11th World Trade Center bombings (see Box 2.4), are
well-known symbolic crimes. Symbolic crimes are trumpeted to convince people of
the existence of a pressing crime-and-justice problem and a desperately needed crim-
inal justice policy. They are taken up by claims makers and forwarded as either “the
types of crimes we can expect to happen more often because we have allowed a set
of conditions to fester” or as “an example of what a new criminal justice policy will
correct if we implement it.” Frequently, a symbolic crime is used for both—to show
what happens because of, in their view, obviously erroneous past practices and con-
ditions, and as evidence to argue for specific policy changes.

To fulfill their persuasive social construction function, symbolic crimes are
often the worst, most grievous examples that can be found. The formula for
using symbolic crimes in crime-and-justice social construction is simple:

Step 1. Find the worst crime you can—the most innocent victim (child
victims are often used) or most heinous criminal (animalistic predatory
serial killers are popular).

Step 2. Link your construction to your symbolic crime (for example, to
raise the issue of pornography, after a child murder claim that “this child
would be alive today if the suspect did not have access to pornography.”

Step 3. Success equals an increased importance of your issue and public
acceptance of your construction (social acceptance of media with sexual
content declines as more people see this sort of media as having serious,
sometimes deadly consequences).

Thus, if you wish to forward capital punishment as a necessary social policy,
as a claims maker you would seek out a symbolic crime committed by someone
who had murdered previously, avoided execution, was released into society, and
killed again. If you are opposed to capital punishment, you would look for a case

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where an innocent individual was wrongly executed as your symbol of the
wrong that results from a policy of capital punishment.

As the social construction process is distilled into a single, concrete, emotion-
laden dramatic event that can be easily portrayed by the media, quickly interpreted
by the public, and difficult for opponents to argue against, an effective symbolic
crime can be the difference between winning and losing a social construction
competition. When claims makers win a social construction competition, they
gain another benefit—they gain ownership of social problems and issues.


Ownership is the identification of a particular social condition with a particular set
of claims makers who come to dominate the social construction of that issue. Claims
makers own an issue when they are sought out by the media and others for

B o x 2.4 Symbolic 9/11 Terrorist Attacks

Images of the 2001 September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center buildings in
New York remain the symbolic crime for the ongoing U.S. war on terror. In these
attacks, the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda hijacked four commercial aircraft in
mid-flight and flew two of them into the World Trade Center Towers in New York
City, and one into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The fourth crashed in
Pennsylvania due to passenger heroics. The Trade Center Towers in New York were
selected by al-Qaeda because of their symbolism of the United State’s economic
power, with the terrorist goal of socially reconstructing them to be a “new symbol of
U.S. vulnerability” (Tuman, 2003, p. 65).








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information regarding the problem and for opinions regarding the reasonableness of
competing social constructions and policies associated with the issue. Some groups
by virtue of their superior power, finances, status, organization, technology, or media
access have more ability to make their constructions appear legitimate—to make
their version of reality stick—and to take effective ownership of an issue. Because
of their media access and control of crime data, law enforcement agencies have pro-
prietary ownership of crime. When a new type of crime is constructed, law enforce-
ment usually has the first call regarding how that crime will be constructed and
related policy choices debated. Box 2.5 describes the application of the social con-
structionism concept of ownership to the relationship of the media and criminal
justice and provides a specific example of the FBI and serial murder.


“Victim rights,”29 “cyber stalking”30 and “juveniles armed with assault rifles”31

are a few of the recent crime and justice social construction efforts described in

B o x 2.5 Ownership, the Media, and Criminal Justice

Phillip Jenkins relates how ownership of “serial murder” by the FBI resulted in sub-
stantial tangible benefits for the agency: “The dominance of the FBI’s experts can be
observed throughout the process of construction. They successfully presented them-
selves as the best (or only) authorities on the topic, and they assisted journalists and
writers who reciprocated with favorable depictions of the agency. The federal
officials stood to gain substantially … because establishing the reality of a problem
provided added justification for their BSU (Behavioral Science Unit), a new and
unorthodox unit seeking to validate its skills in areas such as profiling and crime
scene analysis. Once it was established that the FBI could and should have jurisdiction
over this type of crime, it was not difficult to seek similar involvement in other
offenses that could plausibly be mapped together with serial homicide.”

Additional implications of ownership are described by Suzanne Hatty: “We live
in a knowledge society comprised of ‘authorized knowers,’ [Certified experts] and
individuals not associated with the State or its agencies. Within the system of knowl-
edge production, the version of reality of the authorized knower is privileged [and]
individuals not certified as experts have limited means by which to challenge the
legitimacy of the [claims] issued by the ‘authorized knowers.’ Within the arena of
crime and deviance, the police are the dominant group. By virtue of their proximity
to crime, the police are seen to possess first-hand knowledge not available to others.
Further, the police define the categories of behavior understood as criminal and
through their collection of statistical data and their unique access to acts of disorder;
they maintain control over discussions about crime in society. The police are assisted
by journalism. The partnership between police and journalists ensures that the police
continue to shape the problem of crime, and that the news media continue to pres-
ent the public with visual images of deviance. This mutually beneficial arrangement
promotes the legitimacy of both the police and the media as credible sources of
expert knowledge [about crime] in society.”

SOURCE: Phillip Jenkins, Using Murder (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1994); Suzanne Hatty, “Police, Crime and
the Media: An Australian Tale,” International Journal of the Sociology of Law (vol. 19, 1991), 171–172.

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the research. Three additional well-documented criminal justice social construc-
tions are reviewed here to demonstrate the social construction process applied to
crime and justice.32

Social Construction of Road Rage

In this example, a new crime was constructed by the media. The media do not
usually take on this role as much as they act as a filter and playing field among
various claims makers, but an example of a media-created crime can be seen in
the construction of road rage. Joel Best analyzed the imagery concerning highway
violence from several major newspapers and television stations. He found that after
an initial story dealing with highway violence appeared, the media began linking a
number of different types of highway incidents together as a new type of crime
today known as “road rage.” Best summarizes:

In short, the media described freeway shootings as a growing problem,
characterized by random violence and widespread fear. Without official
statistics or public opinion polls bearing on the topic, reporters relied on
interviews with their sources to support these claims. Thus, the eleven
network news stories used thirty-eight clips from interviews: eleven with
law enforcement officials promising to take action or advising caution;
thirteen victims describing their experiences; ten person-in the-street inter-
views revealing public concern; and four experts offering explanations.33

Best found that the media sought not only to describe but to explain and inter-
pret the problem. The media would say, for example, that highway congestion cou-
pled with the anonymity of the car could trigger these violent outrages in people.
The media also offered competing interpretative claims for the problem of highway
violence. Some interpreted it as a faulty system frame problem and that more law
enforcement was the solution to the problem. Others saw it as a traffic problem.
Freeway violence would be lessened if the roads were not so congested. Other
claims were that freeway violence was a gun access problem, or a lack of courtesy
problem (fitting the social breakdown frame). Best concludes that in this case the
media was the primary claims maker in the construction of road rage, taking on
this role in part because of a slow news period. Needing crime news and a new
crime, the news media went out and constructed one.

Reconstruction of Driving Under the Influence

Media can also influence the crime construction process by raising the perception
of a crime’s seriousness. An example of this type of influence can be seen in
the public’s evolving beliefs about drinking and driving. Driving under the influ-
ence has been legally defined as a crime for a long time. However, until recently
there was not broad, consistent public support for its prosecution. Not surpris-
ingly, enforcement was lax and haphazard. Prior to the 1980s, DUI was socially
constructed primarily as an individual rehabilitation problem. News accounts told
of how lawmakers wanted to lessen the penalties for DUI. During this period,

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imposition of stiff penalties such as license revocation would interfere with the
offender’s ability to work. The media used nonpejorative words like errant to
describe the actions of those convicted of DUI.

Beginning in the 1980s, new claims makers such as MADD (Mothers
Against Drunk Driving) attacked this dominant social construction of the drunk
driver.34 Whereas drunk drivers had been seen as troubled individuals, when
socially reconstructed, they became individuals who cause trouble. MADD could
not have done this without waging a successful media-based social construction
campaign that, in turn, affected how this crime was seen by the public.

Since the 1980s, DUI has been constructed as a much more serious crime. The
drunk driver is now characterized as a “killer drunk” and one of society’s pressing
problems. There was clearly a shift in the media’s construction of drinking and driv-
ing and subsequently how society reacted to drinking and driving. No longer
viewed as an individual problem needing treatment, DUI offenders were now con-
structed as a menace to society, and support grew for much stricter DUI laws and
their enforcement and prosecution. DUI was successfully reconstructed and is now
seen by most people as a serious crime deserving harsh punishment.

Competing Constructions of the Arrest of Rodney King

One infamous example of social constructionism in crime and justice is the arrest
and beating of Rodney King, caught on videotape on the night of March 3, 1991.
After a high-speed car chase, Mr. King was arrested and violently subdued by

Socially constructed by the news media, today ‘‘road rage’’ is recognized
as a new type of crime.









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members of the Los Angeles Police Department. This event provides an example
of the social construction competition process in which different constructed reali-
ties strove to become the dominant view. Even though the arrest was videotaped
and many factual claims about the event were unquestioned, such as how many
times Mr. King was struck, a competition regarding cause and interpretation of the
beating—the constructed interpretation of the event—developed.

Three different constructions of the cause and meaning of the event competed,
with each construction suggesting widely different policies. In Construction A,
King resisted arrest and the beating was justified by King’s prior actions. The law
enforcement policy implications from this construction are minimal. The police
were justified; therefore, the police officers were not acting inappropriately, and
no changes are required.

In Construction B, the beating was unjustified but was an isolated incident
of unwarranted police violence carried out by a few rogue police officers. The
officers were not acting appropriately but were also not typical or representative
of L.A. police officers. This version implies the policy response of firing the bad
apples and reprimanding the officers involved in misrepresenting the incident.
Targeted internal individual discipline is all that is needed.

In Construction C, the beating is unjustified and seen as an example of an
endemic problem of unwarranted and consistent police violence toward minorities.

A frame from a citizen video showing Los Angeles police officers subduing Rodney
King. Disagreement over the interpretation of the footage resulted in three different
social constructions of the Rodney King arrest competing for public acceptance.










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Fitted within the racist system frame, the officers are seen as acting as many L.A.
officers would have acted, and the beating reflects an organizational tolerance of
excessive violence toward minorities. The policy changes required from this con-
struction involve drastic change in the L.A. police culture. It indicates the need to
revamp the administration and training of the department and make extensive orga-
nizational changes.

In the end, Construction C and its interpretation won the construction com-
petition. The L.A. police chief eventually resigned, and a new, African-American
chief was hired. The Rodney King beating displays how even for events in
which factual claims are not disputed, vigorous competition among interpretative
claims related to those facts can still occur.



The ultimate social importance of social constructionism is found in its implica-
tion for criminal justice public policy. As discussed in Chapter 8, the media and
their crime-and-justice content influences the social construction of crime-
and-justice reality by supplying the narratives, symbolic crimes, and information
needed to create factual and interpretative claims. The media further provide the
arena for the crime-and-justice social construction competition to be held, favor-
ing media-savvy claims makers. This in turn encourages a particular set of social
attitudes and perceptions about crime and justice and changes how serious some
crimes are viewed by the public.35 Predatory criminality, victim rights, terrorism,
white collar crime, and an overly lenient justice system are recent examples of
criminal justice social construction efforts.

Media emerge as one of three engines of social construction of reality. As
diagrammed in Figure 2.3, our most influential social construction engine is
composed of personal experience and information received directly from people
close to us, our conversational reality. Together these two components pro-
vide the foundation of our personal socially constructed reality. When we have
applicable experiences or direct access to people we personally know who have
had applicable experiences, we trust that knowledge above all other. The media,
comprised of news, entertainment, advertising, and increasingly infotainment,
create a more pervasive, broadly distributed information engine in the social con-
struction process. The media establish and maintain powerful frames for perceiv-
ing the broader, distant world while controlling the distribution of widely shared
social knowledge—or knowledge not gained directly or from our conversational
reality. The content of this socially shared knowledge at any particular time is
largely determined by the gyrations of the media. The third social construction
engine is knowledge supplied by the various institutions, organizations, and
agencies that collect and disseminate statistics, information, and claims about the
world. Annual FBI and Department of Justice reports about crime in America are
examples. The institutions of the third engine have a dependent relationship

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with the media. Little knowledge can be disseminated directly from these insti-
tutions and organizations to individuals, so agencies and institutions of the third
engine must utilize the media for effective distribution of their factual and inter-
pretative claims. The media, in turn, tap these organizations for credible, news-
worthy, and interesting claims makers, claims, and marketable infotainment.

The single most important insight to be gained from a social constructionism
perspective is recognition of the social construction competition that is constantly
being waged. Social construction of crime-and-justice reality is constant, and
recognizing the claims makers, claims, and strategies involved helps in following
the competition. All views of reality are constructed, and being aware of this aids
in deciding which of the competing crime-and-justice constructions you
embrace. The social construction process is not inherently pernicious or evil,
but we must recognize the process to thoughtfully evaluate the criminal justice
policies that result.36 The adage “where policy makers stand is determined by
where they sit” (or policy choices are determined by the social, political, or or-
ganizational position one holds) directs us to consider the positions of claims
makers—who they represent and what they stand to gain or lose by having their
claims accepted or rejected. Ultimately, the prize from social construction is not
the construction of any particular crime-and-justice issue but influence over
the social construction process. Access to the media and the social reality media
construct are the grand goal. If you can influence a reality-defining engine in a
society, you can create the social reality of that society for many people. There-
fore, winning one social construction contest puts you on the inside track for
winning future contests in the same manner that successfully constructing a
new type of crime in the present makes it easier to construct new ones in the
future. If one set of claims makers gain control of the media social construction
engine, other claims makers and constructions will no longer be competitive. If
punitive criminal justice policy and predatory criminality totally dominate media
content, entire frames and alternate ideas about crime and justice will disappear
from serious public consideration. With these concepts and concerns in mind,

Social institutions
and organizations

Personal experience and
conversational reality


Each person’s
socially constructed


F I G U R E 2.3 The Engines of Social Construction

S O C I A L C O N S T R U C T I O N I S M 49

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we turn to the social construction of criminals, crime, and justice in the media,
beginning in Chapter 3 with crimes and criminals.


Social constructionism views knowledge as the result of people interacting
and coming to agreement about facts and ideas about the world.

People socially construct their view of reality from their direct experiences
and from information they pick up symbolically via language and images
from other people and the media.

Followed by information received directly from significant others (our
conversational reality), personal direct experience is the most influential in
the social construction of reality process. The media and other social and
government institutions rank next in influence but because fewer people
have direct experience or conversational reality access, the media is more
important in the construction of crime and justice reality than in other social

The social construction process involves competing constructions forwarded
by claims makers who argue that their claims about of reality be adopted by
other people. Claims can be either factual (describing the world) or inter-
pretative (explaining the world).

Five common crime and justice frames exist and allow for the rapid social
construction of new crimes. These frames are faulty criminal justice system,
blocked opportunity, social breakdown, racist system, and media violence.
Each frame encourages different policy approaches to deal with crime.

In the construction of crime and justice, linking a crime to an already
accepted social problem is a common strategy.

Led by the “evil criminal predator,” narratives are small, preestablished,
commonly recognized mini-portraits found in crime and justice media.

Symbolic crimes are high-profile crime and justice events that are used to
champion specific crime and justice constructions.

An important goal in the social construction competition is “ownership” of
a crime–and-justice issue. Social construction ownership gives a claims
maker greater access to resources, the media, and policy development.

The ultimate prizes in the crime and justice social construction of reality
process are the criminal justice policies society adopts.


1. Write a brief essay about the expectations of college you had when you
were in high school and what your sources of information about college life
were. Why was the information the media supplied important—or was it?

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Discuss whether the constructed reality you had of college in high school
differs from the reality you found and what role media supplied information
played in your initial perceptions.

2. Deconstruct recent news media coverage of an ongoing criminal case, listing
the claims makers, their factual and interpretative claims, and any use of
narratives, symbolic crimes, linkage, and ownership. Note which of the five
common crime frames the story best supports.

3. Find and summarize a media story that fits each of Sasson’s five frames.

4. Research either the Rodney King arrest or the O. J. Simpson murder trial
and apply how the social construction process was utilized in both instances
to construct the events as symbolic crimes and the social and policy impacts
of the social construction of these events.


Barak, G. 1995. Media, Process, and the Social Construction of Crime. New York: Garland.

Best, J. 1995. Images of Issues. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Gergen, K. 1999. An Invitation to Social Construction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Jenkins, P. 1994. Using Murder: The Social Construction of Serial Murder. Hawthorne, NY:
Aldine de Gruyter.

Potter, G. and V. Kappeler. 2006. Constructing Crime. Prospects Heights, IL: Waveland.

Spector, M. and J. Kitsuse. 1987. Constructing Social Problems. New York: Aldine de

S O C I A L C O N S T R U C T I O N I S M 51

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Crime and Criminality


After reading Chapter 3, you will

Comprehend the common media portraits of criminality

Understand why the media gives special attention to predatory criminality

See the link between media portraits of criminality and criminological theories

Identify the issues and concepts associated with criminogenic media

Understand violent media as a cause of social aggression

Recognize the nature of copycat crime

Appreciate the relationship between terrorism and the media


A mainstay since ancient Greek theater, portraits of crime and justice are a me-
dia staple. From its classical beginnings, Western literature continued to reflect
the interest in crime and justice, with romantic and heroic criminals appearing
as common figures in the ballads, plays, and folktales of medieval England.
Similarly, crimes and criminals have been ubiquitous elements in American
media. With large-scale industrialization, urbanization, and ethnic immigration
in the nineteenth century, crime became one of the nation’s principal social
concerns.1 Spurred by growing public worry about crime, by the second half
of the nineteenth century the dominant image of the criminal in popular cul-
ture had shifted from a romantic, heroic portrait to conservative, negative
images. The newspapers, dime novels, and magazines of the late 1800s created
the stereotypical portraits and themes of crime and justice that would later
dominate movies and television—portraits and themes still common in today’s
media. What does this portrait of criminality look like?


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Since the beginning of the twentieth century, in addition to being the central
theme of police, detective, heist, and gangster stories, criminals and their crimes
have been popular secondary plot elements in love stories, Westerns, comedies,
and dramas. In the pretelevision era, media criminals in films, radio, and print
enjoyed full lives and were often decisive, intelligent, and attractive individuals.
Whether basically good or bad, criminals were shown as active decision makers
who went after what they wanted, be it money, sex, or power. They con-
trolled their lives, lived well, and decided their own fates. These early media
portraits of criminals allowed audiences to identify with the criminals until the
end, at which point the criminal was usually shot and killed.2 Early media
criminals allowed audiences to savor the danger and sin of crime yet still see it
ultimately punished.

This portrait began to change with the decline of film and radio as the pri-
mary mass media in the late 1940s. The introduction of commercial television,
an even more pervasive, direct, and influential medium, began the shift to more
one-dimensional heroes and villains. Criminality in the cinema and in radio,
however, had provided a fifty-year pool of criminal narratives for television to
tap. Not surprisingly, television programming at first constructed images of

A 12-minute “Western” filmed in New Jersey, the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery was
one of the first “narrative” movies (which aim to tell a story). The film introduced many
features still common in today’s crime media—gun-wielding criminals, brazen crimes,
brutal murders, dramatic chase scenes, and violent fatal apprehension of the criminals.











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crime and justice similar to the ones found in film and radio but in much greater
quantity, filling as much as 40 percent of prime time programming during the

The portrait of criminals found in today’s media has almost no correspon-
dence with official statistics of persons arrested for crimes. The typical criminal
portrayed in the entertainment media is mature, white, and of high social
status, whereas statistically the typical arrestee is young, black, and poor—
what they have in common is that both are male.3 Female offenders are
primarily shown linked to male offenders and as white, violent, and deserving
of punishment. They are paradoxically portrayed as driven by greed, revenge,
and often love.4 In general, the image of the criminal that the news media
propagate is similar to that found in the entertainment media. Criminals tend
to be of two types in the news media: violent predators or professional busi-
nessmen and bureaucrats. Furthermore, as in entertainment programming, they
tend to be slightly older than reflected in official arrest statistics. Overall, the
news media underplay criminals’ youth and their poverty while overplaying
their violence.5 Although other types of criminals are periodically shown, the
violent and predatory street criminal is what the public takes away from the
media’s constructed image of criminality.6 If there is a single media crime
icon, it is predatory criminality—a construction that frames and dominates the
media crime-and-justice world.

Predatory Criminality

In their entertainment, news, and infotainment components, the media construct
predatory criminality—criminals who are animalistic, irrational, and innately
predatory and who commit violent, sensational, and senseless crimes—as the
dominant crime problem in the nation. History reveals that the image of the
predator criminal has dominated in the media for more than a century. Compa-
rable to the hunting down of witches by the medieval Christian church, modern
mass media have given massive and disproportionate attention to pursuing in-
nately predatory criminals as the prime crime-and-justice goal.7 Dominating the
media’s content are repeated claims that crime is largely perpetrated by predatory
individuals who are basically different from the rest of us and that criminality
stems from individual deficiencies. Over the past hundred years, media portraits
have shown criminals as more animalistic, irrational, and predatory and their
crimes as more violent, senseless, and sensational. The media have successfully
raised the violent predator criminal from a rare offender in the real world to a
common, ever-present image in the media-constructed one. The public is led by
the media to see violence and predation between strangers as an expected fact of
life. While terrorists are currently also popular predatory villains, nowhere is the
predatory image stronger than in the recent media social construction of the ul-
timate predator, the serial killer.

The social construction of the serial killer as a significant new type of crimi-
nal began in the 1980s and took off in the 1990s.8 The commodification, public

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embrace, and effects on criminal justice policy from the media portrait of serial
killers demonstrate the media’s crucial role in the social construction of criminal-
ity. With the construction of serial killers, the prior generic portrait of predators as
dangerous but still human was supplanted by the portrait of animalistic killing ma-
chines more akin to gothic monsters than human offenders.9 The media portrait
also implied that these serial killers were everywhere and were the perpetrators of
most violent crimes. Historian Philip Jenkins, however, reports that although
there is evidence of a small increase in the number of active serial killers, in reality
serial killers account for no more than 300 to 400 victims each year, or 2 to 3
percent of all U.S. homicides whereas domestic violence accounts for about
one-third of all murders.10 However, media coverage of serial murderers and
the success of fictional books and films about serial killers have swamped the pic-
ture of criminality the public receives. The result is that serial killers are com-
monly perceived as the dominant homicide problem in the United States and as
symbols of a society overwhelmed by rampant, violent, incorrigible predatory

The media focus and immense public interest in violent predatory criminality
is ironically tied to a socially palatable explanation of crime. While constructing
crime as a frightening (and hence entertaining) phenomenon, predator criminality
also presents crime as largely caused by individual deficiencies. This individual-
level explanation frees mainstream society from any causal responsibility for crime.
Such a perspective puts forth part of the crime problem (the individual offender)
as the main problem and any social factors given causal credence such as devil
worshiping or cult memberships tend to be on the social fringe rather than con-
ventional social conditions. Predatory criminals are portrayed as springing into
existence unconnected to any larger social, political, or economic forces. As con-
structed, the predatory killer is divorced from humanity and society.12 Created by
bizarre circumstances and individual flaws, irreparably separated from society and
driven by alien needs, the predator criminal is both enjoyably evil and guiltlessly
destroyed. In contrast, while criminals are often portrayed in depth in the media,
their victims frequently are not. Counterparts to the criminals—victims of crime—
occupy a surprisingly low profile in the media.

Crime Victims

Crime victims, although sometimes important for determining a crime’s news-
worthiness, are often ignored in the news media. A typical crime victim is not
a newsworthy or entertaining one. When described, victims tend to be portrayed
as female, very young or old, or a celebrity.13 News coverage also routinely
depicts criminal violence against females differently from that against males and
underplays the victimization of minorities.14 The ideal crime victim from a news
perspective is a child or pregnant woman.15 Some crime victims may be increas-
ing in visibility, however. Since the 1990s, the news’ construction of child mur-
der victims has shifted from their killers’ stories to emotional soft-news stories
about the impact on victims’ family and community.16 Within this new

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infotainment-formatted coverage of crime victims, the advocacy of victim rights
has also been constructed as a needed reform.17 In this victim-focused news, the
families of crime victims are shown as doubly victimized, once by the offender
and again by the justice system.

This 1947 comic book story is an early example of the media portrait of predatory killers.









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In the entertainment media, victims normally play one of two extreme roles.
Victims are portrayed either as helpless fodder or as wronged heroic avengers.
Murder victims in particular are marginalized, and homicide frequently happens
to characters who mean little to the other characters or to the audience.18

The audience is encouraged to react to murders in entertainment not with a
“My God how horrible” response but with a “How curious, I wonder how it
was done” reaction. Entertainment crime victims are predominantly white and
male—but the entertainment media also manages to overrepresent young
women in excess of their real victimization rates. Entertainment trends in female
victimization are fewer female villains, more female assistant heroes, and many
more female victims.19 Common entertainment victim narratives also abound.
One is the “Undeserving Victim,” usually one of the first killed to establish the
evilness of the villain and justify their violent death at the end. Another is
the “Stupid Victim,” often a police officer, who is never smarter than the
criminal or crime-fighting hero and ends up stumbling into their death. A
good example is the off-duty police officer killed while trying to single-
handedly capture the criminals. A final victim narrative is the “Lazy Victim.”
This is one who is killed while doing something wrong or improperly—the secu-
rity or correctional officer watching television instead of their surroundings, for

Overall, the victimization rates of persons in the media correlate more with
fear of crime than with the public’s actual victimization risk. In addition to media
victim portraits being demographically mismatched with official victim statistics
on age and gender, greater proportions of both news and entertainment media
victims are portrayed as randomly selected, having no prior associations with
their assailants. Crime victims in the media are shown as innocent and as non-
contributory to their victimization.20

Aside from these misleading constructions of victimization, which paint
crime as a random unavoidable event, victims are of secondary importance in
the media. Only if they transform into crime fighters in the entertainment media
or have a preexisting newsworthiness (are already famous or a vulnerable child or
pregnant woman) are they focused on by the news media.21 Unlike the real
world of crime, where existing relationships between victims and criminals are
the most significant factor in the generation of violence, in the media-
constructed world the more important relationship is between the crime fighter
and the criminal. This holds true even in police reality programming where the
interactions between the police and offenders/suspects dominate the shows.
Overall, most victims in the media exist only to be victimized; once that func-
tion is fulfilled, if still alive, they are shunted aside to allow the central contest
between the heroic crime fighter and the evil criminal to be played out.


With predator criminals as the common grist for the media mill, it is not difficult
to predict what crimes consumers are likely to find in the media. Not surpris-
ingly, crimes that are most likely to be found are those that are least likely to

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occur in real life. Property crime is underrepresented, and violent crime is over-
represented. Through the twentieth century, Murder, robbery, kidnapping, and
aggravated assault made up 90 percent of all prime time television crimes, with
murder accounting for nearly one-fourth.22 In contrast, murders account for
only one-sixth of 1 percent of the FBI Crime Index. At the other extreme, thefts
account for nearly two-thirds of the FBI Crime Index, but only 6 percent of
television crime. Due to the multimedia web and the constant recycling of con-
tent, entertainment media content greatly overemphasizes individual acts of vio-
lence, even during periods when new content is less violent.23

The content of crime news reveals a similarly distorted, inverted image.
Violent crime’s relative infrequency in the real world heightens its newsworthiness
and leads to its frequent appearance in crime news. Thus, crime news focuses on
violent personal street crime such as murder, rape, and assault, with more common
offenses like burglary and theft often ignored. According to one study, murder and
robbery account for approximately 45 percent of newspaper crime news and
80 percent of television crime news.24 With regularity, the news media take the
rare crime event and turn it into the common crime image. Furthermore, trends
that do occur over time in the amount of crime reported in the news have little
relationship to trends in societal crime. Neither the content nor the total amount
of crime news reflects changes in the crime rate. Crime news also focuses heavily
on the details of specific individual crimes, whereas only a minuscule percentage of
stories deal with the motivations of the criminal or the circumstances of victims.
Even in the news, the focus is on entertaining crimes with dramatic recitations of
details about individual offenders and crime scenes. By and large, crime is cast in
the media within constructions where large differences exist between what the
public is likely to experience in reality and what they are likely to gather from
the media. An area of crime that has large social impact but small media attention
is white-collar crime.

White-Collar Crime

Despite encompassing a broad range of acts that cause significant social harm,25

white-collar crime has not been a media focus26 and exemplifies the adage that
a crime’s social impact does not always equal its news value. It is ignored because
it is difficult to generate and maintain moral panics about white-collar crimes and
criminals.27 Subsequently, media portraits of economic crimes are rare and when
produced are framed in celebrity-focused stories or formatted as infotainment
and differentiated from “real” crime.28 Therefore, while extensive coverage of
a specific white-collar crime will occur—provided there is some newsworthy
link such as a significant fine, prosecution, or company liquidation29—and peri-
odic films dealing with white-collar crime are produced,30 white-collar crime
remains a small part of total news and entertainment media content. Rooted in
the traditions of muckraking and yellow journalism,31 white-collar crimes and
their media portraits harken back to the 1800s. Historic symbolic white-collar
crimes include Ponzi32 schemes and the Teapot Dome scandal and more recently
by Love Canal, Three Mile Island, Enron, WorldCom, and Martha Stewart

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(see Box 3.1). The amount of coverage did increase following Watergate in the
1970s, but news reports continued to not attribute criminal wrongdoing to
corporations, instead focusing on harm, charges, and probes, not on corporate
criminal liability.33 Coverage has continued to shift attention onto specific indi-
viduals34 and has remained sparse and haphazard into the early years of this cen-
tury.35 However a cycle of massive accounting scandals and economic crisis
resulted in an obvious recent increase in coverage and a parade of dramatized
arrests of white-collar executives.36 Although a current cycle of media interest
is apparent, it remains to be seen whether the increase simply reflects a spate of
sensational corporate crimes during a period of economic turmoil and a likely
return to the low levels of media attention normally found.37

Why has media attention to white-collar crime been historically low? With
public disinterest a major factor additional reasons include that these crimes

B o x 3.1 Martha Stewart White-Collar Crime

The Martha Stewart case is an example of social impact not equaling media
impact, the reverse of most white-collar crimes where social impact outweighs com-
paratively meager news coverage and value. Businesswoman, television host, and
magazine publisher, Martha Stewart was indicted on charges of securities fraud and
obstruction of justice connected to her sale of about 4,000 shares of ImClone systems
stock in 2001. Her 2004 trial resulted in convictions for conspiracy, obstruction, and
false statements and a five-month prison sentence and a $30,000 fine. Other lesser
known male CEOs who stole millions received far less coverage than Ms. Stewart and
often avoided jail time (Self, R. 2007, “Stewart, Martha” p. 271). In comparison to
other white-collar crimes such as the collapse of Enron and WorldCom, which cost
shareholders, employees, customers and government billions, her crime was inconse-
quential, yet received extensive news media coverage.







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involve indirect harm to victims and provide few striking visual images, are
highly complex and boring, frequently cover years before resolution, and require
specialized knowledge on the part of journalists.38 In gist, white-collar crime
stories are hard to make telegenic and are often killed in the news selection filter-
ing process because they are not “news” in the traditional sense.39 White-collar
crimes typically are punished by a civil penalties, placing them outside of the crim-
inal justice system and outside of traditional crime news that originates in police
reports. News media organizations also likely fear litigation and withdrawal of
advertising from the negative portrayal of powerful economic entities.40 Coun-
terbalancing these coverage-reducing factors are recent increases in investigative
reporting as a journalism practice, the availability of Internet sources for informa-
tion, and the efforts of various advocacy groups to serve as spokespersons.

Irrespective of recent trends, similar to other crime news, white collar crime,
when currently covered, is more often treated in infotainment renditions of cor-
porate celebrities in trouble, normal people turning to fraud, high-visibility fraud
such as identity theft, or long-term concealment of and failure of government
entities to discover fraudulent enterprises.41 Analogous to how corrections are
covered, predatory individuals, the failure to detect and punish them, and failure
to protect the public dominate the news media construction of white-collar
crime. However, dissimilar to how other crime is constructed, corporate offen-
ders are rarely cast as pathological, and white-collar crime is sanitized and “decri-
minalized” as technical law violations rather than as real crimes.42 Reflecting this
construction, when arrested white collar criminals often attempt to socially re-
construct their crime as noncriminal activity.43 For example, criminal dumping
and chemical pollution cases are often described as accidents.44 White-collar
crimes that are reported are likely to be cast as caused by criminal individuals—a
bad apple explanation—rather than as common corporate practices while the harm
of such events and the criminogenic nature of certain industries are downplayed.45

In the entertainment media, white-collar crime is also infrequently examined
despite a long history traceable back to Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book The Jungle.46

There have been more films since 1970, but white-collar crime films remain a
small percentage of the total number of films with few commercially successful,
recent exceptions being Catch Me If You Can, Wall Street, and Erin Brockovich.47

In the entertainment story lines, businessmen are often portrayed as criminals but
they are shown usually committing crimes of violence such as murder or running
businesses as fronts for drug smuggling, terrorism, or violence-based extortions.48

The white-collar criminals in the entertainment media are more often street
criminals dressed up as executives than businesspeople engaged in criminal busi-
ness practices.49

Overall, white-collar crimes are treated by the mass media as infotainment, as
individual and corporate celebrities in trouble or as violent predators disguised as
executives.50 Corporate scandals and corporate predators are constructed to fit a
predatory criminal icon and thus to better match the wider construction of crime
and criminality found in the media. But the social reality of white-collar crime may
be undergoing a social reconstruction similar to that of drunk driving in the 1990s.
There is evidence that the general public began to see white-collar crime more

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seriously in the early 2000s and there has been more attention to white-collar crim-
inality of late.51 If real, a positive side of this shift is that media coverage has been
described as more of a deterrent to white-collar crime than formal sanctions. In these
cases and for these offenders public shaming in the media can be effective.52

Has the portrait of crime, white collar, street, and other, changed over time?
The portrait of criminals and crimes in the media does display a number of evo-
lutionary trends. Criminals have become more evil, heroes have become more
violent, victims have become more innocent, violence has become more graphic,
and crimes have become more irrational.53 This perhaps would not be a concern
if the portraits of crime and justice in the media were balanced in other aspects
and presented various competing explanations of crime. That, however, is not the
case. As constructed, the most common and popular media crime narratives for-
ward particular explanations of crime. They thereby encourage support for certain
criminological theories and the disparagement of others. The popular criminol-
ogy common in the media (see Box 3.2) does not pretend to be empirically
accurate or theoretically valid but its audience far exceeds that of academic crimi-
nology.54 Surveying the media, what criminological theories do well in the media
constructed world of popular criminology?

Criminological Theories and the Media

Before answering the question just posed, a brief overview of criminological the-
ories is needed. Criminological theories can be grouped along a number of dimen-
sions, one being where a theory locates the primary cause of crime. Applying that
criterion, crime theories fall into five groups. The first group includes the rational
choice theories, which state that there is no cause of crime and no difference
between the law-abiding and the criminal. Crime is seen simply as a rational, freewill
decision that individuals will make when the gains from committing a crime out-
weigh the likely punishment from committing it. Criminals are essentially normal
people making bad decisions. To control crime, these theories argue that society
must deter crime by ensuring that punishments outweigh the rewards of crime and
that punishments are known beforehand, are certain to be implemented, and are
quickly administered.

The second group is comprised of the biological theories, which place the
cause of crime in the innate genetic or constitutional nature of criminals. The more
primitive theories looked for specific physical traits (or Lombrosian-based atavisms)
as signs of criminality; more recent ones look to genetic traits or biological trauma.
Criminal justice policies associated with biological theories of crime focus on medi-
cal interventions and control of procreation. The appellation “natural-born killers”
is often applied by the media as a code phrase for these theories.

Group three are the psychological theories, which view crime as caused by
defective personality development. Based on the work of various psychoanalytic
and personality development theorists, Sigmund Freud being the best known,
these theories explain criminality as the result of mental deficiencies or criminal
personalities. In these theories, people commit crime because their “personality”
is ill formed. Associated policies are based around counseling and therapy. In the

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media, these theories come in “twisted psyche” and “sexual deviant” portraits best
shown in Alfred Hitchcock films like Psycho.

Group four, sociological theories, look at social groups as the loci of the
basic causes of crime. Criminals are criminals because of the people they associate
with, or share a neighborhood or culture with. Whereas the psychological theories

B o x 3.2 The D.C. Snipers

Epitomizing the popular criminology predator criminal icon that dominates media
content, a real-world example is found in the 2002 killing spree of then forty-one-
year-old John Mohammad and seventeen-year-old Lee Malvo. Mohammad and
Malvo went on a three-week sniper spree in October, 2002 in the Washington, D.C.
area. Ten people of varied ages, gender, and races died. The manhunt for the
shooters generated an enormous amount of news media coverage and the release of
many false leads and much misinformation. For example, a profile prior to the arrests
predicted that a lone older white male would be the sniper when in fact, two
nonwhite shooters, one a juvenile, were involved. The interplay between the media
and law enforcement during the sniper spree was tense with the authorities reluctant
to release details of their efforts and the media commenting on the skill of the snipers
in evading arrest (Duffy 2002). Public panic and pressure to capture the killers
eventually led to the authorities releasing corrected information about the vehicle
being sought and Mohammad’s and Malvo’s subsequent arrests. John Mohammad
was executed in November, 2009. Lee Malvo is serving six consecutive life sentences
without the possibility of parole.



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argue criminal personalities, the sociological ones argue criminal environments.
These theories, and media renditions of them, argue that essentially normal people
are forced or steered into crime by their social circumstances. Found most often in
films that can profitably express society as part of the cause of crime, media por-
traits supporting sociological theories are found less often in other media. Strain,
blocked opportunity, and culture conflict are the sociological theories that receive
the most media play. Although there are hints of the need to change the social
structure in these theories, their basic orientation is usually conservative. The
means of fixing the individual criminals generated by the bad environments is to
better fit and adjust the criminals to law-abiding society, changing their socializa-
tion and only secondarily changing their social environment.

Finally, there are political theories, which emphasize the political and
economic structure of a society as the root cause of crime. The distribution of
political power; unequal access to influence and material goods; and racism,
oppression, sexism, and elitism are all central to these theories. Unlike the
other theory groups that tend to focus on the need for individual offenders to
change, these explanations are more likely to argue for social changes, restruc-
turing society relationships and revamping the criminal justice system.

Which of these five theoretical perspectives do well in the media and which
are disparaged? A historical assessment suggests that different theories have been
popular at different times. Nicole Rafter notes:

The media tend to reflect the criminological theories popular at the
time. During the 1930s, crime films tended to portray a [sociological]

The cable television series, the Sopranos, and other media portraits of organized crime,
continue the popular view of crime as a violent type of business enterprise and criminal as
deviant entrepreneurs.







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perspective which painted the urban ethnic inner city as the basic cause
of criminality. The 1940 and 1950s films were Freudian based [psycho-
logical theories] with deviant personalities the root cause. The 1960s and
70s brought labeling and critical criminology [political theories] to the
fore. The 1980s saw films indicting drugs and family violence [a mix of
theoretical perspectives].55

These criminological theories are usually not explicitly laid out in the media
and crime and justice media content searches will not find many criminological
theory discussions. Support is more often set inside of portraits of criminals and is
transmitted via the portrayed characteristics of offenders and their crimes infer-
ring one theoretical explanation of crime as more credible over another. It is in
the media construction of criminality that the hidden support for differing crim-
inological theories of crime is found.

Criminality in Today’s Media

Embedded throughout the media, the most common narrative of criminality is the
psychopathic criminal, sometimes given super-villain traits to create seemingly inde-
structible murderous super-criminals popular in slasher and serial killer films.

Psychotic super-male criminals generally possess an evil, cunning intelli-
gence and superior strength, endurance, and stealth. Crime is an act of twisted, lust-
ful revenge or a random act of irrational violence. A historical trend has been to
present psychotic criminals as more and more violent and bloodthirsty and to
show their crimes more and more graphically. Hence, murderous violence that
once typically took place completely off screen came to be represented in scenes
that were violent but not graphic (such as the shower murder in Alfred Hitchcock’s
film Psycho). Since the 1980s, violence has been shown in graphic hyperviolent
close-ups. As the most popular construction of criminality, the psychopathic crimi-
nal clearly supports the individually focused biological and psychological theories to
the exclusion of other criminological perspectives. Crime is innate, an act of nature
gone bad and not society’s fault.

Less common but still popular narratives are those of business and
professional criminals. Best known through the many media portrayals of
organized crime, these portraits are characterized as shrewd, ruthless, often
violent, ladies’ men. Predators disguised as white-collar executives and more
directly dangerous than the typical white-collar offender. If psychopathic
criminals are mad dogs, these criminals are cunning wolves. The core message
is that crime is simply another form of work or business, essentially similar to
other careers but often more exciting and rewarding if, perhaps, more vio-
lent. The business and professional criminal portraits also forward individually
based psychological theories of criminal personality and psychopathic expla-
nations. However, the classical school of crime garners support in these con-
structions, and elements of political and economic causes also can be found.
Thus these media portraits of criminality tend to be more complex and multi-
theoretical, spreading the responsibility for crime over both the criminal and

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society. It is likely that this very complexity and society having a share of the
blame for crime makes these narratives less popular than the more simplistic
and guilt-free for the consumer psychopathic criminal portrait.

A third group of popular criminality narratives are victims and heroic
criminals. These portraits are the least common and present an alternative perspec-
tive that supports sociological and political explanations. Although the criminal as
hero and the criminal as victim appeared early and have been presented regularly
throughout the history of the media, such narratives have always been less frequent
in number than those of the criminal as a psychopath or professional. Depending on
how the portrait is structured, this “Robin Hood” criminality narrative supports
strain, blocked opportunity, labeling, and critical criminology theories.

Media portrayals of the heroic criminal such as Russell Crowe in the 2010 film Robin Hood
remain the standard for narratives of the wronged hero forced into criminality to pursue
justice against a corrupt establishment.











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If you look closely, you will find that the media have attributed a wide
range of factors as plausible causes of criminality and provide some support for
every criminological theory.56 However, the dominant and loudest messages in
terms of their frequency and popular appeal point to individually based theories
of crime and away from social ones. In addition, while criminological theories
come into and go out of fashion with criminologists, the criminological ideas
imbedded in the media do not. Criminologists drop discredited theories, but
the media recycle them.57 Therefore, even primitive theories of crime such as
demonic possession continue to be presented as credible explanations of crime
in the media. “The devil made me do it” still carries weight in the media as a
valid cause of crime.

In sum, the criminological theories that focus on individual characteristics as the
cause of crime clearly fare the best. Of these, the psychological ones, often com-
bined with political or biological elements, are the most popular. The single most
common portrait of a criminal features an upper-middle-class person gone berserk
with greed.58 Indeed, greed, revenge, and mental illness are the basic motivations
for criminality in the vast majority of crimes shown in the media. In addition, the
psychotic criminals portrayed in the media frequently hold positions of political or
economic power. The repeated message is that crime is perpetrated by individuals
who are different in substantially basic ways from the law-abiding, that criminality
stems from individual problems, and that, when not inborn, criminal conduct is
more often than not freely chosen behavior.

The dominant media construction of criminals, crimes, and criminality is thus
simultaneously both unsettling and conservative. It is unsettling in its emphasis on
violent predatory criminality, which is portrayed as random and largely unavoid-
able. It is conservative in that the explanations of criminality emphasize individual
traits as causes and minimize social and structural ones. Social changes are called for
far less frequently in the media world of crime and justice than is elimination of evil
individuals. Not surprisingly, such a construction, with its emphasis on predatory
criminality, has raised accompanying issues concerning its social effects. Specifically,
what is the relationship of the media to crime and violence in society? Do we copy
what the media constructs and we consume?


Criminogenic media refers to media content that is hypothesized as a direct cause
of crime. A continually debated issue is the causal position of the media. Does
exposure to media precede or parallel aggressive or criminal behavior? In other
words, do the media cause changes in subjects or do predisposed individuals se-
lectively seek out and attend to media content that supports their already preor-
dained behaviors? The public long ago came to its conclusion. As early as 1908,
worries appeared that the media (then newspapers and books) were creating an
atmosphere of tolerance for criminality and causing juvenile delinquency, and
ever since public opinion polls have consistently reported the public’s belief in

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the causal role of the media in crime and violence in society.59 More than two
out of three Americans feel that television violence is a critical or very important
cause of crime in the United States, and one-fourth feel that movies, television,
and the Internet combined are a primary cause of gun violence in the country.60

The media violence frame, as described in Chapter 2, continues to find substan-
tial public support.61

Three criminogenic media issues are discussed here. The first area addressed is
whether violent media generates aggressive behavior. There has been a great deal
of research and public interest regarding this question and the final answer is still
being debated. However, most researchers today conclude that the media is a sig-
nificant contributor to social aggression and as good a predictor of violence as
other social factors. Most crime is nonviolent, though, and one can be aggressive
without breaking the law (by being rude for example), so even if the media are an
important cause of social aggression, media still may not be an important cause of
crime. Therefore, the next, more directly relevant discussion for crime and justice
looks at the media as a cause of crime, focusing on the generation of copycat
crime. The basic question is this: Does the presentation of crimes in the media
result in people copying those crimes? The final discussion looks at the relationship
between the mass media and terrorism. Media-oriented terrorist events have
emerged as one of the most worrisome problems of the twenty-first century, and
the relationship of the media to terrorism and the use of the media by terrorists is a
critical contemporary issue.

Violent Media and Aggression

Driven by the folk logic of “monkey see, monkey do,” establishing whether
“child see, child do” holds true in terms of the media and aggression has proved
more difficult than first expected. Research on the link between media depic-
tions of violence and social aggression initially revolved around two competing
hypotheses: one conjecturing a cathartic effect and the other a stimulating effect.
In brief, the cathartic effect hypothesizes that exposure to media violence acts as
a therapeutic release for anger and self-hatred. In contrast, the stimulation effect
hypothesizes that a diet of media violence stimulates violent behavior and fosters
supportive moral and social values about violence.62

Researchers positing a stimulating effect have explored a number of causal
mechanisms through which the media could cause aggression. The most commonly
advanced mechanism involves imitation, in which viewers learn values and norms
supportive of aggression and violence, learn techniques to be aggressive and violent,
or learn acceptable social situations and targets for aggression. Advocates of a stimu-
lating effect feel that children, in particular, learn aggression the same way they learn
other cognitive and social skills—by watching parents, siblings, peers, teachers, and
others. Accordingly, the more violence children see, the more accepting they be-
come of aggressive behavior, and the more likely they are to act aggressively.

Some researchers have argued that the media are not established as a cause of
aggression or violence.63 They assert that to conclude that the media cause neg-
ative social behaviors such as violence is unjustified and premature. In their view,

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exposure to violent content and violent behavior is linked—but not causally.
Rather, both stem from the predispositions of some media consumers who seek
out violent content and act violently because of their predisposition to aggres-
sion. If this position is correct, eliminating portrayals of violence in the media
will not reduce the level of violence in society because the number of individuals
predisposed to violence will remain the same. Advocates of this model argue that
the evidence of a link between violent content and social aggression has not been
shown. Although experimental studies confirm that visual media violence can
lead to short-term imitation, researchers do not know exactly how and to what
extent the media cause long-term changes in aggressive behavior. Despite the
general agreement that there is a persistent positive association between violence
in the media and viewer aggression, the substantive importance of this relation-
ship remains undetermined and an assessment offered nearly half a century ago
remains valid: For some children under some conditions some media is harmful.
For other children under the same conditions, or for the same children under
other conditions, it may be beneficial. For most children under most conditions,
most media is probably neither particularly harmful nor particularly beneficial.64

Why can’t the media’s effect on aggression be definitely measured? It is dif-
ficult to separate the effects of media on society or individuals from all the other
forces that contribute to violent behavior. Media influences are so intertwined
with other social forces that finding strong, direct causal effects should not be
expected. However, after one hundred years of concern and seventy years of
research, a small to modest but genuine causal role for media violence regarding
viewer aggression has been established for most beyond a reasonable doubt.65

Violent media does cause social aggression; violent media is not the sole cause,
or the most important cause, and its causal impact is frequently overstated and
overestimated, but it is a cause.66

Another undeniable finding is that the cathartic-effect hypothesis has been
discredited: People do not become less violent due to media violence. Contrary
to what the catharsis theory predicts, when viewing is combined with frustration
or arousal, viewers are more rather than less likely to behave aggressively. Cur-
rent research is exploring the magnitude, mechanism, and significance of a stim-
ulating effect. It is not yet clear whether media portrayals of violence increase the
proportion of persons who behave aggressively, encourage already-aggressive
persons to use aggression more often, encourage aggression-prone persons to
use greater levels of aggression, or some combination of these outcomes.67 We
also do not fully understand who is most likely to respond to media violence,
under what conditions a violence-enhancing effect will take place, and in what
ways media content influences behavior. There is certainly a connection be-
tween violent media and social aggression, but its strength and configuration is
simply not known at this time.68

We are a more aggressive society because of our media, and violent media
help create a more violent social reality. However, although research does show
a link,69 social aggression is not necessarily criminal, nor is most crime violent. In
addition to the stated unknowns concerning violent media and social violence,
the greatest problem in applying the “violent media causes social aggression”

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research to the “media causes crime” question is that the validity of extrapolating
from this research to a relationship between media and crime is highly question-
able.70 Consequently, even if the media does significantly foster aggressive be-
havior, it is a separate question whether media influence extends beyond
aggressiveness to cause criminal behavior.

Media and Criminal Behavior

There are inherent difficulties in researching and examining possible relationships
between the media and criminal behavior. First, experiments are even more dif-
ficult to conduct in this area than in the area of social aggression, so that most of
the available evidence consists of anecdotal reports rather than empirical studies.
Second, the ways in which media may be affecting crime are numerous. The
media could be increasing the number of criminals by turning previously law-
abiding persons into criminals. Media portrayals may be helping already active
criminals successfully commit more crimes by teaching them better crime tech-
niques. Media may be increasing the seriousness or harmfulness of the crimes that
are committed by making criminals more selective or violent. They may be fos-
tering theft and other property crimes by cultivating desires for unaffordable
things. They may be making crime seem more exciting, satisfying, and socially
acceptable. Any of these processes would result in more crime, or more crim-
inals, or more costly crime. Third, research is also difficult because an aggregate,
society-wide media criminogenic effect is likely to be small and intermixed with
many other crime-generating factors. In addition, the pool of at-risk individuals
who are likely to be criminally influenced by the media is probably small. All of
these factors make identifying media criminogenic effects a difficult research
question to pursue.

Because of these difficulties, few empirical studies address the criminogenic
effects of the media. In the best-designed empirical study of media effects on offi-
cially recorded crime, Karen Hennigan and her colleagues examined aggregate crime
rates in the United States prior to and following the introduction of television in the
1950s. Hennigan’s study examined the idea that television, at least initially, influences
property rather than violent crime. They explain their empirical findings thusly:

Lower classes and modest life-styles were rarely portrayed in a positive
light on TV, yet the heaviest viewers have been and are poorer, less
educated people. It is possible that in the 1950s television caused
younger and poorer persons (the major perpetrators of theft) to compare
their life-styles and possessions with (a) those of the wealthy television
characters and (b) those portrayed in advertisements. Many of these
viewers may have felt resentment and frustration over lacking the goods
they could not afford, and some may have turned to crime as a way of
obtaining the coveted goods and reducing any relative deprivation.71

Whether this process applies today is unknown because we can no longer
separate mass media’s influences from other social processes. Hennigan and her

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colleagues speculate that television still contributes to an increase in property
crime rates to some unknown degree, although other research has failed to tie
the media to aggregate crime levels. Recent reviews have concluded that any
link between exposure to violence media and general levels of violent criminal
behavior is weak at best and moderated by consumer predisposition and age,
media content and social factors.72 A significant relationship between swings in
media content and general criminality in society has not been shown and if it
exists is more likely to influence property crime than violent crime, but what
about the influence of media portrayals on individual criminality?

Copycat Crime

Public interest in the relation of mass media to copycat crime emerged with the
entertainment media of the nineteenth century.73 One of the earliest examples of
media specifically created to generate crime were the how-to manuals for terrorism
published by anarchist Johann Most in 1885. In his book, Revolutionary War Science,
Most provided instructions on how to make nitroglycerin, dynamite, inflammable
liquids, and poisons and advocated their use in antigovernment bombings and
attacks. The 1886 Chicago Haymarket Square bombing is thought to have been
a direct result.74

Growing concern that media messages could influence people to commit crime
also sparked investigations and censorship drives against the media in the early 1920s.
Partly in response to these concerns, in 1929 the Payne Foundation underwrote the
first large-scale studies of the social impact of media—at that time, the consequences
of movies. Portions of this research examined the effects of movies on deviant, aso-
cial, and violent behavior by juveniles. Combined with public concerns about the
influence of the cinema, these research efforts prodded the film industry to create an
internal review panel, the Hays Commission, to oversee the content of films and
quell the increasing calls for government intervention.75 The film industry adopted a
self-imposed code that forbade crimes shown in film “to teach methods of crime,
inspire potential criminals with a desire for imitation, or make criminals seem heroic
and justified.” A media-generated criminogenic effect was clearly not in doubt.

Despite these early concerns, research, and industry and government re-
sponses, specific knowledge about criminogenic media effects is still sparse. Iron-
ically, despite the long-ago conclusion that media can be criminogenic, there is
no lack of information available today on how to commit crimes. Far more than
in previous eras, a large body of material detailing how to commit specific crimes
is readily available in films, on television, from the Internet, and in printed form.
Texts come complete with diagrams and directions on how to commit robberies,
murder, and numerous acts of terrorism, and countless visual examples are acces-
sible. Why is the research so limited when the questionable content is so avail-
able and the concerns span five generations?

The reason research is limited is because what seems a simple matter—
determining when a media-induced copycat crime has occurred—is complicated
by the intrinsic nature of copycat crime. For a crime to be a copycat crime, it
must have been inspired by an earlier, media-publicized or generator crime—that

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is, there must be a pair of crimes linked through the media. The perpetrator of a
copycat crime must have been exposed to the media content of the original crime
and must have incorporated major elements of that crime into his or her crime.
The choice of victim, the motivation, or the technique in a copycat crime must
have been lifted from the earlier, media-detailed crime.

These limits make identifying copycat crimes for study problematic because
two independent but similar crimes may be erroneously labeled a copycat pair,
and true copycat crimes may easily go unrecognized and unidentified. Too few
copycat crimes or criminals have been identified to allow for generalization or
for scientifically adequate research; the result is that although the term copycat
crime has appeared for many years, little empirical research touches upon this phe-
nomenon.76 Instead, researchers have relied on anecdotal evidence to gauge the
extent and nature of copycat crime (see Box 3.3). The slowly growing file of
compiled anecdotal reports does indicate that criminal events that are rare in
real life are sometimes committed soon after similar events are depicted in the
media.77 There have been enough real-life incidents that have replicated media
portrayals in such detail that they invite a commonsense conclusion that copycat
crimes occur regularly.78 Collectively, these anecdotal examples provide a signif-
icant and growing body of evidence establishing the reality of copycat crime.

If there is a consensus regarding the nature of copycat crime, it is that a me-
dia criminogenic influence will concentrate in preexisting criminal populations.
In the anecdotal case histories, most of the individuals who mimic media crimes
have prior criminal records or histories of violence,79 suggesting that the effect of
the media is more likely qualitative (affecting criminal behavior) rather than
quantitative (affecting the number of criminals). The limited research also indi-
cates a pragmatic use of the media by offenders, with borrowing media crime
techniques as the most common practice. Copycat offenders usually have the
criminal intent to commit a particular crime before they copy a media-based
technique.80 In a seminal study of copycat crime in the 1960s, media researchers
Melvin Heller and Samuel Polsky state:

A significant number of our subjects, already embarked on a criminal
career, consciously recall and relate having imitated techniques of
crimes. For such men, detailed portrayals of criminal techniques must be
viewed as a learning process.81

Available research suggests that copycat crimes occur regularly at an unknown
but significant rate. The studies further report that copycat crimes are largely
limited to existing offender populations but that they influence a substantial
proportion—20 to 40 percent—of offenders, including juveniles.82 Copycat criminals
are also more likely to be career criminals involved in property offenses than first or
violent offenders (although a violent copycat episode will usually receive a greater
amount of media coverage when identified due to the greater newsworthiness of
violent crime). The specific relationship between media coverage and the generation
of crime remains unknown, as do the social context factors that are most important.
There is no evidence of a strong media criminalizing effect on previously law-abiding
individuals. The media influence how people commit a crime to a greater extent

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B o x 3.3 Grand Theft Auto and Copycat Crimes

A number of crimes each year are linked to movies, books, music and music videos, tele-
vision programs, and other media products. Video games have been especially targeted as
crime generators and one game, Grand Theft Auto, has undergone great public scrutiny
due to its story line and a number of crimes that have been described as caused by play-
ing the game. Released October 2001, the game story of Grand theft Auto III revolves
around a player/character “Niko Bellic” who has been betrayed by his girlfriend during a
bank robbery and is sent to jail. While he is being transferred to jail an attack on the
police convoy sets him free. As Bellic, the game player begins to work his way up in the
criminal world. The gamer undertakes various missions, such as bank robberies,
assassinations, stabbings, street racing, car-jacking and prostitution (Hourigan 2008).
Killing a police officer earns a large number of points in the game.

In the real world, on June 7, 2003, an officer found eighteen-year-old Devin Moore
sleeping in a stolen car and Moore was taken to the Fayette, Alabama, police station.
During questioning, Moore grabbed the officer’s gun and shot him twice, once in the
head. Another officer heard the shots and came rushing at which time Moore fired sev-
eral more shots, hitting him several times, once in the head. Moore then shot the dis-
patcher several times; once in the head. Moore picked up keys to a police cruiser, which
became his getaway car. All of his criminal acts had counterparts in the game. After
Moore was captured he was quoted as saying to police, “Life is like a video game. Every-
body’s got to die sometime.” At trial, it was revealed that Moore, who had no prior
criminal history, had purchased Grand theft Auto as a minor and had played to game for
hours a day over a number of months and had played the Grand Theft Auto for hours
before stealing the car he was found and arrested in. Described as a compulsive violent
video game player Moore’s attorneys argued a “GTA defense”—that he lost touch with
reality and was acting out the virtual violence scenarios he had experienced in the video
game. Despite his attorney’s efforts, the GTA defense was unsuccessful and Moore was
sentenced to death in 2005 and is currently on death row. Relatives of the three victims
subsequently filed an unresolved multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Sony Computer En-
tertainment America, Take-Two/Rockstar, GameStop, and Wal-Mart claiming that Moore
committed the 2003 murders after continuously playing the video game Grand Theft
Auto III.

Two other recent incidents have been attributed as Grand Theft Auto copycats.
The first occurred in Thailand in August 2008 when a nineteen-year-old high school
student wanted to act out the Grand Theft Auto carjacking scene
( He carjacked a taxi and murdered the taxi driver. Upon
arrest he stated that: “He wanted to know if it was as easy in real life to rob a taxi as
it was in the game.” A police spokesman said the youth was an obsessive player of
Grand Theft Auto. No sign of mental problems was found during questioning, and
he confessed to committing the crime because of the game. Thai authorities banned
the game after this incident. The second GTA copycat crime occurred in June 2008 in
Long Island, New York (Crowley, K. 2008). Police arrested six teenagers for a crime
spree. The kids mugged and beat a man, attempted a carjacking, and vandalized a
vehicle before being arrested by Garden City police. They confessed that they were
imitating acts seen in Grand Theft Auto and emulating the popular player/character
“Niko Bellic” found in the game. (A video of the story can be found on YouTube).

SOURCES: “Can a Video Game Lead to Murder?,” CBS News, March 6, 2005; Crowley, K. 2008. “Video Villains
Come to Life,” New York Post, Friday, June 26; “Grand Theft Auto pulled from sale after Bangkok teen murders
taxi driver to see if it was as easy as in the game,” Daily Mail Online, Aug. 4, 2008.
worldnews/; Hourigan, B. 2008. The moral code of Grand theft Auto IV. IPA Review, July: 21–22. For a general
review of research on violent video games see Anderson, Gentile, and Buckley. 2007. Violent Video Game Effects
on Children: Theory, Research and Public Policy. Oxford University Press.

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than they influence whether people commit a crime, and media content is errone-
ously often described in the media as a crime trigger. In reality, the media are most
often a crime rudder, molding crime’s form rather than being its engine.

By what mechanism do the media generate copycat effects? Here again,
knowledge is limited and speculation prevails. In that the concept implies the imi-
tation of an initial crime, the obvious starting point in discussing copycat crime is
imitation. Gabriel Tarde was first to offer a theoretical discussion of copycat crime
in the late nineteenth century.83 Focusing on violent crime and observing that
sensational violent crime appears to prompt similar incidents, he coined the term
suggesto-imitative assaults to describe the phenomenon. In a pithy summation, he
concluded, “Epidemics of crime follow the line of the telegraph.”84 However,
imitation came to have a negative connotation among social scientists who saw it
as a simple, less cognitively demanding activity. Subsequently, Tarde’s writings were
largely ignored in criminology until the 1970s, when a surge of copycat crimes
involving airline hijackings and media interest in them led to renewed attention to
the role of imitation in the generation of crime.85 Picking up directly from Tarde’s
earlier perspective, initial copycat crime researchers attributed copycat crime to a
process of simple and direct imitation based on social learning principles.86

Imitation came to be criticized as too simplistic a process to fully explain
copycat crime; it failed to explain why most children imitate aggression within
socially acceptable limits and only a few imitate aggression with a real gun. Critics
have also noted that imitation theory focuses on the copycat criminal and tends to
downplay other social factors. Today imitation is considered a necessary but insuf-
ficient factor in the generation of copycat crime. The primary flaw in imitation
theory is that it generally implies that the copycat behavior must physically resem-
ble the portrayed behavior and therefore falls short in explaining any generalized
effects or innovative applications.

Partly in response, another mechanism, more general than imitation, by
which media portrayals activate similar behaviors, has been posited.87 Through
this mechanism, termed priming, the portrayals of certain behaviors in the me-
dia activate a cluster of associated ideas within the potential copycat offender that
increase the likelihood that he or she will behave similarly but not necessarily
identically.88 Priming holds that when people experience an event via the mass
media, ideas having a similar meaning to those contained in the media content
are activated for a short time, and these thoughts can result in related
actions. Thus after viewing violent media, individuals will be primed to have
more hostile thoughts, to see aggression as justified, and to behave more aggres-
sively.89 Priming can be understood as providing a set of ideas and beliefs that
construct a particular social reality—the perception that the nature of the world
is such that a particular type of crime is appropriate, justified, and likely to be

A cognitive theory concept of “scripts” from the field of communication also
has copycat crime applications. Linked to priming, scripts are seen as preestablished
behavioral directions that individuals hold in their memory and scroll up to direct
their actions as needed. Such cognitive scripts serve as a guide for behavior by
laying out the sequence of events that one believes are likely to happen and the

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behaviors that one believes are appropriate in particular situations.90 It is thought
that criminal scripts can be acquired by observing criminogenic media during fan-
tasy role-playing, a part of normal child development. Role-playing encourages
the generalized acquisition of social role scripts—the role-playing child for example
acquires the persona of the social role and subsequently acts like he or she thinks a
doctor, athlete, or gangster would in various real-world settings beyond the ones
specifically modeled. The more salient the observed criminality, the more the child
ruminates upon, fantasizes about, and rehearses it.91 Cues, such as the presence of a
gun, first observed in the media and later encountered in the real world, would
activate the acquired criminal scripts.92

A study by Allen Mazur offers an example in the area of crime.93 Mazur
reported that bomb threats directed at nuclear energy facilities increased signifi-
cantly following increases in news coverage of nuclear power issues. Mazur’s
study is important in that it indicates that the media may initiate crimes even
when they don’t provide precise models to copy; the bomb threats to nuclear
facilities followed news stories that were not bomb-related. In Berkowitz’s
conceptualization, the news media coverage primed some people to make
bomb threats even though the coverage did not provide a specific bomb-threat
model to copy. In Huesmann’s terms, the coverage activated similar “threatening
scripts.” John Hinckley’s assassination attempt on President Reagan is a well-
known example of a crime where media priming and activation of a film-based
behavioral script occurred.

At this time, copycat crime appears to be concentrated in predisposed, at-
risk individuals primed by media characterizations of crime to activate acquired
criminal scripts and social roles.94 Diagramed in Figure 3.1, there are multiple
cognitive paths between the media and criminality that copycat criminals can
take. Social cognition theory provides two paths: (1) a systematic central path
that requires a copycat offender to evaluate information and is likely related to
instrumental planned copycat crimes such as a bank robbery; and (2) a heuristic
peripheral path that is quickly traveled with little information evaluation and
likely leads to emotional spontaneous copycat crime such as an impulsive
assault or hate crime.95

A third path is also possible through narrative persuasion from entertain-
ment media content.96 Most media consumed is narrative or story-telling based
and consumer interaction with narrative media is qualitatively different from
the first two paths. The variously termed concepts of “transportation,” “en-
gagement,” or “absorption” have been used to describe this type of media in-
teraction. As narrative persuasion describes the most common use of media and
provides an opportunity to influence individuals who would ordinarily be re-
sistant to media influence due to the “suspension of belief” that is a hallmark of
entertainment narrative involvement, this path is speculated to be the most sig-
nificant copycat crime path.97 The narrative persuasion path allows for influ-
ence resistant media consumers to be affected by story characters who model
both attitude and behavior change.98 Thus, a consumer who is initially unlikely
to copy a particular crime would be persuaded to do so by observing a model
who is portrayed as also initially unwilling to commit an offense but who

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undergoes a transformation in the narrative in which the crime comes to be
seen in a positive manner.

These individual-level paths and social dynamics lead to the society-level
model of copycat crime shown in Figure 3.2. The amount of copycat crime in
a society is seen as the result of the interaction of four factors: the initial crime
and criminal, subsequent media coverage, the social context, and the character-
istics of the copycat criminal. The model denotes a process in which select, usu-
ally successful, highly newsworthy crimes shown in popular entertainment
narratives or news stories emerge as candidates for copying. The media coverage
and portrayals first affect individuals by inviting them to identify with the initial

Media Generator Crime

Path 1: Systematic

Central Processing


Copycat Crime

Path 2: Heuristic
Peripheral Processing

Path 3: Narrative

Transportation and

Empathy or



Copycat Crime

Priming and

Script Activation

Copycat Crime



Rewards or


Social Effects

F I G U R E 3.1 An Individual Level Copycat Crime Model

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, q






































































































) Id



























































































































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crime and criminal and thereby prime a pool of potential copycat criminals. A
susceptible at-risk individual—that is, a person who sees other people and the
media as profitable crime information sources—is thought to be at special risk
for copycat behavior, but social factors are seen as more significant for copycat
crime rates than individual ones.99 The size of the copycat crime pool is affected
both by the level of media distribution of the criminogenic content and by other
social context factors such as social norms regarding deviance and violence; the
preexistence of social conflicts; the number of opportunities available to the po-
tential offender to copy a crime technique (there are more opportunities to copy
a car theft technique, for example, than a bank robbery technique); the nature,
credibility, and pervasiveness of the mass media; and the size of the preexisting
criminal population. Unfortunately, contemporary U.S. society scores high on all
of these criteria; therefore, the generation of copycat crimes should be high in
the United States compared to other countries. After the at-risk copycat pool
emerges, the first wave of copycat crimes results through a process of generalized
primed imitation, limited by and adapted to the copycat criminal’s opportunities
(Phase A).

Should these first-order copycat crimes receive further media attention, and par-
ticularly should they be incorporated into a news media crime theme, the likelihood
of additional copycat crime increases (Phase B). This extended reiterative process is
regarded as much more likely to occur with violent crime because of the high news
value of violence.100 The aggregate model reveals a paradox. The process is more
common for property crime and property offenders through first-order copycat
crimes (Phase A). But violent copycat crime and offenders are most likely to gener-
ate second and higher-order imitations (Phase B) as they are more likely to become
the focus of intensive news media attention. Once more the media is likely to take
the rare real-world event, the violent copycat crime, and make it the more sig-
nificant, better known event in the public’s constructed reality. The accepted
social construction of a copycat crime is more likely to be of a violent crime
such as a bombing even though in actuality copycat property crimes are prob-
ably far more common.

It is clear that copycat crimes occur fairly regularly, but the number of such
crimes generated by the media is not known. Even before the September 11,
2001, World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, the copycat crimes that generated
the most concern were those related to terrorism. Today, terrorism’s relationship to
the media is the leading cause of anxiety in the media, crime, and justice area.

Media-Oriented Terrorism

Terrorism’s relationship with the media epitomizes the dangers of copycat effects.
Carlos Marighella, a Communist insurgent terrorist in the 1960s, described the
terrorists’ aim in their interactions with media:

These actions, carried out with specific and determined objectives,
inevitably become propaganda material for the mass communication
system. … The war of nerves or psychological war is an aggressive

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technique, based on the direct or indirect use of mass means of
communication and news in order to demoralize the government. In
psychological warfare, the government is always at a disadvantage since
it imposes censorship on the mass media and winds up in a defensive
position by not allowing anything against it to filter through. At this
point it becomes desperate, is involved in great contradictions and loss
of prestige, and loses time and energy in an exhausting effort at control
which is subject to being broken at any moment.101

The strength of the symbiotic media–terrorism relationship is such that in
many ways the modern terrorist is the creation of the media. If mass media did
not exist, terrorists would have to invent them.102 Media and terrorists share sev-
eral needs. Most fundamentally, both are trying to reach the greatest number of
people possible. Driven by their mutual goal to maximize audience size, media-
oriented terrorism, where violence is scripted to earn publicity has significantly
increased.103 Media-oriented terrorism is “propaganda by deed,” a purposely
symbolic crime, and today a steady stream of terrorist acts can be identified as
media-oriented terrorist events characterized by the selection of high-visibility
targets, graphic terrorist acts, pre-event contact with media outlets, and post-
event videos, interviews, and other media accommodations.104

Like politicians, terrorists have learned to manipulate media coverage to by-
pass editorial gatekeeping and contextual formatting by journalists and go directly
to the public with their message.105 In the process, terrorism has become a form
of infotainment and public theater. On the other side, the media can be thought
of as “terrorism oriented” in terms of the commercial value of terrorist events.
Due to the huge audience it attracts, media-oriented terrorism is highly valuable
to media organizations.

For the media, terrorism is dramatic, often violent, visual, and timely.
Unlike wars which are usually protracted and highly complex events …
acts of terrorist violence normally have a beginning and an end, can be
encompassed in a few minutes of air time, possess a large degree of
drama, involve participants who are perceived by the viewing public as
unambiguous, and are not so complex as to be unintelligible to those
who tune in only briefly.106

All of this transformed terrorism into high ratings for the media. And as the
media pursued terrorists, terrorists became media wise. They now understand
the dynamics of newsworthiness and the benefits of news coverage: increased
legitimacy and political status; heightened perception of their strength and
threat; and an increased ability to attract resources, support, and recruits.

Contemporary media-oriented terrorists are guided by five principles.107

First, their acts are not tactical in nature but are aimed at distant external audi-
ences. Second, victims are chosen for symbolic meaning to maximize fear and
public impact. Third, the media are eager to cover terrorist violence and will
devote significant resources to reporting terrorist events. Fourth, the media can
be activated, directed, and manipulated for propaganda effects. Fifth, target

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governments are at a disadvantage because their choice is usually between censorship
and allowing terrorists to use the media. The application of these principles has
resulted in the spread of media-oriented terrorism around the world. In the research
literature on terrorism, no doubts are expressed that the media motivate copycat
terrorist acts or that a substantial number of terrorist events are aimed primarily at
garnering publicity.108

However, gaining media attention is not guaranteed, particularly for terrorist
groups not linked to al-Qaeda. Worldwide, many more acts of terrorism are
committed than are reported in the media, and U.S. media give more coverage
to terrorism aimed at U.S. citizens or property.109 Coverage of domestic terror-
ism, at least prior to the September 11, 2001, attacks, received little coverage and
coverage today is focused on events with casualties.110 The resulting competition
for media attention causes terrorists to escalate their violence because more vio-
lent and more dramatic acts are necessary to gain news coverage as the shock
value of ordinary terrorism diminishes. Occupation of a building, for example,
no longer garners world or even national coverage in many instances. As long
as news reporting is a commercial product whose content is influenced by sensa-
tionalism, violent terrorist acts will garner disproportionate coverage.

In the end, the impact of media coverage on terrorism is twofold. First, cov-
erage of a terrorist act encourages copycats.111 As with general copycat crime,
there is much anecdotal evidence that terrorist events such as kidnappings, bank
robberies in which hostages are taken, plane hijackings, parachute hijackings,
planting altitude bombs on airplanes, suicide bombings and online beheadings
of hostages occur in clusters. These copycat effects are especially strong following
a well-publicized successful terrorist act using a novel approach. Second, al-
though their numbers wax and wane, the pattern of these violent performances
suggests that media-oriented terrorism has become a persistent element of the
total terrorism picture since the 1972 Olympics when Palestine Liberation Orga-
nization terrorists killed members of the Israeli Olympic team.112 The World
Wide Web has also provided a new avenue for terrorists to disseminate their
messages and has partly supplanted their need to attract news media attention
in order to reach their target audiences.113 Today terrorism is often a twisted
public relations “infotainment” effort. Like other types of crime, terrorism would
still exist if the media disappeared, but the media–terrorism relationship exacer-
bates the prevalence of these acts. Terrorism performed for both old and new
media is a common feature in the twenty-first century.


The public’s interest in crime-related media, the large proportion of media that
is crime related, and the skewed content of the media have raised alarms. The
greatest concerns are associated with the media’s predatory portrait of criminal-
ity and a media criminogenic effect. The cumulative result of the violent pred-
ator image, which favors individually based criminological theories as the best
explanations of crime, is a social reality in which broad-based social and

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structural causes of crime are disparaged. The media create a social reality
wherein pernicious effects from criminogenic media are plausible and likely.

Where does the research about violent, criminogenic, and terrorism related
media lead? The existing research suggests the following propositions. Most people
exposed to pernicious media will show no negative effects. Some small proportion
of people—the proportion is not clear—will show slight effects, concentrated
more in attitudes than in behaviors. Strong behavioral effects are relatively rare
and are most likely to appear in at-risk individuals predisposed to crime, but the
reality of long-term effects on a large number of people remains a distinct possibil-
ity. In addition, the media’s ability to generate greater numbers of predisposed
at-risk individuals also appears to be real. Therefore, the media’s criminogenic
effects will be enhanced as their current criminogenic content in combination
with racial and ethnic strife, income disparities, and poor social conditions contribute
to future numbers of people at risk for negative media influences. Violence-prone
children and adults are especially at risk for emulating media violence. When
sex and violence are linked, hypermasculine males are most influenced to be sexually
aggressive. When the news media sensationalize crime and make celebrities of
criminals, the danger of imitation for notoriety increases. When successful crime is de-
tailed, criminals will emulate it. And when a successful terrorist event is shown or a
terrorist group is able to gain the attention of the media, media-oriented terrorism
will increase.

Whether criminogenic effects, such as copycat crime, emerge in any particu-
lar individual depends on the highly idiosyncratic interactions of the content of a
particular media product (its characterizations of crime and criminals), the individual’s
predispositions (personal criminal history, family, and environmental factors), and the
media’s social context (preexisting cultural norms, crime opportunities, and perva-
siveness of the mass media). A media-generated criminogenic effect ultimately
depends on the combined influences of social context, media content, and audience
characteristics. The more heavily the consumer relies on the media for information
about the world and the greater his or her predisposition to criminal behavior, the
greater the likelihood of an effect.

Media effects are real, but it is also apparent that the media alone cannot make
someone a criminal. You can get an idea of what it would be like if the media
went away by looking at the United States before the mass media existed. What
you will find is a violent land with many violent people.114 That fact is the core
reason it does not make sense to blame the media for the bulk of our violence and
crime today. Based on our heritage, we would certainly be a violent and crime-
burdened society today without the media’s influences, but are we more violent
and criminal because of them? This is also true. Violent media alone does not
make a violent person, but violent media can apparently make a violent person
more often violent. Criminogenic media won’t make a law-abiding person a crim-
inal, but a preexisting criminal may become a greater threat. The media play their
role after the biological, economic, and social factors do. To blame only the media
is to ignore a host of more significant factors. But while you can argue that the
media is not the main engine in our crime rate, media do facilitate the packaging
and delivery of a criminogenic rate boast.

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In the end, the media’s influence on the behavior of most of us is to cause us
not to do certain things. The media do not turn law-abiding people into criminals
or nonviolent people into assaulters, but they keep people from flying, taking a
foreign vacation, going downtown, or opening their door. It makes us wary of
each other and in doing so makes us more isolated and subsequently more depen-
dent on the media for our knowledge about crime and other social conditions.
Media cannot be painted as the dominant cause of crime in society, but their
portraits of criminality cannot be ignored. By painting crime in a particular hue,
the media color the actual world as violent, predatory, and dangerous. They supply
criminal role models and techniques, create a conducive social atmosphere for the
predisposed few to emulate the crimes they see, hear, and read about, and provide
the theoretical ideas that explain it all to the public while largely absolving that pub-
lic of any social responsibility. With this image of criminality in mind, Chapter 4
looks at the relationship between the media and the first line of response to crime,
law enforcement.


Portraits of crime and justice appear throughout the history of media and
have continued to be a staple of all types of media content.

The portrait of criminals found in the media has almost no correspondence
with official statistics. The typical media criminal is mature, white, and of
high social status, whereas statistically the typical arrestee is young, black,
and poor. The media does get the gender of criminality correct—most
criminals are male in both the media and real world.

Media female offenders are primarily shown as white, violent, and driven by
greed, revenge, and often love. When they offend females are usually shown
as deserving of punishment.

The media construct criminals who are animalistic, irrational, and innately
predatory and who commit violent, sensational, and senseless crimes as the
dominant crime problem in the nation.

Victimization rates in the media correlate more with fear of crime than with
actual victimization risk. Victims are frequently portrayed as randomly
selected, having no prior associations with their assailants, as innocent, and as
noncontributory to their victimization.

Crimes that are most likely to be found in the media are least likely to
occur in real life. Property crime is underrepresented and violent crime is

Criminological theories that focus on individual characteristics as the cause of
crime fare the best in the media. Greed, revenge, and mental illness are the basic
motivations for criminality in the vast majority of crimes shown in the media.

The repeated media message is that crime is perpetrated by individuals who
are substantially different from the law-abiding, that criminality stems from

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individual problems, and that, when not innate, criminality is freely chosen

Criminogenic media refers to media content that is hypothesized as a
direct cause of crime. It is not known what the effect of the media is on the
overall crime rate. The current consensus regarding copycat crime is that a
criminogenic influence concentrates in preexisting criminal populations.

Terrorism’s relationship to the media has resulted in copycat terrorism and
media-oriented terrorism being common elements of twenty-first-century
acts of terror.

The cumulative result of the media image of criminality is a social reality
in which broad-based social and structural causes of crime are disparaged
and where criminogenic media effects are plausible. Criminogenic behavioral
effects are most likely to appear in at-risk individuals predisposed to crime.


1. Write a position paper on how much crime and violence in society would
disappear if there were no crime-and-justice media. Discuss whether you
feel that some types of media (films or books, for example) are more
criminogenic than others or whether some content is more dangerous
than other content. Conclude your paper with which public policies you
would support to reduce media criminogenic influences and which policies
you would be adamantly against.

2. Write a critique of the film The Silence of the Lambs as a construction of
predatory criminality. Discuss why the predator criminal image enjoys lasting

3. Watch an entertainment film based on a real serial killer and write an essay
comparing the media rendition with historical facts about the case. Some
examples: Ted Bundy and the film The Stranger Beside Me; Charlie
Starkweather and the films Badlands and Murder in the Heartland; Aileen
Wuornos and the film Monster; Henry Lee Lucus and the film Henry:
Portrait of a Serial Killer.


Boyle, K. 2005. Media and Violence: Gendering the Debates. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Fisher, J. 1997. Killer Among Us: Public reactions to Serial Murder. Westport, CH: Praeger.

Leitch, T. and B. Grant. 2002. Crime Films. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University

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Nacos, B. 2007. Mass-Mediated Terrorism. Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield.

Rafter, N. 2000. Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society. Oxford, UK: Oxford
University Press.

Rome, D. 2004. Black Demons: The Media’s Depiction of the African American Male Criminal
Stereotype. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Simpson, P. 2000. Psycho Paths: Tracking the Serial Killer through Contemporary American
Film and Fiction. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Sumser, J. 1996. Morality and Social Order in Television Crime Drama. Jefferson, NC:

Tuman, J. 2010. Communicating Terror: The Rhetorical Dimensions of Terrorism.
Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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Crime Fighters


After completing Chapter 4, you will

Know the major divisions in the media portrait of law enforcement and
crime fighting

Understand the differences between professional and civilian crime fighters

Recognize the media portraits of lampooned police, G-men and cops

Appreciate the differences between media portrayed police work and
real-world police work

Appreciate the differences between the media portraits of private eyes and
private citizens with the media portraits of police officers

Understand the link between media portraits of crime fighting and public
support for anticrime policies


After criminality, the media pays the most attention to fighting crime. In the
United States, law enforcement has high visibility coupled with low public
knowledge.1 That is, the public is exposed to large amounts of crime-fighting
content in news, entertainment, and infotainment, most of it terribly distorted
if not plain wrong. The first problem with the media construction of law en-
forcement is that it is schizophrenic, persistently presenting two competing law
enforcement frames of “good cop” or “bad cop.” In the good cop frame, the
criminal justice system, particularly the police, are part of a justice machine
with dedicated professionals using the latest technology to repeatedly prove that
crime does not pay. In the competing bad cop frame, the criminal justice system
and its police are so inefficient and bound by regulations, politics, corruption,


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and incompetence that only the outsider rogue cop or citizen crime fighter can
get anything positive accomplished.

The professional soldiers in the media war on crime usually occupy law en-
forcement positions, but lawyers, judges, wardens, and corrections officers also
sometimes morph into crime fighters. These are the professional, career soldiers in
the media’s portrait of the war on crime, and they are often matched up with a
competent criminal justice system filled with effective crime scene technicians and
experts in criminalistics to help solve crimes. When the professionals of the criminal
justice system are the main crime fighters in the media, civilians usually have a mi-
nor role, frequently serving solely as hapless victims. The war-on-crime profes-
sional soldiers either expertly or incompetently (depending on whether they are
within a good cop or bad cop frame) wage a war against predatory violent crime.
The terms war and soldier are not used here simply as colorful adjectives; across the
media, crime fighting is depicted as a never-ending battle against evil doers.2 The
enemy is everywhere, the battlegrounds can be anywhere, and anyone may be
caught in the crossfire at any time. The media portraits of law enforcement reflect
two basic divisions of bad and good cops, professionals or citizens existing under an
overarching construction of warlike combat as the most effective anticrime policy.

In addition to the good cop/bad cop schizophrenia, another split exists in the
media’s portrait of law enforcement. In the media, crime is fought by either criminal
justice professionals or private citizens. When civilian crime fighters are portrayed as
the primary crime fighters, the police and the criminal justice system are downplayed
and often disparaged. The effectiveness of civilian crime fighters is enhanced when
paired with an incompetent criminal justice system. When civilian crime fighters are
on the scene the traditional criminal justice components and personnel—especially
the police—become part of the crime problem either through corruption or inepti-
tude. The “citizen soldiers” in the war on crime are shown to be successful where
the bureaucratic, hampered, and often not so bright, career law enforcers are not.

This media house divided subsequently projects two conflicting messages
about law enforcement. The first is that the expertise to deal with crime can only
be found in the criminal justice system. The need to enhance the criminal justice
system and unleash the police is a core message in the media’s construction of crime
fighting. The second and opposite message is that the incompetence of the criminal
justice system and its people requires that individuals protect their own homes and
communities and solve crime themselves. In the first social construction, we are
told to wait for heroes to save us; in the second we are told we had better save
ourselves. What the two messages share is that the solutions will require violence.

Whether a criminal justice or a civilian hero is emphasized is not, for the most
part, related to the type of crime being portrayed. Most types of crime stories are
comfortable with either official or civilian heroes. Popular mystery and detective
tales in which the search for clues is the key story element have employed both
private investigators and police as their heroic sleuths. Similarly, crime thrillers
that feature endangered victims and heroes; modernized Westerns in which heroic
outsiders reluctantly clean up a town; crime, revenge, and vigilante stories in which
a victim/hero is injured and retaliates; and action crime stories that feature
superhero crime fighters all utilize both criminal justice employees and private

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citizens as heroes.3 Within these stories both civilian and professional crime fighters
can be either law-abiding role models (good cops) or less straight-and-narrow ad-
venturers, gunfighters, loners, and sometimes criminals themselves (bad cops). The
first group represents the incorruptible all-American hero narrative; the more am-
biguous individualistic and self-reliant second group represents our cultural admi-
ration of the rebel. The rebels seem to enjoy themselves more and appear to be
effective more quickly (not having to wait for search warrants or worry about re-
percussions from using entrapment or coercion), so it is not surprising that they
outnumber the law-abiding crime fighters in the media. As the largely inaccurate
legends of Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, Wild Bill Hickok, Eliot Ness, and Al
Capone exemplify, media reconstructions have habitually made folk heroes out of
criminals and heroic crime fighters out of less-than-stellar individuals. By-the-book
crime fighters are usually outdistanced by kick-your-butt, recently suspended, or
wanted ones. Be it professionals or civilians, good cops or bad cops, it is undeniable
that the media supplies a great number of law enforcement depictions. Solving
crimes and apprehending criminals is an immensely popular media pastime.



Culturally, we have long been fascinated with the police and their work. We
relish and devour media that is front-end-loaded, which concentrates on the ori-
gins of crime and crime’s investigation and solution. As discussed in Chapter 3,
our first crime-and-justice love is media constructions of crime and criminality.
Once crimes have been committed, the people who enforce the laws and pursue
the criminals are second in media and public interest. We relish the investigation,
pursuit, and capture of criminals by formal agents of the law.4 Three stereotypes
of professional law enforcement are found in the media: lampooned police,
G-men, and cops.5 Like most media constructions, once created they never
totally disappear and all three compete for influence today. Each contributes in
its own way to the social construction of law enforcement.

Lampooned Police

Lampooned police appeared soon after the birth of the film industry and initially
were introduced by the Keystone Kops and Charlie Chaplin films in the 1920s.
Lampooned police is a popular media narrative that satirize law enforcement as
foolish, slapstick character police officers. These depictions continue to be popu-
lar with the public, if not always with real police. Some of these early portrayals of
the police so upset the International Association of the Chiefs of Police, for ex-
ample, that its members passed a 1913 resolution pledging to change the
depictions.6 The Barney Fifes, Inspector Clouseaus, and vaudeville-styled Police
Academy and Super Trouper films all provide escapist entertainment. Like gallows
humor, they allow serious issues of police power and crime control to be
discussed indirectly and in less threatening portraits. A police force that can be
poked fun at is not one that is likely to be perceived as oppressive. Similarly, crime

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that can be resolved by cartoon violence is less threatening. However, when the satire
is felt to reflect a reality of incompetence or when it undermines the public support of
police, these images raise an outcry among law enforcement personnel.

G-Men and Police Procedurals

G-men, also historically known as “crime-busters,” arose during the Depression
and have periodically been invigorated by media attempts to provide more realistic
content. G-men represent a media law enforcement frame that focuses on effec-
tive, professional crime-busters. Tough federal agents emerged in the 1930s media

The lampooning of police officers and formal law enforcement is found in some of the
earliest silent movies. Shown are the Keystone Kops, a popular early media lampoon of
the police first seen in 1912.















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as Hollywood responded to the Payne Fund research on the film industry and its
social impact.7 The resulting Hays Commission heavily criticized the movies for
glorifying criminals and encouraging copycat crime (see Box 4.1).8 In response,
the movie and radio industry shifted to G-man portrayals, in which federal law
enforcement agents rather than criminals were the heroes. Stars such as James
Cagney, who had previously played criminals, now found themselves cast as heroic
crime fighters. These crime fighters were shown as professional, straight-laced, and,
Cagney aside, usually boring. This change in the construction of law enforcers
marks the media shift from the local neighborhood “officer friendly” portrait of
police officers, who were well meaning but largely incompetent against serious
crime, to that of professional federal crime-busters. Previously, if police officers
were shown at all, more often than not they were just there, walking a beat, per-
sonable but largely irrelevant. In contrast, the new crime fighters were aggressive,
smart, and proactive. Because they were clearly not local police officers, the shift to
G-men crime-busters also marks the beginning of a long-term denigration of local
law enforcement. The G, after all, stood for “government” and that government
was the one in Washington, D.C. With the exception of local sheriffs in Westerns,
local street police would not commonly be presented as capable of dealing with
serious crime again until the 1970s. The tradition of professional, crime-busting
portraits successfully made the transfer in the 1950s to television and continued as

B o x 4.1 The Hays Code in Hollywood

The Hays Code, adopted by major American movie studios in response to the criti-
cisms voiced by the Hays Commission, imposed severe limitations on celluloid crime
and justice:

General Principles: 1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral
standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never
be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin. 2. Correct standards of
life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be
presented. 3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy
be created for its violation. . . .

Crimes Against the Law. These shall never be presented in such a way as to
throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others
with a desire for imitation. 1. Murder: a. The technique of murder must be
presented in a way that will not inspire imitation. b. Brutal killings are not to
be presented in detail. c. Revenge in modern times shall not be justified.
2. Methods of Crime should not be explicitly presented:

a. Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings,
etc., should not be detailed in method. b. Arson must subject to the same
safeguards. c. The use of firearms should be restricted to the essentials.
d. Methods of smuggling should not be presented. 3. Illegal drug traffic
must never be presented.

SOURCE: Will H. Hays, President’s Report to the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors’ Association
(Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1932).

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the dominant crime-fighting narrative. Dragnet on radio and then television, and
Dick Tracy in the comics and later films are well-known early examples.

Beginning a bit after and then paralleling the G-men portraits, the police
procedural originated in the United States in the 1940s. Police procedurals
attempt to portray the back-stage realities of police investigations in dramatic
media portraits. They were, in essence, the first infotainment docudramas pro-
duced on working in the criminal justice system. The crime fighters in these

Based on the investigation of cases by two Los Angeles Police Department
detectives, Dragnet was one of the first and most successful police proceduralstyle
crime programs. Originating on radio in the late 1940s and running on television
from 1952 to 1959 and again from 1967 to 1970, Dragnet emphasized police
jargon and the technical aspects of law enforcement. Episodes began with the
promise that ‘‘the story you are about to see is true; the names have been
changed to protect the innocent.’’












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portraits normally rely heavily on teamwork and criminalistics to solve crimes.
Especially well suited to television’s stereotyping, simple story lines, and preference
for short-term violent events, the police procedural presents policing in
infotainment-based constructions in which a continuous response to an unending
series of violent criminal acts is needed. Crime and the fight against it is con-
structed as the reserve of professional experts (see Box 4.2). Civilians and other
law enforcement personal should not get involved, and do so at their peril. Anal-
ogous to the manner in which real and fictional crimes and criminals coalesced in
the 1980s to socially construct serial killers, the G-men and the police procedurals
portraits and the ongoing real-world police reform movement of the first half of
the twentieth century collectively constructed criminality as a threat to middle-
class lifestyles while encouraging a faith in expert police knowledge as the crime
solution. The combined effect of the media portraits and the police professionalism
movement was the social construction of aggressive proactive policing as the best
policy course to address an apparently burgeoning crime problem.9


The cops frame originated in the 1970s with the return of media portraits of
professional, competent, local law enforcement heroes, which had disappeared
from the media with the demise of the Western local sheriffs in the 1950s. In a
small number of television shows, like Dragnet, the professional police hero was kept
alive until the 1970s when the cop narrative emerged. With the release of the film
Dirty Harry in 1971, the premiere of the television show Police Story in 1973, and the
publication of the novel The New Centurions in 1970, local street police as heroes was
once again in vogue. The new cops construction portrayed the local police as ag-
gressive, crime-fighting, take-no-prisoners, frontline soldiers in the war on crime. Far
from irrelevant, they were now the combat grunts who fought the crime war bat-
tles. Community policing, public service, traffic, and order maintenance duties were
nowhere to be found in this new construction of the local police. Police became
paramilitary units, citizens became civilians and collateral damage, and crime fighting
became urban warfare. Local “cops” emerge in this construction as professional,
gristled soldiers engaged in preemptive law-and-order battles—combat-hardened
street solders in an unpopular war. Within the cop construction, criminality was si-
multaneously portrayed as the result of evil and weak individuals making bad
choices. The criminals were clearly enemies, not citizens who had broken a law,
and they had to be defeated as opposed to being deterred or rehabilitated.

Within this constructed world of domestic combat, special socialization by a
veteran crime fighter was needed to change the naive civilian police recruit into
the professional frontline crime-fighting soldier.10 Police, like the combat vet-
eran, have to be initiated into the police culture and instilled with the special
knowledge and skills needed to survive in combat and deal with rampant crimi-
nality. Gaining this special knowledge frequently involved a violent unlearning
of prior social conceptions picked up in the civilian world and the police acad-
emy. To survive, cops adopted the antibureaucracy attitude of the World
War II–era private eye. Middle-class status, liberal attitudes, those college criminology

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and criminal justice courses, official police department procedures—all must be
forgotten. As Dirty Harry says to his new Mexican American partner, “Don’t go
letting that sociology degree get you killed.”11

Highly popular, several different cop narratives are found today.12 One of the
most popular is the “rogues,” officers who go off on their own in their pursuit of
criminals and justice. Throwing off the restraints of agency approval, due process,
and legal procedures, they display single-mindedness in a less than legal but usually
moral crusade. Also common are the “corrupt cop” narratives, which have the offi-
cers taking the extra step and actually joining the dark-side forces of crime and evil.
At the other extreme are “honest cop” narratives, which trace the hardships of cops
trying to do the right thing in a corrupt police culture. “Buddy cop” stories work
off the conflicts and complications from opposite personalities forced to work to-
gether; mismatched racial partners are a standard. A relative to lampooned police
“comedy” and “action comedy” cop narratives toss reality to the winds. Comedy
portrayals incorporate harmless slapstick violence in which bullets and punches fly
but no one gets seriously hurt. Action comedies liberally add in explosions and spec-
tacular stunts in which only the bad guys are seriously injured. Two recent additions
to this family are “female cop” stories and “aging cop” stories. Female cop narratives
have the positive, if yet unfulfilled, potential to lift women from their stereotypical
crime-and-justice portraits as pseudomasculine or hyperfeminine creatures to equal

The character Dirty Harry marks the return of effective and aggressive local police to the
media portrait of law enforcement in the 1970s.






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crime-fighting heroes.13 Aging cop stories are a market response to the aging of the
baby boom generation and the need to provide heroes they can identify with. In
these stories, a weathered but still virile (mentally, physically, and sexually) police
officer manages to be successful on all fronts. Except for the woman cop story lines,
hypermasculinity is the common thread throughout the cop narratives. These por-
traits collectively reduce the crime issue to a contest between individuals. Not only is
a social solution not needed, in the cop narratives crime is no longer even an agency
problem. To solve crime, you don’t need a criminal justice system, or even a police
department. You don’t even need a few good men, just one good cop will do.

On the journalism print side, the combat cop was accompanied and en-
hanced with the marketing of true crime books, many written by newspaper
crime reporters. These reporter memoirs are traditionally initiation narratives
about a reporter’s introduction into the cop world.14 Similar to the necessity
for police recruits to discard misleading knowledge acquired in the police acad-
emy and college to become effective combat cops, in these true crime narratives
journalists have to be socialized into the ways of the street police. In the process
they have to leave behind their journalistic sensibilities and social values and learn
that fighting the modern predatory criminal is a different world.

In these true crime books the crime is usually homicide, and the reader looks
over the cops’ shoulders as they pursue criminals and clean up after violent messy
events. (Of course, the other popular view in the true crime tradition looks over
the shoulders of criminals while they violently create messy events. Not surprisingly,
an interest in crime fighters is only exceeded by fascination with predator criminals.
Tales of serial killer narratives dominate the true crime genre.) The cop-oriented true
crime memoirs contribute to the comforting illusion of police expertise, and that
crime, while pervasive, is effectively being handled by dogged, heroic police work.15

Turning to the news portrait of professional crime fighters: despite great interest
in law enforcement, the news media rarely focus on individual crime fighters except
in police brutality cases.16 Instead, they prefer to focus on crimes and criminals. In the
news, law enforcement is normally referred to as generic agencies rather than individ-
ual police officers. When individuals are interviewed, they are most often administra-
tors or media-relations specialists. Therefore, most individual crime-fighter portraits
come not from traditional news but from either pure entertainment content or info-
tainment products. Infotainment programming fills in whatever gap exists between
the entertainment and news portraits in the public’s construction of the modern pro-
fessional crime fighter. Reality police shows, a subset of infotainment programming,
are of special interest because these shows are promoted as delivering a slice of unal-
tered crime fighting and, unlike the news, focus heavily on individual crime fighters.

Police as Infotainment: “Who you gonna call?”

First appearing in 1989, police reality programs have become a regular part of the
crime-and-justice media, with the theme song of one show, COPS, becoming a
pop music hit.17 In these productions, viewers are invited to share a real street
cop’s point of view as a partner officer. Not surprisingly, the demographic that
most future police officers will be recruited from—young, white males—are their

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largest audience component. The attraction of these shows is clearly voyeuristic,
with content running the gamut from dealing with ordinary street crime to the
unusual violent predation. The cooperating police departments also have editorial
input into the end product and routinely eliminate any scenes of police violence,
malfeasance, or ineptitude. In her study of these shows, Pamela Donovan found that
the final construction invariably shows the police as sensitive, knowledgeable, and
competent, never careless, corrupt, foul-mouthed, or overwhelmed.18 In a compan-
ion study, Aaron Doyle points out the highly selective picture of criminal justice
found in these programs, which overrepresents both violent crime and the propor-
tion of crime solved by police.19 One police infotainment show, COPS, was found
to grossly overrepresent violent crime. Violent crime such as murder, rape, aggra-
vated assault, and robbery made up 84 percent of all the crimes shown in one season
studied.20 Reflecting the operation of the backwards law—the media presents the
opposite of crime-and-justice reality and the distribution of violent and property
crimes on these shows are consistently opposite their real-world proportions.

Crime selection aside, how realistically do these reality shows portray police
work? In the view of Paul Kooistra and his colleagues, “Crime [fighting] on these
shows is a caricature that is shaped more by the organizational demands of television
than by carefully documented representations of reality.”21 Unlike the traditional
news, where you can see the commentators and reporters and where editing deci-
sions are more apparent, reality programming works from a different process in its
format, style, and texture. In these shows, there are no production clues, narrators,
actors, scripts, or hosts to suggest editing or formatting. The infotainment audience
does not easily realize and are not given hints that they are receiving a heavily re-
constructed piece of reality. As shown in Figure 4.1, because the content is pre-
sented as if unaltered, the constructed reality found in reality programming is

Crime News

With crime news it is clear that you are
getting a condensed event, usually
described and explained to you by

someone clearly in a position of authority.

Infotainment Police Reality Programming

With reality programming the molding of content is
hidden and difficult to discern. A live documentary
feel is given to the portrait of police work, and you

are encouraged to believe you are seeing unedited
raw video footage.

Film, interviews, interpretations, editing,
and commentary from claims makers

Crime or justice event

Reported news story

Crime or street event

Reality TV show

Cameras, hidden editing and
interpretation, no commentary

F I G U R E 4.1 Crime News Compared with Police Reality Programming

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more misleading than the constructed reality portrayed in the news where the edit-
ing and production decisions are clearly visible.

For reality shows, production techniques are borrowed from entertainment
shows. These programs are formatted to unobtrusively fill in missing facts and
scenes to hide the editing and molding of their content. Time gaps are smoothed
over, and holes in knowledge or action are filled. It is through their production
techniques that these shows can grossly misrepresent police work and still manage
to come across as reality programming. As criminologist Gray Cavender points
out, realism is achieved in these efforts by mimicking the early entertainment “po-
lice procedural” films of the 1940s and 1950s and applying an entertainment style
of “gritty realism.”22 Employing low-cost production values establishes an atmo-
sphere of “being there” for the viewer. Ironically, producing reality programs
cheaply results in increasing their believability.

The demographics on these shows constructs crime so that nonwhites ac-
count for more than half of all suspects shown, about two-thirds of the police
are white, and more than half of the victims shown are white. These shows con-
struct a reality in which the most typical police crime-fighting events are white
police battling nonwhite criminals while protecting white victims. In addition,
almost 75 percent of the crimes portrayed in these infotainment shows are
cleared by arrest, compared with the 18 percent clearance rate for property crime
and 44 percent clearance rate for violent crime reported in the Uniform Crime
Report statistics. Because of these factors, reality police programs most closely
resemble pure entertainment media portrayals of crime fighting. As found in
other media, the media crime-and-justice backwards law is equally applicable to
police reality shows.

The backwards law results in these infotainment shows promoting two
claims about crime fighting.23 The carefully chosen and edited footage encourages
the claims that:

The police are in a contest with criminals who are unlike law-abiding
citizens. Reality police shows further encourage the construction of
criminals as predatory deviant others, people who are unlike the rest of us.

The police invariably get it right. The people they stop really are
criminals. Viewers never get to see the police battering down doors to the
wrong apartment or arresting the wrong person. Legal rules invariably
hamper the police needlessly and get in the way of effective law
enforcement. There appears to be no reason to place legal checks on
how the police do their job, and constitutional safeguards make no sense.

In the end, crime control is applauded, due process is disparaged. Individ-
ual causes of crime, assumed guilt of suspects, and an “us versus them” portrait
dominates these constructions. The police emerge as our best defense, but they
need help—in this constructed world, the audience and the police must work
together to fight crime. Analogous to videogames, viewers are prodded to be-
come interactive—to be on the lookout, call in tips, and help catch fugitives—
to, in effect, enlist in the war-on-crime.

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What is the effect of these shows? Aaron Doyle reports that most viewers see
the shows as realistic and think of them as informational rather than entertain-
ment, as more similar to local news than to fictional storytelling.24 Society is seen
to be in decline and in a constant state of crisis because of spiraling crime, partic-
ularly violent street crimes committed by lower-class offenders, and aggressive
law enforcement is shown as the last hope. Another concern with the portrait
of police work found in police reality programming comes from its effect on
real police. Doyle reports that, like courtroom cameras influencing trial attor-
neys, there is anecdotal evidence of police tailoring their behavior for the cam-
eras, behaving not as they actually do but as they believe the audience expects
them to. Shows like COPS appear as a fantasy come true for police officers raised
on the media’s fictional police heroics found in entertainment crime dramas.25

Here is the law enforcement career as they were led to believe it would be,
full of crime-busting excitement. Finally, the solution proffered in police info-
tainment programming is drawn from the faulty system frame: crime is out of
control because the criminal justice system is misaligned. Society needs tougher
crime control: due process and civil rights are part of the problem, and more
unfettered police are needed. The real world must be altered to better match the
media-constructed one. Recent media portrayals of forensic science and its
capabilities is another area that has been credited with constructing unrealistic
expectations in the real world.

Dusting for Saliva: The CSI Effect, Forensic Science,

and Juror Expectations

The most recent iteration and a revival of the police procedural is found in the
current spate of forensic science based shows led by CSI and its spin-offs.
The new law enforcement crime fighting hero is a crime scene investigator. These
shows are having an unexpected real-world impact where the public thinks every
crime can be solved if the proper scientific method is used.

As related in Box 4.2, the difference between crime scene investigations and
their media portrait is large. These front-end-loaded “howdunnit” rather than
“whodunit” shows depict police agencies with limitless resources, small case-
loads, unrealistic scientific testing procedures, impossible forensic test time
frames, and inaccurate depictions of what crime scene investigators actually
do.26 They present a prosecutorial view of investigation and give the impression
that trials are mere formalities.27 Based largely on surveys of criminal justice pro-
fessionals,28 a CSI effect has been credited with influencing juror expectations
and assessment of evidence. Specifically, it is felt that lack of forensic evidence
is interpreted by jurors to indicate sloppy police work and cause jurors to dis-
count eyewitness testimony. Police, prosecutors, and judges have reported that
they have had to explain the lack of irrelevant forensic evidence or employ
unnecessary expert witnesses to accommodate juror media-driven expectations.
As a group, they feel compelled to explain the differences between CSI shows
and trial uses of forensic evidence, in gist, holding trial evidence to television

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standards.29 Anecdotal CSI effects have also been reported for offenders so that
car thieves dump ashtrays in stolen cars in hopes of generating a pool of alter-
native suspects and rapists use condoms and force victims to shower to avoid
leaving DNA evidence.30 At the opposite extreme, there is a concern with

B o x 4.2 The CSI Effect

The scene, on TV, is of a dead kid in a high school bathroom. This, in itself, is not
funny. What cracks up the senior forensic criminalist at the State Police Crime Labo-
ratory is watching the forensic crew work a case on CBS’s drama CSI: Crime Scene

[Real] crime scene investigators don’t tackle murder suspects or pack heat. They
don’t storm into the lab demanding DNA reports. They don’t prance around in
leather pants and a halter top. It can take days to fingerprint a scene, months
to process a single DNA sample. Most of that used to be inside crime scene stuff—
shoptalk for cops and forensic scientists. Then CSI and a handful of bloodstained
copycats took over prime time.

Real-life investigators are watching this gross new world and bracing for each
boob-tube breakthrough. They call it the “CSI effect,” a phenomenon in which actual
investigations are driven by the expectations of the millions of people who watch
fake whodunits on TV. It has contributed to jurors’ desires to see more forensic testi-
mony from the stand. Academic programs are springing up to accommodate people
who now want to be forensic scientists. And it has spurred a phenomenon that de-
fense lawyers call “junk science,” in which high-paid, underqualified consultants are
hired to lend a little razzle-dazzle to a case because in prime time we’ve learned that
virtually anything left behind can solve a crime: sofa cushions, a dead insect, lint.

Jurors watch TV shows in which investigators walk onto scenes soaked with
forensic evidence. Then they want to know why there’s no DNA on the suspect’s shirt
collar or blood on his hands. Why aren’t the hairs at the scene a match for those
found inside the accused’s cap? Even in the face of eyewitness testimony, juries are
starting to say, “If all the possible forensic tests weren’t done in a case, maybe some-
body else committed the crime.”











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these shows reifying forensic evidence when it is presented in a trial to a level
where its validity and accuracy is unquestioned by jurors.31 A dual CSI effect
has been hypothesized. If no forensic evidence is presented, an increase in acquittals
has been posited. If forensic evidence is available, convictions are expected to

Not all credit these shows with a substantively important CSI effect how-
ever.32 In one study that surveyed jurors, there is evidence of nearly half of
them expected scientific evidence in every criminal case. However, in the same
study when an effect on verdicts was explored the expectation of forensic evi-
dence did not translate into more acquittals when it was absent, and, signifi-
cantly, viewers of the CSI shows were more likely to convict without scientific
evidence than nonviewers except for rape cases.33 At this time, while many in
the criminal justice field believe that a CSI effect operates, there is no empirical
study that has shown a CSI effect on jury decisions. In that a number of studies
conducted prior to the CSI shows established the compelling power that scien-
tific evidence has on juror verdicts,34 there may be a CSI effect on attorneys and
judges who report that they prepare and conduct their cases differently because
of anticipated juror expectations. The CSI effects that have been established are
the belief by criminal justice professionals that these shows influence jurors and a
renewed popularity and interest in the field of criminal forensics.35

Police and the Media

In the 1990s, there was a transition to community policing in the real police world
and a media fixation on criminal profiling in the media-constructed one. In the
resulting mix, the media did not simply lionize police professionalism or technical
expertise. Criticisms of the police abound in the media, but as the media drifted
into infotainment content, media dependence on police cooperation increased.
The police are sought, quoted, and catered to on one hand, marginalized and criti-
cized on the other. In Table 4.1, the basic differences between media cops and
real-world street officers are summarized. From an “endless budget” to their actions,
media cops hardly compare to their real-world counterparts. And when the real
police do not act like their media portraits, the unrealistic public expectations gen-
erate real-world public dissatisfaction with law enforcement.36

Factual and fictional cop narratives remain popular and, as shown by the de-
velopment of women and aging cop portraits, are flexible enough to evolve and
to respond to changing politics, demographics, and market needs.37 In addition
to female lead crime fighters, the emergence and acceptance of minority actors as
lead heroic cops is another healthy trend. The media-constructed world of pro-
fessional crime-fighting soldiers is secure. Ironically, this world is largely con-
structed in the entertainment and infotainment segments of the media. The
traditional news media do not normally focus on crime fighters except when
they suffer a personal fall from grace or are killed. That is, individual crime fight-
ers become newsworthy when they become criminals or victims. This lack of
traditional news media attention is also true for their counterparts, the citizen
soldiers in the war on crime.

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T A B L E 4.1 Differences between Media Cops and Real Cops

Media Cops Real Cops

Action Never a dull moment. They are
doing something, about to do
something, or planning to do

Tedium and adrenaline are both
experienced. Filling out forms is the
norm. Action is unexpected, not

Crime Fighting serious crime is
foremost. Felonies are most
common. Each crime is unique
and exceptional. Cops are
attuned to these nuances and
pay attention.

Felony arrests are rare; officers often
spend time preventing crime and
defusing social situations. The
repetitive scripts of excuses and
explanations for breaking the law
rapidly dull their impact and the
believability of suspects.

Violence Cops are violent. They menace,
fight, and shoot and kill with
relative impunity. Physical
force, even brutality, is part of
their tool kit for solving crimes.

Officers also live in a mean world,
but usually one of potential rather
than actual violence.

Heroes and

Clearly defined good and evil
with any ambiguities resolved
by program’s end.

The good and the bad is mostly gray.
Good people do bad things; bad
people sometimes perform good acts.
Most people have elements of both.

Status Patrolmen are often dumb
background foil; plainsclothes
detectives are the brilliant
problem solvers.

Officers are gatekeepers of the
criminal justice system who make
the crucial early decisions.

Insight With an almost psychic
awareness of what people
are thinking and where the
clues are, they uncover the
truth. Omniscient qualities
allow them to defy procedures
and still triumph.

Officers are given almost no advance
data for encounters and are under
great pressure to obey procedures
and policy.

Closure There are almost no
unsolved cases on at the
end of the story.

Events have a middle, but no
beginning and no end. Cops arrive
when incidents are in progress and
rarely see the resolution of cases
they confront.

Justicee Cops rarely deal with law,
which is often seen as an
obstacle to justice and as legal
technicalities used by shyster
lawyers. The hero cop directly
dispenses justice, makes things
right, and avenges wrongs.

Real cops must obey the law.
Because of the complexity of the law
and the emphasis on due process
rights, its glacial pace leaves cops
enforcing rules they do not think

Back stage Sanitized back stage. No matter
how crude, the hero cop rarely
alienates an audience.

Sex, lies, and stupidity are common
themes. Cops often make fun of,
complain about, or criticize many of
the people they encounter, both
victims and suspects.

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The second major brigade of media crime solvers comes not from the official
world of criminal justice and government agencies but from the ranks of citizens.
When portrayed, these “citizen soldiers” in the war on crime often save the day
for bungling police officers. Other times they battle the corrupt forces of govern-
ment and official law enforcement.

Private Investigators

One division of these civilian crime fighters occupies the boundary between civi-
lians and police officers. They are the independent contractors of law enforcement,
the private investigators or PIs. Private investigators were popularized in film noir
movies in the 1940s. Historically male, sexual, debonair, hard-boiled, and smart, the
PI lives on the borderline between criminality and the law-abiding, solving crimes
with inside knowledge combined with the freedom to act outside the restraints of
agency policies and due process rules. In addition to these semiprofessional private
eyes, another group of personally motivated private citizens take on solving crimes
as a hobby or due to some personal connection with a crime victim.

Private Citizens

Predating the private eyes, private citizens have been successful media crime
fighters for at least 600 years, as can be seen in the tales of Robin Hood and

Media Cops Real Cops

Budget and

Uncapped endless budgets with
forensics, equipment, and
reinforcements readily available.

Hard limitations on the amount of
evidence gathering and testing, inves-
tigation time, and departmental re-
sources that can be devoted to a case.

Chronology Time compression. Events are
edited to render swifter
progress of the narrative and
rapid resolution.

The forever war with long periods of
stasis. Cops understand how long it
can take the system to resolve an

and public

Godlike powers of observation
by audience who see clues,
verhear conversations, perceive
revealing facial close-ups, and
receive voiceovers with insider
information kept from the cops.
The audience ends up knowing
more than the cops.

Uniformed police are first on the
scene. They see what no one in the
public sees except for perpetrators
and victims, misery and blood at
close quarters.

Source: Adapted from David Perlmutter, Policing the Media (Belmont, CA: Sage, 2000), 41–52.

T A B L E 4.1 Differences between Media Cops and Real Cops

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other citizen heroes. Although usually adult white males, citizen crime fighters in
the media include a diverse group: elderly female novelists (Angela Lansbury in
Murder She Wrote), teenagers (the Bobbsey Twins and Hardy Boys), and even chil-
dren (Tom Sawyer) and cartoon dogs (Scooby-Doo).

The citizen crime fighter can be found in a number of entertainment nar-
ratives that share the characteristic of being outside of and sometimes in con-
flict with the traditional criminal justice system. Rooted in the Western,
“heroic” outsiders who save the day remain a popular crime-fighting narrative.
Unfettered by official red tape and due process considerations, the heroic out-
sider can cut to the heart of the crime problem and quickly and usually vio-
lently deal with it. Riding or driving off into the sunset, as it were, after his
work is done. Avengers and vigilantes are related to the victim crime-fighter
narrative. In these portrayals, the citizen crime fighter has a personal interest
or has been personally wronged by a criminal. At the extreme are tales where
the citizen hero has been unjustly criminalized by the official criminal justice
system. These criminal Robin Hood heroes are among the oldest Western citizen
crime-fighter narratives available. A more recent citizen crime-fighter narrative is
the superhero, which originated in Depression-era comic books and today is found
in action films. Still cartoonlike and clearly functioning as an escape from reality for
their audiences, these crime fighters are the most “outside” of the outsiders.
Mutants, aliens, ninjas, or just “regular” people who apparently are impossible to
kill or defeat, these superheroes overcome massive odds to prevail and, as Super-
man states, defend “truth, justice, and the American way.”

The success that private citizens and private investigators have enjoyed when
solving crime in the media has been impressive. For example, media researchers
Robert and Linda Lichter found that private citizens and private investigators
solved many of the crimes shown in prime time television programming.38

Crime fighters of every other type failed to capture the criminal more often than
they succeeded. Cops, being rule bound, cannot possibly be as effective as private
investigators. By contrast, private eyes and private citizens proved almost incapable
of failure. This tradition of citizen success coupled to official police failure has deep
roots. Penned in the 1840s by Edgar Allan Poe, the very first detective stories had
the French police fumble and fail while citizen-hero, outsider American detective
Dupin, solved the crimes.39

Combined with the media’s proclivity to show professional crime fighters as
loners and mavericks, as not fitting comfortably into their agencies, the cumula-
tive media message clearly is that it is outsiders who save the day and that ordi-
nary law enforcers are unequal to the task of fighting crime. Collectively, the
citizen soldier crime fighters further reveal the media tendency to present crime
not as a social problem but as an individual contest. In these portraits private
citizens supplant the entire criminal justice system. Crime fighting becomes a
private issue of good versus evil between autonomous individuals. The larger
society, and particularly its formal institutions, is little involved if not a direct
obstacle to successful crime fighting. The message is that if you have a crime
problem the regular police are unlikely to be helpful, and you had best deal
with it on your own.

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The basic distinction between media crime fighters is whether the crime fighter
is a member of the established criminal justice system or a citizen. If one com-
bines the citizen crime fighter with the rogue, special-unit, maverick law enfor-
cers, criminal justice system outsiders and marginalized employees are far more
common and more successful in the media-constructed world of crime fighting
than traditional mainstream criminal justice system personnel. Successful crime
fighters are usually portrayed as antisocial, unattached loners even when they
are members of an established law enforcement agency—the icon of Clint East-
wood’s Dirty Harry is a prime example. The media super-cop is accordingly usu-
ally not a regular cop at all but someone from outside the system or a maverick
officer within it. Whether an outsider or not, the successful crime fighter is usu-
ally a heroic white man of action. Media crime fighters are portrayed as very
effective in solving crimes and apprehending criminals but not at all effective in
preventing crime. They are better agents of punishment than deterrence. The
basic crime-fighting narrative is that early crimes are successful and that a criminal
enterprise has been ongoing for years. Only later, after the hero has arrived on
the scene, are crimes unsuccessful. Similar to the manner in which crime is cov-
ered in the news, media crime fighters are reactive and incident driven rather
than proactive and community problem oriented.

The main message these crime-fighter constructions convey about crime is that
crime is not a social problem to be solved at the community level. Instead it is an
invading social evil that must be confronted and destroyed. The social construction
of law enforcement repeatedly points out that a crime “war” is being waged, and
society needs crime fighters, not peace officers or God-help-us, legal due process
protections, social services, or community-based rehabilitation programs—all of
which come across as blatantly naive and wrong-headed. Because of crime’s insidi-
ous nature, the traditional criminal justice system’s due process constraints and
rehabilitation mandates make it unable to cope with crime. The system needs the
assistance of either a rebellious law enforcement insider who is willing to ignore or
bend the law or an unencumbered civilian outsider. Justice, which in the media
means law enforcement, is achieved by individual stars, not by the criminal justice
system. Effective conformist law enforcement officers are rare, and when they are
portrayed, they normally have to resort to innovative special tactics, weapons, tech-
nology, and support units to successfully deal with crime. More frequently, the crime
fighter is portrayed battling serial killers and terrorism in military-like actions (see
Box 4.3). The media world of crime and terrorism is not a world for standard oper-
ating procedures and community-oriented police officers, or for the unarmed, the
hesitant, or the faint-hearted. The media message concerning crime fighting is one
of “legitimized corruption”; solving crimes and preventing terrorism requires breaking
the rules.40

Also significant in media portrayals of law enforcement is the use of vio-
lence. Violence has been an element in the depiction of crime and justice

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throughout media history, but in the twentieth century the entertainment media came
to portray both crime fighters and criminals as more violent and aggressive and to
show this violence more graphically. Since the 1960s, a distinct style known as ultra-
violence—which entails slow-motion injuries, detonating blood capsules, and multiple
camera views—has become common entertainment media content. Indeed, so brutal
have media crime fighters become over the course of the last century that they now
have more similarities to older gangster portraits than to older crime-fighting heroes. In
today’s media, the distinction between the crime fighter and the criminal has all but
disappeared in regard to who initiates violence and how much force is used.

Finally, the increasing emphasis on graphic violence has resulted in a kind of
media weapons cult. Over the years, weapons have become increasingly more
technical and sophisticated but less realistic. More important, guns are shown as
useful problem solvers and necessary crime-fighting tools in modern America. In
the media, the people who get their way, both heroes and villains, are the ones
who have the guns. Furthermore, weapons—especially handguns—tend to be
portrayed as either ridiculously benign, so that misses are common and wounds

B o x 4.3 Crime Fighting and Terrorism

Terrorists as criminals have long been a popular entertainment media story line.
Compared with the typical media serial killer who kills victims one at a time for a
comparatively low body count, terrorists are particularly evil and dangerous predators
who seek to kill thousands in mass murder events. They are especially good foils for the
modern media crime fighter. They also allow crime fighting to be expanded to a global
conflict that involves secret undercover operatives like Jack Bauer and specialized
military units. Special villains seeking world domination justify special tactics such as
torture unfettered by due process and operations that cross international boundaries
and legal systems.















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minor and painless when the crime fighter is the target, or ridiculously deadly, so
that shots from handguns accurately hit moving, distant people, killing them
quickly and without extensive suffering when the crime fighter is shooting. Peo-
ple in crime-and-justice media who use guns seldom suffer psychological, social,
or legal repercussions. A street gun battle is played out and everyone is back at
work the next day. Adding to the unreality, when a gunshot victim is described,
rarely is the victim’s pain or that of the victim’s family or friends shown.41 In
general, the media play up the violence and play down the pain and suffering
associated with criminal violence and gunplay.

In conclusion, the construction of law enforcement as a criminal justice
endeavor dominates over the courts and corrections and is portrayed as a glam-
orous, action-filled process of detection and pursuit that glorifies violence. Deal-
ing with crime is a battle of good versus evil. Historically this battle was
invariably won by the good guys, but today an increasing number of evil crim-
inals escape; corrupt, brutal police officers are more common; and crime control
goals are heavily advanced over due process protections.42 Civil liberties are
ignored and degraded as mushy-headed hindrances that result in a less safe,
more violent society. Professional crime fighters compete with citizen crime
fighters for attention and effectiveness, but in both groups individual loners
tend to be the most successful. Translated to the real world, the need for special
undercover police units, vigilantes, and individual armed protection is implied. In
the end, the media’s social construction of crime fighting shows crime not as a
social problem at all but as an individual concern to be solved by force and tech-
nology by either a core of beleaguered frontline cops, special tactic federal offi-
cers, or individual well-armed civilians.


The portrait of crime fighting in the media is split between crime fighters
employed by the criminal justice system—police officers and investigators
and government agents—and those outside of the system—private investi-
gators and private citizens.

Dealing with crime is shown as a battle that must be violently fought.

Criminal justice–employed crime fighters are portrayed as satirized lam-
pooned officers, professional federal agents, or hardened street cops. Rogue
police officers willing to break the rules are the most effective. From these
portraits, the public draws unrealistic expectations about the capabilities of
the police and their activities.

Private citizens and private investigators are often shown as better at dealing
with crime than the police.

Crime control trumps due process in the media crime fighter world. Due
process protections and departmental policies are portrayed as hindrances to
effectively dealing with crime.

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Crimes in the media are solved by aggressive investigations backed by
science and technology. Crime is not presented as a social problem tied
to other social problems.


1. Watch five episodes of a crime show and summarize the portrait of crime
fighters shown.

2. If available, participate in a ride-along with a local police department and
compare the experience with your prior media impressions of policing.

3. Write an essay describing the connection between the portrayal of guns,
violence, and victims in the media and the crime-fighting policies that are
implied in these portrayals. Include a discussion of the media usually
portraying crime fighting as an individual battle between a predatory criminal
and a heroic crime fighter rather than as a social problem, and state what
criminal justice policies are encouraged and discouraged by this portrait.

4. Write an essay about possible reasons that civilians are portrayed so often
as successful crime fighters and the traditional police are portrayed as unsuc-
cessful in the entertainment media.

5. Come up with additional differences between media police and real police
beyond the ones mentioned by David Perlmutter, or differences between
real and media crime scene technicians as described in Box 4.2. Apply the
same exercise to other criminal justice positions.

6. Watch an episode of the show COPS and write a paper discussing the use of
editing and formatting in the portrayal of police, offenders, and victims.


Doyle, A. 2003. Arresting Images: Crime and Policing in Front of the Television Camera.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Fishman, M. and G. Cavender, eds. 1998. Entertaining Crime: Television Reality Programs.
New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Lawrence, R. 2000. The Politics of Force: Media and the Construction of Police Brutality.
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Leishman, F. and P. Mason. 2003. Policing and the Media. Devon, UK: Willan.

Permutter, D. 2000. Policing the Media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Wilson, C. 2000. Cop Knowledge. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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The Courts


After reading Chapter 5, you will

Recognize the media portraits of the judicial system, judges, and attorneys

Comprehend the concept of media trials

Appreciate the love-hate relationship between television and the courts

Know the judicial mechanisms available to deal with publicity

Understand the issues associated with media strategies to maximize access to
judicial proceedings and minimize government access to media-held


“Law in our time has entered the age of images, legal reality can no longer be
properly understood, or assessed, apart from what appears on a screen.”1 For
many in today’s world, mass media images are their primary source of knowledge
about law, lawyers, and the legal system. In addition to being an important
source of knowledge about the judicial system, judicial images found in the
media are significant in another way. Courtrooms are a society’s formal social
construction arena where the significance and meaning of a wide range of social
behaviors are determined—for example, the courts have recently defined, or at
least attempted to define, what is or is not insane behavior, proper or improper
childcare, and intrusive or acceptable government law enforcement policies.
Judicial proceedings function, therefore, not only as mechanisms for resolving
individual disputes but also as mechanisms for legitimizing the broader society’s
laws, policies, government agencies, and social structure. Accordingly, anything
that influences the public image of the courts invariably influences the courts’


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ability to be a legitimizing mechanism and to fulfill their function as definers of
acceptable social boundaries.

If the media’s renditions of court proceedings influence how the public sees the
courts, in turn, the public’s perception of the courts results in expectations of how
judicial proceedings should look and play out. Media-induced public expectations
cycle back to affect the real courts. How the judicial system conducts procedures,
how attorneys and judges try cases, and how participants behave in courtrooms are
all influenced. The mass media portrait of the judicial system constructs a reality that
the public comes to expect and the courts subsequently strive to fulfill. The judicial
portrait found in the media is examined in three realms: the entertainment media’s
construction of the courtroom; the development of infotainment style media trials;
and the concerns associated with pretrial publicity, government access to media-
held information, and media access to government-held information. The end
result of the collective media portrait of the courts is the modern construction of
the judicial system as a source of high drama and infotainment.


Directly and indirectly, the media paint a distorted image of the courts. When por-
trayed indirectly as in the law enforcement–focused media, the courts are often
alluded to as soft on crime, easy on criminals, and due process–laden institutions
that repeatedly release the obviously guilty and dangerous.2 In law enforcement
portraits of crime fighting, most of the criminals being fought are recidivists, which
implies that criminals go through the court system and return to the streets unde-
terred and unrehabilitated. The message is clear: the legal system is an obstacle and a
frustration to investigators trying to protect the law-abiding and searching for the
truth.3 When shown directly, court officers are often more engaged in fighting
crime than in practicing law.4 When shown practicing law, they are usually
immersed in high-stakes dramatic trials. In accordance with the media’s myopic con-
centration on the rare event in reality such as murder, media-rendered court proce-
dures emphasize the rare-in-reality adversarial criminal trial as the most common
judicial proceeding.5 Less often are preliminary procedures or informal plea bargaining
shown, and post-trial steps are even less common. In contrast to real court systems, in
the media, most defendants go to trial. The courts and the law are constructed in the
media as complicated, arcane contests practiced by expert professionals and beyond
the understanding of everyday citizens. The confrontations, oratory, and deliberations
in the media courtroom are in stark opposition to the criminal justice system’s daily
reality of plea bargains, compromises, and assembly-line justice. None of the media
judicial images you are likely to see represent the reality of the judicial system.

As with most components of the criminal justice system, the dominant popular
image of courtrooms was initially constructed within Hollywood films.6 The con-
struction of the judicial system found in the cinema differs in basic ways from the
typical constructions of crime and law enforcement found in the media. For one,
courtroom films more often locate the obstacles to justice in society and the legal

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system rather than within individual offenders. And because they also frequently
show the impediments to justice being overcome, trial films do not require an
incorrigible criminal who must be destroyed. Courtroom films, however, do reflect
the operation of the backwards law; that is, they present the opposite of crime-
and-justice reality. Films feature the ever-popular crime narratives of murder, abuse
of power, and sex, not the more mundane matters of property and contracts gen-
erally before the courts.

Although movies loosely based on actual events are still popular, recent court-
room portraits have evolved from the fictional and highly unrealistic media
courtroom stories where attorneys investigate and solve crimes by eliciting
confessions during cross-examination to showing more nontrial, backstage aspects
of practicing law. This trend can be traced to Hollywood’s need since the 1960s to
appeal to audiences that have been raised on television. Television programmers, in
turn, have applied a soap opera format to TV courtroom dramas. Scriptwriters and
television programmers attempted to add more realism to their shows by revealing
more of the backstage behavior and private lives of their crime-fighting lawyers.7

The next step for television was to develop courtroom docudramas in which
real cases are turned into infotainment, reenacted, and adjudicated in realistic-
looking courtroom scenes. Lastly, spurred by the immense popularity and profits
of the first O. J. Simpson trial in the 1990s, the infotainment format has been incor-
porated into a number of contemporary court-based media productions.

Currently, the social construction of the courts is rendered through a triumvirate
of trial and law films, infotainment-style pseudo judicial programs, and heavily pub-
licized media co-opted live cases. All of these media judicial portraits emphasize rare
events (trials), uncommon charges (homicide), improbable evidence (criminalistics
and CSI laboratory results), and unlikely interactions (dramatic adversarial confrontations)
to collectively present a heavily skewed unrealistic picture of the courts and the render-
ing of law. How are the attorneys, the practitioners of law, portrayed in these renditions?

Crime-Fighting Attorneys

Although criminal law is only one area of law and in the real world most attorneys
practice other specialties, most lawyers in the media are criminal lawyers and
specialize in criminal law.8 Based on the most prominent media images of court-
rooms, most law school graduates apparently wanted to attend the police acad-
emy. In the media, the protectors of due process are also frequently advocates of
crime control. Thus, although shown less frequently than police officers in the
entertainment media, attorneys and judges, when they star, are like their law
enforcement counterparts, often expending as much effort solving crimes and pur-
suing criminals as they do interpreting and practicing law.9

The crime-fighting lawyer has not always been the dominant image. In
earlier generally uncritical portraits of the judicial system such as the film classic
To Kill a Mockingbird, lawyers were constructed as homespun, simple yet crafty
all-American jurists.10 In contrast, in the contemporary period legal skill and
justice are less important and have been replaced by attorneys hunting down
predator psychopaths or involved in sundry action scenes. Trial scenes are now

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more likely to be episodes imbedded within a thriller, and heroic lawyers are as
likely to appear in fight and chase scenes as in court proceedings.11

When they are not also crime fighters, attorneys can expect to be portrayed
negatively. For example, Robert and Linda Lichter found that in prime time televi-
sion programming attorneys are more likely than police officers to be shown as
greedy and nearly as likely to be shown as corrupt. In sum, in another backwards
portrait, attorneys in the media are not shown spending much of their time practic-
ing law, and when they do practice law, it is overwhelmingly criminal law. A group
that has particularly suffered in its media constructions are female attorneys.

Female Attorneys

Similar to the portrayals of policewomen, female attorneys—while enjoying a
longer tradition in the media—are frequently defeminized as career women or
projected as creatures dominated by sexual conflicts or repression. The media
construction of the female lawyer frequently assumes the incompatibility of the
social roles of attorney and woman. Even so, female attorneys appear to fare
better than media policewomen in that some aspects of their likely real-world
experiences are portrayed.12 The scarcity of female lawyers, the gender-based
attitudes prevalent toward women lawyers, and the social friction generated by

Perhaps representing a shift and serving as a counter example to the common portrait of
female attorneys in the entertainment media as young and occupying lower agency posi-
tions, Candice Bergen was portrayed as a full partner in her law firm in the television
show, Boston Legal.













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the clashing of traditional female social roles and their functioning as effective
attorneys can all be found in their media constructions. However, like police-
women, their sexuality and unresolved sexual tensions are likely to dominate
their media portrayals. Female attorneys are more often shown as young, white,
single, childless, and in lower-echelon positions in their law firms and criminal jus-
tice agencies. They also share with male attorney portrayals an unrealistic level of
involvement in dangerous and sensational criminal law cases.

In sum, the courts and attorneys are usually unrealistically constructed in the
media. Rare real-world events and activities are common in media judicial portraits;
common judicial procedures and attorney duties are rare in the media. Although not
as wildly inaccurate as the image of police, the courts and attorneys are still more
often shown in crime-fighting narratives than in more realistic story lines. Even
when the portrayals are based on real cases, the infotainment criteria that drive the
selection of cases culls out the usual and nonviolent case in favor of the abnormal
and predatory. Some of these selected cases become multimedia, pop culture bonanzas,
generating enormous markets, profits, and spinoffs for news, entertainment, and info-
tainment media.13 Termed “media trials,” these judicial miniseries have become the
most important single contributor to the social construction of the courts in America.14


Media trials involve the social construction of select criminal justice cases that are
taken up by the media, commodified, and mass marketed as massive infotainment
products. Learning about the courts from these trials is analogous to learning geol-
ogy solely from volcano eruptions. You will be impressed and entertained but you
will learn little about the common workings of the courts. The first notorious
mass-mediated trials in the United States appeared after the establishment of the
first mass media, the daily penny press newspapers. One of the first was the 1859
trial of anarchist John Brown, which attracted daily coverage and widespread
dissemination via telegraph. A later example is the 1875 trial of nationally known
preacher Henry Ward Beecher, a judicial narrative built around an adultery trial.
The Lizzie Borden 1893 trial for the ax murders of her parents foreshadowed the
lurid murder trials involving celebrities and set the stage for a steady parade of media
trials throughout the twentieth century. Media trials have been a consistent presence
in the media, crime, and justice world and were constructed every three to five years
over the course of the twentieth century. Increasing in frequency as the century
ended, they show no evidence of abating in the twenty-first century.

Contemporary media trials are distinguished from typical judicial news by the
massive and intensive coverage that begins either with the discovery of the crime
or the arrest of the accused.15 The media cover all aspects of the case, often highlight-
ing extralegal facts. Judges, lawyers, police, witnesses, jurors, and particularly defen-
dants are interviewed, photographed, and frequently raised to celebrity status.
Personalities, personal relationships, physical appearances, and idiosyncrasies are com-
mented on regardless of legal relevance. Coverage is live whenever possible, pictures
are preferred over text, and text is characterized by conjecture and sensationalism.16

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In their coverage of these trials, the media offer direct and individualistic explanations
of crime: lust, greed, immorality, jealousy, revenge, and insanity.

One factor behind the recent increase in the number of media trials is that
twentieth-century news organizations competing for ratings increasingly struc-
tured the news along entertainment lines, presenting it within frames, formats,
and explanations originally found solely in entertainment programming. Eventu-
ally fast-paced, dramatic, superficial presentations and simplistic explanations
became the norm. As this trend developed, criminal trials came to be covered
more intensely, and news organizations expanded their coverage from hard fac-
tual presentations to soft human interest news, emphasizing extralegal human
interest elements.17 The process culminates in the total combining of news and
entertainment in the media trial and today it is the sensational, titillating, and
dramatic judicial elements which receive media attention.18

Media Trial Effects

When media trials began to be televised in the 1960s, heightened concern arose
over their effects. In the Estes case in 1965 (which resulted in banning television

In 1927, Charles Lindbergh made the first solo, nonstop New York to Paris flight in the
airplane Spirit of St. Louis. He returned an international hero and the most famous
man in the world, becoming, in effect, the first mass media celebrity. The kidnapping
and murder of his infant son in 1932, and the subsequent trial and execution of
Bruno Hauptmann for the crime, foreshadowed today’s massive coverage of media
trials. Shown are the reporters gathered to cover the 1935 trial of Bruno Hauptmann.





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cameras in courtrooms), Chief Justice Earl Warren stated: “Should the television
industry become an integral part of our system of criminal justice, it would not
be unnatural for the public to attribute the shortcomings of the industry to the
trial process itself.”19 The passage of time has not reduced this concern. The basic
issue is whether attorneys, judges, and other participants react to the presence of
television cameras by altering their courtroom behavior. The fear is that partici-
pants will change the way they testify, argue, and construct their cases to fit the
needs of the electronic visual media and that attorneys will audition for massive
external television audiences rather than litigate before small courtroom audi-
ences. Media-driven changes have already been documented in religion, sports,
and politics; small live audiences are often less important (and sometimes skipped
entirely) in preference for large, external media-supplied ones.20

The relationship between the media and the justice system is further strained by
media trials because different considerations and values govern the means by which
each obtains knowledge and evaluates its worth. The criminal justice system is
guided by legislative and constitutional mandates, and the courts have the task of
separating legally relevant from irrelevant information. Media, however, respond
primarily to newsworthiness and entertainment considerations. Each side’s consid-
erations dictate what facts are presented as well as when and how they are disclosed.
Traditionally, in the courtroom information is imparted in a form and by a process
different from that preferred by the media. Courtroom knowledge is extracted point
by point in long story lines following legal procedures and rules of evidence. More-
over, the information is specially prepared for a limited audience of a judge or jury.

In contrast, media renditions are outwardly directed and developed in
accordance with entertainment values rather than legal relevance. They are brief,
time- and space-limited constructions that must make their points quickly, and
they are built around whatever film or dramatic elements are available. In sum, the
courts have traditionally presented internally controlled, front-stage events to a small,
specific audience of judges and jurors, whereas media-produced products tend to
present dramatic backstage information to an external, general mass audience. This
inherent conflict between media and justice systems crystallizes in the media trial
where the courthouse becomes the production stage for the media. With the ascen-
dance of media trials, the traditional courtroom audience became secondary to the
external media audience both inside and outside of the courtroom.

For these reasons, despite their relatively small numbers, media trials are crucial
in the social construction of crime-and-justice reality.21 They serve as massive pub-
lic stages that disseminate crime-and-justice knowledge to vast audiences of ordi-
nary citizens.22 In a media trial, both the jury and the vicariously attending public
can decide between one reality constructed by the state in which the accused is
guilty and another constructed by the defense in which the defendant is not guilty.
As the dominant delivery medium of these trials, visual media direct the facts that are
selected, constructed, and presented to the public. Not surprisingly, media trials in-
volve cases that contain the same elements popular in entertainment programming—
human interest laced with mystery, sex, bizarre circumstances, and famous or
powerful people (see Box 5.1). In their coverage, the media simplify the task of
reporting, interpreting, and explaining a trial. As in the entertainment media,

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recurrent themes dominate media trial constructions, and crime is nearly universally
attributed to individual failings rather than to social conditions. The three most
common types of media trials utilize narratives taken directly from entertainment
media: abuse of power, the sinful rich, and evil strangers.23 These themes provide
the news media with powerful preestablished conceptual frameworks to present and
mold the various aspects of a trial’s coverage.24

Media trials that fit the abuse of power theme include those cases in which
the defendant occupies a position of trust, prestige, or authority. The general rule
is the higher the rank, the more media interest in the case. Cases involving police
corruption and justice system personnel in general are especially attractive to the
media. Sinful rich media trials include cases in which socially prominent de-
fendants are involved in bizarre or sexually related crimes. These trials have a
voyeuristic appeal, and the media coverage aims to persuade the public that
they are being given a rare glimpse into the backstage sordid world of the upper
class and powerful. Love triangles, deviant sex, and inheritance-motivated killings

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among the rich and famous are primary examples.25 The category of evil stran-
gers is composed of two subgroups: non-Americans and psychotic killers. Non-
American evil stranger media trials may involve—depending on the time and
political climate—immigrants, blacks, Jews, socialists, union and labor leaders,
anarchists, the poor, members of counterculture groups, members of minority
religions, or political activists and advocates of unpopular causes. Foreign terror-
ists provide recent examples. Psychotic killer media trials usually focus on bizarre
murder cases in which the defendant is portrayed as a maddened, predatory killer—
exemplified historically by Lizzie Borden (in spite of her acquittal) and more
recently by Jeffery Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, and other serial killers.

All three media trial types have long histories in popular entertainment narra-
tives, and these preestablished entertainment narratives help determine the content
of the coverage in the real cases. Entertainment story lines provide the news media
with the frames by which to measure, choose, and mold aspects of real trials that
will be reported and highlighted. Media trials reinforce the similarity between

beautiful women, and offbeat acquaintances. Indeed, a large part of the interest and
ultimate social impact of this trial stems from the way it became a long-running mass
media entertainment vehicle—a drama-in-real-life, covered more along the lines of a
sports spectacle than a criminal trial that ran for ten months. In the aftermath of a 1995
criminal trial acquittal, a civil jury found Simpson monetarily liable and awarded $8.5
million to the victim’s families. Simpson remained a focus of periodic news stories and in
2008 he was convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping and sentenced to fifteen years
in prison. His second criminal trial did not match up with the media trial themes as his
first one did and his reduced celebrity status resulted in significantly less media

In terms of legal significance, Simpson’s 1995 criminal trial was clearly not the trial
of the century as it was christened by the media—it is better described as the signal
television event of the twentieth century, demanding thousands of hours of coverage.
Regarding the trial’s social impact, most commentators focused on race relations, with
few reporting any positive effects. Other concerns specific to the judicial system gener-
ated from the coverage included the prospect of more criminal defendants refusing to
plea bargain, a skepticism about police testimony, more judicial gag orders on trial par-
ticipants and less camera access, restrictions on attorneys’ use of political rhetoric in
front of juries, and the general degrading in the public’s eye of judges, juries, attorneys,
and the judicial system. Coverage of the trial represented American media and culture
at one of its lowest voyeuristic ebbs, and the judicial system continues to be exploited
regularly in “twenty-first-century media trials.”

SOURCES: G. Bains, “The Criminal Trial as a Sports Spectacle.” Mclean’s 108 (February 20, 1995): 55; G. Barak, ed.,
Media, Process, and the Social Construction of Crime. New York: Garland, 1995; Fox, Sickel and Steiger, Tabloid
Justice; S. Gaines, “O. J. Simpson, Mark Fuhrman, and the Moral ‘Low Ground’ of Ethnic/Race Relations in the
United States.” Black Scholar 25 (1995): 46–48; J. Garvey, “Race and the Simpson Verdict.” Commonwealth 122
(1995): 6; D. Gelernter, “The Real Story of Orenthal James.” National Review (October 9, 1995): 45–47; B. Handy,
“Our Mutual Houseguest.” Time 146 (October 16, 1995): 108; S. Pillsbury, “Time, TV, and Criminal Justice: Second
Thoughts on the Simpson Trial.” Criminal Law Bulletin 59(3) 1997: 3–28; R. Rosenblatt, “A Nation of Painted
Hearts.” Time (October 16, 1995): 40–46; F. Schmalleger, Trial of the Century. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall,
1996; J. Walsh, “Special Report: The Simpson Verdict.” Time 146 (October 16, 1995): 62–64; and M. Whitaker,
“Whites v. Blacks.“ Newsweek 126 (October 16, 1995): 28–34.

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news and entertainment, inspiring news personnel to structure their coverage
along familiar entertainment narratives and providing the fodder for entertainment
personnel to author the distorted fictional constructions that are referenced in the
news.26 Courtroom attorneys rely on both to construct their infotainment-
structured evidence narratives for juries. The public receives the responsibility-
diverting message that the rich are immoral in their use of sex, drugs, and violence;
that people in power are evil, greedy, and should not be trusted; and that strangers
and those with different lifestyles or values are inherently dangerous. Table 5.1 lists
some well-known examples of media trials and their outcomes.

Merging Judicial News with Entertainment

Media trials represent the final step in a long process of merging judicial news and
entertainment—a process that today results in multimedia products and extensive
commercial exploitation. The Internet has extended this process and provides
detailed information about these cases to a much greater degree than was previ-
ously available. The Internet also provides a vehicle for the public to become active
trial participants in dedicated trial chat rooms, providing running evidence and tes-
timony assessments complete with votes on guilt or innocence. If prior coverage of
media trials resembled a miniseries, today it is more like a game show. Along with
extensive interest, the money to be made from a popular long-running media trial
is enormous. That the source of media trials is the judicial system eases the merger
and heightens the profits, for media trials allow the news media to attract and mar-
ket to large audiences while maintaining their preferred image as objective and
neutral. A trial is also a natural stage for presenting drama and comes supplied with
tax-supported sets, lead and secondary characters, extras, and dialogue. Media trials
provide the media with ready-made narratives for entertainment vehicles in the
form of movie scripts, episodes for weekly crime and law dramas, and content for
infotainment talk shows, books, and other commercial spinoffs. They become, in
effect, an entire media industry line.

The social impact and importance of media trials is seldom connected to the
extent of social harm from their associated crimes. Their significance comes from
the attention they receive and the public debate they engender generated from the
intense media and public focus on the trial proceedings. These trials are significant
because they influence the public’s attitudes and views regarding crime, justice, and
society for years.27 A specific concern for a judicial system experiencing a medial
trial is the generation of a secondary effect on nonpublicized cases. Following a
media trial, a coverage effect influences the processing and disposition of similarly
charged but unpublicized cases.28 This coverage echo has been described a number
of times in the literature:

But while the impact of the press is most direct on specific cases covered,
there is good reason to believe that [their] sway extends considerably
beyond the cases actually appearing.… From the cases that are covered,
officials become conditioned to expect demands for stern treatment from
the press, and in the unpublicized cases they probably act accordingly.29

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This unwillingness [to plea bargain] appears to occur relatively
infrequently. It is most likely to occur when there is strong pressure
upon the prosecution to obtain maximum sentences for a particular class
of crime: for example, after a notorious case of child rape, the prosecu-
tor may refuse to bargain, for a time, with those charged with sex of-
fenses involving children; after a series of highly publicized drug arrests,
for a time, to engage in reduction of charges from sales to possession.30

Additionally empirical evidence of a punitive echo is found in a study of a decade
of felony case processing in Dade County, Florida. Following a heavily covered
case involving child abuse at a daycare center a significant jump in similarly charged
cases occurred.31 The implication of a publicity spill-over effect is that media at-
tention influences the processing and disposition of a large number of cases, the
majority of which receive no coverage. Such effects are, of course, heightened
when live television is part of the media trial package.

Live Television in Courtrooms

Often a component in the construction of media trials, live television coverage of
judicial proceedings represents the most intrusive media interaction with the judicial
system. The schizophrenic judicial posture toward televised proceedings is shown
by its embracement in the first O. J. Simpson criminal trial and its banishment
from his civil trial. The judiciary has long been skeptical about visual coverage of
trials. Recognition of photography’s unique potential for disruption originated with
Bruno Hauptmann’s trial for the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s
baby son in the 1930s.32 In response to problems that arose during this trial, the
American Bar Association in 1937 issued a new rule (or canon) regarding the use
of photographic equipment at trials:

Proceedings in court should be conducted with fitting dignity and
decorum. The taking of photographs in the courtroom, during sessions
of the court or recesses between sessions, and the broadcasting of court
proceedings are calculated to detract from the essential dignity of the
proceedings, degrade the court and create misconceptions in the mind
of the public and should not be permitted.33

This recommended ban on photography in the courtroom was widely adopted
and was extended in 1952 to include television cameras as well. Despite the ex-
tension of the ABA rules (which are unenforced recommended standards of
expected conduct), the first trial to receive television coverage took place in 1953
in Oklahoma City, and the first to receive live coverage in 1955 was in Waco,
Texas. These cases stand as exceptions to the more broadly upheld aversion to
television in the courts that existed into the 1980s.

The Supreme Court first reviewed the question of television access to court-
rooms in Estes v. Texas in 1965.34 The Estes trial received intense regional television
coverage with nightly news reports broadcast from the courthouse. The Court
reversed Estes’s conviction, ruling that television was unavoidably disruptive and

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should have been banned: “Television in its present state and by its very nature,
reaches into a variety of areas in which it may cause prejudice to an accused.…
The televising of criminal trials is inherently a denial of due process.”35 In the Estes
aftermath, most states severely limited television’s access to their courts, and many
simply banned all television coverage.

However, encouraged by the development of less obtrusive television equip-
ment, various states continued to experiment with televising proceedings. In 1979
the Florida Supreme Court allowed television reporting from trial courts without
requiring the permission of defendants. Florida’s procedures were reviewed by the
U.S. Supreme Court in 1981 in Chandler v. Florida.36 At that time, the Court
rejected many of the assumptions about television it had forwarded sixteen years
earlier. The most significant assumption it rejected was that televising a criminal trial
without the defendant’s consent is an inherent denial of due process. Emphasizing
the modernization of the medium, the lack of evidence of a psychological impact
from televised coverage on trial participants, and an increase in the public acceptance
of television as a fact of everyday life, the Court upheld the Chandler conviction.

Unstated by the Supreme Court, additional reasons for this reversal also devel-
oped in the years between Estes and Chandler. Backed by surveys of the public, dur-
ing this period there was growing concern among the judiciary that the public
lacked confidence in the courts’ ability to confront crime and criminals.37 The courts
were viewed as part of the cause of a steadily increasing crime rate. In this negative
atmosphere, televising trials began to look like a possible counterweight to negative
public perceptions. As front-stage events constructed for public consumption, trials
show the justice system at its best. It was increasingly felt that the cameras would
show impartial justice, fair procedure, conviction of the guilty, and imposition of
fair sentences. By contrast, the seamy backstage of the criminal justice process—the
plea bargaining, the procedural inefficiency, the arbitrary decision making inherent
in police and prosecutor discretion—would go unseen. Televising trials, in other
words, was seen as unlikely to hurt and likely to be potentially helpful in shoring
up the judicial system’s poor public image. By the 1980s, the courts saw televised
trials as a means of presenting controlled, formal front-stage events to the public
while protecting their backstage assembly-line processes from exposure.

The basic question of whether or not to allow television cameras in the
courtroom was never whether the media had the freedom to report courtroom
matters—broadcast journalists could attend and report trials on the same basis as
other reporters, that is, without their cameras—but concerned the effect of expand-
ing the trial audience to include persons not in the courtroom. In the 1960s—at the
time of the Estes ruling—the court feared the effects of this expansion on both the
trial participants and the expanded electronic audience. By the 1980s, the courts felt
that a broadly expanded audience of external spectators was a good thing that would
have an uplifting impact on the negative image of the courts. In addition, judges
came to accept the news media and became more comfortable with the measures
necessary to control media behavior during trials.

In addition, as predatory criminality became the dominant social construc-
tion of crime and began to influence criminal justice policy, the constitutional
importance given to defendants’ rights diminished in favor of general social

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interests and increased support for electronic media access. As a result, opposition
to courtroom television evaporated. The Chandler decision marks a remarkable
shift in the attitude of the judicial system toward the presence of television in
courtrooms. In 1976, all but two states prohibited cameras in courtrooms. As of
2005 all fifty states allow some type of coverage at either the appellate or trial
level or both. The Chandler decision emerged as a broad victory for the elec-
tronic media and the assumption of media access to judicial proceedings.

The effects of cameras on actual courtroom proceedings are no longer seen
as a prime concern, but the effects of those cameras on those outside the court-
room is still worrisome. Most worrisome is that public disturbances and full-scale
riots have been triggered by court decisions in highly publicized cases.38 Other
unresolved issues include a chilling effect on victims reporting crimes, particularly
victims of rape, witnesses seeking to avoid embarrassing coverage being reluctant
to testify, heightening the public’s fear of crime, distorting the public’s beliefs
about the workings of the judicial system, encouraging copycat crimes, and pub-
licly pillorying defendants who are eventually found innocent. However, the
infotainment value of media trials is too great, public interest too high, and none
of the negative effects or speculated concerns severe enough to curtail coverage. In
fact, the social and economic pressures to grant media access are so great that even
in trials that are obviously flooded with massive coverage, the cameras and intense
media scrutiny are usually allowed.

So it is that today intensive, and sometimes intrusive, news coverage is accepted
as a fact of life in the judiciary. Future clashes between the two are to be expected as
the media seek access to previously backstage judicial proceedings and as media tech-
nology makes recording and marketing them easier. The media are aided in this
process by the society wide effects of the electronic visual mass media over the last
fifty years, which has undermined public support for closing off social institutions.
Country clubs, golf courses, prisons, bars, fraternal organizations, and a host of other
institutions, as well as the courts, are less successful in claiming a traditional right to
insulate themselves from broad public and media access. Currently the evolution of
the media and the judiciary’s unsteady relationship has three areas of concern and
unresolved conflict—the effect of pretrial publicity, the appropriate judicial mechan-
isms to be used by the courts when they are faced with intense media attention, and
access by both sides to information held by the other.



Pretrial Publicity

In 1807, Aaron Burr’s attorney claimed that jurors could not properly decide his
client’s case because of prejudicial newspaper articles.39 From this initial point of
contention, the media and courts have continued to joust over pretrial publicity.
Ironically, despite their adversarial history and contentious interactions, the media

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and the judicial system react to criminal events in much the same manner. Both
concentrate on constructing a particular version of reality to be presented to a spe-
cific audience—jurors, viewers, or readers. The relationship between the media and
the judicial system is sometimes cooperative, but more often each jealously guards
its information while attempting to discover what the other knows. This is particu-
larly true during the investigative and pretrial period of a case. Publicity before and
during a trial may so affect a community and its courts that a fair trial becomes
impossible and due process protections such as the presumption of innocence are
destroyed. The media especially create problems when they publish information
that is inadmissible in the courtroom and construct a community atmosphere in
which finding and impaneling impartial jurors is not possible.

Unfortunately it is not always clear when particular media content is preju-
dicial. Prejudicial publicity can take two forms: factual information that bears
on the guilt of a defendant and emotional information without evidentiary rele-
vance. Factual information includes allusions to confessions, performances on
polygraph or other inadmissible tests, and past criminal records and convictions.
Emotional information includes stories that question the credibility of witnesses
or present the personal feelings, stories about the defendant’s character (he hates
children and dogs), associates (she hangs around with known syndicate gunmen),
or personality (he’s a mean-spirited, bad-tempered degenerate), and stories that
inflame the general public (someone has to be punished for this!).

Despite the concerns about prejudicial coverage, the U.S. Supreme Court
has not operationally defined prejudicial coverage for the lower courts. Faced
with ambiguity and forced to render largely subjective determinations, both trial
and appellate courts have focused on jurors as the key to determining the fairness
of a trial. In practice, the operational definition of an impartial juror is derived
from the 1807 Aaron Burr case: “An impartial juror is one free from the domi-
nant influence of knowledge acquired outside the courtroom, free from strong
and deep impressions which close the mind.”40 Though not a precise rule, this
definition does eliminate ignorance of a case or a total lack of exposure to media
coverage as a requirement for impartiality. Jurors can be exposed to extensive
media content regarding a case and still be considered impartial. If a jury is
deemed impartial and uninfluenced by media coverage, then the proceedings
are usually considered fair.

Paralleling this issue is the concern that trial publicity will result in unwarranted
harm to a defendant. Appeals courts have thus far not recognized media coverage as
a mitigating factor in sentencing decisions. Left unaddressed are cases in which a
defendant is found innocent of criminal charges but has his or her reputation perma-
nently ruined by publicity. The consequence of publicity has been described in this
way in relation to government officials who have been investigated:

Once again the tendency to portray public officials accused of criminal
or unethical activities as guilty [is displayed].… We find it appalling that
long after many of these individuals have been found innocent of the
accusations against them, the disproved accusations continue to be re-
peated as almost a permanent addendum to their name in news stories.41

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The concern is that live television coverage incites such negative feelings against
defendants that, even if they are later acquitted, the feelings are irreversible. The
modern media have constructed a new verdict: legally innocent but socially
guilty. In the process, media coverage confounds the concepts of legal guilt (is
the defendant legally responsible for a crime?) and factual guilt (did the defendant
actually commit the criminal behavior?). Factual guilt is not always equivalent to
legal guilt, and the general public little understands and is poorly instructed by
the media in the differences between the two. If defendants who have been
found innocent are subsequently still punished by losing their career or reputa-
tion because of publicity, then the criminal justice system loses legitimacy with
those who identify with these defendants.

Judicial Mechanisms to Deal with Pretrial Publicity

Faced with a case that will generate significant pretrial publicity, the courts have
two strategies they can pursue. One is proactive and seeks to limit the availability
of potentially prejudicial material to the media. The second is reactive and seeks
to limit the effects of the material on the proceeding after it has been dissemi-
nated to the public by the media. Under the first strategy, if a court deems in-
formation to be prejudicial, it acts to restrict either media access to the
information or, if the material is already in the media’s possession, restricts the
publication of the information. Proactive mechanisms include closure and re-
strictive and protective orders (see Box 5.2). This approach directly clashes with
the First Amendment protection of freedom of the press and has been vigorously
resisted by the media. It has also not been a favored strategy of the appellate
courts, as shown in test cases in which the Supreme Court has been more likely
to uphold appeals by the media where a proactive strategy has been used.

Appeals by the media have been less successful when the courts employ a
reactive strategy, allowing the news media access and publication but attempting
to compensate for negative effects from the resulting publicity. In this approach,
trial court judges can invoke a number of reactive steps to limit the negative
effects. These reactive mechanisms are generally preferred over closure, re-
strictive orders, and protective orders because they do not directly limit the ac-
tivities of the media and thus do not directly undermine the First Amendment
freedom of the press.42 They rest on the premise that even if most of the public
may be influenced and biased by media information, an unbiased jury can still be
assembled and an unbiased trial conducted. Applying a reactive strategy, judges
can expand jury selection (the voir dire), grant trial continuances, grant changes
of venue, sequester jurors, and give special instructions to the jury to counteract
the effects of publicity (see Box 5.3).

Current case law and legislation provide little direction concerning the
appropriate use of these reactive mechanisms, and little empirical research is avail-
able regarding their relative effectiveness. Therefore, although each mechanism
has recognized strengths and weaknesses, its application is based on unproved
but commonly accepted assumptions concerning its effectiveness and appropriate
use. Given the pervasiveness and intrusiveness of the media, these after-the-fact

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attempts to compensate are often costly and disruptive, and, most important, of
questionable effectiveness in massively covered media trials.43 Evidence suggests
that media influences may persist even when the legal system makes efforts to
limit that influence.44 Proactive mechanisms are more effective, but they tend to
close off the judicial system and therefore run counter to the society-wide,
media-driven trend to open social institutions. They also preclude any positive
social effects that might be generated from media coverage. Although sometimes
employed, proactive mechanisms continue to lag in popularity, reserved for the
rare and unusual case and challenged whenever used.

Regardless of which strategy judges employ, to enforce their decisions trial
judges rely on contempt-of-court rulings to deter and punish those ignoring their
orders regarding media publicity. In practice, the threat of a contempt finding works
better with local criminal justice system personnel, as they have to consider future

B o x 5.2 Proactive Judicial Mechanisms to Control Prejudicial Publicity

Mechanism Description of Procedure

Closure Closure involves isolating judicial proceedings from outside
(public and press) attendance. Closure is felt to be a very effec-
tive means of preventing prejudicial coverage once a proceed-
ing has begun because there can be no prejudice if there is no
coverage. In opposing closure, the media argue that they are
proxies for the general public and therefore have a right of
access to the court proceedings under the open trial provision
of the Sixth Amendment.


The next most effective step available to control prejudicial
materials is the use of restrictive orders (also termed prior
restraint or gag orders). Restrictive orders prevent the media
from printing or broadcasting information. If information is not
published, it cannot cause bias. Not surprisingly, the media have
argued vigorously for the right to publish what they have
already discovered, and this right has generally been upheld.

Protective orders The third judicial mechanism used to limit the availability of
prejudicial materials is the protective order. Trial participants
are a common source of prejudicial information. By issuing a
protective order, the trial judge prohibits attorneys and others
from making statements outside of the courtroom. These orders
are most effective in the early stages of a case. The legal ratio-
nale behind protective orders allowing speech to be restricted is
that trial participants possess privileged information regarding a
criminal case and no longer have the same First Amendment
right to freely speak as a member of the general public. As it
now stands, it is currently easier for a trial judge to restrict the
speech of a trial’s participants, excluding the defendant, than to
close a proceeding or to restrain the media from publicizing
information and statements they have obtained.

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dealings with the court, and less well with jurors, witnesses, reporters (especially
those from other jurisdictions), and other temporary participants. As a last resort, a
mistrial can be declared and a retrial ordered if jurors are exposed to or admit to
being influenced by prejudicial news once a trial has begun (see Box 5.4). A retrial
can be thought of as the ultimate reactive judicial remedy for media publicity—but

B o x 5.3 Reactive Judicial Mechanisms to Control Prejudicial Publicity

Mechanism Description of Procedure

Voir dire Voir dire, “to speak the truth,” is a process in which prospective
jurors are queried regarding prejudice. Attorneys can prevent
jurors from serving either through challenges for cause, where
they must state a valid reason for eliminating a juror, or
through peremptory challenges (normally limited in number)
that do not have to be supported by a reason. Voir dire will only
identify those jurors who admit knowledge and prejudice about
a case, and it is based on the premise that jurors will recognize
themselves as biased and truthfully admit it.

Continuance Continuance is simply a delay in the start of a trial until media
coverage and its effects are thought to have subsided enough
to allow an unbiased trial. The practice is based on the premise
that media interest in the case will wane and that jurors will
forget details of past media reports. Disadvantages include that
it is inconsistence with the defendant’s right to a speedy trial
and the possibility that witnesses and evidence may not be
available at a later time.

Change of venue A trial may be moved from a location in which the case has
received heavy media coverage to one in which it has received
less coverage and is of less interest, and where residents are
assumed to be less biased. Although costly and questionable in
effectiveness, venue changes are deemed necessary in certain
cases—for example, in rural areas where the jury pool is limited
and a major crime is likely to be the dominant news story for a
long time.

Sequestration Isolating a jury to control the information that reaches it can be
very effective if the jury has not been exposed to prejudicial
information prior to being impaneled. However, it is costly and
disruptive to jurors and is felt to generate animosity toward the

Jury instructions The simplest and least expensive judicial mechanism that can be
invoked, jury instructions comprise the directions the trial judge
gives to the jury. They fundamentally consist of telling jurors to
ignore media coverage. Empirical studies that have examined
this mechanism suggest, however, that for the most part stan-
dard jury warnings do not eliminate publicity generated bias
and that juries commonly discuss prejudicial information despite
instructions not to.

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it also represents an expensive failure of the judicial system and does not prevent the
recurrence of renewed massive coverage.

In addition to pretrial publicity and strategies to deal with the media, access to
files, records, notes, photos, and databases have raised concerns. Issues here take

B o x 5.4 Amanda Knox’s Italian Media Trial

A media trial that generated international media attention was the 2009 trial
of American college student Amanda Knox in Italy for the murder of her British
roommate, Meredith Kercher. Ms. Knox and her Italian boyfriend were accused of killing
Ms. Kercher during a violent sex game. The pretrial publicity surrounding
the trial of Ms. Knox became an issue as a posting from a “Friends of Amanda”
Web site states:

“The mission of the Friends of Amanda was to achieve some measure of balance
in the pre-trial publicity. Prejudicial and erroneous public accounts resulted from
leaks and false information from the closed-door year-long pre-charging proceed-
ings. As we have stated, turning around the “super tanker” of negative publicity
against Amanda Knox has been a slow, difficult, and laborious process. We believe
we have now had a significant impact in achieving some balance in what has been
reported and have achieved our purpose. Now that a public trial is underway, we will
stand back and let the international public see what there is to be seen in the public
trial proceedings. We hope only for fairness and justice in the proceedings for all,
including for Amanda Knox.” (downloaded 1/11/2010 from http://www.annebremner.

Ms. Knox was found guilty and sentenced to twenty-six years in prison. At press,
she is currently in prison in Italy and appealing her conviction.








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two forms: those related to the media desiring access to government controlled
and collected information and those related to government agencies gaining
access to media collected and controlled information.

Media Access to Government Information

In a significant number of instances, a government agency has possession of in-
formation that the media deems newsworthy. Oftentimes the government is
reluctant to release such information, and in response the press has worked to
increase its access to government-held data and files. The first national response
to obtaining information held by the government was the federal Freedom of
Information Act, adopted in 1966. This act opened up numerous government
files to the media and the public. A later associated law was the Government in
Sunshine Act, passed in 1976, which prohibits closed government meetings that
concern public policy. Both of these efforts have been duplicated in numerous
states but have had mixed results in easing the news media’s access to govern-
ment files and information.

Part of the cause of the mixed impact of the laws targeted at access stems
from the federal Privacy Act in 1974. Concerns over privacy and misuse of in-
formation collected by government regarding individuals led to support for a
counterbalance. The goal was to control the misuse of government information
and to restrict access to certain information in criminal files and judicial records.
Information required to be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act can-
not be withheld under the auspices of the Privacy Act, but the boundary between
the two acts has always been blurred. Further muddying the water, while expand-
ing government access to privately held information, the effects of the Patriot Act
of 2001 and the Homeland Security Act of 2002 on media access to government-
held information are not yet clear. As in other areas regarding the media, the lower
courts, agency personnel, and the media operate without clear rules in determining
when privacy supersedes public interests, and decisions are rendered on a case-
by-case basis. To date the overall effect of this legislation has been more symbolic
than significant, and today the media’s access to government-held files and infor-
mation varies significantly by jurisdiction.

Reporters’ Privilege and Shield Laws

On the opposite side of the knowledge-control issue, the media sometimes possess
information that the courts or law enforcement officials want but that reporters do
not want to provide. Controversy generally revolves around journalists’ claims to the
right of a privileged conversation. Journalists argue that they should be protected
from having to divulge information or identify their sources to the same extent that
communications between husbands and wives, attorneys and clients, priests and
penitents, and psychiatrists and patients are protected. In each of the latter relation-
ships, the courts cannot compel disclosure. Journalists argue that to fulfill their con-
stitutional function as watchdogs of government activities and to guarantee their
access to information, their news sources must be similarly protected.

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Opponents to the extension of privileged protection to media sources have
argued that the media should have no more protections or privileges than the
average citizen, whose duty to provide testimony in criminal matters has been
regularly affirmed.

Paralleling media efforts for recognition of a constitutional right to privileged
conversation protection, the media has also lobbied for shield laws, or legislative
protection from forced divulgence. The first reporters’ shield law was passed in Bal-
timore, Maryland, in 1896. Since then, the media have continued to lobby success-
fully for shield laws, and currently thirty-five states and the District of Columbia
offer shield law protections.45 Most qualify the protection afforded reporters and
provide a judicial test to be applied to assess whether the media’s information is
relevant and whether it can be obtained from other sources.46 The effectiveness of
shield laws is questionable, though, as the protection they afford the media is subject
to state court interpretations and judicial rulings.47 Often the degree to which re-
porters are shielded depends not on what a state’s laws say but on a judge’s attitude
toward the press.48 A second serious deficiency with state shield laws is that they
operate only within each state, and contemporary news organizations are national
and international in scope. Because of these deficiencies, few journalists believe their
state’s shield laws provide substantial help in protecting confidential files or prevent-
ing forced testimony.

Currently, the media are seldom asked to provide information. But due to
the absence of new Supreme Court decisions, a narrow interpretation of shield
statutes at the state level has occurred. When judges and law enforcement per-
sonnel do request information, reporters can usually be forced to divulge it—especially
if the information can be shown to be central to a case and is unavailable from other
sources. The media’s efforts have made obtaining their information more costly, time
consuming, and difficult, and in that sense they have successfully increased control of
their knowledge. But like the courts themselves, the media are now also more open to
inspection and more often pressed for access and information from nongovernmental
sources such as citizen and lobby groups. Ironically, the very process of access that the
media initiated has cycled back to affect their own social reality.



Today phrases such as “government in the sunshine” and “freedom of informa-
tion” reflect a larger, media-driven social trend toward greater openness of public
institutions. The two social institutions involved in this trend, the media and the
criminal justice system, play critical roles (see Box 5.5). It was inevitable that the
courts, as central players in these struggles, would be pressured by the media,
especially the electronic media, to open their institutions to scrutiny. Simulta-
neously, the media have also felt the pressure to open their institutions, processes,
and files and have suffered through their own exposés of backstage activities. For
better or worse, the courts and media are tightly coupled in the twenty-first

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century, and both internal courthouse and external media audiences dance to an
infotainment tune.

The place where the change in the dance is most readily observed is in the
courtroom. In the process of defending or prosecuting, lawyers construct reality.
In the courtroom, they reach into the popular culture for images and symbols.
The popular characters and plot lines serve as the building blocks for courtroom
social reality construction by evoking what “everybody knows” about the world.
Prosecuting attorneys invoked the mystery narrative to deliver an evidence-based
story to jurors; defense attorneys counter with a beleaguered hero narrative to
construct their client as the innocent victim of state power.49 As the dominant
media in the United States have moved from print to visuals, so has the style of
legal story construction. Today, one is much more likely to see visual represen-
tations in courtrooms: videos, computer-based animations, and reenactments that
reflect the influence of the visual electronic mass media.50 The end result is that
infotainment has worked its way into court proceedings.

Commenting on this process regarding a case that involved a baby-sitter’s
sexual affair with her charge’s father and her shooting of his wife, Richard
Sherwin states:

The role of the litigator, unlike that of journalist, is to come up with a
narrative truth [or social construction] that can successfully compete against
a counter-narrative [a competing social construction] offered by the other
side. Consider the case of Amy Fisher. In the sense of the prosecution Amy
Fisher represented threats to the established moral order. As a consequence,
[she] would have to pay the penalty for her transgression. On the side of
the defense, Fisher would be framed within a counter-narrative. The image
of Lolita gives way to “the poor unfortunate,” the victim.… In Fisher’s
case, it is a story of psychological disturbance and parental complacency
in the face of her increasingly desperate, and futile, cries for help …
[established social] myths and archetypes contribute to this process. When
a crime occurs, the media, and in time the lawyers for the parties involved,
struggle to come up with the most compelling means [to present their
construction] conveying what occurred and what it means. In this way,
Amy Fisher comes to be known as “the Long Island Lolita.”51

In their utilization of narratives, the courts provide a perfect small-scale model of
the social construction process. For the internal judicial audience, two constructions
of reality are created by competing claims makers who use factual and interpretative
claims (evidence and explanations) and submit them to an audience (judges and
jurors) that chooses and validates one or the other (guilty or not guilty verdicts).
The media have tapped into this internal judicial social construction process and
transformed the judicial system into a massive public infotainment machine. Attor-
neys, judges, defendants, witnesses, and victims sometimes protest, but more often
they embrace their celebrity status and the chance to play a leading role. The courts
have found their place in the twenty-first-century world of media, crime, and jus-
tice, and it is as a combination studio and production company where the most
popular and gripping crime-and-justice dramas are cast and marketed.52

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All these developments can be understood as a broad social reconstruction of
the courts by the media simultaneously carried on within entertainment, news, and
infotainment media. The notable transformation of attorneys from lawyers to
crime fighters in the entertainment media is one indicator of the wider social ideo-
logical transition from left to right and the shift of the courts from a judicial system

B o x 5.5 The Legacy of CourtTV

CourtTV (today called truTV) was created in 1991 with two goals: it would not only
entertain viewers with real-life legal dramas, but would teach them something about
the judicial system. CourtTV featured continuous live trial coverage as its program-
ming core and built on prior success of pay-per-view cable networks like HBO. Its
philosophy regarding content distinguished CourtTV from other then available crime
and justice media content. Trial selection employed an infotainment screen and
CourtTV producers looked for melodrama, popular issues, and charismatic lawyers.
Over its history CourtTV has broadcast the majority of its cases along the lines of
abuse of power, sinful rich, and evil strangers (see pages 112–116). CourtTV’s style of
trial coverage created the now common news media use of on-screen crawl lines and
subtitles, the use of attorneys as anchorpersons and reporters, and the use of subject
area experts to explain scientific tests and to provide background information. It was
the date-rape trial of William Kennedy Smith, a member of the Massachusetts Ken-
nedy family, in 1991 that first brought CourtTV national prominence. Ratings contin-
ued to increase with the trial of Lorena Bobbitt in 1994, a wife who had severed her
husband’s penis and argued a defense of spousal rape. After the O. J. Simpson trial in
1995 ratings declined however, and CourtTV began to expand to non court related

Both positive and negative effects of CourtTV’s style of coverage have been ar-
gued. Proponents argued that gavel-to-gavel coverage resulted in an improved public
view of justice by examining significant social issues, providing understanding of criminal
trial procedures, teaching the public the importance of legal technicalities such as rules
of procedure and evidence, and enhancing public monitoring of elected officials. Sup-
porters saw CourtTV as painless legal education and noted that not a single overturned
decision resulted from its coverage. It is unarguable that CourtTV provided a more com-
plete picture, at least of one judicial trial, over then existing news, entertainment, and
infotainment content. CourtTV effectively exposed the judiciary and criminal procedures
to public scrutiny.

On the other hand, opponents of the network argued that, as it was a commer-
cial venture, an unavoidable profit motive would drive sex and drama cases to be
overly selected for broadcast. It was argued that in many ways, CourtTV was as mis-
leading as any prime time legal drama because their cameras broadcast more than
the jury ever heard, confusing the viewing public when verdicts differed from the
infotainment-formed public consensus. Because juries had access to only legally rele-
vant evidence while the viewing public had access to both legally relevant and info-
tainment knowledge, the concern was that coverage increased public mistrust of the
system when jury verdicts clashed with public perceptions of guilt such as in the O. J.
Simpson trial. This concern is related to the larger phenomenon of public injection
into trials as pseudo-arbiters. CourtTV content bias included portraying trials as com-
mon (continuing the backwards law) and the glamorization of litigation by making
murder and other violent crime trials the center of the legal universe (ignoring that
most cases in the criminal justice system are plea bargained and involve theft). This

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to a source of public entertainment.53 Today, the courts struggle to construct pub-
lic images that better align with their traditional social reality—that of the courts as
fair, impartial institutions that determine truth and dispense justice by the rule of
law. To what extent the media will degrade this historical construction remains to
be determined, but the current public expectations and media content are clearly

portrayal created a “snippet effect” of justice by providing a full picture of a small
but very entertaining part of the entire system.

The impact of CourtTV is difficult to determine. Notwithstanding the concerns,
CourtTV represented an improvement over prior trial coverage. CourtTV also laid the
foundation for a popular set of entertainment television programs such as Oz, Law
and Order, and The Practice based on inside backstage views of the criminal justice
system. The main social effect was that America changed into a nation of vicarious
jurors. The foundation for today’s Internet-based viewer participation in criminal
cases was put down by CourtTV. Studies of a direct relationship between watching
CourtTV and perceptions however show that viewers thought they had learned
something from watching a CourtTV trial but had not learned anything substantial.
A large portion of it viewing audience did not learn criminal or civil law fundamen-
tals for example. However, CourtTV viewers did understand that CourtTV trials were
the exception, not the norm.

In sum, as a result of CourtTV the criminal justice system as a whole is covered
today in greater detail by all media. Following its premiere in 1991, all other net-
works and news stations have come to follow the CourtTV pattern. In a now ac-
cepted infotainment style, today’s media generally focus on the stories about the
trial participants as they are outside the courtroom and work to have viewers emo-
tionally invest in trial outcomes. The final legacy of CourtTV is gavel-to-gavel judicial
infotainment. Currently, the descendant of CourtTV, TruTV, has branched out into
more infotainment “caught on video” reality programs, or as TruTV calls it, “actual-
ity” television. TruTV also maintains TruTV video, a streaming video player, where
viewers “can watch footage of car chases, dumb criminals, gun fights, drunk drivers,
drug busts, naughty girls, police, things that blow up, taser attacks, naked thieves
and more!” Courts as infotainment marches on.

SOURCES: Bennack, F., May 1999. The National Conference on Public Trust and Confidence in the Justice System,
Washington, D.C. Brill, S. July, 1994. Letters: Personal Grudge? ABA Journal 80, p. 10; Courtroom Television Net-
work, 1992. Viewer’s Guide 24 cited by Nasheri, 2002, p. 31 in Crime and Justice in the Age of Court TV ; Cox, D.
and G. Jan. 29, 1996. “Lights, Camera. Justice?” The National law Journal, p. A12; Cripe, K. L. 1999. “Empowering
the Audience: Television’s Role in the Diminishing Respect for the American Judicial System.” UCLA Entertain-
ment Law Review 6 pp. 235–281; Dershowitz, A. May 1994. At Issue: Court TV. ABA Journal 80, p. 46; Doug J.
2002. Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Court TV, N.Y, interview cited by Hasheri 2002, p. 50 in
Crime and Justice in the Age of Court TV ; Harris, D. 1993. “The Appearance of Justice: Court TV, Conventional
Television, and Public Understanding of the Criminal Justice System.” Arizona Law Review, 35, p. 785;
Keygier, M. K. 1995. “The Thirteenth Juror: Electronic Media’s Struggle to Enter State and Federal Courtrooms.”
The Catholic University of America CommLaw Conspectus 3, p. 785; Nasheri, H. 2002. Crime and Justice in the
Age of Court TV. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing, LLC. Paul, A. 1997. “Turning the Camera on CourtTV: Does
Televising Trials Teach Us Anything About Real Law?” Ohio State Law Journal 58 p. 655. Podlas, K. 2001. “Please
Adjust Your Signal: How Television’s Syndicated Courtrooms Bias Our Juror Citizenry.” American Businesses Law
Journal 39, p. 1; Rapping, E. 2003. Law and Justice as Seen on TV. New York: New York University Press;
Sullivan, T. 1999. Sullivan Special Project Producer, CourtTV, interview cited by Nasheri 2002, p. 32 in Crime and
Justice in the Age of Court TV. Takata, S. 2006. “Review: Crime and Justice in the Age of Court TV.” Criminal
Justice Review 31, pp. 389–391. downloaded May 12, 2009.

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steered by infotainment values and tabloid-style content has been credited with
increasing public doubt of the fairness of the judicial system.54 For the near future,
it appears that the judicial system will be seen more as a source of entertainment
than a source of justice. Another set of criminal justice institutions would also like
to reconstruct its media portrait. Corrections have fared even worse than the courts
and Chapter 6 explores the historically poor media–corrections relationship.


The media portrait of the courts is as a source of drama and infotainment
and is unrealistically constructed. Rare real-world events and activities are
common; common judicial procedures and attorney activities are rare.

The courts are alluded to as soft on crime, easy on criminals, due process–
laden institutions that repeatedly release the obviously guilty and dangerous.

When they are not crime fighters, attorneys can expect to be portrayed
negatively in the media.

Female attorneys are frequently defeminized as career women or shown as
sexual creatures forwarding the incompatibility of the social roles of attorney
and woman.

Media trials which regularly appear every three to five years involve com-
modified and mass marketed cases displayed as massive infotainment
products. The three most common types utilize narratives taken from
entertainment media: abuse of power, sinful rich, and evil strangers.

New media provide a means for the public to be active media trial
participants rather than just trial followers.

The U.S. Supreme court reversed its view of courtroom television from the
Estes to the Chandler cases and after being banned for much of the last cen-
tury, television cameras have become a common element in newsworthy trials.

Prejudicial publicity has been the greatest concern of the courts regarding
the news media.

There are two strategies for dealing with pretrial publicity. Proactive me-
chanisms include closure and restrictive and protective orders; reactive steps
include expanded jury selection, granting trial continuances, granting
changes of venue, sequestering jurors, and jury instructions.

Journalists argue that they should be protected from having to divulge
information or identify their sources in order to fulfill their constitutional
function as watchdogs of government activities and to guarantee their access
to information. The news media has also lobbied for shield laws, or
legislative protection from having to provide information.

The courts’ place in the twenty-first century is as a combination studio
and production company where the most popular and gripping crime-
and-justice dramas are cast and marketed.

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1. Write an essay discussing how a trial by jury is a small-scale example of
social constructionism.

2. View and critique the portrait of the judicial system found in a commercial
courtroom film, noting if the criminal law is shown in a positive or a
negative light.

3. Attend a session of first appearances at the local courthouse and compare
the processing of cases there with judicial processing shown in the media.

4. Watch a week’s worth of crime shows and note violations of and
adherence to due process protections. Also note and summarize pro and
con comments on civil liberties, judges, attorneys, and the judicial system.

5. Write a paper discussing why, even though the courts determine what
happens to offenders, media portraits of the courts are fewer in number
than those of law enforcement.


Bailey, F., and S. Chermak. 2004. Famous American Crimes and Trials. Westport, CT:

Bergman, P., and M. Asimow. 1996. Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies. Kansas
City, MO: Andrews and McMeel.

Bruschke, J., and W. Loges. 2004. Free Press vs. Fair Trials: Examining Publicity’s Roles
in Trial Outcomes. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lenz, T. 2003. Changing Images of Law in Film and Television Crime Stories.
New York: Peter Lang.

Nasheri, H. 2002. Crime and Justice in the Age of Court TV. New York: LFB Scholarly
Publishing LLC.

Sherwin, R. 2000. When Law Goes Pop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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After reading Chapter 6, you will

Comprehend the common entertainment media portrait of corrections

Appreciate the news media portrait of corrections

Know correctional personnel concerns regarding negative news coverage

Understand why television and infotainment programming give corrections
scant attention

Understand how media portraits of prisoners, correctional officers, and
correctional institutions are connected to public support for correctional policies


“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate” (Cool Hand Luke, 1967).

These words of the warden in the film Cool Hand Luke apply as much to the social
construction of corrections as they did to Paul Newman’s film character. The last
step in the criminal justice system, the field of corrections, is also the last thought.
Society has always been more interested in catching criminals and holding media
trials than in what happens to convicted offenders in our correctional institutions.

In colonial America, jails and prisons were places to hold offenders until
they could be otherwise punished, usually by a corporal method such as brand-
ing, flogging, or hanging. Corrections were of little interest as institutions or as
symbols of criminal justice policy. Following the enlightenment, when loss of
freedom became the punishment rather than just the precursor to punishment,
societal interest in prisons, prison programs, and prison conditions increased,
but never to the level of interest held by policing or courtroom proceedings.
Although incarceration rates have steadily increased since the beginning of


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B o x 6.1 Incarceration Rates and the Media

Noting that the far left side covers the 140 years from 1830 to 1970 and the
right side the 40 years from 1970 to 2010, Box 6.1 displays the growth in the incar-
ceration rate in the United States along with major developments in media technol-
ogy and noteworthy crime and justice media events. As shown, the incarceration rate
in the United States has greatly increased since 1830, the dawn of mass media. The
incarceration rate grew slowly for more than a century covering the print and early
visual media eras until beginning a rapid increase during the electronic visual media
era in the 1970s. Incarceration rates then hovered below or near 200 per 100,000 re-
sidents until the 1980s before more than doubling in the 10 years from 1980 to 1990.
The rate continues to climb rapidly into the twenty-first century, currently exceeding
750 incarcerated persons per 100,000 residents, one of the world’s highest. A causal
connection between media evolution and correctional incarceration rates, of course,
is not proven but the simultaneous emergence of harsh punitive correctional policies,
pervasive infotainment content and various types of new media in the 1970s is

Beck, A. and D. Gilliard. 1995. Prisoners in 1994. Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, NCJ-151654.
Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.
Beck, A. and J. Karberg. 2001. Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2000. Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin,
NCJ-185989. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.
“Bureau of Justice Statistics—Table on number of persons in custody” downloaded April 24, 2009 from
Cahalan, M. 1986. Historical Corrections Statistics in the United States, 1850–1984. Rockville, MD: Westat, Inc.
Harrison, P. and A. A. Beck. 2006. Prisoners in 2005. Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, NCJ-215092. Washington,
D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.
Sabol, W. and H. Couture. 2008. Prison Inmates at Midyear 2007. Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, NCJ-221944.
Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

Incarceration Rate per 100,000: 1830 to 2010
Jails, State and Federal Prisons


















m O

. S
















t t






























l p





















I p




Note: 1830, 1840, 2009, 2010 rates are estimated.

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a mass media as discussed in Box 6.1, corrections has always been the stepchild
of the criminal justice system. The police get the glory and the courts get the
public spectacles, but corrections—both monetarily in the real world and sym-
bolically in the media-constructed one—get the shaft.

Like a plain child who puts his worst face forward for the camera, correc-
tional institutions have contributed to their poor image. Historically, corrections
suffers from its own lack of media sophistication. Correctional personnel have
been notorious for poor media and public relations, frequently blocking access
to inmates and staff, withholding information, and stonewalling in times of crisis.
Fortress corrections has been both a mentality and a philosophy in the field.1

Despite the correctional field’s historic adversarial relationship with the media,
the media have played a strong role in correction’s public image. It is a tenet of
social constructionism that the more remote the subject, the more the public per-
ception of it will be shaped by media content. Unlike experiences with the police,
who are seen in public daily, and the courts, whose institutions are prominently
displayed in our cities and can be easily visited, few people have direct knowledge
about corrections. Most of the general public has neither experience knowledge
(from having visited a jail or served a correctional sentence) nor conversational
knowledge (from talking with people who work or have been in prison). Most
of the public is severely limited, therefore, in the amount of non-media-rendered
information it has about prisons, jails, prisoners, probation and parole, and other cor-
rectional programs. Access to direct nonmediated knowledge of corrections is con-
centrated in the poor. The affluent, who influence correctional policy more,
construct their corrections reality largely from media renditions.2

Adding to the significance of this lack of direct experienced or conversational
knowledge about corrections is the historical distrust between corrections personnel
and the news media. The information flow from corrections to the media can be
kindly described as a trickle.3 The scarcity of information about corrections from
correctional personnel compounds the public’s lack of experienced and conversa-
tional knowledge. Combined, the public’s lack of direct information about correc-
tions and the correctional field’s inability to successfully get realistic correctional
information into play in the news and infotainment media makes the public de-
pendent on the unrealistic correctional images and stereotypes found in the enter-
tainment media. Driven by profit motives, the entertainment media have not been
overly concerned with projecting an accurate image of corrections. Instead, the
entertainment media use the institutions as backdrops to construct stories of social
power and personal morality that have little connection to correctional issues.

Lacking other sources of knowledge, the public constructs its perception of
corrections from the source most easily and consistently available. The limited vi-
sual images of corrections found in television programming, news, and infotain-
ment shows and the print-based descriptions of corrections contribute to the
public perception, but prison films are by far the most influential sources for deter-
mining the social construction of corrections.4 The importance of the prison film is
due to the fact that books and magazines are less widely distributed and lack the
visual impact of film. For its part, television has produced only a handful of pro-
grams based on corrections that have lasted beyond one season.5 News stories and

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documentaries about corrections tend to be few in number and negative in
content. Infotainment media that touch upon corrections are also rare and usually
divorced from reality, dominated by violent “escape from prison” videogames.
This leaves commercial films as the primary medium that creates and supports the
dominant social construction of corrections.


Prison Films

Unlike most of the media, the film industry has extensively portrayed corrections
and, as stated previously, motion pictures are the primary source of knowledge
about correctional issues.6 The attraction of prison movies lies in their ability to
combine escapist fantasies that purport to reveal the backstage brutal realities of
incarceration with tales of adventure and heroism. Although one of the longest-
running genres (movies have been made about corrections since the early 1900s),
prison films make up only about 1 percent of all films. Unfortunately, the image of
corrections found in this small percentage is largely negative. Correctional movies
commonly show either harsh, brutal places of legalized torture or uncontrolled
human zoos that barely contain their animalistic criminals.7 And unlike crime
films, which also focus on crime fighters and even occasionally on victims as well
as on the criminals, correctional films nearly universally focus on the inmates.

Literally an island and thus a perfect icon for the near but isolated realm of corrections,
Alcatraz has served as a popular setting for a number of films.







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Within this fixation a particularly twisted construction of U.S. corrections domi-
nates. Narrative staples of the genre include convict buddies, evil wardens, cruel guards,
craven snitches, bloodthirsty convicts, and inmate heroes. Nearly all prison films dwell
on stories of injustice and the effect of harsh treatment on individuals, and the focus is
usually on an inmate’s reaction, adjustment, and triumph over the correctional system.
The movie world of corrections is a place where long-suffering virtue is rewarded and
where, ironically, one has to look to the prisoners to find moral, honest men.

These correctional archetypes exist within fantasies about sex, violence, and
salvation built around cinematic constructions marketed as “insider views” of the
realities of prison life. Unique to correctional films are pervasive promotional
claims of “based on a true story or actual event.” Lacking other information
sources, claims of being true and accurate are stressed more with prison films
than with films about any other part of the criminal justice system. As criminol-
ogist Nicole Rafter observes, “No other genre so loudly proclaims its
truthfulness.”8 But despite their claims of verisimilitude, prison films distort their sub-
ject more than other criminal justice movies. Except perhaps for the media portrait
of superhero crime fighters, the construction of reality found in prison films is more
distant from the real world than the entertainment realities constructed for criminal-
ity, law enforcement, and the courts. However, due to their validity claims and the
lack of other information sources to counter them, prison movies remain the most
influential correctional social construction source for the general public.

In an extensive content analysis study, Derral Cheatwood named four differ-
ent prison film narratives: the nature of confinement, the pursuit of justice, author-
ity and control, and freedom and release.9 These narratives dominate and guide the
stories of correctional life found in the media. Although the themes take differing
tacks in portraying prison life, all four invariably focus on inmates and take an in-
mate’s perspective. These narratives are found across the history of prison films, but
Cheatwood identifies four eras in which each specific perspective dominates.

Nature of confinement correctional films (1929 to 1942) dominate the
first era and are exemplified by classic films such as The Big House, I Am a Fugitive
from a Chain Gang, and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing. In this perspective, inmates appear
as victims of injustice, either as good men framed or imprisoned by a chance acci-
dent or pushed into crime by powerful societal forces. A recurrent message in these
films is the corrupt values of the correctional system and its administrators. This first
era established and cemented the unique correctional backwards law common to
prison films. In prison films the corrections backwards law works through a role
reversal derived from the dynamic of the underdog, wrongly jailed inmates pitted
against oppressive correctional employees. The inmate-hero was born in this era
and has since dominated the portrait of corrections.

Pursuit of justice correctional films (1943 to 1962) dominated the second
era, and The Birdman of Alcatraz and Riot in Cell Block 11 are typical examples. A
more hopeful narrative, these films retained a focus on violence in prison, which
they share with the nature of confinement films. In this era, however, offenders
were portrayed as personally responsible for their actions, less often as victims and
more often as criminals. Confinement is therefore justified, and the focus shifted to
the flaws of the criminal and away from flaws in the criminal justice system.

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Although many of this era’s films revolve around violence—riots, escapes, and in-
mate and guard hostility—individual offender rehabilitation is seen as a possibility.

The third era, authority and control correctional films (1963 to 1980),
is exemplified by films such as Cool Hand Luke and Escape from Alcatraz. This era
reintroduced a pessimistic view of corrections against a continuing backdrop of
riot and escape stories. Offender confinement is still justified, but it occurs for less
serious offenses. This era is most significant for immortalizing the “smug hack”
portrait of correctional officers as the evil foil of the inmate heroes. In these films,
correctional officers are borderline crazy, insensitive, and ineffective. Officer cor-
ruption is portrayed as universal. The world of corrections is constructed as a
freestanding social ecosystem with corrupt correctional officers as just one of
the system’s species. Like the Galapagos Islands, correctional institutions are
painted as strange primitive islands, long separated from mainland society, where
bizarre species have evolved to fill unique local niches. Within this isolated eco-
system, all facets of prison life became subject to exploitation, producing the first,
if unrealistic media portrayals of real prison problems—rape, racism, and drugs.

The fourth and current prison film era, freedom and release correctional
films, is represented by futuristic science fiction films about prison colonies and pris-
oner transportation systems, exemplified by the films Escape from New York, The For-
tress, and Aliens 3 or by throwback renditions of early-era portraits represented by
films like Holes and The Shawshank Redemption. Extreme violence appears for the first
time in prison movies, and the “prison action film” appears. The ambiguity and

The film, The Rock, is a prison action film set in Alcatraz in which Sean Connerly as an
aged, unjustly imprisoned “James Bond” helps Nicolar Cage save San Francisco from a
renegade military unit. Imprisonment issues have been replaced by gun battles, intrigue,
and biological weapons.













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confusion about the function and role of prisons in society is reflected in these films,
which finalize the process of humanizing the inmates and dehumanizing the guards.
In this era, the keepers are certifiably insane and are sometimes inhuman part-
machine creatures or simply holographic projections. Images of prison violence,
rape, and death remain common.10 The correctional world as constructed in these
films reflects the fantasy world of comics more than any recognizable social reality.

With this sometimes bizarre, always myopic, long-running cinematic base of in-
formation, the public is more disadvantaged in constructing an alternate worldview of
corrections than it is in constructing other components of the criminal justice system.
The true issues and needs of corrections are absent or perversely distorted in these con-
structions. Prison films remain silent on the fundamental issues of imprisonment, rev-
eling in violence and cruelty instead.11 In these movies, the kept are the heroes and the
keepers are the villains. In film, correctional institutions are as removed from their real-
world counterparts as most science fiction films are from the NASA space program.
Unfortunately, when the other limited sources of correctional information available
to the public are examined and added, their contribution does little to correct the
dominant prison film constructions of a world sprinkled with a few good men among
a population of violent, crazed, sex-driven individuals. True to form in getting it back-
wards, in the media, more often than not, the best men are wearing inmate jumpsuits;
some of the most crazed, violent, evil ones are wearing correctional officer uniforms.

Correctional Television and Infotainment

In television entertainment programming, corrections is the least-shown component
of the criminal justice system—and therefore by extension the least important.
Television has had fewer shows focused on corrections and they have been shorter
lived than any other aspect of the criminal justice system.12 The few television pro-
grams that have featured jails or prisons have either been slapstick comedy or fea-
tured inmates rather than staff. More often, television information about corrections
is communicated through indirect negative allusions to correctional alumni, the
recidivist offenders found in law enforcement shows. With habitual criminals out-
numbering first offenders by more than four to one on television, media indirectly
constructs corrections as ill equipped and unable to rehabilitate offenders. Instead,
media imply that the corrections system is for criminals simply a stepping-stone
from which they frequently return to society as worse criminals than when they
were sentenced. With the scarcity of programming that looks directly at correc-
tions, perhaps the greatest impact of television on the social construction
of corrections is as a means of extending the life and reach of commercial prison
films. Television’s recycling of the more than one hundred corrections movies
made since the 1920s provides a continuous, negative media loop in which correc-
tions is constructed negatively anew for each succeeding generation.

The infotainment genre has slowly discovered corrections (see Box 6.2).
There are now television programs with titles like “Inside American Jail,”
“Intervention,” “Street Time,” and “Parole Board” that mirror popular court
and police counterparts. The delay in correctional infotainment programming is
partly due to the fact that, as noted, prison entertainment films already market

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B o x 6.2 Paris Goes to Jail—Corrections and Infotainment

Corrections receives an infotainment treatment when a celebrity receives a jail
sentence, even a short one. When Paris Hilton was sentence to jail the event received
international coverage. An example of the coverage and social construction of her
corrections encounter from the ABC Good Morning America Web site shows a typical
portrayal of U.S. jails.

For Paris Hilton, Jail Will Be an ‘Awful, Hellish Place’

Paris Hilton’s Stint in Jail Will Be No Four-Star Retreat
America’s favorite party girl has been ordered to jail, and her stay there will be no
trip to the Hilton. A judge sentenced Paris Hilton to 45 days in a Los Angeles county
jail Friday for violating her probation. Come June 5, Hilton will be confined to a seg-
regated 8-by-12-foot cell in a Lynwood, California, detention center for women.
Her designer duds won’t be welcome. “She will be in an orange jumpsuit, and
everything else, the accoutrement, the makeup, is an absolute minimum,” said Sgt.
Steve Whitmore of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.

Hilton’s cell phone, her crystal-encrusted trademark, will be banned as well. But
not being able to text and talk with her celebrity friends will be the least of Hilton’s
worries. “Forty-five days in L.A. County Jail is really rough. That’s an awful, hellish
place,” said criminal defense attorney Dana Cole. “Conditions are miserable, people
take showers under cold dripping water, the food is completely inedible.”

Publicity-Hungry Celeb Goes Silent
The scene outside the courthouse Friday looked like a red carpet event, with
paparazzi and an entourage struggling to catch a glimpse of the star inside. But
Hilton couldn’t act her way out of the alcohol-related reckless driving conviction
against her. “I’m very sorry, I did not do it on purpose at all,” she pleaded to judge
Michael Sauer. Sauer threw the book at her.

Paris Hilton leaving Los Angeles County jail.







(continued )

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themselves as accurate portraits of correctional life. The public was told that it was
already getting correctional reality programming in movie theaters. Even when
greater media interest to create correctional infotainment products exists, correc-
tional administrators have little incentive to cooperate. Coupled with the historical
distrust of the media on the part of correctional officials and their reluctance to
provide access, correctional content continues to lag in infotainment media. And
due to the entertainment criteria that drive infotainment programming, correc-
tional infotainment that is created is not likely to result in greater public support
for corrections. The historical impact of film documentaries that have focused on
corrections substantiates this expectation. Correctional documentaries that have re-
ceived widespread public play have ultimately resulted in negative attention and crit-
icism for their subject institutions. For example, the documentary film Titticut Follies,
which shows life in an institution for the criminally insane, and Scared Straight, which
describes a popular shock incarceration program for juveniles, both resulted in criti-
cisms of the correctional administrators and personnel and lawsuits against the insti-
tutions. Whether the current spate of correctional infotainment programs will
improve the image of corrections, correctional officers, or correctional programs re-
mains to be determined.

Corrections in the News

Contrary to common impressions, there is not a lack of attention about corrections
in the news.13 In a study of television and newspaper news, Steven Chermak
found that 17 percent of crime-and-justice stories involved correctional institutions
in some manner.14 This is still substantively less than the level of attention given to
law enforcement or courts, but corrections is not as off-the-radar in the news as it
is in television entertainment programming.15 Most references to corrections,
however, are found inside stories focused on a different component of the criminal

Despite her penchant for publicity, after hearing her sentence, the 26-year-old
celebutante left the courthouse and said nothing. Howard Weitzman, Hilton’s
attorney, said he’d appeal. “She’s been selectively targeted in my opinion to be
prosecuted because of who she is,” he said. Prosecutors denied they targeted Hilton,
who pleaded no contest in January to reckless driving and driving under the influ-
ence. She was stopped twice after that and charged for violating her parole. “No one
in Los Angeles is above the law,” said Los Angeles city attorney Rocky Delgadillo
(downloaded January 24, 2010 from

Ms. Hilton served 23 days in a Los Angeles jail followed by 40 days of home
confinement. Following her release she appeared on the Larry King show and noted
that “Letters from fans and supporters from around the world, including U.S. soldiers
in Iraq and people as far away as India, helped her get through the 23 days in
lockup” (downloaded from MSNBC site January 24, 2010 from http://www.msnbc.

B o x 6.2 Paris Goes to Jail—Corrections and Infotainment (Continued)

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justice system or are found within stories that trace an individual offender or case as
it progresses through the system. Still about one-fifth of the crime-and-justice
news at least acknowledges the existence of corrections.

Concerning the mainstay of news coverage, the coverage of individual cases,
Table 6.1 reports Chermak’s findings and shows how corrections fares compared

T A B L E 6.1 Newspaper and Television Crime Stories by
Criminal Justice Stage

Stage Percent of stories

Discovery of crime 18.7%

Investigation 4.2

Arrest 15.4

Arraignment 13.3

Law Enforcement (subtotal 51.6%)


Pre-trial motions 3.7

Plea agreement 2.7

Trial 9.1

Jury deliberation 0.4

Verdict 3.9

Sentence 7.3

Appeal 2.3

Supreme Court decision 0.8

Courts (subtotal 30.2%)


Probation behavior 0.1

Commitment to prison 0.4

Parole behavior 1.8

Pardon request 0.3

Release from Prison 1.1

Execution 0.5

Corrections (subtotal 4.2%)

Other Story Types

Follow-ups* 12.7

Other 1.4

Note: N = 1,979 stories.
*Follow-ups include either victim, defendant, or crime follow-ups (for example, a story about the impact that a crime
had on a victim’s family).

Other stories include other court settlements.

Source: Steve Chermak. 1998. “Police, Courts, and Corrections in the Media” page 92 in Popular Culture, Crime and
Justice, Frankie Bailey and Donna Hale (eds.), Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

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with law enforcement and the courts in terms of news coverage. Individually based
correctional stories are usually presented through a reference to an offender’s com-
mitment to prison, behavior on parole, or execution.16 The operation of the front-
end focus of the news media on law enforcement is clearly shown. News reports
that concentrate on law enforcement activities (discovery of crimes through the
formal charging of suspects) comprise more than 50 percent of news stories, court
proceedings (pre-trial motions through Supreme Court decisions) about 30 percent,
and corrections (probation to execution) less than 5 percent.

As far as individual cases and offenders are concerned, what happens in cor-
rections is not the typical news story focus. Once they leave the courtroom,
offenders usually disappear from the news unless they violate parole or probation,
are released from prison, or are executed. News stories that discuss correctional
institutions are found either inside stories about other criminal justice topics or
within lengthy special reports, usually produced by the print media. In television
news coverage of corrections, extraordinary events dominate. The more mundane
aspects of prison management, legislation, and litigation are unlikely to appear on
national televised news.17 More developed and contextualized issue-focused news
stories that discuss the daily operation of prisons, how inmates adapt to the con-
ditions of incarceration, and institutional programs do exist. Unfortunately, they
are rare and can distort correctional policies and practices.18 In contrast, many
news stories incorporate day-to-day police and court operations such as arrests,
charging, verdicts, and sentencing. Nonincarceration aspects of corrections, such
as probation or community corrections, receive even less media attention.19

Why do corrections fare so poorly in the news? A number of factors deter-
mine the quantity of correctional news coverage. First, compared to other crime-
and-justice stories, corrections has a relative low newsworthiness value. News
personnel do not think a defendant’s correctional behavior is interesting to the
public. Once a newsworthy individual enters a correctional institution and settles
into the routines of correctional life, unless he or she does something noteworthy
in prison, such as dying, the individual is not often seen as particularly news-
worthy. Second, corrections stories are difficult to produce because news media
traditionally have only limited access to corrections sources. There is no corrections
newsbeat that matches the police and court beats in journalism, so corrections stor-
ies are time consuming to produce because a preexisting journalism–corrections
link does not exist. The information channels and public information officers com-
monly found in police stations and courthouses, while increasing, remain absent in
many correctional institutions. Third, reporters usually have limited prior knowledge
of corrections and likely need to be introduced to the discipline during a break-
ing news story—almost always a negative one involving an escape, assault,
or riot. Reporters do not maintain relationships with correctional officials as
they often do with police or court officials. The weak news media–correctional
personnel relationship is reflected by the fact that correctional personnel are the
least likely of all sources to be quoted in news stories, accounting for less than
1 percent of the total.20

On the corrections side of the news creation process, the closed environment of
correctional programs helps to shield officials from external scrutiny. Correctional

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officials are more able to control information because media access to inmates is
limited by law to a much greater extent than in the other components of the
criminal justice system.21 For corrections administrators, controlling information fre-
quently translates into releasing no information. Prison administrators have a large
number of justifications and mechanisms available to limit media access. Claims of
institutional security needs; ongoing investigations; prisoner confidentiality, privacy,
and rehabilitation considerations; and bureaucratic red tape (especially in arranging
interviews) are common justifications to deny access. Delaying mechanisms include
using uninformed personnel to slow the release of information to the media (correc-
tions are the least likely criminal justice agencies to employ trained public informa-
tion officers and to seek positive coverage so that the large majority of prison news
stories remain media initiated), directing staff to present themselves as apolitical and
inappropriate to comment on political decisions such as punishment policies, and
simply being geographically isolated.22 Ironically, the net result of these information
blocks and delaying tactics is that newsworthy offenders are often pilloried by the
media before trial, when they are still presumed innocent, and shielded from the
media afterwards, when they have been declared guilty.23

But while they can limit media access using the above-mentioned blocks and
delays, prison officials are not able to significantly control the content of news cov-
erage that does occur because alternate sources of information about correctional
conditions are available. These include inside leaked information provided by cor-
rectional officers (this source is limited, however, by the historic media portrait of
correctional officers as “hacks” and the resultant officer distrust of the media, job
loss if their identity is revealed, and confidentiality agreements many institutions
require correctional officers to sign); inmates (also limited because inmate interview
access is often severe); and inmate families, elected officials, defense attorneys,
researchers and academics, and prison support and prisoner rights groups. In addi-
tion, because administrators are less likely to have the media competing for access,
they cannot use a need for access to influence the content of coverage. Aaron
Doyle and Richard Ericson describe this relationship:

Prison officials are less able to offer “exclusives” or “scoops.” Unlike the
situations with police, the routine operations of prisons seldom offer
news items for which media outlets will compete. As interviews with
correctional officials responsible for public relations show, the chief
messages they are trying to mobilize consist of “good news” about the
system, such as stories about Christmas in prison or prisoners doing
woodwork or growing flowers. These represent puny coin in the
currency of crime news, compared to accounts featuring more dramatic
fare such as official deviance and mayhem within the walls.24

Because the media do not have a daily corrections news need, which would
give a correctional administrator more influence over correctional news creation
and more leverage to influence content, negative coverage of corrections can be
produced without much concern. In that there is no media need to maintain
ongoing regular access to correctional authorities, the news media need not
worry about burning their bridges to corrections; there is no continuous bridge

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traffic. Negative correctional news can be produced without media concern
about subsequent repercussions or access restrictions.

The cumulative effect of these factors is that access to the criminal justice sys-
tem as well as the resulting media content remains front-end loaded. Compared
with the police, who are sometimes eager to interact with the media and who
work on the public streets, and the courts, whose main events are usually open
to the public and press, the daily lives of prisons are far more shrouded. The press-
rooms and available documents such as police blotters and court dockets have no
equivalents in corrections. Therefore, most of the news of corrections that is pro-
duced is dominated by riots, escapes, and the release or death of newsworthy
individuals—just like in the movies. In the end, three types of negative stories
typify correctional news. The first are stories about correctional failures to protect
the public. These include prison escapes, staff negligence in supervising inmates,
and failure to control prisoners. Second are stories of corrections pursuing inappro-
priate goals in which punishment is absent while amenities are highlighted. The
description of prison partying by inmates, plush recreation rooms with color tele-
vision, and air-conditioned cells are the stock of these stories. Third are stories
of correctional horrors, which are exemplified by corruption and misconduct
exposés. These can be either individual bad-apple stories (the sadistic guard) or
systemic corruption stories (the corrupt warden and administration), and they of-
ten employ the death of an inmate as the symbolic crime of the correctional
system’s failure. As Box 6.3 highlights, when presented with a story that fills
one of these niches, the media are willing to expend considerable effort and re-
sources, at least for a short time, to explore and construct another correctional
system gone bad.

In sum, the news construction of corrections is scanty, and when covered,
corrections are marketed in a manner that emphasizes predators and crimino-
genic institutions. The day-to-day administration of punishment as a loss of free-
dom and attempts to rehabilitate do not fit common media narratives.25 The
prison sentence as a long tedious block of time where nothing changes is abso-
lute anathema to the dramatic event that is typical of a “hard news” item. There
are few dramatic rituals or events involved in prison life, and those that do occur
are negative and involve death and violence.

Finally, just as in the entertainment media, news of corrections focuses on the
inmates and ignores the staff. After a content study of 1,546 newspaper articles,
criminologist Robert Freeman reports that negative stories about corrections signifi-
cantly outnumber positive ones, and the positive ones tend to focus on inmates, not
staff.26 Thus, as also found in news of crime, law enforcement, and the courts, cor-
rections is covered more often as an act connected to an individual than as an issue
connected to a system. Even so, corrections news does focus on policy questions
more often than do police and court news. Release policies, institutional conditions
(usually as follow-up to riot, death, and escape stories), execution coverage (which
sometimes incorporates the debate over the death penalty and the issue of the racial
composition of death row), terrorism and corrections (see Box 6.4), and the

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B o x 6.3 Media Resources and Correctional Bad News

An Atlanta police source called a veteran police reporter of the Journal and
Constitution with a blockbuster: The Atlanta Federal Penitentiary was under siege.
“He said the [Cuban] detainees had taken over part of the prison and they might have
hostages.” The tip was passed to the day city editor. Within minutes, amid the normal
pressure of an early deadline, the newsroom kicked into high gear. During the eleven-
day crisis, the assistant managing editor would assign more than a hundred staffers to
the story:

We had constant updates for all seven editions. The Staff produced 9 to 12 new
stories daily. In 48 hours we did mini-profiles on 65 of the hostages plus nine others
who had been released. And a 5,000 word history of the Marielitos and a 2,500 word
piece about what life is like inside the prison.

Four extra open pages provided prison news each day. Photographers were
stationed in helicopters, in cherry pickers, in trees, and on rooftops around the clock.
Reporters worked shifts at the prison, and each shift included one person who was
fluent in Spanish. A Spanish-speaking copyeditor was sent with a news team to
Oakdale, Louisiana, to cover events at the federal detention center there, where
rioting had begun two days before the Atlanta uprising. A Hispanic copy clerk moni-
tored radio transmissions in the newsroom. Suburban reporters maintained a twenty-
four-hour vigil at Dobbins Air Force Base near Atlanta to alert editors if federal
troops arrived. (They didn’t.) The Washington bureau covered angles at the Immi-
gration and Naturalization service and the Justice Department.





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B o x 6.4 Terrorism, Corrections, and the Media

The ongoing war on terror has resulted in additional negative media attention
on corrections. First off, terrorists as prisoners create new concerns for correctional
personnel. Even a small number of ideologically dedicated terrorists in a prison
population will generate a unique and significant challenge and raise fears of
personnel, public, and institutional safety and security. Inmate terrorists increase the
possibility of the radicalization of other inmates, the targeting of correctional
institutions and personnel for terror attacks, and the operating of terror cells from
within prisons. Correctional personnel need to be aware that they are viewed as
soldiers in an opposing army and as legitimate targets by terrorists. Secondly,
following the 2001 September 11th attacks and the Iraq war the number and
dangerousness of imprisoned terrorists increased rapidly. Subsequent drives to
prevent future terror attacks in the United States resulted in extraordinary correc-
tional practices by the U.S. throughout the world and brought the previously separate
realms of military prisons, intelligence gathering, the media, and civilian corrections

Driven to deter future attacks in the United States and facing pressing counter-
intelligence needs generated by an insurgency in Iraq, a subculture tolerant of the
torture of prisoners held in U.S. custody developed. The world media eventually fo-
cused on three related story lines. The first and the most dominant concerned the
abuse of Iraqi prisoners held in the U.S. military prison Abu Ghraib. Triggered by the



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2004 release of graphic photos of prisoners being abused by U.S. military
personnel as shown above and therefore a picture-driven and more newsworthy
story, prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib quickly become an international news focus.
Adding to concerns about the use of torture in Abu Ghraib was the emergence of
the second news story line about secret prisons established and run by the U.S.
Central Intelligence Agency in various countries around the globe. As with Abu
Ghraib, torture of prisoners under U.S. control was alleged. The third story line
followed the creation and operation of the military prison in Guantanamo, Cuba,
administered by the U.S. military and set up to house terrorist and Taliban com-
batants. The status of the inmates generated legal challenges and, in turn, more
negative news coverage.

Driven by these parallel streams, through the 2000s a steady flow of news
stories demonizing the CIA, military prisons, and their personnel added to the
preexisting tradition of negative news construction of civilian correctional institu-
tions and personnel. Today, the interplay of media, corrections, and terrorism
continues with the trial in civilian court of former Guantanamo prison inmates.
The trial of the most infamous defendant, Khalid Sheikh Mohhammed, accused
mastermind of the 2001 September 11th attacks, is sure to be constructed as a
major media trial in the evil stranger “non-American” ilk. Even before the trials
began they generated criticism for creating an unnecessary security risk for New
York City and for extending unwarranted due process protections to the defen-
dants. The story line of the secret CIA prisons has also been resurrected and linked
to the terror trial proceedings by defense attorneys. They have requested visits to
the overseas sites of the secret CIA prisons to gather information that might have
relevance regarding the level of coercion involved in obtaining their client state-
ments (and hence their legal admissibility) and the appropriateness of a death
penalty sentence should evidence of prior cruel and unusual punishment exist.

Collectively, the social construction of these twenty-first-century correctional
“symbolic crimes” has significantly extended the general preexisting negative
public perception of corrections. Here are media examples of “smug hack”
corrections brought to new heights.

Berger, J. 2009. “Giuliani Criticizes Terror Trials in New York.” The New York Times, November 16.
Downloaded January 26, 2010 from
Gerstein, J. 2009. “New York Terrorist Trial Raises Stakes” November 13, Downloaded January 23, 2010 from
Grey, S. and D. Carvajal. 2007. “Secret Prisons in 2 Countries Held Qaeda Suspects, Report Says.” The New
York Times. June 8: A12. Downloaded January 19, 2010 from
Hamm, M. 2008. “Prisoner Radicalization: Assessing the Threat in U.S. Correctional institutions.” NIJ Journal
261. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Justice.
Hersh, S. 2004. Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib. New York: Harper Collins.
Hunter, S. 1988. “Terrorists in Prison: Security Concerns and Management Strategies.” Corrections Today
50(4): 30, 32, 34.
Latanya, A. C. and N. Abeles. 2009. “Ethics, Prisoner Interrogation, National Security, and the Media.”
Psychological Services, 6(1): 11–21.
Priest, D. 2005. “CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons.” The Washington Post, November 2.
Downloaded January 20, 2010 from
Useem, B. and O. Clayton. 2009. “Radicalization of U.S. Prisoners.” Criminology and Public Policy.
8(3): 561–592.
Vogt, E. 2007. Terrorists in Prison: The Challenge Facing Corrections. Inside Homeland Security. Downloaded
January 26, 2010 from
Weiser, G. 2009. “Secret C.I.A. Jails an Issue in Terror Case.” The New York Times, July 2: A20. Downloaded
January 25, 2010 from

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incarceration of juveniles and mentally retarded offenders all receive periodic
coverage. In addition, news stories periodically appear concerning innovative
correctional projects such as intermediate sanctions, shock incarceration, or elec-
tronic home monitoring. A final irony of correctional news coverage emerges.
Although corrections is the least covered component of the criminal justice
system, it is the most likely to have its policies, missions, and basic functions dis-
cussed in the news. Corrections is comparatively ignored by the media, but at
least it is ignored in depth.


What are the portraits of corrections that are constructed from these information
sources? The three most important ones involve the social construction of prisoners,
correctional institutions, and correctional officers. The construction of incarcerated
prisoners together with the construction of freed offenders discussed in Chapter 3
provide the public with its cumulative picture of criminality, its nature, and, most
important, its amenability to rehabilitation. If inmates are constructed as incorrigible
and innately evil, this logically leads toward correctional policies of incapacitation
and capital punishment. On the other hand, if inmates are shown as victimized—
basically good but misled—then policies of rehabilitation and resocialization make
more sense. In essence, the more inmates are constructed as similar to the rest of us,
the more it makes sense to offer more help and less punishment. The more they are
constructed as different, as predatory and inhuman, the more sensible it is to per-
manently remove, punish, and execute them.

In the same vein, the manner in which correctional institutions are constructed
is important for the correctional policies and programs that make sense to society. If
the institutions are violent madhouses filled with irrational predators (inmates or
staff), money for work, education, or counseling programs will appear to be waste-
ful. However, if the institutions are constructed as understaffed, underfunded places
where humane correctional officers are trying to supervise large numbers of offen-
ders, some of whom are redeemable, then public monies for these institutions and
their programs will make more sense. Again, the more inmates are seen as like the
rest of us—if there is a “there but for the grace of God” reaction to the way they
are portrayed—the more palatable improvements to conditions and programs in
these institutions will be viewed.

Finally, the social construction of correctional officers is important, particu-
larly if they are vilified. The more violent and predatory the staff is shown to be,
the less attractive these positions appear to recruits as possible careers and the
more the public is led away from putting money into corrections. Why give
money to innately corrupt vile administrations or raise the salary of brutal guards?
In contrast, a social construction of a humane staff striving to help salvageable
inmates brings an opposite reaction. In that frame of mind, steering public re-
sources into corrections would be sensible. With these implications in mind,
the portraits and stereotypes of prisoners, correctional institutions, and correc-
tional officers are described.

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Two popular constructions of inmates are found in the mass media. One is for
male prisoners and the other is for females. The dominant construction of male
prisoners derives from the role reversal of a heroic offender caught up in a violent
correctional system run by predatory criminal justice system workers. Those in
authority are portrayed as predators and those caught up in the system are shown
as victims. A minor part in the total media picture of law enforcement and court
personnel, in the social construction of corrections such role reversals are common
and result in a portrait that frequently sides with the kept rather than the keepers.
Tapping into the American cultural tendency to root for underdogs, the irony of
the media construction of male prisoners is that most of the predator criminals
who terrorized society in the crime-fighting media are reconstructed in the correc-
tional media as victims. The predatory offenders who remain and appear in correc-
tions media constructions are there to threaten the heroic inmates and to create
an atmosphere of a constant threat of violence within the institutions. In total
number, prisoners are constructed as inhuman, dangerous, and deserving of harsh
punishment.27 A small number, however, are heroic victims.

If the male prisoners appear within narrow stereotypes, female inmates fare
even worse. With remarkably few exceptions, female inmates are found in con-
structions containing high levels of gratuitous sex (primarily lesbianism and rape)
and correctional officer dominance and sadism.28 The most common portrait of
female prisoners is found in bad-girl, low-budget B movies that have been described
as squalid mixtures of sex and violence.29 The films reinforce stereotypes about
female prisoners as violent, worthless, sex-crazed monsters. 30 Not limited to com-
mercial films, this focus on violence and sex in female prisons has also been found in
recent reality-infotainment newsmagazines, talk shows, and documentary programs
which frame women’s imprisonment in a similar fashion and focus on violence, sex,
and failed motherhood.31 Other issues such as drug, sexual, and physical abuse his-
tories are downplayed and it is argued that these images provide unchallenged
images of female corrections, especially for young males.32 Overall, media portraits
of female prisoners adhere to the backwards law and focus on atypical female in-
mates while ignoring the reality facing incarcerated women.33 The construction of
women offenders and female correctional institutions is so juvenile and ridiculous
that it could be dismissed if there were alternate information sources to counter
them. Unfortunately there are not.

Collectively then, male and female prisoners are often portrayed as victims
rather than as offenders. The more normal and similar to law abiding people they
appear, the more they are constructed as victims of corrupt correctional systems.
Victimization of offenders can come from other predatory, violent, psychotic
inmates or predatory, violent, psychotic correctional officers. Both clearly are
more dangerous than the struggling inmate heroes. The message is that both
need to be removed from the correctional institutions they are terrorizing. The
constructed portrait of these institutions reflects the paradoxical construction of
their populations—that reform must begin not with the prisoners but with the
institutions and staff. Prisoners are either incorrigible and beyond rehabilitation

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and need to be separated from the redeemable or are the moral superiors to staff
and administration and must not be brought down to their level.

Correctional Institutions

The media-constructed universe of corrections contains a galaxy of institutions in
which the most sensational and dramatic correctional stereotypes are emphasized.
The complex political, social, and economic realities of correctional facilities are
ignored, and a corrections template that is stark and bleak is presented instead.
Smug hack corrections, described as several interwoven portraits of negative
correctional imagery, make up the media-constructed correctional world.34

Physical brutality in the name of inmate discipline is common. Control is
maintained with corporal punishment and severe infliction of pain, often for trivial
rule violations. This physical brutality is often linked with the exploitation of
inmates as a cheap source of labor and profit. Staff incompetence, corruption, and
cruelty are common, ingrained, and unchallenged. Under the thumb of a despotic
staff, the prisoners suffer systemic racial prejudice, homosexual rape, and institution-
alized violence. If female, the inmates suffer further degradation, sexual assaults, and
harassments. Ironically, although the inmates are often shown sympathetically, the
overall construction of corrections does not result in public support for correctional
programs. The largely negative portraits of correctional officers and staff and the
violent institutions they inhabit promotes a nonsupportive public image of correc-
tions. Not only is this negative media image of correctional institutions the histori-
cal portrait found in film, but recent media depictions on cable television and in
popular literature show little progress.

Correctional Officers

As pointed out, correctional media usually focus on the inmates, frequently
ignoring the staff and administration totally, or, when they are portrayed, showing
them negatively. The smug hack portrayal of correctional officers—caricatures of
brutality, incompetence, low intelligence, and indifference to human suffering—
dominates. This negative correctional officer construction creates a perception of
modern corrections that remains locked in a pre-1960s frame of punitive human
warehousing. The media-promulgated imagery provides the baseline for the pub-
lic’s construction of corrections and correctional officers. Whereas the police are
heroic rescuers and the attorneys (at least sometimes) are the preservers of truth
and justice, media-constructed correctional officers are, more often than not,
oppressive villains. If not oppressive, they are irrelevant. In the media, incarceration
turns criminal predators into imprisoned prey and villainous criminals into inmate
heroes. These inmate heroes need villains to defeat, and the correctional staff mem-
bers are enlisted to fill that role. The result is that the hero inmates end up as more
sympathetic characters than the correctional officers who, along with stereotypic
predator prisoners, appear as cardboard cut-out clichés.35 The accompanying role
reversal makes good theater and escapism, but it paints a particularly onerous por-
trait of correctional officers.

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The prison is present in our lives and, at the same time, it is absent from our
lives.36 In the novel The Lost World, by Arthur Doyle, an isolated primitive envi-
ronment filled with prehistoric beasts is found to secretly exist. The media-
constructed portrait of corrections shares similarities with Doyle’s fictional lost
world: primitive predators, bizarre rituals and tribes, a society ruled by the law
of the jungle, hidden but existing near our own—there but invisible. The impact
of the media on the public’s constructed portrait of corrections is due to its pri-
macy effect. That is, like the adage about “making your first impressions count,”
the first set of information about a person, group, or organization that one
receives has greater weight than later information because it creates an initial re-
silient perception. In constructionist terms, once a construction takes root, it is
resistant to change. If the first information is negative, the unflattering initial
impression created by that information will tend to dominate and persist even if
later information is positive. For corrections, the first impressions are usually
picked up from prison films and other infotainment media (see Box 6.5) and
are likely to be negative. They also are likely to be reinforced rather than chal-
lenged by information provided in the news and infotainment media. The im-
pact of the initial negative messages is compounded for the public through its
repeated exposure to the continually rerun prison films and recycled news foot-
age of past prison riots and escapes. It is highly unlikely for the typical media
consumer to have positive perceptions of corrections or to have his or her nega-
tive perceptions of corrections challenged in the current media environment.

Prison films, tabloid-style crime reporting, television programming, the focus
on prison riots and brutal attacks by paroled assailants, and the less-than-flattering
portrait of correctional staff and administrators comprise the foundation for the so-
cial construction of corrections. This construction has been blamed for helping to
heighten the public’s fear of crime; for eroding public confidence in the ability of
corrections to deter, rehabilitate, or even retain criminals; and for increasing the
public’s desire to make the system more punitive for all offenders regardless of their
offense history or forecast dangerousness.37 Although there is no conclusive evi-
dence of how viewers are affected by these works38 and although there exist ex-
amples of prison reforms triggered by media,39 their media images are felt to
translate into a lack of public support for real-life correctional institutions while
ironically constructing prison as the sole solution to violent crime—in which rising
criminality is viewed as proof of their necessity.40 Like the police who gain public
support when crime goes up, corrections, at least in term of more cells, gain public
support in times of increasing crime rates, a tendency countered only when eco-
nomic downturns force institution closures and early prisoner release.

To this point, the tour of the media-constructed world of criminal justice has
made its way from the crimes and criminals, to the crime fighters, through the
courts, and into the correctional system. In general, neither the criminal justice
system nor its employees are positively presented in the media, and the further
one moves into the system, the less information is available and the worse the con-
structed image is. How does this portrait of criminality and criminal justice translate

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into criminal justice policy? What public attitudes about crime and justice are asso-
ciated with these constructions? Which steps to deal with crime are encouraged
and which ones are discouraged? The next two chapters answer these questions.
Chapter 7 examines crime control efforts based on media communication cam-
paigns and media technologies. Chapter 8 looks at the media’s influence on the
public’s support for various criminal justice policies.

B o x 6.5 New Media and Corrections—The Facebook Fugitive

New media has made slow inroads into corrections in the form of GPS systems to
monitor home confinement inmates and the use of live video camera links to conduct
family and attorney visits. For good or ill, Internet applications have also begun to
appear. Thus, a number of live Web cams sited in correctional institutions can be found in
a Google search. And carrying on the tradition of bad news dominating news about
corrections, one jail escapee pictured above used Facebook postings to taunt police and
merge “being on the run” with the communication capabilities of new media.

An escaped prisoner has been telling the world via Facebook about his life
as a fugitive—describing everything from his meals to who his next girlfriend
will be … posting “is thinking, which lucky girl will be my first of 2010!!” Police
are trying to use clues left on his Facebook to track down where the convicted
burglar may be hiding. (Han, 2009).

To avoid capture, the fugitive had “constructed a web of personal profiles
and fan pages, each with varying degrees of privacy. At last count, he had
7,300 fans and 1,300 friends (“Facebook Fugitive Taunts Cops”). In January 2010,
after four months on the run his Facebook page was shut down and the
‘Facebook fugitive’ was reported captured (



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The public is most dependent on the media for information about
corrections but compared to criminals, crime fighters and criminal trials,
corrections is usually ignored in the media.

The most prevalent portrait of corrections is found in commercial
prison films, which construct prison life as violent and dehumanizing
while promoting heroic inmates as protagonists. Correctional officers are
often villains.

Prisoners are often portrayed as victims rather than as offenders.

Female prisoners are portrayed in sexually charged sadistic institutions.

Correctional institutions are portrayed as stark, bleak violent places staffed
by brutal incompetent guards.

The field of corrections has historically had an adversarial relationship with
the news media and the news covers corrections usually after a negative
event such as an escape, death, or riot.

Media access to correctional institutions and inmates has been poor and
often blocked by correctional administrations.

Due to the historical adversarial relationship between media and corrections,
infotainment media has been slow to exploit corrections for programming.

Corrections as an issue is seldom addressed in the media and corrections
is constructed as a separate primitive world divorced from mainstream


1. Write an essay about why bad news about corrections is more newsworthy
than good news and what, if anything, correctional personnel can do to
significantly change the public image of corrections. Discuss who is
most responsible for the content and nature of news about corrections—
correctional administrators, journalists, news agency administrators, or the

2. Similar to the differences pointed out in Chapter 4 between media and
street police, list differences between media correction officers and real
correctional officers.

3. Watch the film The Shawshank Redemption, and critique its use of
correctional stereotypes and what correctional policies are supported or
opposed by the film’s portrait.

4. Watch crime shows for a week and note how many criminals are also
ex-prisoners. Also note how deterrence and rehabilitation are portrayed as
likely outcomes of incarceration.

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Bailey, F. and D. Hale. 1998. Popular Culture, Crime, and Justice. Belmont, CA:

Freeman, R. 2000. Popular Culture and Corrections. Lanham, MD: American Correctional

Mason, P. 2006. Captured by the Media: Prison Discourse in Popular Culture. Cullompton,
UK: Willan Publishing

Wilson, D. and S. O’Sullivan. 2004. Images of Incarceration: Representations of Prison in Film
and Television Drama. Winchester, UK: Waterside Press.

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Crime Control


After reading Chapter 7, you will

Understand the use of the three types of Madison Avenue–style anticrime ads

Comprehend the increased use of media technology to process criminal

Appreciate the growth of surveillance of public spaces and associated issues
and controversies


It’s rude to stare. We all have heard this common admonition. Violation of this
and other taken-for-granted clauses of the social contract underlie the concerns
discussed in this chapter. Much has been written concerning the media as a
cause of crime. This chapter examines the increasing use of media and media
technology to control crime and to administer justice. These efforts are histori-
cally rooted in the success of prosocial entertainment programs and public
information campaigns. More recently media technological advances, which
allow easy recording, transmittal, storage, and review of moving images, further
spurred criminal justice interest. Beginning in the 1970s these factors resulted in
a number of media-based anticrime programs and the widespread adoption of
media technology in the criminal justice field. Now common, these programs
and applications can be divided into three areas: anticrime advertising, case pro-
cessing using media technology, and public surveillance systems. This chapter
examines how the application of media technology within these three areas has
changed the reality of criminal justice.


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Public Service Announcements Join the War on Crime

Media-based anticrime efforts are targeted at three audiences: criminals, victims
and witnesses. Programs targeting criminals are mass media communication cam-
paigns geared to deter offenders from future offending. Programs targeting citi-
zens include media-based campaigns aimed at reducing victimization and solving
crimes. All three types of programming are designed to reduce crime and so are
usually driven by crime control values. Conversely, critiques of these programs
usually raise due process and civil liberty concerns.

Efforts to use the media to reduce and solve crimes are not new. The
“Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters on the Western frontier and the FBI’s “Most
Wanted” list are two long-standing examples of fugitive searches that used
available media. What is new is the rapid increase in the number of media-
based anticrime efforts since the 1980s. With broad-based support, these efforts
use the media to attempt to construct a social reality with less crime. With the
ability of propaganda to negatively affect social attitudes established during
World War I, projects to positively influence public attitudes using media infor-
mation campaigns took hold in the 1930s.1 Social planners and politicians set out
to employ the media to generate planned positive changes in public attitudes and

In the 1950s, media-based campaigns aimed at changing social practices in
health and other areas began to appear. For a time during the 1960s, negative
research findings led to widespread pessimism about the media’s ability to influence
audiences. In the late 1960s, however, bolstered by evaluations of prosocial
television programming such as Sesame Street that found that children display
positive social behaviors after watching prosocial television episodes, attempts
were again made to use the media to purposely influence the public. Research
revealed that programs of various types (animated, adventure, comedy, and fan-
tasy) all have the ability to elicit socially valued behaviors from children and ad-
olescent viewers. In contrast to the bulk of negative assessments of commercial
television programming, it was concluded that properly designed television programs
can have beneficial effects.2 Encouraged by these findings, newfound enthusiasm for
mass media developed in the 1970s with the expectation that media-generated
positive social effects could be gained in a number of social areas—including crime

From this foundation, media-based anticrime programs proliferated. The
current renditions all utilize advertisement-like media messages and collectively
separate into three groups. The first group—aimed at offenders—employs
ads designed to deter people from committing crimes. These anticrime messages
are deployed in existing mass media advertising avenues as public service
announcements (or PSAs). A second group of PSAs—these aimed at citizens—
are victimization-reduction messages. Similar in form to the deterrence messages,
victim-targeted PSAs use existing mass media outlets to distribute crime-reducing
information and work to reduce opportunities for crime by inducing citizens to
better protect themselves. The third set of anticrime ads is designed to increase
crime clearance and arrest rates by encouraging witness cooperation with law

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enforcement investigations. Table 7.1 summarizes these three approaches and
their basic designs.

Both the earliest and some of the most recent mass media efforts to reduce
crime involve media campaigns aimed at drug abusers. Antidrug media cam-
paigns have a historical tie to Reefer Madness and similar films produced by the
Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the 1930s. Laughable, cumbersome, and today’s

Media-based anticrime efforts have a long history as shown by the 1930s
U.S. government-produced film Reefer Madness.





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college campus cult movies, these films and the associated media campaign
nevertheless facilitated the criminalization of marijuana in the United States.3

These early campaigns never generated the hoped-for deterrent effect, how-
ever. Although they seemed able to influence public opinion, they did not
influence offender behavior. Evaluations of media-based antidrug projects during
the 1970s first offered an explanation for the difficulties in using media to induce
deterrence. The failure to deter was blamed on the inability to make drug abuse
a salient issue for individual drug abusers and the irrelevance of the media cam-
paign messages to the target audience. To be effective, it was found that a media
campaign must tailor its content to a specific population, and that population
cannot be simultaneously receiving competing conflicting information. The tar-
get audience cannot be simultaneously told in PSAs that “this is your brain on
drugs” results in your brain being smashed like an egg and that drugs are funny
and harmless in movies like Half-Baked.4

In that the early antidrug campaigns were diffuse efforts and the general
mass media content was rife with prodrug images, they were fatally flawed
and doomed to failure. In reaction, subsequent successful lobbying efforts
have reduced the levels of prodrug information in the media, and more recent
media antidrug campaigns are better designed and marketed. Their evaluations
indicate that well-designed media campaigns can significantly affect attitudes
toward drugs among preteens, teenagers, and adults. Whether behavioral
changes and reduced drug use follow as a result has not been substantiated.5

As in other areas where the media are seen to influence perceptions more easily
than they do behaviors, antidrug media messages are more likely to affect the
attitudes of non–drug users than the behaviors of drug abusers. Currently avail-
able research indicates that the media appear best able to deter offenders
involved in victimless crimes such as drug abuse by increasing their fear of

T A B L E 7.1 Three Basic Types of Media Anticrime Ad Programs

Program Type
Behavior Change
Sought Mechanism Example

Targeting Offenders

Deterrence Voluntary reduction
of criminal behavior
by criminals

Deterrence Antidrug public
ad campaigns

Targeting Citizens

Victimization reduc-
tion programs

Adoption of self-
protective, crime
preventive behavior
by citizens

Target hardening The McGruff “Take
a Bite Out of Crime”

Citizen participation

Increased public coop-
eration and involve-
ment with law
enforcement efforts

Monetary rewards
and anonymity

Crime Stoppers

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health and social consequences rather than through increasing their fear of

Another problem in using the media to deter crime is that offenders some-
times display a type of anticipatory reaction, termed an announcement effect,
to the media campaign. Evoked in offender populations, this effect occurs when
media publicity causes offender behavior changes in anticipation of a new crimi-
nal justice policy or program that has been heavily publicized. This media-
induced behavior effect will occur with or without an actual criminal justice
change. For example, a jurisdiction can reduce DUIs for a short time just by
publicizing that they are instituting an aggressive, special anti-DUI enforcement
effort. They do not have to actually have an anti-DUI unit to gain the reduc-
tion; publicity about a phantom unit will suffice. Such announcement effects
decline and dissipate over time, however.

Announcement effects generated from the publicity surrounding the imple-
mentation of new criminal justice policies and programs also interweave with
any effects from actual criminal justice changes. This makes separating the media
announcement effects from those of the criminal justice programs difficult. New
criminal justice policies have been acclaimed as successful by too quickly ascrib-
ing the media-induced change in offender behavior to a new criminal justice
policy when it is only the announcement effect that has reduced offenses.7 The
entrenchment of an ineffective criminal justice program or policy can result.
Because offenders think that enforcement has significantly changed, they are
more cautious for a while, and the new policy gets credit and is termed a success.
Eventually offenders realize that the new policy or program is not meaningful
and resume their offending.

Victimization-reduction Ads

Programs aimed at reducing victimization, usually by teaching and encouraging
crime prevention techniques, obviously differ from offender-deterrence pro-
grams. Victimization-reduction campaigns strive to increase the use of personal
crime prevention techniques by citizens. Crime prevention falls under the um-
brella of self-protective behaviors, which include avoiding health risks and other
hazards. Identified as key for triggering self-protective behaviors are people’s
beliefs about their likelihood of being harmed (What are my chances of being
robbed?), the likely severity of an injury or illness (Will a robbery be fatal?), the
efficacy of recommended precautions (Will doing this prevent a robbery?), and
the costs of taking action when compared with inaction (How much time and
money is involved?). Persuading people to adopt more self-protective behaviors
is difficult because of the complex interactions among these four factors.

Programs advocating the adoption of behaviors to prevent possible unpleas-
ant future events, such as crime, tend to be less successful than those that encour-
age actions with an immediate recognizable reward, such as an increase in health
from exercising or dieting.8 In general, unless individuals are recent victims of
crime, they do not see crime as a likely event, do not feel that they will be in-
jured, see precautions as not particularly useful, and see better uses for their time

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and money. In addition, perceptions of the importance of crime and the effec-
tiveness of preventive behavior vary considerably among groups. Like campaigns
aimed at offenders, messages must be carefully matched to target populations to
have any impact. Adding to the difficulty of determining which campaigns actu-
ally work, victimization reduction programs have rarely been adequately evalu-
ated. The McGruff “Crime Dog” campaigns in the United States have received
the most extensive study.9

Victimization-reduction campaigns are considered useful means of dissemi-
nating anticrime information to the public and sometimes influencing related
attitudes, but they appear to affect behavior only marginally. More significant
effects may be beyond their reach. That is, people will change how they feel
about crime prevention and more will see it as a good thing, but few will actu-
ally begin to take additional precautions. To be effective, programs should tailor
their message to their audience; focus their efforts on visual media, which seems
to have the greatest impact; present simple messages; and directly and clearly
instruct audiences on crime prevention behavior. Most important, additional local
community follow-up and the creation of community support organizations such
as citizen crime watch groups are necessary to achieve lasting effects. However,
similar to the media’s deterrent effect on offenders, based on the available data,
media-based victimization-reduction campaigns appear able to affect people’s
attitudes toward crime prevention more easily than their actual behavior.

Citizen-cooperation Ads

Citizen-cooperation ads aim to increase the level of crime-related information
made available to law enforcement by the public. These programs (commonly
known by the name Crime Stoppers) use reenactments of crimes to obtain infor-
mation (tips) through anonymous phone calls and reward money.10 The logic is
the same as the “Most Wanted” reward posters of the nineteenth century and
the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” posters traditionally displayed in post offices,
now also digitally distributed via the Internet. Getting images and descriptions of
wanted suspects and unsolved crimes out to as many people as possible and enticing
reluctant citizens with monetary rewards increases the prospects for solving crimes
and apprehending suspects. The innovation is using contemporary media to distrib-
ute electronic wanted posters, thereby enormously increasing the audience.

Development of these efforts raises a number of questions. The first and
most obvious is what is their effectiveness? Do they result in more arrests and
solutions of crimes, and are they an efficient means of generating information?
Second is the question of the image of criminality that such programs project.
Do they perpetuate stereotypes of criminals, victims, and crimes? Third, what is
the proper role of the media in law enforcement efforts?

First, no one knows if citizen-cooperation programs affect the crime rate.
The number of cases cleared is not great enough to expect an effect on the over-
all crime rate in a community unless one assumes a general deterrent effect from
the mass media coverage. No effect has been reported. But anecdotal evidence
does suggest that the programs solve felony cases that are unlikely to be solved

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otherwise.11 They appear especially effective in solving cases involving fugitives,
bank robberies, and narcotics and may be useful in antiterrorist efforts. The
visibility of these programs also increases their effectiveness by attracting second-
ary tips for unadvertised crimes. Indeed, given the large amount of unsolicited
information received regarding unadvertised crimes, crime reenactments shown
in the media appear to be more important as vehicles for obtaining tips regarding
other crimes than as a means of solving the crimes actually publicized. Bolstered
by supportive court rulings and by low operational costs, these programs are gen-
erally viewed as cost-effective and their continuance currently assured. Despite
their support and successes, critics argue that their gains against crime are out-
weighed by other negative social effects. Paying for information from anony-
mous sources is the crux of the uneasiness felt toward these programs. The fear
is that paying rewards and providing anonymity for informants will reduce
voluntary citizen cooperation and encourage malicious retributive snitching by
citizens on their neighbors, family, and friends.

The digital Most Wanted poster for Usama Bin Laden, symbolic leader of the
terrorist group al-Qaeda.



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Second, because citizen-cooperation ads are presented as representative of real
crime in a community, the image they portray has great potential to influence the
social construction of criminality. Presented in news-like segments akin to reality
programming, these anticrime ads focus on unsolved cases in the community com-
mitted by dangerous-looking suspects. The image of criminality shown in these ads
is similar to that portrayed in the general entertainment media—that of a danger-
ous, crime-ridden world where violent attacks are common.12 In addition, these ads
are often produced in infotainment programming styles, with mood music, voice-
overs, and heightened dramatic elements.13 Furthermore, by emphasizing predatory
violent crimes that appear to be due to greed or irrationality, individual explanations
for crime and crime control–based punitive crime-and-justice policies are empha-
sized while broader structural, social, and economic factors are downplayed.

Finally, what is the proper role of the mass media in law enforcement
efforts? Should the media restrict themselves to basic reporting of events or be-
come involved in their resolution? Citizen-cooperation ads shift the media from
their traditional roles as watchdog observers and reporters to active infotainment
participants in investigating crimes and hunting fugitives. Some argue that the
media should cooperate because it is their civic duty. Many news media agencies
do not cooperate, however, apparently because they perceive involvement as
contrary to the philosophy of separation of press and government.14 How these
concerns are to be resolved is unclear. Unfortunately, we have little independent
data to support or lay to rest the expressed fears. We simply do not know at this
time if the hypothesized negative consequences of citizen-cooperation programs
counteract their positive anticrime effects. For one thing, we don’t know how
much of an anticrime effect they actually have.

Collectively, PSAs, victimization ads, and citizen-cooperation ads are popular,
have demonstrated some positive effects, but have also encountered unanticipated
problems. Success has not been as direct or as simple to achieve as first envisioned.15

Despite their current popularity and transition to the Internet (see Box 7.1), their

B o x 7.1 Anticrime Web Sites

Crime prevention has gone digital and a large number of crime prevention Web sites
exist. They run the gamut from non-profit governmental sites to private profit-driven
ones and include law enforcement sites, consultants, lobby and special interest
groups, and private security firms. The target audiences are citizens, particularly
victims of crime, potential customers of security equipment and crime prevention
services, and voters. A representative sample list is provided.


Welcome To Oregon News

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actual impact on crime levels is ambiguous. All of these efforts aim for behavioral
changes in the audience to reduce crime, but most are actually designed to influ-
ence attitudes and perceptions about the reality of crime under the belief that atti-
tude changes will subsequently lead to changes in behavior. All three of these media
campaign types accordingly rest on a questionable premise, and they have not been
able to produce the hoped-for crime reductions. Regardless of these issues, their
successes have encouraged the migration of media technology into the criminal
justice system as a tool for case processing in law enforcement and judicial efforts.
This is the subject of the next section.


In general, the ultimate goal in using media technology in criminal justice case
processing is to simulate a traditional, live, face-to-face proceeding. Unlike
face-to-face encounters, however, participants in media technology–rendered
proceedings must interact through the equipment, often testifying directly into
a camera or participating by watching a television screen. In contrast to the use
of media equipment in news coverage, here the technology has changed from a
tangential, temporary visitor to an unavoidable, permanent judicial tool. Media
technology has been embraced as a means to efficiently process cases, and cost
and speed are the usual factors considered in these applications.

Though the use of media technology has come to be widely accepted in the
presentation of physical evidence and testimony, using the technology to create
permanent records and conduct live proceedings currently enjoys only limited
support. Expanded applications such as prerecording entire trials have been
experimented with but generally have been rejected. The acceptability of media
technology in the courtroom seems to rest on how much the media-constructed
judicial reality is seen as different from the traditional judicial reality. For pre-
liminary and short procedural steps, most participants, including defendants,
appear to feel that the integrity of the process is unaffected. With regard to
longer, more significant, and more symbolic steps such as trials, concerns and
resistance rise.

Judicial System Use

In the judicial system, visual records of arraignments, first appearances, bond
hearings, and pleas have proven inexpensive and useful.16 A single memory de-
vice can hold thousands of cases and provide a permanent record that can be
consulted should the state of mind of a defendant, his or her comprehension
of rights or instructions, or the voluntary nature of a plea later be questioned.
Once instituted these systems gain support from both crime control and due
process advocates. Crime control proponents like the savings of time and
money. Due process adherents feel the knowledge that a permanent record is
being created makes law enforcement and judicial personnel more conscientious

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in following due process rules. Visual records of these procedural steps also pro-
vide a means not previously available of resolving any subsequent due process
concerns. Furthermore, the same technology used in creating visual records
and testimony also allows, if desired, the physical separation of the participants,
thus allowing a judicial proceeding to be conducted in a new way—in live
media-linked sessions. Judges and attorneys can now be in a courtroom, defen-
dants in a jail, and witnesses in another state, all simultaneously participating in a
live hearing.

Recent computer technology advances have brought new issues to the table,
however, including the digital manipulation of visual images. The same
tools that can be used to crop, retouch, and edit images can be used just as easily
to distort, alter, and fabricate them. This ability undermines the previously un-
questioned validity that pictures enjoyed as evidence. The use of obviously faked
but realistic-looking photos in advertising and entertainment—the creation of
alien worlds, for example—repeatedly demonstrates the sophistication of visual
deception. The uncertain validity of visual images has implications for the evalu-
ation of visual evidence in the criminal justice system. The public is constantly
reminded by entertainment media content that it should not automatically be-
lieve what it is shown.17 A potential future problem is that jurors will begin
to reject photographic evidence as innately untrustworthy in a manner similar
to how jurors now sometimes reject scientific evidence if it does not meet enter-
tainment media standards. Ironically, technological advances may ultimately
result in questioning all technologically processed information so that eyewitness
and human testimony may again dominate the criminal justice process.

In addition, when the traditional, familiar reality of the judicial system is
drastically changed by the use of media technology, resistance to the new reality
rises. Even for the now common applications of media technology, the alteration
of the reality of the judicial system is connected to three concerns: the effect of
media technology on working relationships among courtroom personnel, con-
cerns about depersonalization of the criminal justice system, and the impact of
media technology on the legitimacy of the judicial system.

Comments from attorneys (especially public defenders) and judges indicate
that the relationships among courtroom personnel can be upset by the intro-
duction of media equipment.18 It is significant that in a number of pilot projects
public defenders remain largely skeptical of the advantages of media technology.
Do attorneys deliver equivalent representation if they feel legally and organiza-
tionally disadvantaged in media constructed proceedings? If their morale suffers,
does their subsequent effort on behalf of clients also suffer? These questions
remain unanswered.

A second concern is that expanded use of media technology within the ju-
diciary will almost certainly lead to further depersonalization of criminal justice
proceedings. Adjudication within the criminal justice system is based on face-
to-face interaction, particularly that the accused are entitled to face their accusers.
Extended use of media technology, however, will reduce live, face-to-face
encounters between witnesses and defendants, police and the public, attorneys
and clients, judges and defendants, and jurors and all the previous groups. These

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media-mediated interactions will seriously alter the nature of the personal rela-
tionships within the criminal justice system. Technological advances that make
this equipment more economical, less obtrusive, and more like a live meeting
are likely to further this depersonalization.

A third unresolved concern is what is lost in legitimacy and the public image
of justice when media technology is employed. In addition to being a means of
adjudicating guilt and administering punishment, the judicial system is also a
means of legitimizing the whole social system—its rules, laws, and government.
Accordingly, the judicial system and its personnel have a symbolic value. Loss of
these symbolic qualities may diminish the aura of legitimacy sustaining the entire
criminal justice system. From the social construction perspective, how the system
is seen as treating individuals is crucial. If people become alienated from the sys-
tem or if they feel intimidated or dehumanized by it, the benefits from using
media technologies in the courtroom will cancel out. If these technologies ulti-
mately result in the further isolation and separation of the police from the
policed and the courts from the public, the social costs of such losses would out-
weigh any administrative benefits that accrue from their use. As crime control
values become more popular, there is considerable desire, especially on the part
of criminal justice administrators, to make the system more efficient. Nevertheless,
the criminal justice system must remain legitimate in the public eye if it is to
remain a viable system of justice.

In addition, the visuals created by this technology are frequently used in
news reports, contributing directly to the social construction of the public’s im-
age of justice. The criminal justice system will become, for good or ill, a less
arcane, more open system as its procedures become more visible. The myriad
applications of media technology have changed the reality of justice on many
levels and have opened previous backstage judicial activities to public scrutiny.
Ironically, although the courts are still wary of the news media, the criminal jus-
tice system’s adoption of media technology has had many of the same effects that
were feared from news coverage. The main concern remains whether this new
reality of justice comes to be seen as impersonal, unfair, and unacceptable.

The greatest concerns with the use of media technology are not associated
with its use in case processing, however. The greatest concerns revolve around
the law enforcement use of media technology and the enhancement of law en-
forcement surveillance capabilities.

Law Enforcement Use

After the development and widespread acceptance of videotaped evidence and
testimony in the 1970s, videotaped interrogations were one of the first ex-
panded uses of video technology into law enforcement practices. A videotape
record is felt to provide more objective, fuller accounts of interactions between
police, witnesses, and suspects, as well as evidence regarding the voluntariness of
statements, suspects’ understanding of their rights, police coercion and interro-
gation practices, and the physical and mental condition of suspects. Following
pilot projects, most have embraced this law enforcement use of media

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technology. For example, a two-year evaluation of a Canadian experiment in
videotaping police interrogations showed that the expected advantages of protec-
tion against unwarranted allegations of misconduct, the introduction of account-
ability in interrogation procedures, and the reduction in challenges to the
admissibility of suspect statements were all realized.19

The evaluation further reported that suspects did not appear inhibited by the
cameras and that the suspect confession rate remained the same. In fact, police,
prosecutors, and defense counsel all came to support continuation and expansion
of the project—police because it relieves them of the need to take written notes
during interrogations and reduces their court appearances, prosecutors because it
usually disposes of all legal questions surrounding the police–suspect interview,
and defense counsel because it ensures that police more strictly follow legal proce-
dures and because the defense often can use the tapes to demonstrate their client’s
intent and remorse for sentencing purposes. The interrogation video tapes provide
a record of the frame of mind and emotional state of a suspect much nearer in
time to the commission of a crime than was previously available.

An increasing number of police departments also use media technology to re-
cord the booking of their arrests. These video mug shots provide a pictorial record
of arrestees that includes voice, accent, and continuous front-to-profile views.
These video records have also allowed changes in two other common law en-
forcement practices—identification of a suspect from a traditional lineup and iden-
tification of a suspect from a set of photographs (a mug book) of known offenders.
In a video lineup, a crime witness is shown a series of video bookings selected for
their similarity. The witness chooses from this video lineup the individual he or
she feels is the offender. This process is felt to be fairer than the old practices in
that the individuals in video lineups more closely resemble one another than the
groups usually assembled for a live lineup, and it provides a permanent record of
the lineup for later review should questions arise. In video mug books, a com-
puter program searches a pictorial data file for specific characteristics (for example,
tattoo, bald, heavy, white, and male) and displays matching images.


“You watched TV. Now it watches you”20 neatly summarizes the expected fu-
ture and concerns regarding modern surveillance systems. The police surveillance
stakeout has a long history and has traditionally been an accepted part of police
investigations. Surveillance applications based on media technology have been in
use for a number of years—for example, surveillance cameras in banks, subways,
and department stores—and have recently been expanded to include public
schools, airports, highway toll booths, and other locales. The police have also
traditionally used temporary camera surveillance of specific locations after obtain-
ing a court order. While not a mass media in that there is no public audience
that receives the images,21 the increase in surveillance is considered a media effect
because the current pervasiveness of surveillance is due to advances in media

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technology, especially in visual communication. Enhanced visual media and
communication capabilities and reduced equipment costs, coupled with concerns
about terrorism, have created a strong impetus for surveillance systems. Contem-
porary media technology has also changed the nature of surveillance from on-
scene, limited human observers and whatever notes they might produce to the
automated technological interception, recording, and transmittal of immense
amounts of information.

In the United States, surveillance camera systems have increased exponentially
since the 2001 terrorist attacks.22 Taking advantage of the surveillance effect—
the psychological effect of fearing that you might be under observation—
surveillance programs have expanded the traditional police use of the stakeout
and hidden camera to encompass general public space applications. Media technol-
ogy has made constant surveillance of broad public areas possible, and surveillance
cameras permanently mounted on street corners, in patrol cars, and within and
without various public and private buildings are common features of communities.
The traditional uses of surveillance in stake-outs and banks differ from newer ap-
plications in that the areas surveyed were small, and public domain areas were not
usually involved. In contrast, the new surveillance programs use media technology
in large public areas such as outdoor malls, downtown centers, parks, and residen-
tial streets.23 Traditional surveillance was also aimed at gathering evidence for
a specific case or deterring crime at a specific place such as a ticket booth, but
today the prime justifications for public surveillance systems are couched in
broad-scale public safety and antiterrorism goals. The reality of surveillance has
shifted from a rare, narrow, activity determined by a need related to a specific
criminal case to a common, pervasive, constant presence. The historical idea that
you have to be under suspicion of having done something to be brought under
surveillance is no longer the case with broadly targeted, automatic, continuous sur-
veillance systems. This potential surveillance of everyone whenever they appear in
public places is the prime cause of unease. Not surprisingly, the use of this power-
ful and intrusive technology has raised fears concerning its impact on society.

Contemporary surveillance projects aim to provide either retrospective scene
analysis following crimes, deterrence of future crimes, facilitation of real-time in-
tervention, or some combination of these goals.24 Figure 7.1 outlines the two
influence paths through which surveillance systems can theoretically effect crime.
As shown, both formal effects through law enforcement actions and informal
channel effects on citizens and offenders are possible. When, how, and if these
systems work in specific applications is still under debate.25 It is not clear, for
example, to what extent offenders take the presence of cameras into account
when deciding whether or not to commit an offense.26 Irrespective of this and
other unanswered research questions, adoption of camera surveillance has contin-
ued unabated around the world.27

History and Issues

The use of telephone wiretaps in the 1900s first raised the specter of surveillance
abuse. Writing before the era of electronic eavesdropping and visual technology,

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Justices Earl Warren and William Brandeis predicted that “mechanical devices
threaten to make good the prediction that ‘what is whispered in the closet shall
be proclaimed from the housetops.’”28 Today, the updated quote would be
“whatever is done in the dark will be shown on the news.” To understand the social
impetus for these new surveillance systems and the likely future of police surveillance
in the United States, one must look to England. No Western democracy has em-
braced police surveillance systems more than Britain (see Box 7.2 for a narrative of
life under pervasive daily surveillance). The electronic recording of images and perva-
sive, broad-scale, permanent surveillance systems in use in Britain have resulted in the
English population being described as the most surveilled population on the planet.29

The rise of surveillance capabilities increased dramatically with the develop-
ment of modern camera-based systems in the 1960s.30 CCTV, or closed circuit
television, was initially used both in the United States and Britain sparingly as an
in-store means of apprehending and deterring shoplifters. Although the technology
became less expensive and increased in its capabilities throughout the 1970s, the
Western political environment remained hostile to expanded use. The Cold War
discouraged the use of police surveillance systems that smacked of Communist-style
secret police tactics. Western politicians and police chiefs did not want to be viewed
as advocates of systems that could be described as “Big Brother” spying.

Increased risk of

While a crime is progress

identification after event

Efficient application
of manpower

Deterred by increase in
natural surveillance with

more public using
areas covered

Increase in self restraint
from visible but

unverifiable surveillance

Symbolises the
rule of law and

emboldens the law

Reminds people of the
risk of crime and aids


Deterrence Official uses

Informal effects on
the public



F I G U R E 7.1 An Illustrated Model of How CCTV May Affect Crime
Source: Adapted from Williams, (2007, p. 99) “Effective CCTV”

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B o x 7.2 A United Kingdom Story of Everyday Surveillance

[The numbers in parentheses tally surveillance systems.] Thomas Kearns’s day starts as
usual. At 7:15 a.m. the sounds from his clock radio penetrate his consciousness. At 8:15
he kisses his wife goodbye and shuts the front door of his apartment, children in tow.
They head towards the elevator and are captured on a covert video surveillance
operation, set up by the local authority, aimed at identifying residents who are dealing
in drugs from their premises. (1) As they wait for the elevator their presence is moni-
tored on the concierge’s video system twelve floors below, as is their descent for there
is also a camera in the elevator. Their routine is preserved and stored for twenty-eight
days, or longer if necessary. (2) As they walk to the car, it is not only the concierge
who monitors the Kearnses’ departure, but Mr. Adams on the fifteenth floor, who has
tuned his television to receive output from the Housing Estate’s cameras. (3)

Thomas drives to the roadway and, although vaguely aware of the sign that
declares “reduce your speed now—video camera in operation” still drives at 10 miles
an hour over the speed limit and trips the automatic speed cameras. (4) By 8:30, he
has dropped his daughter off at the CCTV-monitored nursery (5) and is heading
towards his son’s school. He stops at a red light. Had he jumped it, another picture
would have been taken to be used as evidence in his prosecution. (6) As they wait in
the playground for the start of school, they are filmed by a covert camera secreted in
the building opposite to monitor the playground for signs of drug dealing (7) and
their goodbye kiss is also captured on the school’s internal CCTV system which
monitors every entrance and exit. (8) Noticing a nearly empty fuel tank, he drives to
the gas station. He knows that he is being filmed as a large sign declares: “These
premises are under 24-hour video surveillance.” (9) At a railroad crossing, his location
is caught on cameras monitoring the crossing to ensure that the intersection of
road and track is clear when the train crosses. (10) A few minutes later, he is in the
parking garage under the watchful eye of another set of cameras. (11)

As usual, Thomas buys a newspaper and is filmed by in-store security cameras.
No one is monitoring the images from the two cameras but they are taped on a
multiplex video recorder that records the images on one tape. (12) Before buying his
train ticket he makes a telephone call to remind his wife that he will be home late.
Unbeknownst to him he is filmed by a covert camera installed to catch vandals and
hoax callers. (13) His call made, he buys his ticket, walks to the platform and waits for
his train, all of which has been recorded and monitored by the thirty-two cameras
operating at the station. (14) On arrival, he walks to his office and smiles for the
camera monitoring the reception area. (15) He is, however, unaware that his
movements are being recorded by a number of covert cameras hidden in the
smoke detector housings as he walks towards his office. (16)

At lunchtime, he is going to visit his sister, who has just given birth. Three
monitors in the town hall’s CCTV control room (17) watch his movements along the
streets. His first stop is an ATM where his face is captured by a camera hidden inside
the cash machine. (18) He crosses the road to buy his sister some flowers. Should
the CCTV monitor wish, his every turn could be tracked on the 35-camera in-store
security system. At the check-out he writes a check but doesn’t notice a camera
zooming in to ensure that the store has good pictures of his face should he be
passing a bad check. (19)

Outside, he hails a taxi for the two-mile journey and, as they cross a major road,
the taxi’s number plate is photographed by the Metropolitan Police’s new CCTV-
based automatic license plate recognition system. (20) On arrival at the hospital he is
photographed by two cameras covering the main entrance and again as he enters
the maternity unit. (21) Having carried out his family duties, he walks to the nearest

(continued )

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In the mid-1980s, as the Cold War dissipated, municipal police CCTV
surveillance systems appeared across England. By the mid-1990s, a rapid increase
in the number of systems was well under way, and today it is the rule rather than
the exception for any reasonably sized British community to have police camera
surveillance of its public spaces.31 By the turn of the century, there were more than
500 operating CCTV systems in England, exploding to an estimated 4.2 million
today or about one camera for every fourteen people.32 Beyond the defusing of the
Cold War, rising local crime rates and a declining faith in the traditional criminal justice
system’s ability to deal with crime has been credited for increased public support for
surveillance systems.33

Capping the social construction of police surveillance systems as positive and
necessary in England was a symbolic crime, the 1993 murder of a two-year-old
boy who was recorded on a mall security camera being taken away by his two
teenage killers. The use of the security camera video resulted in demands for
more camera systems following its widespread broadcast on news programs.34

The images gave an irresistible push for the adoption of CCTV systems, and
the British media shifted from questioning whether surveillance is a good thing
to asking why are cameras not everywhere. Similarly in the United States, sym-
bolic crimes, usually murders, have periodically supercharged the slow but sure
surveillance creep through society to periods of surveillance surges.35 Once

underground station; here his progress will be recorded on video from the moment
he enters the station to the point he boards his train. (22) He alights at the airport
to meet some prospective clients and, of course, dozens of security cameras (23)
monitor his movements. He escorts his guests to the parking garage where a rental
car awaits. They drive out and the license number is photographed automatically.
It is then checked against the computerized database of all cars using the airport
garages. (24)

They head to a football game in South London where Thomas is treating. In
route, they are fleetingly caught by three town’s CCTV systems. (25) After arrival,
they are photographed as they enter the stadium and while they are seated their
faces are scanned and checked against a pictorial database of known hooligans. (26)
After the match, they drive to a bistro. As they are unfamiliar with the area they
drive slowly looking for the correct turn-off. They are filmed on a mobile camcorder,
deployed by the local vice squad in an effort to prevent “curb crawling” in this “red
light district.” (27) The monitoring officer loses interest when they turn off.

When dinner is over Thomas awaits the 11:14 train where his presence is
recorded on the station’s cameras. (28) He returns home just before midnight and
sits down to check the mail. An official-looking letter informs him that the local
police have photographed his son associating with a teenage gang, and wish
Mr. Kearns to come to the police station to view the video. (29) Thomas heads to
bed, wondering what on earth his son can have done wrong to warrant being
photographed by the police.

At the end of his day, Thomas had been filmed by over three hundred cameras
on over thirty separate CCTV systems.

B o x 7.2 A United Kingdom Story of Everyday Surveillance (Continued)

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installed, logic inevitably calls for coverage of larger areas, and every murder or
terrorist act intensifies the demand for expanded surveillance.36

The result in England has been the normalization of police surveillance sys-
tems to the level that CCTV surveillance has been described as a public “fifth
utility,” along the lines of water, electricity, and telephones.37 Driven as much
by politics as by empirical evidence, United Kingdom CCTV surveillance is
today perceived as an affordable and efficient technical fix for crime.38 One Brit-
ish Chief Constable describes his system as equal to full-time police officers on
the beat twenty-four hours all taking notes without meal breaks, holidays, or sick
leave.39 In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and passage
of the Patriot Act and related legislation the United States is on track to joining
England as a massively camera-surveilled society.40

In the United States and elsewhere, camera surveillance programs today take
one of two basic forms: completely hidden systems that give potential offenders no
indication that they are being observed, and clearly marked, open systems. Al-
though the first form functions more as a means of gathering evidence and aiding
in apprehensions, both forms take advantage of the surveillance effect, using the
psychological impact of the belief that one might be under surveillance.41

How effective are surveillance systems in reducing crime? Evidence based
largely on interviews with offenders does suggest that offenders take into account
the perceived level of surveillance and the likelihood of intervention when de-
ciding whether to commit some types of crimes, especially instrumental street
crimes such as car break-ins.42 Emotional spontaneous crimes such as assaults
are less affected. Evaluations further suggest that the systems are most effective
in reducing crime when combined with other interventions,43 and evidence of
crime reduction from public CCTV systems has been reported.44 However, if
the threat of police intervention is absent, the impact of surveillance fades.45

That is, unless surveillance results in someone showing up to address the ob-
served problem, a surveillance-generated deterrent effect will eventually wane.

Benefits and Concerns of Increased Surveillance

The benefits usually cited for police camera surveillance systems also incorporate
the concerns raised about these systems.46 Thus, a CCTV benefit is to be able to
observe and react to previously unnoticed acts; the concern is that net-widening
from police arresting more people, particularly juveniles, for minor offenses will
result in more people with formal arrest records.47 A benefit is to be able to expel
actual and potential deviants from specific locations; the concern is that profiling,
polarization, and radicalization will result as certain groups are targeted for exclu-
sion from public spaces, especially commercial shopping districts (see Box 7.3).48

A benefit is to provide evidence against offenders; the concern is the development
of databases to track and identify specific members of the population based on
their prior labeling as individuals that “need to be watched” rather than being
surveilled because of their current behavior. A benefit is the creation of quiet,
disturbance-free streets; the concern is overpolicing and the suppression of public
exuberance and uninhibited but lawful social or political protest and the loss of

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informal citizen guardianship of neighborhoods.49 Lastly, a benefit is the creation
of crime-free surveillance zones; the concern is that displacement effects will push
crime into adjacent communities without the money or political clout to obtain
their own surveillance systems; surveillance would be a privilege and mark com-
munities as “worth watching” while simultaneously making crime invisible with-
out reducing it.50

Of the concerns, displacement of crime to adjacent areas has been empir-
ically examined along with the additional potential benefit of a diffusion of crime
reduction impact. Diffusion of benefits is seen as a possible effect from surveil-
lance systems because offenders might not be aware of the boundaries of the sur-
veillance coverage and therefore reduce their offenses in adjacent nonsurveilled
areas. In the reported evaluations, evidence of both displacement and diffusion
effects have been reported.51 For example, in the United Kingdom evidence of
the local diffusion of benefits in reduced car theft and break-ins has been re-
ported as well as evidence of significant crime displacement to outlying distant

B o x 7.3 Profiling and Camera Surveillance

Surveillance camera monitors are sometimes accused of profiling when deciding
which people to watch. Thus, people at a mall might be watched because of who they









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English towns from a single system.52 This suggests that diffusion of benefits may
accrue near to these systems while crime displacement can be occurring
simultaneously farther away.

The recent appearance of video cameras mounted on patrol car windshields in
the United States represents another expanded, mobile use of video technology for
surveillance. The mobility of the patrol car extends the practice of general law
enforcement surveillance to virtually the entire society without the need for perma-
nent fixed systems. Challenges to this practice based on privacy concerns have been
rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has stated that an invasion of privacy
cannot result unless there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. Because there is no
expectation of privacy in a traffic stop or on a public street, the use of in-car video
cameras by police on patrol or on fixed streetlight mountings monitoring public
streets is allowed under almost all circumstances.53

Resistance to even greater adoption within law enforcement agencies appears
to arise when law enforcement officers perceive the cameras as an administrative

are (teenagers or minorities) rather than because of what they are doing. Norris and
Armstrong (1998, p. 8) summarize this issue:

[Camera surveillance] is more than just crime prevention. It enables a vast
amount of visual data, in the form of images on the screen, to be processed and
interpreted. What interpretive schemes guide operator judgments? What forms
of behavior or people trigger suspicion and at what point does this result in a
deployment? Is this deployment confined to explicitly criminal concerns or is
intervention directed at regulating matters of decorum and demeanor in public
space and aimed at excluding certain types of people?

Research has indicated that demographic profiling does occur. Williams and
Johnstone (2000, p. 193) report that CCTV operators selectively target those social
groups they believe are most likely to be deviant, singling out certain people and
behaviors as inappropriate and therefore warranting surveillance. They found that
young males, especially young black males, were regularly targeted for surveillance
as much for their race, posture, and dress as for their behavior. In their study, Norris
and Armstrong (1999, p. 110) found that in one British community black people were
two and a half times more likely to be the object of surveillance, over one and a half
times more likely in another U.K. community. The concept of “otherness” comes into
play with the social construction of suspicion resulting in blacks and teenagers being
more likely to be watched without cause and ascribed criminal intent on the basis of
appearance (Morris and Armstrong 1999 p. 118). Of the 900 surveilled events Morris
and Armstrong reviewed, forty-five resulted in police deployments, and twelve re-
sulted in arrests. One-third of surveillance targets were selected based on categorical
criteria such as dress, race, or subculture group membership, whereas surveillance
based on suspicious behavioral represents only one out of four uses (Norris and
Armstrong 1999 p. 112; see also Goold 2004, chapter 6). Due to these concerns, racial
and class based profiling is a persistent criticism levied against the utilization of
public space camera surveillance.

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tool, installed to watch them, more than as a law enforcement tool. In reality the
cameras are both: the police on the surveilled street or in front of their patrol cars
during a videotaped traffic stop are also under surveillance.

Surveillance video transforms the relationships between line police officers,
their administration, and the public by providing a reviewable record of officers’
street interactions. The benefits of having a visual record are many; administrators
and the courts can later review officers’ and suspects’ actions, and thereby decide
liability, voluntary search consent, misconduct claims, and have more credible,
objective evidence of behavior and statements for DUI and drug intoxication
cases. In addition, the cameras are credited with deterring suspects from resisting
arrest and deterring officers from mistreating suspects and engaging in other un-
professional acts.54 In effect, in a democratic society the technology appears to
protect police officers from frivolous charges of abuse and misconduct while pro-
tecting the public from actual abuse and misconduct by officers. In addition, the
ubiquitous video cameras in citizens’ hands means that a surveillance effect may
have an impact on the police at least as much as on the public. Research has
indicated that citizen-videotaped arrests have a significant negative impact on
the public’s perception of police use of force.55 In response, the police are ad-
vised to operate under the premise that cameras are everywhere and that any of
their actions might be taped.56 A final ironic consequence of more surveillance
cameras in society is their use by offenders to provide early warnings of police
raids on premises being used for illegal practices. This turns the acquisition of
surveillance technology into an offender/police arms race that law enforcement
is not necessarily favored to win.57

Balancing Police Surveillance and Public Safety

All surveillance systems raise issues related to the use of media technology in
the daily policing of our society. Surprisingly, concerns over Big Brother are
usually raised by the news media, law enforcement officers, and external obser-
vers, not by the citizens under surveillance, who appear quite ready to trade off
a measure of personal privacy for a potential reduction in victimization and
fear. The public acceptance of surveillance is high and is linked to the increased
exposure of private, backstage behaviors in the news, entertainment, and infotain-
ment media—if privacy is already rare, then surveillance is less offensive. Since the
terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, public support in the United States for
surveillance systems has been strong, with close to 80 percent in one poll support-
ing the installation of surveillance cameras in public places to prevent terrorist

Unresolved questions concern effects on the legitimacy, symbolic impact,
and the public image of justice when surveillance technology is employed. Law
enforcement also legitimizes the entire criminal justice system. Accordingly, the
police have a symbolic value. On the street, both the presence of a live police
officer and the assurance of knowing when one is being observed by the police
affirm the values of voluntary consent and public control of law enforcement.
Loss of these symbols may diminish the aura of legitimacy sustaining the entire

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criminal justice system. Misuse or overuse of this technology will construct a
social reality of mistrust and cynicism, where fear of crime is replaced by fear of
authority. In addition, police surveillance systems may actually be ineffective
over the long term, and their use could result in the neglect of broader
approaches to crime control. It is feared that reliance on technological fixes for
crime can have negative community effects, working against positive community
participation, creating a siege mentality, and undermining natural community
surveillance by residents. For example, the presence of a police surveillance sys-
tem might result in fewer phone calls to the police if residents assume that the
local police surveillance camera will observe incidents and alert the authorities.
Police surveillance by means of technology may thereby undermine natural sur-
veillance by encouraging people to have faith in the disembodied electronic eye
and encourage a “why get involved” attitude. Instead of worrying about Big
Brother watching them, the public may expect that “Big Father” will sort every-
thing out.

The basic problem these programs present is how to balance police surveillance
and public safety—how much safety is gained at what cost? The equation seems
clearly to be that increased fear of crime and terror results in increased tolerance
for surveillance. Citizens fearful of crime and terrorism are willing to open more
social areas to observation, even when the observers are hidden. Orwell’s 1984
society of total surveillance is less frightening than a local mugger or homicidal ter-
rorist. The danger is that fear will drive citizens to glibly surrender personal privacy
for an unknown measure of personal security. Whether these programs actually
reduce crime or protect against terrorist attacks enough to warrant the loss in pri-
vacy is an open question.59 They are capable of producing positive near-term effects
for certain types of crime, with vehicle-related offenses appearing to be most effec-
tively deterred. Whether the systems can maintain effects over the long term is not
known. How surveillance power is held to account and what limits are placed on
its operation are also unresolved issues. The impact of new computing and database
technologies will increase the power of surveillance—with the coupling of surveil-
lance cameras to fast, inexpensive computers, facial recognition, vehicle and person
tracking, and behavior recognition software are realities. Widespread police access
to a real-time, computer-analyzed, media-augmented surveillance data will soon be

Cameras unavoidably change the nature of the relationship between those
being watched and those doing the watching. Most of the time, the negative
social consequences of increased surveillance dominate the debate. However,
the latest applications have positive potentials also. When the actions of the law
enforcers and the public are both monitored, stored, and subject to later review,
surveillance cameras can restrain the actions of authorities as much as offenders. It
remains to be seen whether the impact of these projects in democratic societies
will be greater on the police than on the public. A significant effect on employ-
ees has already been reported in correctional settings where the behavior of both
correctional officers and prisoners is monitored.61 Like other two-edged swords,
the dual nature of police camera surveillance is apparent. “In the wrong hands it
can invade privacy and make Orwell’s 1984 a reality. But it can also, in a

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different political context, be liberating and protective.”62 Which reality will
emerge is yet to be determined.


Today, the media can be used to influence people’s attitudes about crime and
make more crime-related information available to the police. Other uses can
speed the processing of criminal cases. The technology of the media can be
used to videotape police patrols, vehicle stops, and interrogations. And the tech-
nology is useful in the investigation, surveillance, and deterrence of crime. The
administrative—mostly crime control—benefits associated with these uses follow
quickly, and projects have consistently been evaluated as efficient and cost-effective.
Increased social fears as well as technological advances that make the equipment
more economical, more flexible, more capable, and less obtrusive are hastening
wide use of media surveillance. However, there are concerns about potential social
costs. If evidence of negative effects is found in future studies, the technological ge-
nie will be out of the bottle, and it will be difficult to curtail established practices.

Efforts that do not include surveillance show no behavioral effects, and it
appears doubtful that the media can by themselves deter criminal behavior—
much as they alone cannot criminalize individuals. Surveillance programs do
show deterrence effects, but their ability to deter crime without displacement
and other worrisome social effects remains unproven. Media efforts to reduce
victimization by teaching crime preventive behaviors have high recognition
levels among the general public and have increased public knowledge and changed
public attitudes about crime prevention, but they have not yet shown an ability to
significantly change crime prevention behavior. Finally, programs designed to in-
crease public cooperation by advertising crimes are effective in gathering informa-
tion and in solving specific types of crimes. Their effect on the overall crime rate is
not known, but it is likely negligible.

With all of these caveats in mind, media technology is still an extremely
useful tool, but social costs invariably accompany technological benefits. Costs
include increased depersonalization of the criminal justice system; isolation of
the police from the policed; increased citizen suspicion of surveillance; polariza-
tion of society due to the creation of affluent, technologically secured garrison
communities; and possible decreased citizen support and legitimization of the
criminal justice system. Finally, when news media convey the message that these
efforts are the answer for reducing crime rates and when this is coupled with
the entertainment message of crime being generated through individually based
causes, crime as a technological rather than a social problem becomes the logical
conclusion. The belief that we can engineer our way out of the crime problem
through more equipment and manpower is bolstered. The collective lesson is
that media-based programs are indeed panaceas for the general crime problem.
To the extent that the public believes this and policy makers act on it, resources
for other approaches will be drained.

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To solve crimes and deter criminals, the government must intervene in its
citizens’ lives. The media and media technology provide a means to do so in new
ways that are felt to be both more efficient and less obviously intrusive. In practice
such applications cannot avoid opening up for view new areas of public life, of the
criminal justice system, and of police–citizen interactions. In certain instances, such
as in the use of patrol car cameras, which record police actions as much as citizen
actions, this is clearly seen as a positive course. In other instances, such as in the use
of hidden police surveillance systems, the desirability of widely doing so is not so
clear. Still, with proper oversight the media and media technology can have both
due process and crime control benefits. Media and their technology are a poten-
tially positive but, it must be remembered, ultimately limited resource for criminal
justice. The media should be an aspect of our total criminal justice policy, but media
cannot be the mainstay of crime and justice policies. Connected to the question of
how much of our criminal justice policy should be media based is the question of

The cell phone video image of a terrorist in action in 2008 in the India city of Mumbai
shows how new media have increased the informal reactive surveillance of previously low
visibility crime and justice events. Outside of totalitarian countries, few events of any
social significance or news value today go unrecorded by either security camera systems
or personal video-capable devices.











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how many criminal justice policies are media generated. Chapter 8 looks at the
broader relationship between the media and criminal justice policy.


The roots of media-based anticrime efforts are found in public service
announcements, public communication campaigns, and pro-social media
that established the possibility of using targeted content to influence people’s
knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors.

Using the media to reduce crime and victimization has proved difficult due
to unanticipated and counterproductive effects. The primary difficulty is
the need to raise concern about crime and its consequences in the target
audience without triggering negative effects from raising fear levels.

Media efforts aimed at offenders are based on deterrence and aim to get
offenders to voluntarily reduce their offending.

Media efforts aimed at victims are based on self-protective behaviors and aim
to get potential crime victims to reduce their likelihood of being selected by
an offender.

Media efforts aimed at citizens are based on encouraging cooperation with
law enforcement and aim to increase information and tips regarding crimes.

Media technology, especially visual communications, has been increasingly
adopted in the criminal justice system in video interrogations and lineups and
visual presentation and records of arraignments, evidence, pleas, and trials.

The capacity for digital manipulation of visual images has worked to
undermine the credibility of pictures as evidence.

Police surveillance of public spaces has expanded and CCTV systems are
common in many U.S. communities. Concerns with these systems involve
privacy, displacement of crime, and the impact of a surveillance effect on

Media-based anticrime efforts do not appear to be able to reduce crime on
their own. Camera surveillance projects show the greatest impact on actual
offender behavior.


1. Write an essay about why media technology has been embraced as a solution
for various criminal justice system tasks while some police unions have
opposed the installation of video cameras in patrol cars.

2. Write an essay about who should have access to the video records and
images produced by a public agency surveillance system and whether

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surveillance video should be released to news agencies, used in civil cases,
or employed in infotainment programming.

3. Write a paper about where and when surveillance cameras are acceptable
and if it should matter if they are hidden or openly displayed. Discuss
the phenomenon of a surveillance effect and whether people should be
informed that they are within the view of a surveillance system.

4. Research computer-monitored surveillance systems and write an essay about
the pros and cons of computer versus human monitors.

5. Count and note the location of the surveillance cameras you notice over a
seven-day period. Record what entity (government, business, or private) is
operating each camera system, whether you can determine the boundary of
the surveilled area, whether there are signs announcing the presence of the
surveillance cameras, and whether the cameras are difficult or easy to spot.
Relate how you feel about the level of surveillance you discovered.

6. Find five anticrime PSAs and note their target audiences, the crime problems
they are addressing, their use of fear, and the behaviors they are trying to
encourage or discourage.


Goold, B. 2004. CCTV and Policing. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Norris, C., and G. Armstrong. 1999. The Maximum Surveillance Society: The Rise of
CCTV. Oxford, UK: Berg.

Norris, C., J. Moran, and G. Armstrong, eds. 1998. Surveillance, Closed Circuit Television
and Social Control. London, UK: Ashgate.

O’Keefe, G., D. Rosenbaum, P. Lavrakas, K. Reid, and R. Botta. 1996. Taking a Bite
Out of Crime. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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The Media and Criminal

Justice Policy


After reading Chapter 8, you will

Understand the link between media content and criminal justice policy

Comprehend the policy effects of the backwards law

Know about the media’s crime-and-justice ecology

Appreciate how immanent justice underlies media crime and justice portrayals

Learn how technology is advanced as a crime-fighting tool

See that the assessment of criminal justice policy is based on faulty information

Recognize how the public crime-and-justice agenda, beliefs about
criminality, and attitudes toward policy are influenced by the media


The cumulative result of the media’s construction of crime, crime fighters, courts,
corrections, and crime control are punitive criminal justice policies. When the
dominant media portrait is of predatory offenders committing violent crimes in
continuous battle with the criminal justice system, nonpunitive policies come across
as naive. You don’t need crime-fighting heroes to battle wayward citizens who
have made mistakes they regret. Nor do you rehabilitate innate predators. In that
you very rarely find the regretful offender and usually find the innate predator, the
ultimate policy push from the overall media social construction of crime and justice
is an obvious conclusion. What remains to be clarified are the pathways through
which media content influences criminal justice policy.


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Herbert Packer’s well-known due process and crime-control models serve as
conceptual frames for understanding the criminal justice system, its goals, and the
mass media’s effects on the system.1 Both models describe organizational case flows.
Under the due process model, the criminal justice system is seen as an obstacle course
in which the government must prove an accused person’s guilt while conforming
to strict procedural rules. The system’s most important goal under this model is the
protection of citizen rights and the prevention of arbitrary and capricious govern-
ment action. The key determination in this model is legal guilt, which is decided at
the end of a long and exacting process. In contrast, in the crime control model, the
criminal justice system is perceived as an assembly line along which defendants
should be processed as quickly and efficiently as possible. The primary goal of the
system is to punish criminals and to deter crime. The key determination in this
model is factual guilt, which is decided early in the process in accordance with
the perceived strength of evidence and police judgment.

Beyond aiding in understanding the criminal justice system, these models are
also useful for understanding the conflicting perceptions that exist within the crimi-
nal justice system regarding the mass media and their impact on crime and justice
policy.2 Conflicts arise because some view the media as mainly promoting a due
process reality by ensuring that the courts do not exercise power capriciously, while
others view them as retarding due process protections by increasing the difficulty of
finding impartial juries and conducting fair trials. Paradoxically, some also see the
media as promoting crime control by educating the public about the functions of
the justice system and by enhancing deterrence by publicizing punishment of crim-
inals. Others see them as hindering crime control efforts by interfering with the
efforts of law enforcement to investigate and prosecute crimes, by negatively re-
porting unethical but effective law enforcement practices, and by withholding in-
formation and evidence from the courts. Hence even if people agree on the effects
of the mass media on the criminal justice system, they may disagree as to whether
these effects are good or bad. The same media effect—such as making it more
difficult for the police to conduct evidence searches—can be seen by some obser-
vers as promoting due process and therefore good, while other observers see it as
hindering crime control and therefore bad. Given these competing interpretations,
the media can be seen as either enhancing or hindering the criminal justice system.
The media do what they do, and their effects are seen as promoting (or interfering
with) due process or crime control policies depending on the observer’s point of
view. Despite the fact that their effects can be variously interpreted, in general,
media content forwards the crime control model and disparages the due process
model. This imbalance is tied to two crime and justice tenets.


Two crime-and-justice tenets provide insight into the way criminal justice as a social
issue is constructed. The first tenet is the “backwards law,” which is associated with
a particular crime-and-justice “ecology.” The second tenet is the “rule of immanent

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justice,” which paradoxically is associated with an enhanced view of technological
solutions to crime. The media-constructed reality has the police imbedded in a ran-
domly violent environment where they battle predators more than keep the peace;
the courts deal with psychotic offenders and conduct investigations more than dis-
pense justice; corrections exist as a bizarre, primitive lost world of frequent brutality;
constant surveillance of the public is the most prudent course, and the entire crimi-
nal justice system points unwaveringly toward the need for swift, sure, and increased
punishment.3 In this media-generated Darwinian crime-and-justice reality, survival
of the violent emerges as the operative selection rule.

The Backwards Law

In nearly every subject category—crimes, criminals, crime fighters, attorneys, cor-
rectional officers, and inmates; the investigation of crimes and making of arrests;
the processing and disposition of cases; and the experience of incarceration—the
media construct and present a crime-and-justice world that is not found in reality.
Whatever the truth about crime and the criminal justice system in America, the
entertainment, news, and infotainment media seem determined to project the
opposite. The wildly inaccurate and inevitably fragmentary images and facts found
in the entertainment and infotainment media reflect this law most clearly. They
provide a distorted reflection of crime within society and an equally distorted
reflection of the criminal justice system’s response to crime. Basic to this process
is a front-end-loaded portrait that concentrates on the activities of law enforce-
ment and crime fighters. The further past law enforcement and into the criminal
justice system one looks, the fewer criminal justice activities are shown. The lack
of system-wide information and the unreality of the narrow information that is
available demonize criminality while mystifying the criminal justice system. The
result is the exacerbation of the public’s lack of understanding of crime and justice
while constructing a perverse topsy-turvy portrait of criminal justice reality.4

The backwards law also applies to crime-and-justice news content. First, the
criminal justice system and its component parts are seldom the subject of news
reports. The criminal justice system serves as a background setting for a news story
more often than it appears as the subject. When the justice system is explicitly
referred to, it is usually the courts that are portrayed, not as institutions but as back-
drops to present information about individual cases. Seldom are broader system
issues covered. For example, the broader policy issue of sentencing as a range of
options incorporating fines, community supervision, and incarceration is not often
discussed. Instead, references to sentencing are reported within stories about an
individual receiving a sentence, most often prison. Nonincarceration sentencing
options such as fines appear in less than 10 percent of news stories.5 Alternate sen-
tences, such as restitution or community service, almost never appear. Similarly,
crime prevention stories are rare when compared to the number of stories about
individual violent crimes—and when crime prevention does get covered, the cov-
erage is usually negative. The end result is news that approaches criminal justice
policy from the bottom up—that is, as the piecemeal, cumulative result of a focus
on individual crimes and individuals rather than as a coherent, system of justice.

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This bottom-up perspective can be found in the way news stories are format-
ted, either as episodic or thematic.6 The more common episodic format treats
stories as discrete events: a crime is described and a resulting case is followed. The
rarer thematic format highlights trends, persistent problems, or other systemic
phenomena: a crime-and-justice issue or a category of crimes is explored. Episodic
formatted stories encourage viewers to place responsibility for social problems
totally on individuals and to ignore possible societal forces—an individual commit-
ted a crime, why did he do it? Stories told in the thematic format take the opposite
approach and effect—a set of problems have developed, what changed in society?
The entertainment media reflects the same dichotomy, concentrating on events
more than issues—the big heist, the murders, the investigation, the trial, the riot,
and so on. By being episodic rather than thematic, the media reinforce the popular
view that says crime is caused solely by individual choices and that punitive, harsh
deterrent-based policies are the only effective response.

The media therefore supply a large amount of information about specific
crimes and convey the impression that criminals threaten the social order and its
institutions with imminent collapse. Media provide less information to help the
public comprehend the larger society-wide forces that underlie individual crimes
and cases. Rare is the thematic interpretive analysis that places criminal justice in-
formation in historical, sociological, or political context. In the absence of system-
wide information, the public is left to build its own picture of the effectiveness of
current criminal justice policies and the desirability of newly offered ones.

The “Viginia Tech massacre” shooter killed 32 in a 2007 rampage. Episodic style coverage
of such events drives media influence on criminal justice policy formation.






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Most media evaluations of the criminal justice system are implicit rather than
explicit, indirectly conveyed through countless episodic references to the ability
or inability of the system to apprehend specific criminals, to convict and punish
them when they are apprehended, and to return them to society reformed and
deterred. Concerning the main components of the criminal justice system—the
police, courts, and corrections—the media portray the police as doing a fair job,
and the courts and the correctional system as doing poor jobs. When queried, the
public ranks the system’s components as slightly better in the same order—police
being rated as good to fair, the courts as fair to poor, and corrections as poor.7

The media’s construction of the criminal justice system appears to lead the public
to evaluate the overall system poorly while paradoxically leading the same public to
increase support for crime-and-justice policies so long as they are crime control and
law enforcement oriented.

This paradox has been attributed to the public’s view of street criminals as the
most pressing crime image and to media depictions that show curable deficiencies in
the justice system and personality defects in individuals as the main causes of appar-
ently rampant crime.8 Within this paradox, the faulty system frame has done the best
in the media. Not surprisingly, researchers have found that most people who pay
regular attention to the media support as their first policy choice criminal justice
reforms that would toughen and strengthen the existing system.9 This is true even
though these same people place a large share of the blame for current crime levels
on the existing criminal justice system. Despite the media presentation and public
acceptance of the criminal justice system as ineffective, the media implicitly suggest
that improving it, at least as a law enforcement and punitive system, is the best hope
against the many violent crimes and predatory criminals that are portrayed. From the
backwards law emerges a recurrent picture of social reality that disparages social struc-
ture solutions while constructing a particular social structure regarding crime and jus-
tice. This constructed social reality incorporates a unique crime-and-justice ecology.

Media’s Crime-and-Justice Ecology

The social dynamic underlying the media image of crime—an image that has not
substantively changed over the hundred-plus-year history of the modern media—is
of a trisected society populated by wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs. In the media vision
of society, evil and cunning predator criminal wolves create general mayhem and
prey on weak, defenseless—and often stupid—victim sheep (women, the elderly,
the general public), while good crime-fighting hero sheepdogs (usually middle class,
white, and male) intervene and protect the sheep in the name of retributive justice.
Over the course of the last century, characters in this ecological landscape have dark-
ened. Media criminals have become more animalistic, irrational, and predatory—as
have media crime fighters—and media crimes more violent, random, senseless, and
sensational. In parallel, media victims have become more innocent. Differences
between the general public and criminals have thus widened. In a subtle shift, the
earlier predatory but rational criminal wolves have become unpredictable, irrational
mad dogs, while over the years the protective noble sheepdogs have become
wolf-like rogues and vigilantes for whom the law is an impediment to stopping

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crime. Heroes and villains have become more alike and less human, the former a
demon, the latter a demigod. Today’s media-constructed crime-and-justice ecology
is populated with ideal offenders, victims, and heroes.10 The ideal offenders are the
outsiders, strangers, foreigners, aliens, and intruders who lack essential human quali-
ties. Offenders have become generic others and as such can never be rehabilitated or
resocialized. The ideal victim, on the other hand, is the innocent, naive, trusting,
obviously–in-need-of-protection true human. Children are the archetypal innocent
victims and key symbols in the media’s social construction of crime.11 Finally,
although capable of great violence similar to the ideal offender, the ideal hero dis-
plays the additional admirable human qualities of sacrifice and strength. When these
ideal types combine, memorial legislation can result as shown in Box 8.1.

By depicting this predatory violent social environment, the media project
messages to the audience, both criminal and law-abiding, concerning whom to
trust, whom to victimize, and how victims and criminals should act. The

B o x 8.1 Megan’s Law and the Creation of Memorial Criminal
Justice Policy

An example of memorial criminal justice policy based on a media portrait of the
“ideal victim,” in this case an innocent child; Megan’s Laws were created nationwide
to increase public access to information about registered sex offenders, especially
their place of residence. The law memorializes Megan Kanka, a seven-year-old
abduction, rape, and murder victim of a repeat sex offender. The various versions
of Megan’s Law usually require sex offender registration lists and community
notification mechanisms. Although the effectiveness of these laws has been
questioned (see Zgoba, Dalessandro, Veysey, and Witt, 2008), they remain popular.








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consistent message is that crime is caused by predatory individuals who are inher-
ently different from the rest of us—more ruthless, greedy, violent, or psychotic.
Combating these predators requires a special person, an equally tough, predatory,
and most important, unfettered crime fighter. Criminality is an individual choice
and other social, economic, or structural explanations are irrelevant and can be
ignored. Limited to this simplistic, incomplete picture of crime as mostly individ-
ual, socially isolated acts, the public is shown that counterviolence is the most ef-
fective means of combating crime, that due process considerations hamper the
police, and that, in most cases, the law works in the criminal’s favor. The public
is further instructed to fear others because criminals are not always easily recog-
nized and often are rich, powerful, and in positions of trust.

This constructed social environment, combined with the emphasis on inves-
tigations and arrests—the front end of the criminal justice system—ultimately
promotes pro–law enforcement and crime control policies. When the public relies
on infotainment-formatted media and avoids media that present criminality as a
complex social problem, punitive “quick fixes” are supported over preventive
long-term approaches to crime.12 Paradoxically, although the media frequently
portray the criminal justice system unfavorably, the solutions they depict as
being the most effective—harsher punishments and more law enforcement—entail
expansion of the existing criminal justice system. Underlying this construction is a
persistent, if often unstated, explanation of crime. The media consistently point to
individual personality traits as the cause of crime and to violent interdiction as its
solution. If one accepts the media’s explanation of crime as being caused by
predatory personality traits—by innate greed and violence—then the only valid
approach to stopping crime is to hold individual offenders responsible for their
past crimes and forcibly deter them from committing future ones. In the media’s
simplistic notion of crime, the most effective solution is dramatic, individual action
that emphasizes violence and aggression, with a preference for weapons and
sophisticated technology. By portraying criminality as innate and crime as an act of
nature, the logical response is found in revenge, punishment, and immanent justice.

Immanent Justice Rules the Media

Immanent justice is the belief that a divine higher power will intervene, and reveal
and punish the guilty while protecting the innocent. The operation of divine inter-
vention in the media becomes most clear in entertainment gunplay. Weapon accu-
racy and killing power are unequally held by the evil criminals and the good crime
fighters, their aim apparently guided by the moral imperatives of right and wrong.
Sinful, evil criminals miss or inflict benign flesh wounds while blessed, good crime
fighters hit and kill. Similar to the medieval socially constructed reality that made trial
by ordeal and combat logical, the modern media reality relies on the moral superior-
ity of the crime fighter to ultimately defeat criminality. Lessened as a social problem,
criminality is further reduced to an individual moral battle. The idea that criminals
personify evil, which is exemplified in the phase “dangerous criminal underclass,” has
deep historical roots.13 A dangerous, immoral underclass, in turn justifies the wide
use of violence and punishment. Sin must be resisted and sinners punished.

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Apago PDF EnhancerThis good versus evil perspective on crime and justice is also reflected in the
common media crime fighter who is motivated by personal injury and revenge;
upholding the law is secondary to individual retribution. This media portrait ties
into the overall media emphasis on individualism and personal action as the
appropriate solution to crime and victimization. The associated media-constructed
crime-and-justice policies gain support from our basic cultural values of free will,
individualism, and personal responsibility. The result is that an individualized,
revenge-oriented justice dominates where, God willing, the good guys win despite
heavy odds. This pursuit of individualized immanent justice in the media tends to
crowd out other competing constructions of crime and justice and their associated
policies. In this fashion, crime is further diminished as a social problem. Instead, it
becomes a theological one, albeit not without a role for technology.


In contrast to their focus on individual factors as the cause of crime, the media do
portray some collective responses to crime as effective, but only if they are technol-
ogy based. Immanent justice is often helped along by technology and gadgets. If
God is not handy, then a good engineer or scientist (not a social scientist, though)
will do. Crime-and-justice issues are seen as a technological engineering problem
analogous to traffic control. Within this portrait, it makes sense to ignore social and
structural sources of conflict such as racism, sexism, and economic inequality and
focus on solutions requiring more equipment, manpower, and resources. Suggesting

An evil Nazi who is ultimately destroyed by the ark in the film Raiders of the
Lost Ark. Evil criminals and their ordained defeat are inherent in the portrayals
of immanent justice found in crime-and-justice media.















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that we can engineer our way out of crime, such an approach works well for true
technological problems like reaching the moon. Unfortunately, for true social pro-
blems like crime and poverty, technology-based moon-shot solutions do not work.

Real-World Crime and Justice Problems

In the real world, social problems come bundled together—crime is found with
poverty, unemployment, poor health, poor schools, high divorce rates, high
out-of-wedlock pregnancy rates, community decay and deterioration, drug

B o x 8.2 Minor Celebrity Crime = Major Media Attention

Tatum O’Neal (cocaine possession), Wesley Snipes (tax evasion), George Michael
(lewd act), Lil’ Kim (perjury), Hugh Grant (solicitation of prostitute), Winnona Ryder
(shoplifting), Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan (her mugshot is below), and
Mel Gibson (DUI and various traffic violations) are all celebrities arrested in recent
years for nonviolent or victimless crimes. These crimes would be considered compar-
atively minor and not newsworthy if committed by ordinary people. The large
amount of coverage these arrests generated displays how socially unimportant crimes
(crimes that have little effect in terms of social harm to society and would have little
social impact except for being linked to someone famous) can be newsworthy and
have significant media value.









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use, illiteracy, high school dropout rates, and so on. Communities and societies
that experience one of these problems tend to experience most if not all of
them together. Unfortunately, the media present crime as largely autonomous
from other social problems and not as linked to them in any serious way. With
its individually rooted causes and celebrity linkages (see Box 8.2), crime is con-
structed as an autonomous plague on society, its genesis not associated with other
historical, social, or structural conditions. It follows that criminological theories that
are individually focused gain more support from the media’s construction of crime
and justice than do group or culturally focused theories. Retribution and deter-
rence are trumpeted; rehabilitation and social reform are belittled.

The end product from a constructed backwards world of immanent jus-
tice, where policy is steered by divine intervention and derived from contests
between good and evil individuals is, ironically, a preference for high-tech
policies. Crime in the media is ultimately painted as a technological problem
imbedded in a randomly violent, socially impersonal landscape that can only
be tamed by more manpower and equipment. But does the public make the
connection between the content they see and the policies they support? Do
they even pay attention to the implicit policy messages?



While the content of the media certainly leads toward some policies and away from
others, it is worthwhile to examine the research evidence of the media’s ability to
influence crime-and-justice policy. This section looks at the relationship between
media and criminal justice policy, examining the pathways that connect them: the
effects on crime’s rank on the list of social problems, attitudes about the world as
mean and dangerous, fear of crime, and counterproductive and anticipatory effects.

Crime on the Public Agenda

Can the media, by emphasizing or ignoring topics, influence the ranking of issues
that are important to the public—that is, what the public thinks about rather
than what the public thinks? The hypothesis is that people will tend to judge a
social issue such as crime as significant to the extent that the media emphasize it.
If true, in time the media will construct the public agenda.14 When a correla-
tion is looked for between media attention and public concern, a weak to mod-
erate relationship is found.15 Encouraged by this association, the agenda-setting
research has concentrated on the media’s effects on the public’s ranking of issues
with the idea that the issues that receive government attention are chosen from the
public’s list. An early assumption in agenda setting was that the media influence
public policy through a linear process. Crime stories appear, crime as an issue in-
creases in public importance, the public becomes alarmed, neighborhood and other
public interest groups mobilize and rally for action, and crime-and-justice policy

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makers respond. Consistent evidence of such a linear process has not emerged from
the research, however. The media’s influence is seldom direct and is more often
modified through multiple steps and social networks.

As the research now stands, a media effect on the public’s agenda is generally
acknowledged, but unless the effect also appears among policy makers, it is usually
regarded as unimportant. The research indicates that media effects are variable; ap-
pear to increase with exposure (those who are exposed to the media content mirror
the media ranking of issues more closely); are more significant the less direct experi-
ence people have with an issue; are more significant for newer, concrete issues than
for older abstract ones; diminish quickly; and are nonlinear, sometimes reciprocal,
and highly interactive with other social and individual processes.16 Specifically re-
garding crime and justice, the media emphasis on crime and associated claims about
the nature of crime have been credited with raising the public’s fear of being vic-
timized and giving crime an inappropriately high ranking on the public agenda. It is
felt that crime’s high ranking also encourages moral crusades against specific crime
issues, heightens public anxiety about crime, and pushes or blocks other serious so-
cial problems such as hunger or health care down or off the public agenda.

Beliefs and Attitudes about Crime

The second question is whether exposure to crime-and-justice claims in the me-
dia affect a person’s beliefs and attitudes about crime—the claims about crime a
person accepts as true, and the feelings about crime a person believes to be justi-
fied. George Gerbner and his colleagues investigated the association between
watching large amounts of television and general perceptions about the world,
with the idea that television creates a particularly pernicious social reality for its
audience.17 This process, first described as worldview cultivation, was felt to
be directly related to the number of hours of television viewed. The researchers
hypothesized that through exposure to television’s content most everyone comes
to have a similar media-constructed view of the world. Over time the repetitive
themes and content of the mass media homogenize viewpoints and perspectives.
People would come to think like the media and, consequently, to think alike.
Prodded by critiques of their initial research,18 Gerbner and his colleagues
amended their initial hypothesis from one of “worldview cultivation,” which
stated that all media viewers would be affected, to the current one termed
“mainstreaming.” Mainstreaming posits that the media affect some viewers
more than others regardless of exposure level. They now argue that the media
are homogenizing society, influencing those heavy television consumers who are
currently not in the mainstream to move toward it, while not affecting those
already in the mainstream. The significance and extent of a media mainstreaming
effect has yet to be determined. Effects on viewer beliefs about the world such as
their estimates of the number of crimes in society are acknowledged; effects on
the development of mean-world views and mainstreaming are weak and incon-
sistent and therefore still debated.19

One factor that has emerged as important in determining the impact of
the media is the local environment of the media consumer. Local conditions and

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family context in which media information is obtained influence the acceptance or
rejection of media-based claims about crime and justice.20 For example, the rela-
tionship between exposure to media content and one’s attitudes is expected to
diminish when actual neighborhood crime levels are taken into account or if one
lives in a violent household. If one’s world truly is mean, the media will have less
effect on one’s view of the world. This conclusion is consistent with the general
social construction proposition that media effects are most powerful for issues that
are outside of your personal experiences or experienced reality. Media-based
claims are expected to have less impact on beliefs about crime among those who
have had direct neighborhood experience with crime and thereby have a powerful
alternative source of information.

The most relevant crime-and-justice attitude that has been linked to the me-
dia is fear of criminal victimization. Fear-of-crime levels are socially important
because they encourage support for punitive criminal justice policies and in-
creased personal social isolation. Viewing television crime shows, for example,
has been found to be related to fear of crime, perceived police effectiveness,
and opposition to gun control.21 As the most accessible and pervasive potential
source of fear, the role of the media is therefore important—but that role is not
clear.22 Currently, research suggests that media exposure to crime content is
more strongly related to fear about distant seldom visited places than to fear
about local personal victimization. Not surprisingly, the public is more likely to
accept fear-generating claims about places known only via the media than about
directly experienced communities.23 It also follows that media consumption is
more strongly related to fear of general social violence than to fear of personal
risk24 and fear of urban areas more than fear of nonurban areas.25

What does this research say about people’s beliefs and attitudes about crime?
At the least, heavy media consumers do share certain beliefs about high societal
crime and victimization levels and live in a socially constructed world that is seen
as more violent and dangerous—and feared—than the socially constructed world
of those who consume less media. The most common effects are increased belief
in the prevalence of crime, victimization, and violence, and increasingly cynical,
distrustful social attitudes. The media provide the individual social construction
“bricks” in the form of individual criminal events and associated crime-and-justice
claims to build a crime-and-justice reality foundation. With attitudes about crime
and justice as mortar, the public blends all of its media knowledge together with
personal experiences into a final crime-and-justice social reality. The media’s por-
trayal of crime and justice thus defines a broad public reality of crime. In that the
media tend to construct a particular crime-and-justice reality for their consumers,
the logical next question is whether the resulting beliefs and attitudes translate into
support for specific crime and- justice policies.

Crime-and-Justice Policies

Understanding the relationship between the media and the formation of criminal
justice policies is important because media effects translate into how tax monies
are spent and what actually happens to offenders and victims. Influence on

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crime-and-justice policy is the ultimate prize in the competition over the con-
struction of crime-and-justice reality. Victorious, policy-influencing claims ma-
kers gain power, resources, and ownership of a core social issue (see Box 8.3).
Recognizing this, they work diligently to garner media attention and favor. It
is also important to distinguish the effect of the media on criminal justice policy
formation from their effect on preexisting popular crime and justice attitudes. To
the extent that the media accurately reflects already established public attitudes,
the media amplify public policy tendencies by simply reinforcing preexisting
punitive attitudes.26 In this way, the media have a second route of influence on
criminal justice policy, one by legitimizing and amplifying nascent punitive pub-
lic attitudes, the other by helping to create those attitudes.

B o x 8.3 Three Strikes and You’re Out: A Mediated Criminal
Justice Policy

In the Three Strikes and You’re Out legislation, serious crime was redefined and part
of the faulty criminal justice system was “fixed.” In 1988, Diane Ballasiotes was
abducted and stabbed to death in Washington state by a convicted rapist who had
been released from prison. In reaction to this crime, a group called Friends of Diane
formed to seek harsher penalties for sex crimes. This group eventually joined forces
with another Washington state policy lobby group that was advocating for Three
Strikes legislation. Despite their combined efforts, however, through 1992 there was
little legislative or criminal justice professional interest in Three Strikes legislation in
Washington. The proposed legislation was perceived as similar to a habitual offender
law already on the books, and a petition drive to get three strikes on a statewide
ballot failed. Although there was some media coverage, up to that time the Friends
of Diane and the Three Strikes groups did not find a receptive social and media
environment. As a result, they were unable to be successful claims makers and
forward a new dominant construction of criminal justice policy.

In 1993, the Three Strikes group (renamed the Washington Citizens for Justice)
allied with the National Rifle Association and succeeded in getting the proposition on
the November ballot. This time, despite some opposition from elements of the
criminal justice professional community, 77 percent of Washingtonians approved
the Three Strikes law. The catalyst for this shift was a tragic “symbolic crime” in
California. As the Washington vote approached, a young California girl, Polly Klaas,
was abducted and murdered. Coupled to this crime, media coverage of Three
Strikes was extensive, and politicians and citizens across the nation and the political
spectrum embraced the new policy as a crime panacea.

A number of social construction concepts clearly come into play in the Three
Strikes saga. With the alliance of the NRA, Friends of Diane was able to become a
much more powerful claims maker—the NRA was a preestablished group that the
media would readily contact. Also, with the kidnapping and murder of Polly Klaas,
the Three Strikes and You’re Out claims makers had a tragic and powerful symbolic
crime that they were able to use to reconstruct the crime problem. Symbolic crimes
are crucial as they ensure media access for claims makers while providing dramatic
stories, visuals, and evidence of policies that must be implemented. In Three Strikes,
the Polly Klaas murder became the symbolic event that focused the media’s attention
and lifted the new crime-defining legislation to become a new social reality.

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Researchers continue to explore the nature of the media–criminal justice policy
relationship, and they have been able to report clear connections between the two.
The results of the research have established that the media can directly affect what
actors in the criminal justice system do without having to first change the public’s
attitudes or agenda. The idiosyncratic nature of the media–justice policy relation-
ship, however, makes predicting the direction and magnitude of media influence
in specific situations difficult. The difficulty arises because the media may themselves
be claims makers or serve as the voice of nonmedia claims makers, and because the
media are as likely to affect criminal justice decision making indirectly as they are
to directly influence the formation of crime-and-justice policy. As the models in
Box 8.4 show, the media may actually be the cause of a criminal justice policy
change (model A). Conversely, an external event may be the cause, while the media
simply covers the event prior to the policy change, which would have occurred
without media attention (model B). Or the media’s coverage of an external event
and the event may both be influencing criminal justice policy (model C).

The available research indicates that among criminal justice officials, even
more than among the public, the media significantly influence both policy devel-
opment and support. Effects are multidirectional, and media content, the timing

B o x 8.4 Media–Criminal Justice Policy Relationship Models

A. Direct Media Influence

An investigative news report of ticket fixing leads to a new department policy
regarding tickets.

B. No Media Influence External Event

An external evaluation reveals that low-income defendants are less likely to be
offered alternatives to jail sentences. The review and selection process is adjusted as
part of a preplanned program refinement cycle at the same time as local media
report on the existence of program bias.

C. Simultaneous Media Influence External Event

A prisoner on a furlough program commits a violent rape. As a result, the corrections
department reviews and alters the furlough program. Due to media publicity of the
rape, the program is also suspended for a number of months and more severe
restrictions than otherwise considered are instituted.

Criminal Justice Policy ChangeMedia Coverage

External Event
Criminal Justice Policy Change

Media Coverage

External Event
Criminal Justice
Policy Change

Media Coverage

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and presentation of the claims, and the characteristics and concerns of the general
public, claims makers, and the criminal justice policy makers interact to determine
the media’s influence on criminal justice policies.27 Misinformation pervades the
interplay between crime, politics, and public opinion, however, so as to create a
comedy of errors in the formation of criminal justice policy.28 In what has been
called crime control theater, claimsmakers exploit misinformed public opinion
with results that range from broad, far-reaching policy crusades and criminal legis-
lation to specific narrow influences on decisions in individual cases.29 The research
difficulty is not in the media’s lack of significant policy effects but in determining
the form effects will take, and the task of sorting out the effects of the media from
the effects of external events is obviously difficult. Compounding the difficulties,
another set of unexpected effects arise from the novel manner in which the media
relate to criminal justice policy. Three types appear: echo effects, counterproduc-
tive results, and anticipatory reactions.

A media coverage echo effect (discussed also in Chapter 5, pages 114 and 117)
refers to a tendency for officials to treat defendants in unpublicized cases harshly if
the press has been demanding such treatment for defendants in publicized cases. For
example, a study of the processing of criminal cases prior to, during, and following a
highly publicized case involving the sexual abuse of toddlers at a private day care
center demonstrated that an echo effect was in operation.30 Initial analysis showed
marked increases in the number of filings of cases involving child victimization fol-
lowing the publicized case and an increase in the sentences of defendants adjudicated
guilty. The existence of echo effects portends an influence spillover from the cover-
age of newsworthy criminal cases onto nonpublicized ones. Diffused but pervasive
systemic media effects on a large number of unpublicized cases are likely.

The second unexpected result, counterproductive effects, occurs in situa-
tions where media attention results in unanticipated consequences, usually involving
a crime reduction program. In this effect, some media-based anticrime campaigns
have been found to have effects opposite to the campaign goals. For example, a
massive multimedia Canadian anticrime campaign was found to actually result in
fewer people taking personal anticrime measures.31 This negative effect was credited
to the campaign raising concern about crime to a fatalistic level among the target
population, so that they stopped taking any precautions against crime.

A final unique effect is rare for other social research areas, but not uncommon
for the media. Anticipatory effects seem to reverse the causal order of media
attention and criminal justice policy change. It has been discovered that among
criminal justice system officials, responses to the media can be either reactive or
proactive—that is, they may react to what they have seen and heard in the media
or act in anticipation of what they expect to find in the media. In the latter situa-
tions, the effect on policy occurs before any observable change in media content.
The policy changes occur because criminal justice system officials respond in a pro-
active manner to anticipated media coverage, perhaps due to seeing negative media
coverage of a criminal justice practice in a distant jurisdiction.32 In these cases, even
if the media pay no attention to an issue, an official still acts on the idea that atten-
tion might be forthcoming and initiates a new policy or fails to implement a
requested policy, to avoid expected negative media attention. In the first instance,

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a successful policy change cancels the potential coverage, and in the second,
the proactive non-policy change is in anticipation of coverage that might never
have occurred. In either case, because the media influence policy without any tan-
gible coverage, the task of determining and studying a media policy effect is daunt-
ing. The problem is similar to determining how many crimes were not committed
as a result of the deterrent effect of a new punishment-based program. Not impos-
sible, but more difficult than counting events that do occur.

Together, anticipatory, echo, and counterproductive effects underscore the
idiosyncratic nature of the media–criminal justice policy construction relationship.
The unpredictability makes it difficult to determine the direction and magnitude
of influence or to specify the mechanism through which the media’s influence is
being exerted. They add a unique level of difficulty to deciphering the relation-
ship of the media and the criminal justice system. These media-related effects
interweave with any criminal justice policy effects. Observed changes can be in
anticipation of the media attention (as when prosecutors decide to increase DUI
prosecutions to head off potential negative publicity), in anticipation of a policy
being changed (as when prosecutors decide to pursue harsher sentences for drunk
drivers due to the echo effect from a highly publicized DUI case), or due to a
criminal justice policy change directly lobbied for by the media (as when DUI
prosecutions increase due to an investigatory media series suggesting that lenient
treatment for DUI offenders is common).

There is the real possibility of one effect occurring to prevent a second effect.
In such a case, a preemptive decision to not change an established policy in favor
of a new policy might occur so as to avoid the anticipated negative media cover-
age generated by the appearance and subsequent waning of an announcement
effect of the (now rejected) new criminal justice policy. For example, a prosecutor
sensitive to media dynamics may decide against launching a tougher but expensive
new DUI policy to avoid the problem of future negative coverage of the apparent
loss of initial prosecutorial effectiveness that will occur when the media-generated
announcement effect wanes. At that point, the new DUI policy, cast as suddenly
failing to maintain its initial successful deterrent impact, results in the prosecutor
being called to task. Sensing this pitfall, the prosecutor might well decide to forgo
this or other new policies. The recognition and delineation of the media’s role in
such a scenario would be Herculean. Indeed, based on the discussion thus far, con-
fidently comprehending any policy effect of the media appears daunting, and it is
perhaps surprising that knowledge has progressed as far as it has.



As stated earlier, the ultimate impact of social constructionism on criminal justice is
found in its implication for criminal justice policy. For it is with our crime-
and-justice policy decisions that we decide how we are going to collectively
respond to crime, deal with offenders, and spend our taxes. The media’s role is

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not praised. “We have a public dialogue that is segmented and reduced to sound
bites, content that dulls an increasingly inattentive populace, and media that provides
feedback via call-ins, Internet polls, and narrow constituencies.”33 Figure 8.1 lays
out the relationship between the media, social constructionism, and criminal justice
policy. As shown, the relationship between the media and their crime-and-justice
content influences the social construction of crime-and-justice reality by supplying
the narratives, symbolic crimes, and basic information needed to create factual
and interpretative claims.34 The media further provide the arena for the crime-
and-justice social construction competition to be held, thereby favoring media-
savvy claims makers. This in turn encourages a particular set of social attitudes
and perceptions about crime and justice; predatory criminality and an overly
lenient justice system are popular. The final and most important influence in
this relationship chain is on criminal justice policies. How policies are presented
and perceived determines whether they are supported or opposed.

The media are not the most important factor in the construction of crime
and justice policy, but their influence cannot be ignored.35 They remain influen-
tial because their content regarding social problems resonates strongly with the
emotional framework of the public.36 Perceptions of crime and justice appear
to be intertwined with other social perceptions, and crime-related attitudes are
not determined solely by one’s perception of the crime problem. Instead, percep-
tions of crime and justice are part of a larger construction of the nature and
health of society. And if perceptions of crime are intricately related to broader
perceptions of the world, it is unrealistic to expect that they would change solely
in accordance with media presentations of crime. That being said, if there is a

Media’s Crime-and-Justice Content

especially crime and justice narratives, symbolic crimes, and media-
disseminated crime information

Social Construction of Reality Process

determines which competing constructions are favored by the public;
media-savvy social constructionists favored

Social Attitudes, Perceptions, and Behaviors

what we agree to believe about crime and justice, such as the faulty
system frame and predator criminals as representative of criminality

Criminal Justice Policy

behaviors we criminalize and decriminalize and the punitive and
corrective actions we take

F I G U R E 8.1 Media, Social Constructionism, and Criminal Justice Policy

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general media effect on criminal justice policy, it is to increase punitiveness and
surveillance as the first and sometimes only policy choices.37 A punitive policy
effect, however, need not be the default impact of the media; there is evidence
that when media framing of capital punishment shifted from supportive to por-
traying capital punishment as flawed an associated downward shift in public sup-
port for executions followed.38

For the most part though, the image of justice that most people find the
most palatable and popular is the image that the media have historically pro-
jected. This is true for the entertainment, news, and infotainment elements of
the media, as similar crimes and criminals appear in each. The repeated message
in the media is that crime is largely perpetrated by predatory individuals who
are basically different from the rest of us; that criminality is predominantly the
result of individual problems; and that crimes are acts freely committed by
individuals who have a wide range of alternate choices.39 This image locates
the causes of crime solely in the individual criminal and supports existing social
arrangements and approaches to crime control. The media-constructed reality
of crime also allows crime to be more easily divorced from other social pro-
blems and highlighted as society’s greatest threat. In the end, crime-and-justice
media advances system-enhancing crime control policies. The media do not
provide the public with enough knowledge to directly evaluate the criminal
justice system’s performance, but media content steers people toward particular
policies and assessments. Crime control does consistently better in the media
than due process.

Not surprisingly, the overriding concern involves the image of the criminal jus-
tice system that the media constructs and the public receives. Learning about the
criminal justice system from the media is analogous to learning geology from volca-
nic eruptions. You will surely be impressed and entertained, but the information
you receive will not accurately reflect the real world, whether you’re looking
at volcanoes or at the criminal justice system. The media-constructed reality of
predatory crimes, high-stakes trials, and violent riots contrasts starkly with the
criminal justice system’s daily reality of property crime, plea bargains, and order
maintenance. Ironically, the public is shown that the traditional criminal justice
system is not effective and is simultaneously told that its improvement remains
the best solution to crime. While critical pieces on criminal justice have increased
in frequency and media exposés have led to the exoneration of some wrongly
convicted persons, the tendency is to portray misconduct within a “‘‘bad apple’”
framework and to preserve the overall portrait of the police and the criminal
justice system as the sole solution to crime.40 These messages translate into support
for order over law, punishment over rehabilitation and criminal justice based over
non-criminal-justice-based policies.41 This portrait has naturally led to concern.
Criminologist David Altheide observed that: “The only response we seem to
have is to wait and to prepare (get armed, lock doors, build walls, and avoid stran-
gers and public places). This may be a good formula for cinema thrillers, but it is
lousy for everyday life.”42 Fear and fatalistic acceptance of crime, mystification of
the criminal justice system, myopic support for punitive criminal justice policies,
and increased tolerance for illegal law enforcement practices all result.

T H E M E D I A A N D C R I M I N A L J U S T I C E P O L I C Y 197

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How could the media portray crime and justice better? The news media
have the experience and a coverage model to adopt if they wanted to improve.
The media are able to provide comprehensive, contextual coverage for sporting
events on a daily basis. Sports coverage stands as a model for reporting on indi-
vidual events, supplemented by statistics, trend analysis, forecasts, commentary,
and discussion. Sporting events are consistently placed by the media in their
larger social context (the world of sports in this case) and constructed in a way
that provides historical understanding and current comprehension. Covering jus-
tice like sports would provide the public with a counterbalance to the distorted
and currently unchallenged entertainment and infotainment constructions. In that
manner, crime could be removed from the realm of the bizarre, grotesque, and
sinister and placed in the social world of poverty, loss of community, alienation,
group conflict, and psychological disorders.43

Sports, however, are covered in breadth and depth because there is a strong
public demand and interest. Lacking a similar incentive regarding criminal justice,
there is no reason to expect the commercial media to direct their limited resources
to delivering an expanded justice portrait. It’s not that they cannot do it, but lack-
ing a large enough market they cannot afford to do it. In the social construction of
crime and justice we won’t get what too few of us are willing to pay for. The
crime-and-justice media that will be delivered will be that which can be produced
profitably. The most profitable content follows entertainment narratives, format-
ting, and frames. Whether in news, infotainment, or entertainment, this profitable
content carries imbedded messages about criminal justice polices and encourages
public support for policies that will fix and enhance what some view as the “faulty”
criminal justice system while discouraging support for other approaches.


The backwards law says that in many respects the media portrait of crime
and justice will be the opposite of what is true. This backwards portrait leads
to a crime-and-justice ecology made up of wolf-like predatory offenders,
heroic protective crime fighters, and sheep-like victims. Crime control
policies are advanced at the expense of due process model policies.

The solution to crime constructed in the media is often aided by events that
reflect a type of “immanent justice” in which fortuitous seemingly divine
intervention prevents criminals from prevailing and ensures that crime
ultimately does not pay.

Technology plays a central role in the media-constructed solution to crime.
Equipment and surveillance are offered as core crime solution elements.

Research on the relationship between media and criminal justice policy has
focused on agenda setting, beliefs and attitudes about crime, and direct
media effects on criminal justice policy formation. Relationships between
media and policy have been reported in all three areas but consistent media
effects are not reported.

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The relationship between the media and criminal justice policy is complex,
hard to predict, and prone to unanticipated effects including news coverage
echoes, anticipatory actions on the part of policy makers, and counterpro-
ductive consequences from media attention.

Criminal justice policy development and debate would be better served if
crime and justice was covered as thoroughly as sports. The snapshot episodic
coverage of crime overwhelms media content that discusses criminal justice
policy issues.


1. Detail a recent local crime or criminal justice event that resulted in heavy
media coverage and in calls for a change in a criminal justice policy. Discuss
how the competing constructions of the issue were framed, whether the
event became a symbolic crime, and whether a policy change appeared
likely. Note which features of the event make it more or less likely to
generate a memorial criminal justice policy.

2. For each component of the criminal justice system list how its media portrait
reflects the backwards law and note which component is portrayed in the
media least like its actual reality.

3. Write an essay about the use of immanent justice ideas in the social
construction of terrorism by both terrorists and governments.

4. Critique the film Natural Born Killers (1994) and its depiction of the news
media’s role in crime and justice.

5. Research the media content regarding a recent local criminal justice policy
debate. Note the references to crime-and-justice events by politicians and
other policy makers and how the policy alternatives are socially constructed
and framed by the media and by claims makers.


Altheide, D. 2002. Creating Fear: News and the Construction of Crisis.
Hawthorne, N.Y.: Aldine de Gruyter.

Beckett, K., and T. Sasson. 2000. The Politics of Injustice. Thousand Oaks, CA:
Pine Forge Press.

Callanan, V. 2005. Feeding the Fear of Crime: Crime-related Media and Support for Three
Strikes. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC.

Gest, T. 2001. Crime and Politics. London, UK: Oxford University Press.

Shichor, D., and D. Sechrest, eds. 1996. Three Strikes and You’re Out: Vengeance
as Public Policy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

T H E M E D I A A N D C R I M I N A L J U S T I C E P O L I C Y 199

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Media and Crime and Justice in

the Twenty-First Century


Chapter 9 provides

A summary of what the reader has learned about crime, justice and the

An overview of the relationship between media and crime and justice.

Two postulates that encapsulate the media crime-and-justice relationship

A description and discussion of two alternative scenarios of the future of the
media’s role between the public and the criminal justice system

A discussion of the likely impact of new media on crime and justice


By the late nineteenth century, early print-based media contained the same
criminal stereotypes and causal explanations of crime found in today’s media.
Narratives of individually focused crime and retributive justice have been com-
mon story lines for more than a hundred years. Composed of ever-multiplying
outlets and new media technologies, today a pervasive social reality web con-
structs a distorted, erroneous crime-and-justice portrait. The merging of news
and entertainment media and the constant looping of crime-and-justice content
means that the portraits of crime and justice in each will continue to be more
alike than different. Infotainment media presentations will continue unabated
and new media will speed the distribution of this content and broaden its


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Crime-and-justice media messages conform to a backward’s law, and the
media consistently reverse the real world of crime and justice in their media-
constructed world. As a basic rule of thumb, news, entertainment, and infotain-
ment media take the least common crime or justice event and make it the most
common crime or justice image. Crime constitutes a constant, significant portion
of the total media content; criminals are normally constructed as either predatory
street criminals or dishonest businesspeople and professionals; and the criminal
justice system is shown as an ineffective, often counterproductive means of deal-
ing with crime. In this media-made reality, traditional criminal justice system
personnel and standard practices suffer, but alternatives to the criminal justice
system fare even worse.

The lack of realistic information in the media further mystifies and obscures
criminality and the criminal justice system.1 The media emphasize individual
personality traits as the cause of crime and violent interdiction as its solution,
showing a preference for crimes involving weapons and solutions involving vio-
lence and sophisticated technology. Media present criminality as an individual
choice and imply that other social, economic, or structural explanations are irrel-
evant. The “crime fighter” and “war-on-crime” icons suggest to the public that
crime must be fought rather than solved or prevented.2 Media portraits further
instruct the public to fear others, for the criminal is not easily recognizable and is
often found among the rich, powerful, and seemingly trustworthy. These images
tilt public perceptions toward law enforcement and crime control policies. The
result is that although the criminal justice system is not shown favorably, the
solutions to crime suggested by the media involve expansion of the existing
criminal justice system through harsher punishments and more law enforcement.
Increasing the punitiveness of the real criminal justice system appears to be the
only reasonable policy course. And in a looping cycle, the actions of the real
criminal justice system are evaluated by the public against the expectations and
desires raised by the media-constructed criminal justice system.

Cumulatively, the media’s crime-and-justice content forwards the following

1. Crime fighters must use any means to catch criminals.

2. Corruption runs rampant throughout criminal justice agencies.

3. Bureaucratic red tape and due process protections hinder the honest crime
fighters and make it difficult to successfully conclude investigations.

4. Crime fighters need more training and resources because they are not
capable of solving crimes legally.

5. Crime is a result of individual characteristics and is not related to social
structure, racism, or poverty.

6. Criminals cannot be rehabilitated and, if given a chance, will recidivate.

7. Specific deterrence combined with incapacitation is the only policy
approach that will stop criminals from recidivating.

8. The courts allow dangerous offenders to avoid guilt.

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9. Probation and parole allow dangerous offenders to go free.

10. Prisons make dangerous offenders more dangerous while brutalizing and
criminalizing wrongfully incarcerated ones.

The dominant crime-and-justice portrait shows people outside of the
criminal justice system and unburdened by due process considerations to be
the most effective crime fighters. At the same time, media bolster the existing
criminal justice system as being the best policy course. This media-constructed,
ineffective, last resort criminal justice system sits within a portrait of a stark
social ecology filled with predatory criminals, violent crime fighters, and
helpless victims.

The media’s influence on criminality, independent of its effect on criminal
justice, has not been adequately explored, and the specter of media-oriented ter-
rorism is an issue of immediate concern.3 The available evidence suggests, and
most researchers agree, that the media do affect crime rates and motivate terror-
ists. Aggregate crime rate studies further suggest that the media affect crime
independently of their violent content. In addition, the media likely have a
copycat effect more on property crime than on violent crime. The more heavily
the potential copycat criminal relies on the media for information about the
world and the more predisposed the individual is to commit crime, the more
likely a copycat effect is. Violence-prone children and individuals who have
difficulty distinguishing fact from fantasy are particularly at risk for aping media
violence. When sexual and violent content are yoked, hypermasculine males are
most influenced. When the news media sensationalize crimes and make celebri-
ties of criminals, people seeking notoriety imitate those crimes. And when
successful innovative crimes, in particular property crimes, are detailed, criminals
emulate them.

Media Anticrime Efforts

On the other side of the media social construction equation are media-based an-
ticrime efforts. These efforts appear to be an effective means of disseminating
information and influencing attitudes, but their ability to significantly affect be-
havior has not been established. Although useful in specific areas, media-based
anticrime programs are not likely to significantly reduce the overall crime rate.
No program has empirically demonstrated a significant long-term and displacement-
free effect on crime. Single-handedly, the media and media technology are as
unable to deter criminal behavior as they are to criminalize previously law-abiding
individuals, and the media should not be looked to as crime panaceas. Even so,
media-based anticrime programs can have significant immediate effects, and their
careful utilization is warranted.

By constructing crime-and-justice reality, the media also subtly but signifi-
cantly affect crime-and-justice policies. To varying degrees, media influence the
agenda, perceptions, and policies of consumers with regard to crime and justice.
These media effects interact with other factors, are not easy to discern, and are
difficult to counteract. Perceptions of crime and justice are intertwined with

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Janet Chase

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other, broader perceptions of social conditions. Therefore, it is not surprising that
consistent relationships have not been found between the media and public atti-
tudes or policies on crime and justice.

As reflected in Figure 9.1, the conflicting arguments of the media as a pri-
mary cause versus a negligible cause of crime, aggression, terrorism, and other
unwanted behaviors not only posit differing causal relations between the media
and behavior but imply vastly different public policies as well. The primary cause
models argue that a significant, direct linear relationship exists between media
content and consumer behavior. In these models, the media, independent
of other factors, directly cause undesired social behaviors. If valid, these models
indicate that strong intervention is necessary in the creation, content, and distri-
bution of media.

The negligible cause models concede a statistical association between the media
and some negative behaviors but argue that the connection is due not to a causal
relationship but to persons predisposed to certain behaviors seeking out particular
types of media and concurrently behaving in ways similar to the behavior dis-
played in the media. As the relationship is associative and not causal, if these

Primary Cause Models Negligible Cause Models

pornography Sexual crimes


to sexually
violent media


media content Aggression Predisposed


to violent
media content


media content

views and
support for

Persons holding

to crime-related
media content

Support for

F I G U R E 9.1 Competing Models of the Media’s Relationship to Sex Crimes,
Aggression, and Support for Punitive Criminal Justice Policies

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models are correct, policies targeted at the media will have no effect on social
behavior and the media can safely be ignored.

Neither of these models is felt to accurately describe the media–social behav-
ior relationship. As shown in Figure 9.2, the actual relationship is believed to be
bidirectional and cyclical. In addition to people acting out their predispositions
while seeking out supportive media and to media causing behavior to be mod-
eled, the media play a role in the generation of people predisposed to crime. As
the made-for-TV movie industry exemplifies, real-world crime sometimes results
in the creation of criminogenic media. Providing live models and creating com-
munity and home environments that are more inured to and tolerant of crime
results in more criminally predisposed individuals in society. Therefore, although
the direct effect of media content on social behavior may not be large, its influ-
ence loops, recycles, and accumulates.4

Two Postulates of Media and Crime and Justice

Overall, the media are constant, subtle, and unpredictable crime-and-justice
agents—beneficial if carefully used—but they are neither the magic cure nor
the powerful demon they are sometimes cast as. Media cannot be ignored but
should not be seen as omnipotent. Where do we stand in terms of a broad un-
derstanding of media and the social construction of a crime-and justice reality?
This question is addressed using two postulates of media, crime, and justice dis-
tilled from prior chapters. These postulates will drive expectations about future
media, crime, and justice interactions.

Postulate 1: The media more often than not construct the criminal
justice system and its people negatively and as ineffective. Yet the

Seek out violent,
crime-related, or sexually

violent media content

Violent, sexually
aggressive, or mean-world


Violent acts
or tolerance of themPredisposed individuals

F I G U R E 9.2 A Reciprocal Feedback Model of the Media, Crime, and Justice

204 C H A P T E R 9

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cumulative effect is support for more police, more prisons, and more
money for the criminal justice system.

The media-constructed reality argues that the criminal justice system does not
work well but remains the best hope against crime.

Postulate 2: Media organizations have increasingly blurred the line
between news and entertainment, and between fact and fiction. In the
process, crime stories have become a mainstay of hybrid infotainment
programs and new media content.

Led by the electronic visual media, the media have become more able and willing to
portray events previously considered private and to expose and distribute new infor-
mation previously considered private. Spurred by competition, media present these
events and information in an entertainment context to maximize revenues. The
result is that all information that goes into and comes out of the media is processed
through an entertainment lens and is digitized for maximum dissemination.5

Together these postulates result in the continuing disparity between the media-
constructed reality of crime and justice and the real world reality of crime and justice.
This disparity has developed because the media converge on a single image of crime
and justice—an image of rampant, predatory criminality ineffectively checked by
traditional criminal justice system methods. Commercial, organizational, and cultural
forces drive the media to construct and perpetuate this predatory crime-centered
image. As commercial enterprises that must show a profit, media businesses must
compete for consumers while keeping their production costs low. This makes
them socially aggressive and fiscally conservative. They are not particularly sensitive
about their content’s social effects and will copy any successful content ideas from
their competitors. The result is media that are both redundant and boundary push-
ing. The media are redundant in that a successful type of content will rapidly
spawn imitations and spinoffs.6 They are boundary pushing in that they are con-
stantly trying to lure new audiences through provocative, titillating content.

This dual process of similar types of media vehicles trying to outcompete each
other for consumers is emphasized in crime-and-justice news, entertainment, and
infotainment programming. And though the media have increased their capability
to discover and deliver information about the world, they have also moved toward
greater reliance on prepackaged information, stereotypes, and entertainment-style
content. As a result, the public receives an image of crime and justice that is not
only distorted but that basically supports only one anticrime policy. Enhanced
crime control mechanisms are advanced at the expense of due process protections
and social policies that do not rely on the criminal justice system. Guarding against
the violent predator criminal becomes the main message and policy focus.

Long-established cultural forces come into play in the wide-scale social accep-
tance of the media-generated predator criminal icon. As a culture, depictions of
predatory criminals both entertain and comfort us. They entertain because they
frighten and provide glimpses of realities we are not likely to encounter. They
comfort because they relieve our conscience of personal responsibility for crime
and violence by constructing crime as not connected to social inequities, racism,

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or poverty—things society could be held responsible for and might address. The
media’s maddened, greedy predators are criminals by their own will, or maybe
God’s will, but certainly not society’s will. Such criminals can, therefore, be guilt-
lessly battled and eliminated. Together, the commercial, organizational, and cultural
forces create a constructed reality that is resistant to alternative broader constructions
of crime and justice. The media resist because they cannot commercially afford to
seriously challenge the popular construction, and we resist as consumers because we
are more comfortable with the narrower, entertaining, and guilt-free picture.

Expanded Public Access to Criminal Justice Procedures

Running counter to the narrow construction of crime is the modern media’s
ability to expand our access to previously hidden criminal justice realms and
thus to expand our crime-and-justice reality. Phrases such as “government in
the sunshine” and “freedom of information” reflect responses to a media-
driven social trend toward more open public institutions and enhanced scrutiny

As the smuggled cell phone photos from the hanging of ex-Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein
show, new media have made it nearly impossible to have criminal justice proceedings
that do not become part of the mass media web and the social construction of crime and
justice reality.



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of public officials. Two dominant social institutions, the media and the criminal
justice system, play critical roles in this process, which can be understood as
part of the general process of exposing more of the previously private backstage
areas of society to the public.7 In our hypermedia society, closed institutions and
proceedings and secret information and sources are automatically viewed with
suspicion and challenged. Ironically, the criminal justice system and the mass me-
dia are among a handful of social institutions that resist full, open access and
struggle to keep their realities closed. New media has made that goal nearly
impossible and previously low-visibility criminal justice events are now revealed,
more graphic news and entertainment programs are presented, the public’s toler-
ance for surveillance has increased, judicial steps and interactions between the
police and citizens are more often recorded, media trials proliferate, and there is
increased acceptance of media technology and entertainment formatting in crime
and justice.

Mediated Reality

With regard to crime and justice, the critical issue is ultimately the media’s role
in the social construction of reality. Evidence is building that the media alter
reality by affecting the ways in which the audience perceives, interprets, and
behaves toward it. The question is no longer whether the media have a substan-
tial impact but how their impact will be felt. These effects cycle through the
media in loops where content is extracted from one context or medium, is re-
framed, and reused, often resulting in new, ambiguous media realities. These
looping effects are observed in both real events that are massively mediated,
such as the 2009 car accident of Tiger Woods and the 2001 World Trade Center
attacks, and in the created-for-media pseudoevents found in crime-and-justice
reality shows. The ultimate effect these media-reality loops will have on crime
and justice is unknown but already affecting trials (see Box 9.1). Media are
evolving rapidly and the distinctions between media types are disappearing.8

The availability of video and new media technologies has expanded the genre
of reality programming, which relies heavily on images of real crimes, criminal
investigations, and criminal justice agency activities for fodder. What effect the
common use of new media will have on the reporting of citizen crime, author-
ity malfeasance, and other types of crime and justice information is unclear.
Pictures invariably increase the newsworthiness of events and new media
thrives on images, so perhaps the public debate will move from arguments
about factual claims to interpretative ones as there more often will be images
available to establish basic facts. Fewer will argue about what crime happened,
more will argue about why crime happens. In that way there possibly will be
the positive benefit of moving the criminal justice debate to discussions about
alternate policies and beyond the current focus on how to best implement a
single policy.

The development of interactive media further changes the relationship be-
tween media and users and has steadily moved the media experience closer to

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direct personal experience. It has also changed the way people interact with
each other, with less direct, face-to-face conversation but more face-to-face-
like communication via media technology. Individuals are more often physically
in one place, psychologically in another. Today people interact less with those
physically near them such as neighbors and more with distant people via video-
phones, digital cameras, home computers, and other “being there” technology.
The full effects of interactive media, both in games that emulate the experiences
of crime and violence and as a means to carry on personal relationships on
the social construction of crime-and-justice reality, will be significant. New
media also provide new ways of committing old crimes such as consumer
fraud and ways to commit new crimes such as murdering a virtual person
(see Box 9.2).

A hybrid reality is in the making in which media-generated reality loops and
interweaves with nonmediated reality. Many children today already spend more
time in a media-constructed reality than in a directly experienced reality.9 Across
the United States a web of media-linked technology and products gives media
reality enormous reach and impact. Unfortunately, we cannot have some of the
media forces for social change without having other unwanted forces.10 We can-
not use the media for fighting crime and processing criminal cases or providing
media access to criminal justice proceedings without also changing the reality
of the criminal justice system. Mixing and remixing media-constructed and
real-world events harbingers a future where media constructions of other me-
dia constructions will dominate the social construction of reality. Directly
experienced reality will lose its social preeminence to mediated knowledge.
Crime and justice will be understood and experienced through the mass media
reality mixing bowl.

B o x 9.1 Twitter and Trials

Twittering and access to the Internet via iPhones and BlackBerrys during court pro-
ceedings has resulted in mistrials. The presumption of innocence and the underlying
logic of criminal trials rely on jurors reaching verdicts based only on legally admissible
information that has passed long-established “rules of evidence” tests. However, to-
day jurors sometimes supplement courtroom testimony with Web searches and post-
trial updates on the Internet. For example, one jury had sat through an eight-week
trial and was already in deliberations when knowledge of Internet searches by a par-
ticular juror came to the judge’s attention. When the judge investigated, he found
that an additional eight other jurors had also conducted Web searches about the
trial. These extra-trial information-gathering efforts included looking up news arti-
cles, checking Wikipedia, and searching for information on excluded evidence
(Schwartz, 2009, A18). Information transmitted from jurors to the outside world also
causes concerns when jurors tweet or blog about ongoing trials, thereby releasing
information from a trial that might later be sealed, influencing the public perception
and reception of still-to-be-rendered verdicts, and opening themselves to influence
from return tweets and blog posted replies.

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What might the future media crime-and-justice reality look like? Let’s look at two
possible scenarios for the future. Both are driven by crime-and-justice media cur-
rently available and both are dominated by the image. One emphasizes crime-
and-justice spectacle, the other emphasizes surveillance. While recent academic
concern has tended to focus on surveillance, the spectacle of crime and justice is
felt to be just as important. Crime-related spectacles have evolved for the audience
from an onlooker event to a participatory one, and spectacles are continuously gen-
erated in images of crimes and crime victims, investigations of crimes, searches for
wanted fugitives, media trials, and final punishments.11 New media venues and
technologies enhance the plausibility of both of the following scenarios.


In the first scenario, a free-wheeling infotainment media dominates the culture
in a technologically resplendent journalism driven by an intrusive, near sadistic
voyeurism. In this world, the media push the boundaries of taste and decency
without constraints. In such an environment, a host of crime-and-justice pro-
grams are possible. Live executions would be a natural, with the modern version

B o x 9.2 Virtual Reality and Crime

The link between the virtual reality worlds created in video and online games and
real-world crime will be an increasingly significant media and criminal justice issue
in the coming century. Anecdotal reports of video game–linked copycat crimes such
as the Grand Theft Auto shootings by Devon Brown (see Box 3.3, page 72) are re-
ported from around the planet. A short list include a fourteen-year-old British boy
who was murdered by a seventeen-year-old allegedly influenced by the video game
“Manhunt” (“Video Game Sparked hammer murder”). In the game, players gain
points with more vicious killings and the killer was described as obsessed with the
game. In the United States, the beating death of a seven-year-old by two teenager
babysitters was attributed to the video game “Mortal Kombat.” In China, a teen-
ager burned a classmate after dousing him with gasoline. The offender is quoted
that he had “lost himself” in “World of Warcraft” and committed the crime to
transform himself into a “Fire Magician” (Cavalli, 2007). In a new twist, a forty-
three-year-old woman in Japan has been arrested for killing her virtual-reality
husband. Divorced in the virtual game, “Maple Story,” the woman killed the
online avatar of her ex-virtual-reality husband by hacking his computer. When he
discovered that he was virtually deceased, the victim complained to the police who
arrested the woman on suspicion of illegally accessing a computer and manipulat-
ing electronic data. The Woman did not apparently plan any real-world revenge
(“Woman arrested for killing virtual reality husband”). Drawing general conclu-
sions from anecdotal reports is premature, however, and to what extent virtual
reality and video games translate into real-world crime is not known. As virtual
realities become more realistic and immersive, concerns about criminogenic effects
can be expected to increase.

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life, imbedded retrospective segments of the condemned prisoner’s life and
crimes, behind-the-scenes interviews with the executioner and other participants,
close-ups of the family of the condemned and the victim’s relatives at the moment
of death, and of course the execution itself would all be compiled into dramatic,
entertaining productions. A “Death Row Talk Show” with inmates, attorneys,
victim families, and other commentators also has marketing possibilities. Numerous
other reality TV programs would also be explored. “The Halfway House,” a show
based on the activities of various offenders in an urban community corrections home
that has been fitted throughout with cameras, would show the lives of drug abusers,
prostitutes, and other offenders on probation and living in a court-ordered group
home. Driven by the drama of “caught-on-camera” rule-breaking resulting in pro-
bation revocation and imprisonment, the show would allow audience input into
who should be revoked and who given additional chances. “Hostage,” a show
where a traveling media production crew is alerted beforehand by a hostage taker
or cohort, and provides camera coverage of hostage situations, could be another
venue. Each episode would be edited and formatted into an hour-long production
containing interviews with hostages and hostage takers, film of law enforcement
efforts and conditions inside the hostage site, and entertaining background informa-
tion on participants. The show would also provide telegenic negotiators to move the
incident along to its conclusion. The list of possible infotainment shows based on the
entertainmentized stories of persons caught up in crime and justice is endless.
Graphic shocking media constructions and shows with titles like “Rape Victim,”
“Drug Dealer,” “Pedophile,” and so on would compete for audience shares.

Violence would be a mainstay in unrestrained infotainment crime and justice media







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Aggressive, proactive news will take off with news agencies staging their own
sting operations aimed at offenders, politicians, police officers, and citizens. Catching
people committing illegal acts will be a primary journalistic aim. Journalists will ride
along not just with the police but with offenders, filming crimes as they happen and
editing the material into entertaining news stories. In the criminal justice system,
policy changes will be fast tracked and enacted without public debate due to mas-
sive media attention and the emotional impact of widely publicized symbolic tragic
crimes. For the general public, expectations of privacy will be all but eliminated.
Images taken through a bedroom window, for example, would be legally publish-
able as the courts rule that if couples don’t want their sexual encounters filmed they
should not have relations near open windows. Similarly, conversations, files, and
information obtained by any means can be utilized by the media as the courts
advance the position that media possession of information in whatever form and
however obtained is usable under the First Amendment. Prior arrests, personal
activities, past marriages, romances, illnesses, and indiscretions great and small all
become open to media scrutiny. A new television reality show, “What’s Your
Neighbor Hiding?,” that randomly picks families with solid reputations and inves-
tigates and broadcasts embarrassing details of their lives is a big hit.


In the second scenario, the commercial media operates under heavy restrictions,
and their ability to cover, comment on, and portray crime-and-justice issues and
cases is tightly restrained. At the same time, media technology is applied to its full
capabilities in crime control efforts. Combined, these two trends create a society
where the watchdog function of the media is disabled while the surveillance and
control capabilities of the media and media technology are maximized.

Regarding the elimination of the media’s constitutionally mandated govern-
ment watchdog function, criminal cases would be processed absent media coverage,
and verdicts would be announced only after trials are concluded and any sentences
imposed. Filming and coverage of police operations, courtroom proceedings, and
correctional facilities would not be allowed. Police chiefs, court officers, and correc-
tional administrators could deny without explanation or appeal media access to their
agency personnel, records, and meetings. Access to suspects and prisoners would
never be granted.

Concerning the commercial media, all televisions will be equipped with sen-
sors that identify viewers so that all “inappropriate” content can be automatically
blocked. Other recording devices would be blocked from making copies of all
but approved, prepaid materials. All print, visual, and audio entertainment media
must be processed, reviewed, and approved by the new Federal Bureau of Media
before marketing. Media programmers must prove “no harm” and provide evi-
dence that content will not result in negative social effects on consumers before
marketing approval is granted. Media liability is assumed by the courts for any
copying by consumers of stunts, crimes, and other injury-causing behaviors con-
tained in the media. Successful damage suits against the media need only show a
similarity in the behavior shown in a media product to subsequent consumer

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behaviors resulting in harm or injury. To avoid paying compensation, media
companies would have to prove that there is no significant relationship between
their media content and consumer actions.

What we watch is no less important than who watches us and media-based
anticrime efforts utilizing the full capabilities of the mass media and media technol-
ogies proliferate. Information about wanted suspects is continually run as crawl
lines across the bottom of all TV programs. All print, visual, and audio media
products are required to carry crime prevention public service announcements,
reenactments of unsolved crimes, and Most Wanted fugitive descriptions as
25 percent of their advertising allotment and to give these messages prominent times
and placement to promote increased citizen surveillance. Most dramatic, all streets
and public spaces in communities and the transportation links between them are
under the continuous gaze of a national camera surveillance system. In addition,
commercial and corporate camera security systems are tied into the overarching gov-
ernment camera matrix. Each of the millions of separate cameras analyzes its video
output, automatically recognizing and flagging behaviors such as assaults, break-ins,
fires, injuries, vandalism, speeding, reckless driving, loitering in shopping malls, and
unauthorized work breaks in corporate areas. The video streams are linked to allow
tracking of individual vehicles and persons from one location to another within a
single city or from one city to another across the nation. Face recognition programs
notify authorities when people are deemed “out-of-place” and when fugitives or
terrorist suspects appear. They also allow retroactive searches for specific individuals
and reconstruction of any individual’s movements and actions that have occurred in

A security camera image of the two shooters from the 1999 Columbine High
massacre which killed 13 exemplifies the surveillance scenario.












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a camera’s field of view. Alibis and adherence to probation conditions are frequently
checked using the video data files generated by the camera matrix. Augmenting the
camera surveillance systems are Web and communication tracking software programs
accessible by government agencies and private corporations. Although everyone is
not watched all the time, it is now possible to determine where the majority of
Americans are at any particular time and date.

Obviously, neither future scenario, spectacles or surveillance, is attractive.
Fortunately neither is likely to come to full fruition, but both are composed of
elements and capabilities already available.12 Neither scenario contains outcomes
that cannot be achieved today. The point they make is that it is vital that we
understand how the media and crime and justice interact and plan for the type
of media crime-and- justice relationship we desire.


Half a century ago W. I. Thomas stated that “if actors define situations as real
they are real in their consequences.”13 What it is like to live in a society; how
its citizens feel about their government, authorities, and neighbors; and the daily
social expectations of people are all strongly influenced by what people see, hear,
and read about crime and justice. The social construction of crime and justice
loops back to influence the entire social reality of a nation.

Therefore, despite being only one of many social factors, the media cannot
be ignored. Exactly how and to what extent the media cause long-term changes
in social behavior remains unknown. As reflected in the varied YouTube inter-
actions with crime described in Box 9.3, it is clear that the media play an impor-
tant and evolving, but not autonomous role. The media are one engine in the
crime-production process, working in combination with other more significant
engines, increasing and exacerbating the crime problem. Ethnic violence, racial
strife, oppressive living conditions, violent cultural history, economic disparities,
family destruction, and interpersonal violence are all more important for crime
levels and all are subject to enhancement by the media. As with individuals, the
media alone cannot criminalize a country—but once a country criminalizes its
media through an emphasis on predatory and unrealistic portraits, a slow spiral
of increased crime and tolerance for crime begins.14 For modern societies, the me-
dia set the expectations and moral boundaries for crime, guide the public policies,
and steer the social construction of crime-and-justice reality.

It must be emphasized that the single most significant social effect of media
crime-and-justice content is not its direct generation of crime or other behavioral
effects but its effect on criminal justice policies. The fear and loathing we feel to-
ward criminals is tied to our media-generated image of criminality. We see numer-
ous portraits about atypical occurrences near and far, and we see them day after day.
The media portray criminals as typically animalistic, vicious predators. The public
debate is flooded with dire warnings and sensational crime stories imbedded in a
burlesque media, which is predominantly characterized by the demands of the mar-
ketplace. This image translates into a more criminal society by influencing the way

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we react to all crime in America. We imprison at a much greater rate and make
reentry into law-abiding society, even for our nonviolent offenders, more difficult
than other advanced but less crime-focused nations. The predator criminal image
results in crime-and-justice policy being based on our worst-case criminals with a
constant ratcheting up of punishments for all offenders. In its cumulative effect,
media constructions provide both violent models to emulate and justification for a
myopic, harshly punitive public reaction to all offenders.

The most important lesson running through this book is that a social construc-
tion competition is ongoing. The media are both reflections of reality and engines in
the reality-production process. If media prominence and a society imbedded in a
multimedia web is a description of the present, we expect new media to become
an important social construction engine in the future. Although not the sole or
even the most powerful cause of crime, the media will be more tightly tied into
the other crime-generating engines and their influence recycled, enhanced, and
compounded. The result has been a national character and crime-and-justice reality
that is individualistic, materialistic, and often violent. American’s popular media sets
the stage for how we understand crime. It constructs the images that have become

B o x 9.3 Crime, Justice, and YouTube

In addition to making available innumerable videos of news, trials, crimes, and crimi-
nal justice-related sites, the popular Internet site YouTube, where people can post
personal videos and view from among thousands of videos posted by others, has re-
sulted in some unique crime-related phenomenon. In a number of instances, offen-
ders have posted video of themselves committing a crime, generating in some cases
the arrest and conviction of the offenders and in others a series of copycat crimes. An
example of the first instance is provided by the actions of a Texas teenager, a mem-
ber of an Internet group called “Pranknet,” who called a Wendy’s restaurant and
convinced the employees to inflict $20,000 worth of damages on the business. Posing
as a corporate office representative, the teen convinced the employees to activate
the fire-suppression system, resulting in foam being sprayed all over the restaurant,
to break all of the windows, and to evacuate the restaurant. He then posted an au-
dio recording of the prank call on YouTube (Powell, 2009). An example of YouTube-
linked copycat crime is provided by the rise and fall of the activity of “Ghost-riding,”
in which drivers film themselves sitting atop the roof or hood of a driverless moving
car. The copycat wave took off with the release of a rap music video on YouTube by
“Mistah FAB,” describing the act in “Ghost Ride It” (the official video) at (http:// A third example involves both the post-
ing of initial offenses and the generation of copycats and spin-off crimes. Called
“Bumfights,” the videos entail the filming of homeless people forced or bribed to
engage in fistfights which are then posted on YouTube. A subsequent wave of
“bum-hunting,” in which teenage boys attacked the homeless was attributed to the
popularity of the bumfights videos. A similar series was generated by “fire in the
hole” videos in which offenders would throw drinks or food at fast food workers
manning drive-thru windows while yelling “fire in the hole.” Viewing of the associ-
ated YouTube videos can be seen at by entering the above
crimes as search terms.

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the taken-for-granted stories we associate with crime. The images are part of a social
construction—assembled together to tell us the nature of crime. But it is a social
construction with a paradox: with new and old media providing a 24/7 window,
there is now so much attention on crime that the end result has not been an advance
in the level of understanding, but an obfuscation of debate. Hysteria reigns and a sen-
sible, rational discussion of how crime might be dealt with seems almost impossible,
even as we see more images and more messages, and spend more money trying to
deal with the problem.15 An obscuring flood of media information about crime and
justice flows in unabated content looping circles. Perhaps wider recognition of the
media, crime, and justice relationship will lessen its policy impact. As it now stands,
by encouraging the public to ignore the actual sources of crime-and-justice reality and
to unquestionably accept the media-constructed crime-and-justice reality, the media
function as a means of avoiding more realistic crime and justice reality.


As the reader of this book, you have learned to appreciate the role that the media
plays in contemporary crime and justice, especially in the formation of crime-
and-justice policy. You have learned about the history and evolution of the media
from print to visual to digital and interactive-based outlets and how this evolution

New media devices have provided new means of gathering people together resulting in
a phenomena called a “flashmob”. As the dancing flashmob shown demonstrates, most
flashmobs are not dangerous. Some youth gangs, however, have tapped into the poten-
tial for flashmobs to organize gang fights. Fight locations can be finalized at the last
moment and communicated simultaneously to all fight participants, thereby drastically
reducing the ability of the police to become aware of a planned fight or to intervene.









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shapes the information that the public receives about crime and criminal justice.
You know that in the contemporary mediated world of crime and justice, images,
speed, and flexible access are key and you understand that infotainment media
values steer the selection, formatting, and delivery of crime-and-justice media con-
tent. In the new media crime-and-justice world, audiences pick from a vast store of
media outlets and control what content they expose themselves to and when they
consume it. You have also learned about social constructionism as a perspective to
understand the various interactions between the media and crime and justice and
can dissect competing social construction efforts, recognizing claims makers and
their strategies to promote crime and justice constructions. You now know about
symbolic crimes, frames, narratives, and ownership in social construction and can
see the process play out as you use media.

Specifically regarding crime and justice, you have learned that the most com-
mon media portrait of criminality is that of a violent predator criminal who hunts
innocent victims. You have learned that the most common explanation of crime
found in the media relies on individual level characteristics—particularly defective
personality traits such as greed or innate evilness. You have also learned that the
media has the capacity to influence criminal behavior in some people but that there
is no evidence of widespread criminalizing effects. You understand that the media
more likely provides criminal models and techniques to individuals already engaged
in criminal behavior or already decided to commit an offense. You now know that
the media works on copycat crime as a rudder more than as a trigger. Along the
same lines, you know that the media’s role in terrorism is evolving in reaction to
the Internet and other new media and that media-oriented terrorism is expected to

Concerning crime fighters, you know that armed civilians and elite rogue
law enforcement officers are portrayed in the media as the most successful crime
fighters. You understand how forensics and criminalistics have merged with in-
fotainment to produce a “crime fighting scientist” hero that currently reigns in
popularity. You further comprehend that the judicial system is shown in a back-
wards manner with rare events like trials and homicide cases dominating and
common events like plea bargains and property cases rare. You know that trials
selected for massive coverage parallel entertainment media story lines and sinful
rich, power-abusing, or evil predatory defendants. You have a grasp of the his-
torical tension between the courts and the media and the ongoing attempts to
balance due process protections and media access to the courts. Concerning the
portrait of the criminal justice system, you now perceive how corrections is con-
structed in a manner that focuses on negative events and images. You recognize
the media “smug hack” icon that paints corrections as a set of failed institutions
staffed by defective personnel. You know that the media image of these institu-
tions has them filled with violent dangerous individuals who prey on heroic vic-
timized inmates.

Most importantly, you understand that the media’s greatest impact on crime
and justice is in the area of public policy. You know that the use of the media in
anticrime efforts has been increasing in both public service “ads” aimed at reduc-
ing crime and in enhanced surveillance based on improved media technology.

216 C H A P T E R 9

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You comprehend that the effect of these efforts on crime and society is yet to be
determined but that public support ensures their increased use. Lastly, you know
that media content lends support to punitive over preventive or rehabilitative
criminal justice policies but that the exact relationship between media and crim-
inal justice policy is convoluted, shifting, and not fully understood.

From this collective base of knowledge, you can proceed to observe and in-
teract with crime-and-justice media from an informed position, recognizing when
your personal social construction of reality is being influenced. You have learned
to enjoy crime and justice media in a manner that will allow you to use what it
offers in a more insightful and perceptive way. You are now prepared to move
from an unconscious consumer of mediated crime-and-justice knowledge to an
interactive author of your own socially constructed crime-and-justice reality.


Collectively, the media’s crime-and-justice content construct a violent,
predatory world with an effective criminal justice system. Enhancement of
the system and aggressive personal security measures are seen as the best
choices for dealing with crime.

The line between fact and fiction, entertainment and news is increasingly
blurred, and infotainment media currently dominates the social construction
of crime and justice.

Balancing the reality of crime-and-justice media and traditional values is a twenty-first
century dilemma.











M E D I A A N D C R I M E A N D J U S T I C E I N T H E T W E N T Y – F I R S T C E N T U R Y 217

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New media has expanded the access and speed with which crime-
and-justice information circulates in society, and a mediated crime-
and-justice reality is today the most important source of crime-and-justice
knowledge for large numbers of people.

Media and social forces are currently simultaneously forwarding two sce-
narios: Spectacles of unrestrained infotainment in which the media will
expose and dramatize everything connected with crime and justice and
extensive surveillance based anticrime efforts in which media technology and
commercial media are used to solve and prevent crime.

Enhanced by the social effects and communication capabilities of new me-
dia, the social construction of crime and justice in the media will continue to
obscure the social reality of crime and justice.


1. Write an essay that discusses each of the two scenarios and the social forces
and trends that encourage and discourage development of the two. Note
how new media might affect each scenario’s likelihood of becoming reality
and which scenario is most disturbing and what steps you would support
(increased censorship, for example) or what social conditions you might
tolerate (more minor crime, for example) to prevent either scenario from
becoming reality.

2. Write a proposal for a new reality crime-and-justice program or an anticrime
PSA you would like to see produced. For the reality crime-and-justice
program discuss needed criminal justice agency cooperation, ratings poten-
tial, procedural steps and actions to be focused on, target audience, and social
impact. For the PSA, rate your script, potential to reach a target offender or
victim audience, potential to reduce targeted behaviors, possible unplanned
consequences (such as increased audience fear), and likelihood of obtaining
funding and sponsorship. Include a marketing plan and suggestions for a
campaign mascot and celebrity spokespersons.


Croteau, D., and W. Hoynes. 2001. The Business of Media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine
Forge Press.

Sacco, V. 2005. When Crime Waves. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Weimann, G. 2000. Communicating Unreality: Modern Media and the Reconstruction of
Reality. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Wolf, M. 1999. The Entertainment Economy. New York: Random House.

218 C H A P T E R 9

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abuse of power media trials A trial in
which the defendant occupies a position of
trust, prestige, or authority. The general
rule is the higher the rank, the more media
interest in the case.

announcement effect Media audience
behavior changes in anticipation of a new
criminal justice policy that has been
heavily publicized in the media.

anticipatory effects Policy changes
made when criminal justice officials re-
spond in a proactive manner to anticipated
local media, reversing the usual order
wherein media attention to an issue causes
criminal justice policy changes.

authority and control correctional
films A pessimistic cinematic view of
corrections against a backdrop of riots and
escapes by offenders confined for less se-
rious offenses; this genre is most significant
for immortalizing the “smug hack” portrait
of correctional officers.

backwards law The idea that media will
present an image of criminality opposite
that of crime-and-justice reality. In every
subject category—crimes, criminals, crime
fighters, attorneys, correctional officers,
and inmates; the investigation of crimes
and making of arrests; the processing and
disposition of cases; and the experience of

incarceration—the media construct and
present a crime-and-justice world that is
the opposite of the real world.

biological theories of crime Crime is
the result of innate genetic differences or
the constitutional nature of criminals.

business and professional criminals A
media criminality frame in which criminals
are characterized as shrewd, ruthless, often
violent, ladies’ men for whom crime is
another form of work or business, similar
to other careers but more exciting and

CCTV (closed circuit television) A
limited access video system and the most
common media technology used in
surveillance systems. The term CCTV has
become a common acronym for public
safety surveillance systems regardless of the
underlying technology employed.

CSI effect The impact of criminalistics
and forensic science media on expectations
regarding evidence-gathering and the use
and presentation of evidence in court
proceedings. A CSI effect is hypothesized
to unduly raise doubts about the strength
of a case when forensic evidence and tests
are absent and to unduly reduce doubts
about case strength when such evidence is


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citizen crime fighters Two groups
of crime fighters popular in the media:
private investigators (PIs), who occupy the
boundary between civilians and police
officers as independent law enforcement
contractors, and personally motivated
private citizens who take on solving crimes
as a hobby or due to some personal
connection with a victim.

claims makers The promoters, activists,
professional experts, and spokespersons
with a particular point of view who make
specific claims about a social problem or

commodification The for-profit pack-
aging and marketing of crime information
for popular consumption.

conversational reality Information
people receive directly from people close
to and similar to them, which is combined
with personal experiences to make up the
most influential social construction engine.

cops A media law enforcement frame
that constructs the local police as aggres-
sive, crime fighting, take-no-prisoners,
frontline soldiers in the war on crime.

copycat crime A crime inspired by an
earlier, news media covered or entertain-
ment media portrayed crime.

correctional horrors Negative correc-
tional news stories often employing the
death of an inmate as a symbol of the
correctional system’s failure and that are
exemplified by corruption and misconduct

corrections backwards law The back-
wards law applied to the media construc-
tion of corrections in which a role-reversal
derived from the media portrait of
underdog, wrongly jailed inmate heroes
are pitted against oppressive, smug hack
correctional employees.

counterproductive effects Media-
based anticrime campaigns that have effects
opposite to the campaign goal of crime

criminogenic media Media content that
is hypothesized as a direct cause of crime.

diffusion of benefits Associated with
surveillance systems, diffusion is a bonus
benefit from the use of surveillance tech-
nology. Offenders are not aware of the
boundaries of surveillance coverage and
therefore reduce their offenses in adjacent
nonsurveilled areas. See also displacement of
digital manipulation of visual images
Doctoring images through mixing real and
nonexistent elements to distort, alter, or
fabricate images of the world to produce
realistic final images. Public knowledge of
this capability undermines the previously
unquestioned validity given to photo-
graphs as evidence and proof.
displacement of crime Associated with
the use of surveillance systems, displace-
ment pushes crime into adjacent commu-
nities without surveillance systems. See
also diffusion of benefits.
echo effect A spillover effect from media
news coverage of a high-profile criminal
case onto similarly charged but low-
newsworthy nonpublicized cases affecting
their processing and dispositions.
episodic format The most common
crime news format, in which a particular
crime is described and a resulting case is
followed. Episodic formatted stories en-
courage viewers to place responsibility on
the individual and to ignore societal forces
by focusing on the question: Why did this
individual commit this crime? See thematic
evil strangers media trials Trials com-
posed of two subgroups: non-American
suspects or psychotic killers. Non-
American evil stranger media trials involve
ethnic and minority advocates of various
unpopular causes. Psychotic killer media
trials focus on bizarre murder cases in
which the defendant is portrayed as a
maddened, predatory killer.
experienced reality Knowledge gained
from one’s directly experienced world; all
of the events that have happened to you.
factual and legal guilt The difference
between having committed a criminal act

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(factual guilt) versus being legally respon-
sible (legal guilt) and thus appropriate for
factual claims Statements that purport to
describe the world and “what” happened;
they are put forth as objective, true “facts”
about the world.
frames Prepackaged constructions that
include factual and interpretative claims and
associated recommended policies. A frame
is a fully developed social construction that
allows the categorization, labeling, and
conceptualization of new real-world events
that fit into a preexisting frame.
freedom and release correctional
films A cinematic view of corrections
that emphasizes extreme violence, such as
prison action films. The ambiguity and
confusion about the function and role of
prisons in society is reflected in these films.
The keepers are certifiably crazy or dehu-
manized, and the constructed correctional
world reflects the comics more than any
recognizable social reality.
Freedom of Information Act Legisla-
tion that states that information held by
federal agencies must be available to the
public unless the information falls within
nine specific exempt categories.
front-end loaded The media portrait of
crime and justice that concentrates on
crimes and their investigation and solution.
The activities of criminals and law en-
forcement or citizen crime fighters are of
primary interest, and criminal justice pro-
cedures are largely ignored.
G-men A media law enforcement frame
that originated in the 1930s and focuses
on effective, professional, federal “crime-
gatekeeper An individual occupying a
checkpoint in the crime news creation
process where crimes are selected, molded,
and passed on as candidate news stories
about crime. Key gatekeepers in the crime
news process are crime reporters and law
enforcement public information officers.
Government in Sunshine Act A federal
law requiring that meetings of government

agencies and departments be open to the

heroic inmates The dominant media
construction of male prisoners, which
employs the role-reversal of offenders be-
ing caught up in a corrupt criminal justice
system and shown as victims and heroes.

ideal heroes Ideal heroes display the
admirable qualities of sacrifice, nobleness,
and strength. Sometimes they are tradi-
tional by-the-book police officers, but
frequently they are rogue officers or

ideal offenders The outsiders, strangers,
foreigners, aliens, and intruders who lack
essential humanity and rehabilitative

ideal victims The innocent, naive,
trusting, and protection-needing humans;
children are the most ideal of the ideal
victims in the media.

immanent justice Belief that a divine
power will intervene and reveal the guilty
while protecting the innocent. Similar to
the medieval socially constructed reality
that made trial by combat logical, the
modern media reality relies on the moral
superiority of the crime fighter to ulti-
mately defeat criminality. Criminality is
reduced to an individual moral battle of
good versus evil.

infotainment Media content that deli-
vers information about the world in an
entertainment format.

interactivity The ability of consumer
actions and decisions to influence media
story lines and content as the story lines
and content are being created.

interpretative claims Statements that
focus on the meanings of events and either
offer an explanation of why the world is as
described in associated factual claims or
offer a course of action and public policy
that needs to be followed.
lampooned police A popular media
frame that satirizes law enforcement as
foolish, slapstick police work.

legal guilt See factual and legal guilt.

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linkage Association of one social con-
struction effort with another previously
accepted construction so that the signifi-
cance of the first construction is connected
to the latter.

looping Reuse of media content in new
contexts and media products.

mainstreaming The idea that the media
affect some viewers more than others
regardless of exposure level, influencing
heavy television consumers who are cur-
rently not in the mainstream to move
toward it, while not affecting those already
in the mainstream. In total effect, the
media are hypothesized to be homoge-
nizing society.

manipulative model A model of news
creation that has crime news selected
not according to general public interest but
according to the interests of news agencies’
owners. The news media are argued to
purposefully distort reality and use the
news to shape public opinion to support
the status quo.

market model A model of news creation
that sees crime news as selected largely by
public interest and journalists as objective
reporters who accurately reproduce the
media-oriented terrorism A terrorist
strategy where the primary goal of a terror
campaign is to attract media attention.
Terrorist acts are frequently carried out in
a manner that maximizes media attention
and are characterized by the selection of
high-visibility targets and locations, graphic
dramatic acts, pre-event contact with media
outlets, and post-event videos, interviews,
and other media accommodations.
media trials A regional or national crime
or justice event in which the media co-opt
the criminal justice system as a source of
drama, entertainment, and profit. They
involve the social construction of selected
trials as infotainment products that are
commodified and mass marketed. Cover-
age is live whenever possible, pictures
are preferred over text, and content is
characterized by conjecture and

sensationalism. See abuse of power media
trials, evil strangers media trials, and sinful rich
media trials.

media weapons cult The media portrait
of weapons, especially handguns, that
downplays their negative aspects (rarely is
the pain of a gunshot realistically shown) and
enhances their usefulness as problem solvers
and crime-fighting tools. In the media, the
people who get their way, both heroes and
villains, are the ones who have the guns.

mediated experience The comparative
experience an individual has when he or
she experiences an event via the media
versus actually physically being at an event.

memorial criminal justice policy
Linking a criminal justice policy and leg-
islation to an individual by name (such as
the Brady law and Amber Alerts); the
person is usually the victim of a violent,
deadly crime.

modeling personality An individual
who looks to and sees other people and
the media as profitable crime information
sources; these individuals are hypothesized
to be particularly susceptible to media
copycat effects.

multimedia web The interconnected
and pervasive mix of contemporary media
exemplified by the constant looping of
media content.

narratives Recurring preestablished social
roles, characters, and story lines found
throughout crime-and-justice media. Nar-
ratives are usually associated with a single
individual or crime rather than with general
criminality or a criminal justice issue.

narrowcasting Marketing media content
to small special interest self-selecting
groups rather than to large, heterogeneous
mass markets. Originally applied to
television marketing with the introduction
of cable networks, today the principle is
applicable to all media.

nature of confinement correctional
films A cinematic view of corrections in
which inmates are victims of injustice; a
good man is either framed or accidentally

222 G L O S S A R Y

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imprisoned or pushed into crime by
powerful societal forces. A recurrent
message in this genre is the pervasive
corruption of the correctional system and
its administrators.

newsworthiness The value of an event
or crime to a news agency and the criteria
by which news producers choose which
crimes are presented to the public as news
about crime.

organizational model A model of news
creation that has crime news filtered and
presented to the public following an assem-
bly-line process within law enforcement and
news organizations. Crime news is argued to
be stylized information that fits the organiza-
tional and production needs of news agencies.

on-demand Time and place access to
media content is determined by the con-
sumer rather than by the producer of the

ownership Identification of a social
condition with a particular set of claims
makers who come to dominate the social
construction of that issue. Claims makers
own an issue when they are sought out by
the media and others for information re-
garding its nature and policy solutions.

personal digital assistant devices
(PDAs) Usually small mobile hand-held
devices that provide computing and in-
formation storage and retrieval. Most
PDAs have small keyboards and recent
multifunction devices bundle cell phone,
video, handwritten notes, Internet, and
data capabilities.

pixel policy The fast-paced, media-
driven development of contemporary
public policy, especially noticeable in
crime-and-justice policy formation.

police procedurals A media law
enforcement frame that concentrates on
the dramatic backstage realities of police
investigations. The crime fighters in these
portraits normally rely heavily on team-
work and criminalistics to solve crimes.

police reality programs Highly edited
television productions in which viewers

are invited to share a cop’s point-of-view
as a partner officer in voyeuristic ride-

political theories of crime The idea
that the political and economic structure
of a society are the root causes of crime.

popular criminology The criminologi-
cal ideas and explanation of crime that are
popular with the general public and often
have indirectly inferred counterparts in
mass media content.

predatory criminality The most com-
mon portrait of criminality found in the
media, which is characterized by criminals
who are animalistic, irrational, innate pre-
dators committing violent and senseless

prejudicial publicity Dissemination by
the media of either factual information that
bears on the guilt of a defendant or emo-
tional information without evidentiary
relevance that simply arouses emotions
against a defendant.

priming When people read, hear about,
or witness a criminal event via the mass
media, priming influences them to hold
similar ideas and results in related
copycat acts.

Privacy Act A federal or state statute that
prohibits the invasion of a person’s right
to be left alone, restricts access to personal
information, and prohibits interception
of private communications. The federal
Privacy Act permits an individual to access
records containing personal information
and to control the transfer of that
information to other agencies.

private investigator (PI) Nongovern-
mental independent contractors of law

privileged conversation A constitu-
tionally based argument to protect jour-
nalists from having to divulge unpublished
story information or to identify their
sources. It is argued that a privileged
conversation protection is needed so that
journalists can fulfill their constitutional
function as watchdogs of government

G L O S S A R Y 223

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activities and guarantee future access to
story information and sources.

proactive mechanisms Judicial mea-
sures such as closure, restrictive orders, and
protective orders that are employed to
counteract the production of news media
publicity. The proactive approach to
dealing with publicity directly clashes with
the First Amendment protection of free-
dom of the press and has been vigorously
resisted by the media.

prosocial television Programs of various
types (animated, adventure, comedy, fan-
tasy) that have the ability to elicit socially
valued behaviors and attitudes from
viewers. Sesame Street is a well-known

psychological theories of crime The
idea that crime is caused by defective
personality development.

psychotic super-male criminals A
popular media frame of criminality in
which criminals possess an evil, cunning
intelligence and superior strength, endur-
ance, and stealth. Crimes committed by
media psychotic super-males are generally
acts of twisted, lustful revenge or random
acts of irrational violence.

public agenda The ranked list of social
problems the public see as important and
needing to be addressed.

public service announcements (PSAs)
Information disseminated in the media in
ad-style messages. Anticrime PSAs are a
common means of getting crime preven-
tion information to the public.

pursuit of justice correctional films A
cinematic view of corrections where
offenders are personally responsible for
their actions and confinement is therefore
justified. Although many of these films
revolve around violence—riots, escapes,
and assaults—individual offender rehabili-
tation is seen as possible.

rational choice theories of crime The
idea that crime is a rational, free-will
decision the individuals will make when

the gains from committing a crime out-
weigh the likelihood of punishment.
reactive mechanisms Judicial proce-
dures used to counteract the effects of
news media publicity, which include
expanding the jury selection (the voir
dire), granting trial continuances, granting
changes of venue, sequestering jurors, and
giving special instructions to the jury.
scripts Sets of well-rehearsed, highly
associated concepts held in memory, often
involving causes, goals, and actions that
generate a set of cognitive directions that
define situations and guide behavior. Once
learned, a media-provided behavior script
is hypothesized to be able to create beha-
viors similar to that observed in the media
shield laws Legislation to prevent the
forced divulgence of sources and testi-
mony from journalists.
sinful rich media trials Cases in which
socially prominent defendants are involved
in bizarre or sexually related crimes.
smug hack The dominant media por-
trayal of correctional officers as caricatures
of brutality, incompetence, low intelli-
gence, and indifference to human
smug hack corrections The dominant
media construction of corrections that
emphasizes physically brutal inmate disci-
pline, corporal punishment and the inflic-
tion of pain, and the exploitation of
inmates as a cheap source of labor and
profit. Staff incompetence, corruption, and
cruelty are common, ingrained, and un-
challenged. Prisoners suffer systemic racial
prejudice, homosexual rape, and between-
prisoner assaults.
social constructionism A theoretical
view that knowledge is socially created.
Social constructionism focuses on human
relationships and the way relationships
affect how people perceive reality. Social
constructionism studies the shared ideas,
interpretations, and knowledge that groups
of people agree to hold in common.

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socially constructed reality The reality
perceived as the “real” world by each
individual. It is constructed from knowl-
edge each individual gains from his or her
experienced and symbolic realities mixed
together. The resulting constructed reality
is what we individually believe the world
to be like.

sociological theories of crime The
idea that criminal environments cause
crime, and that people are criminals
because of the people they associate with
or share a neighborhood or culture with.

surveillance effect The psychological
effect of believing that you might be under

symbolic crimes Crimes and other
criminal justice events that are selected and
highlighted by claims makers as perfect
examples to support a particular crime-
and-justice construction.

symbolic reality Knowledge of the
world gained from other people, institu-
tions, and the media that is shared via
symbols, language being the most com-
mon symbolic system to share knowledge.
Art, music, and mathematics are others.

thematic format A crime news format
that highlights criminal justice trends and
persistent problems. Stories told in the
thematic format explore crime and justice
issues in terms of their causes and effects
and focus on the question: A set of
problems has developed, what changed
in society? See episodic format.

true crime A media law enforcement
infotainment frame wherein the audience
looks over the criminal’s (frequently a
killer) or cop’s shoulder as they either
commit crime or pursue criminals and
solve murders.

ultraviolence A media style popular
since the 1960s that portrays violence
using slow motion, detonating blood

capsules, multiple camera views, and
graphic visuals and special effects.

victims and heroic criminals The least
common media criminality frame, it pre-
sents criminals as either victims of injustice
or unrecognized good guys. This frame
often supports sociological and political
explanations of crime.

video lineups A crime witness is shown
a series of videotaped images selected for
their similarity.

video mug books A computer searches a
pictorial data file for specific characteristics
(for example, tattoo, bald, heavy, white,
and male) and displays matching pictures.

videotaped interrogations Videotaped
interactions between police and suspects
that provide visual evidence regarding the
physical and mental condition of suspects,
the voluntariness of their statements, their
understanding of their rights, and the use
of coercion and adherence to standard
interrogation practices by the police.

white-collar crime A crime committed
by a respectable person of high social status
in the course of his or her occupation.
White-collar crime overlaps with
corporate and business crime and usually
includes fraud, bribery, insider trading,
embezzlement, computer crime, identity
theft, and forgery.

worldview cultivation A media effect
that hypothesizes that watching many
hours of television will result in viewers
holding general perceptions about the
world as being a pernicious and dangerous

yellow journalism A term for a style of
newspaper coverage first associated with
U.S. newspapers in the 1890s that
emphasized exaggeration, scandals, and
sensationalism regarding crime and other

G L O S S A R Y 225

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Chapter 1

1. Except for discussions of media
technology applications in criminal
justice, media is considered herein in
the narrow sense of popular culture
which includes all commercial media
in all their forms that are marketed for
popular consumption (Asimow and
Mader, Law and Popular Culture, 4).

2. Rafter, Crime, Film and Criminology,

3. Altheide, Creating Fear, 128; Dowler,
Fleming, and Muzzatti, Constructing
Crime, 837–850.

4. Leishman and Mason, Policing and the
Media, 144. Don Oberdorfer histori-
cally places the transition to a media
driven policy within the coverage of
the Vietnam War: “The electronics
revolution, which took the battlefield
into the American living room via
satellite, increased the power and
velocity of fragments of experience,
with no increase in the power or
velocity of reasoned judgment.
Instant analysis was often faulty
analysis” (Oberdorfer, TET!, 322).

5. Griffin and Miller, Child Abduction,

6. Although not identical, the policy
influencing “symbolic crimes” referred
to in this work are analogous to the
“signal crimes” described by Innes

7. Shichor and Sechrest, Three Strikes
and You’re Out.

8. Mathiesen, “Television, Public Space
and Prison Population;” Curran,
“Communications, Power and Social

9. Surette, “Some Unpopular Thoughts
about Popular Culture.”

10. Adoni and Mane, “Media and the
Social Construction of Reality.”

11. This focus on violent predatory crime is
tied to a historical interest in crime and
justice as theater. Crime and justice has
been a source for story lines since an-
tiquity, and the media construct crime
as predatory and as a frightening (and
hence entertaining) phenomenon
caused by individually based deficien-
cies (Ball, The Promise of American Law).

12. Manning, “Media Loops.” This
concept is related to the idea of
intertextuality as decribed by Asimow
and Mader, Law and Popular
Culture, 15.


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13. Asimow and Mader, Law and Popular
Culture, 15.

14. Langer, “Legacy of Suspicion.”

15. Dowler, Fleming and Muzzatti,
Constructing Crime, 837–850.

16. Grodal, “Stories for Eye, Ear and
Muscles,” 129–155.

17. Gordon and Heath, “The News
Business, Crime, and Fear,” 227.

18. Papke, Framing the Criminal, 35.

19. Gorn, “The Wicked World.”

20. Stark, Glued to the Set, 237.

21. For an overview see Nyberg, “Comic
Books and Juvenile Delinquency.”

22. Nyberg, Comic Books and Juvenile
Delinquency, 61.

23. DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach, Theories
of Mass Communication, 84; Cheat-
wood, “Early Images of Crime and
Criminal Justice.”

24. Cheatwood, “Early Images of Crime
and Criminal Justice.”

25. Armour, Film, xxi.

26. See Leitch and Grant, Crime Films for
a general discussion, chapter 2, 18–52.

27. Allen, Livingstone and Reiner, “True
Lies;” Broe, “Class, Crime, and Film

28. See Leishman and Mason, Policing and
the Media, Chapter 4 for a history of
police shows on British television.

29. The social impact of television has
been compared to the medieval
Christian church’s influence on
European culture (Curran,
“Communications, Power and Social
Order,” 210).

30. Stevens and Garcia, Communication
History, 143.

31. If you are a typical American, for
every ten years of your life you will
spend one solid year (8,760 hours)
looking at a television screen. In 1990,
a Congressional Subcommittee on
the Constitution stated: “The typical
American child is exposed to an

average of 27 hours of TV each
week—as much as eleven hours for
some children. That child will watch
8,000 murders and more than
100,000 acts of violence before fin-
ishing elementary school. By the age
of 18, that same teenage will have
witnessed 200,000 acts of violence on
TV including 40,000 murders” (cited
in Perlmutter, Policing the Media, 33).

32. Commenting in The New York Times
Magazine (November 28, 1954, 56)
television producer Gilbert Seldes
states: “Television finds itself on the
defensive, facing investigations and
threats. Most of these arise from the
part of the program schedule usually
held as the industry’s worst—its
endless stream of crime shows, many
of them available to children.”

33. Dominick, “Crime and Law
Enforcement in the Mass Media.”

34. Lichter, Lichter, and Rothman
describe early crime-and-justice
television content as seeming to
require “two shootouts with police, a
beating, and a cold-blooded murder”
(Prime Time, 282).

35. Cole, The UCLA Television Violence
Monitoring Report; Gunter, Harrison,
and Wykes, Violence on Television.

36. Flew, New Media: An Introduction, 11;
Lister, Dovey, Giddings, Grant and
Kelly, New Media: A Critical Introduc-
tion. The 1991 trial of William
Kennedy Smith was the first trial to
be covered gavel-to-gravel on cable
television (CourtTV now truTV
channel) (Fox, Van Sickel and
Steiger, Tabloid Justice.

37. Ling and Campbell, The Reconstruction
of Space and Time: Mobile Communica-
tion Practices.

38. Kiousis, Interactivity, 355–383.

39. Grodal, Video Games and the Pleasures
of Control, 197–212.

40. Grochowski, Running in Cyberspace,

N O T E S 227

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41. Anderson, “An Update on the Effects
of Playing Violent Video Games,”
113–122; Anderson, Gentile and
Buckley, Violent Video Game Effects on
Children and Adolescents: Theory, Re-
search, and Public Policy; Sherry, “The
Effects of Violent Video Games on
Aggression,” 409–432; Whitaker and
Bushman, “A Review of the Effects
of Violent Video Games on Children
and Adolescents,” 1033-1051.

42. Rogers, The Diffusion of Innovations,

43. Parks and Robers, Making MOOsic,
517–537; Rogers, The Diffusion of
Innovations, 207.

44. Grodal, Stories for Eye, Ear and Mus-
cles, 129–155.

45. Fox, Sickel and Steiger, Tabloid Justice,
100; Valier, Crime and Punishment in
Contemporary Culture, 91–110.

46. Reiner, “Media Made Criminality,”389.

47. Thompson, Young, and Burns,
“Representing Gangs in the News,”
427; see also Dowler, “Comparing
American and Canadian Local Tele-
vision Crime Stories,” 589–590.

48. Gilliam and Iyengar, “Prime Sus-
pects,” 561. Yvonne Jewkes discusses
twelve news values operating in the
twenty-first century that result in
crime news focusing on violent rare
crimes (Media and Crime, 40–60).
Robert Reiner summarizes the differ-
ences between crime news and crime
as the overreporting of serious crime,
especially murder and other violent
crimes; the concentration on crimes
that are solved; and coverage of of-
fenders and victims who are dispro-
portionately older and from a higher
social class than their counterparts in
reality (The Politics of the Police, 141).

49. Drechsel, News Making in the Trial
Courts, 35 citing Shaaber, Some Fore-
runners of the Newspaper in England.

50. Chibnall, Chronicles of the Gallows,

51. Ibid., 190.

52. See Chibnall, The Production of
Knowledge by Crime Reporters, 75–97;
Isaacs, The Crime of Crime Reporting,
312–320; and Sherizen, Social Crea-
tion of Crime News.

53. Hughes, News and the Human Interest
Story, 23.

54. Drechsel, News Making in the Trial
Courts, 53–54.

55. Drechsel, News Making in the Trial
Courts, 68; Papke, Framing the
Criminal, 54.

56. Cohen and Young, The Manufacture
of News.

57. Ibid., 17–18.

58. Cohen and Young, The Manufacture of
News; Ericson, Baranek and Chan,
Negotiating Control.

59. Wisehart (“Newspapers and Criminal
Justice”) makes a similar point in 1922.

60. Ericson, Baranek, and Chan,
Representing Law and Order.

61. Ericson, Baranek, and Chan, Repre-
senting Law and Order; Hall,
Chritcher, Jefferson, Clarke, and
Roberts, The Social Production of News,

62. Martens and Cunningham-Niederer,
Media Magic, Mafia Mania, 62; see also
Pritchard, Race, Homicide and News-
papers, 500–507.

63. Drechsel, News Making in the Trial
Courts, 12, 49, citing Sigal, Reporters
and Officials, 4–5.

64. Gans, Deciding What’s News, 284.

65. Mason, Misinformation, Myth and Dis-
tortion, 498; Franklin, Local Journalism
and Local Media.

66. Lipschultz and Hilt, Crime and Local
Television News.

67. Cohen and Young, The Manufacture of
News, 22–23.

68. Lipschultz and Hilt, 2002; Roshier,
The Selection of Crime News in the Press,

228 N O T E S

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69. Warr, America’s Perceptions of Crime
and Punishment, 14.

70. Jones, The Press as Metropolitan
Monitor, 244.

71. Shoemaker, Gatekeeping.

72. Sherizen, Social Creation of Crime
News, 203–224.

73. Ericson, Baranak and Chan, Negoti-
ating Control; Chermak, Police, Courts,
and Corrections in the Media.

74. Schlesinger, Tumber and Murdock,
The Media Politics of Crime and Crimi-
nal Justice, 399.

75. Chibnall, The Production of Knowledge
by Crime Reporters; Tuchman, Making
News by Doing Work, 110–131;
Tuchman, Making News: A Study in
the Construction of Reality.

76. Ericson, Baranek, and Chan, Visual-
izing Deviance; Ericson, Baranek, and
Chan, Negotiating Control; Ericson,
Baranek, and Chan, Representing Law
and Order; Gordon and Heath 1981;
Roshier, The Selection of Crime News
in the Press; Sherizen, Social Creation
of Crime News, 212.

77. Although its extensive impact is
recent, infotainment has existed in
some form since at least the seven-
teenth century. In the mid-1600s, for
example, newspaper weeklies carried
details of the more interesting crimes
along with moral exhortations to
their readers to avoid crime, sin, and
evil. Early folk music in the form of
crime ballads also established crimes
and criminals as accepted sources of
social entertainment and narrative.
Hanging, public floggings, branding,
and other punishments of the time
were as much popular entertainment
as criminal justice events.

78. Surette and Otto, “A Test of a Crime
and Justice Infotainment Measure.”

79. The growth of infotainment in tele-
vision news has been traced to the year
1963 when network television news
expanded from 15 to 30 minutes.

Doris Graber quotes a memo from
Reuven Frank, executive producer for
NBC nightly news: “Every news story
should, without any sacrifice of pro-
bity or responsibility, display the at-
tributes of fiction, of drama. It should
have structure and conflict, problem
and denouncement, rising action and
falling action, a beginning, a middle,
and an end. These are not only the
essentials of drama; they are the es-
sentials of narrative” (“The Infotain-
ment Quotient,” 483).

80. Brants and Neijens, “The Infotain-
ment of Politics,” 150; Graber, “The
Infotainment Quotient,”

81. Cavender and Fishman, “Television
Reality Crime Programs.”

82. Goidal, Freeman and Procopio, “The
Impact of Television Viewing on
Perceptions of Juvenile Crime,” 119.

83. Fishman and Cavender, Entertaining

84. Cavender, “In theShadow of Shadows.”

85. Tunnel, “Reflections on Crime,
Criminals, and Control.”

86. Cavender, “In Search of Community
on Reality TV;” Oliver, “Portrayals
of Crime, Race, and Aggression.”

87. Goidal, Freeman and Procopio, The
impact of television viewing on
perceptions of juvenile crime, 134.

88. Surette, “Media Trials.”

89. Wasserman, “No Big Deal.”

90. Valier, Crime and Punishment in
Contemporary Culture.

91. Grodal, Stories for Eye, Ear and
Muscles, 129–155.

92. Manning, “Media Loops.”

93. Reiner, “Media Made Criminality,”
labels the two competing views as
subversive and hegemonic.

Chapter 2

1. Gladwell, Blink, 194–197.

2. Lippmann, Public Opinion, 54.

N O T E S 229

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3. The ideas included within a social
construction of reality fall under the
broad umbrella of the sociology
of knowledge tradition. See also
Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge.

4. Gergen, “Social Constructionist

5. An introduction to social construc-
tionism applied to crime and other
social issues can be found in Spector
and Kitsuse, Constructing Social Problems.

6. Lindlof, “Media Audiences as Inter-
pretive Communities.”

7. Spector and Kitsuse, Constructing
Social Problems, 6.

8. Maxson, Hennigan, and Sloane,
Factors That Influence Public Opinion
of the Police, 10.

9. It is assumed that you are not one of
the few astronauts who have been to
the moon and have experienced
reality to draw upon for these

10. Adoni and Mane, “Media and the
Social Construction of Reality;”
Sparks, Television and the Drama
of Crime.

11. Rentschler, “Victims’ Rights and the
Struggle over Crime,” 219–239.

12. Best, Images of Issues, 327.

13. As quoted in Sherwin, When Law
Goes Pop, 142.

14. Joel Best describes a claim as an
argument with four elements: that
some condition exists; that it is trou-
bling and ought to be addressed; that
it has specific characteristics such as
being common or increasing, has
known causes or serious conse-
quences, or is a particular type of
problem; and that a particular action
should be taken to deal with it (“The
Diffusion of Social Problems”).

15. Thompson, Young, and Burns,
“Representing Gangs in the News,”

16. Ferrel, “Criminalizing Popular Culture.”

17. Sasson, Crime Talk, 13–17. See also
Reiner, The Politics of the Police, 139.

18. Sasson, Crime Talk, 14.

19. David Bruck as cited in Sasson, Crime
Talk, 15.

20. As cited in Sasson, Crime Talk, 15.

21. Ibid., 16.

22. Sasson, Crime Talk, 16, quoting
Thomas Elmendorf’s testimony
before the House Subcommittee
on Communication.

23. Dardis, Baumgartner, Boydstun, De
Boef and Shen, “Media Framing of
Capital Punishment,” 16–17.

24. In the broader research world, media
narratives share many characteristics
with “scripts” as developed by cog-
nitive psychologists (see Schank and
Abelson, Scripts, Plans, Goals, and
Understanding). They also are related
to the concepts of “motif” and
“rhetorical idioms,” both of which
refer to recurring rhetorical elements
and speech used to describe and
culturally anchor social problems.
Unlike narratives, these are brief
common catch-phrases and meta-
phors used to describe crime. Exam-
ples include these phrases: epidemic,
menace, scourge, crisis, blight, casualties,
tip of the iceberg, war on drugs, crime,
gangs, or terrorism (Ibarra and Kitsuse,
“Vernacular Constituents of Moral
Discourse,” 47). See also Best and
Hutchinson, “The Gang Initiation
Rite as a Motif in Contemporary
Crime Discourse,” 384.

25. Examples of popular crime-and-
justice narratives are offered by Rafter
(Shots in the Mirror, 141–146):
(1) Mystery and detective narratives:
basic pattern is of the search, most P.I.
and cop films fall into this category;
(2) Thrillers: unexpected violence,
nail-biters, regular episodic scares;
(3) Capers: complicated audacious
heist, planning, organization and
member recruitment, and execution;

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(4) Justice violated/justice restored:
many prison films, false accusations
and unjust punishments; (5) Disguised
westerns: heroic outsider reluctantly
consents to clean up the town; (6)
Revenge and vigilantes: lead figure is
violated and retaliates; (7) Chronicles
of criminal careers: biographies and
fictional characters; (8) Action films:
lacking developed plots, series of
episode transitions with fights and ex-
plosions, violent spectacles, epic heroes.

26. Best and Hutchinson, “The Gang Ini-
tiation Rite as a Motif in Contempo-
rary Crime Discourse,” 388–389; and
Sumser, Morality and Social Order in
Television Crime Drama, 46.

27. Wardle, “It Could happen to You,”

28. A similar concept is “signal crime”
described by Innes (“Signal Crimes,”
15–16); Innes, “Signal Crimes and
Signal Disorders,” 335–355.

29. Rentschler, “Victims’ Rights and the
Struggle over Crime,” 219–239.

30. Wykes, “Constructing Crime,”

31. Ruddell and Decker, “Kids and
Assault Weapons,” 45–63.

32. Quinney in his 1970 book, The Social
Reality of Crime, provides the first
effort in applying social construc-
tionism to crime. Jenkins in Using
Murder in 1994 and Potter and
Kappeler in Constructing Crime in
2006 provide updated examples.

33. Best, Images of Issues, 332.

34. Reinarman, “The Social Construc-
tion of an Alcohol Problem.”

35. Kupchik and Bracy, “News Media on
School Crime and Violence.”

36. Rentschler, “Victims’ Rights and the
Struggle over Crime,” 219–239.

Chapter 3

1. Stark, “Perry Mason Meets Sonny
Crockett,” 236.

2. Rafter, Shots in the Mirror; see also
Leitch, Crime Films.

3. Escholz, Mallard, and Flynn, “Images
of Prime Time Justice,” 161–180.
While not historically reported as
the most common image of crimi-
nality, media portraits of minorities
as offenders do raise concerns that
racist and ethnic stereotypes are re-
inforced. See Bing, Race, Crime, and
the Media; Mann and Zatz, Images of
Color Images of Crime; Rome, Black
Demons; and Shaheen, Reel Bad
Arabs for discussions of media por-
traits of minority offenders.

4. Bailey and Hale, Blood on Her Hands;
Bond-Maupin, “That wasn’t’ even
me they showed,” 30–44; Cecil,
“Dramatic Portrayals of Violent
Women,” 243.

5. Lynch, Stretesky, and Hammond
found, for example, that regarding
chemical crimes, a very small per-
centage of events are reported as
news; those that are reported are
likely to be cast as caused by an in-
dividual and the harm of the event
downplayed (“Media Coverage of
Chemical Crimes,” 121–122).

6. Graber, Crime News and the Public.
Travis Dixon and others further re-
port that minorities are represented
in news and entertainment in such a
way as to encourage the perception
of minorities as violent and criminal.
See Dixon, “Crime News and
Radicalized Beliefs,” 106–125;
Dixon, Azocar and Casas, “The
Portrayal of Race and Crime on
Television Network News,”
495–520; Dixon and Linz,
“Overrepresentation and Under-
representation of Victimization on
Local Television News,” 547–573;
Dixon and Maddox, “Skin Tone,
Crime News, and Social Reality
Judgments,” 1555–1570.

7. Curran, “Communications, Power
and Social Order,” 227.

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8. Valverde, Law and Order. For ex-
ample, Eric Hickey (Serial Murderers
and Their Victims, 3) tracks the
number of serial murder themed
films: 2 (1920s), 3 (1930s), 3 (1940s),
4 (1950s), 12 (1960s), 20 (1970s), 23
(1980s), and 117 (1990s). Yvonne
Jewkes (Media and Crime, 94–105)
describes an analogous process in
Britain concerning pedophiles.

9. Simpson, Psycho Paths.

10. Jenkins, Moral Panic. Rennison, In-
timate Partner Violence, 1993–2001

11. For discussions of the culture that
has developed around serial killers,
see Ian Conrich, “Mass Media/Mass
Murder;” Jarvis, Monsters Inc., and
Schechter, The Serial Killer Files,
369–402. For a discussion of the
interplay of community and local
media when both are faced with an
active serial killer see Fisher, Killer
Among US.

12. The popularity of violent predatory
crime is also likely associated with
a downward comparison effect.
Downward comparison is a psy-
chological process in which people
feel better about their own situation
when they see someone in a worse
one. Therefore, a media image of
violent urban crime would have a
soothing effect on middle-class sub-
urban Americans by holding up to
them a crime-and-justice construc-
tion of reality that is more violent
and dangerous than what they are
experiencing. And, as this violent
crime is shown as due to individual
deficiencies like greed and innate
evil, the apparently better-off-by-
comparison rest of America can en-
joy a guilt-free boost regarding their
crime situation while being en-
couraged to purchase security

13. Chermak, Victims in the News;
Mawby and Brown, “Newspaper
Images of the Victim: A British

Study;” Meyers, News Coverage of
Violence Against Women; Pritchard
and Hughes, “Patterns of Deviance
in Crime News;” Reiner, Living-
stone, and Allen, “From Law and
Order to Lynch Mobs: Crime News
since the Second World War;”
Sorenson, Peterson-Manz, and
Berk, “News Media Coverage and
the Epidemiology of Homicide.”

14. Boyle, Media and Violence: Gendering
the Debates; Greer, Crime and Media:
A Reader; Johnston, Hawkins, and
Michner, “Homicide Reporting in
Chicago Dailies;” Meyers, “News of
Battering;” Meyers, News Coverage of
Violence Against Women; Wilbanks,
Murder in Miami.

15. Altheide, Creating Fear, 146. In a
new research direction that explores
the effect of media content on vic-
tims rather than their media depic-
tion, a recent study reported a
relationship between real world
victims of crime, their psychological
distress from victimization and their
amount of television exposure and
gratifications sought from television.
Minnebo, “The Relation between
Psychological Distress, Television
Exposure, and Television-viewing,”

16. Wardle, “It Could Happen to You,”

17. Rentschler, “Victims’ Rights and
the Struggle over Crime,” 219–239.

18. Sumser, Morality and Social Order, 78.

19. Escholz, Mallard and Flynn, “Images
of Prime Time Justice,” 161–180;
Cecil, “Dramatic Portrayals of Vio-
lent Women,” 243–258; Sumser,
Morality and Social Order, 141.

20. Chermak, Victims in the News;
Meyers, News Coverage of Violence
against Women.

21. Chermak, Victims in the News, 107.
Reiner, Livingstone, and Allen
(“No More Happy Endings?,” 118)

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found, however, that since World
War II crime films have become
more likely to show victims in a
central role.

22. Lichter and Lichter, Prime Time
Crime. Robert Reiner points out
that, ironically, in relation to prop-
erty crime risk, television has be-
come safer than the real world
(“Media Made Criminality,” 391).

23. Wilson, Kunkel, Linz, Potter,
Donnerstein, Smith, Blumenthal
and Gray, “Violence in Television
Programming Overall.”

24. Shelly and Ashkins, “Crime, Crime
News, and Crime Views;” see also
Dowler, “Comparing American and
Canadian Local Television Crime
Shows,” 583; Duwe, “Body-Count
Journalism;” Reiner, Livingstone,
and Allen, “No More Happy End-
ings?,” 114–115.

25. For a recent typology see Levi and
Burrows, “Measuring the Impact of
Fraud,” 292–318.

26. Coleman, The Criminal Elite, 182.

27. Burns, “Media Portrayal of White-
Collar Crime;” Levi, “Suite

28. Ericson, Baranek and Chan, Repre-
senting Law and Order; Levi, “Inside
Information;” Levi, “The Media
Construction of Financial White-
Collar Crimes;” Stephenson-
Burton, “Through the Looking-
Glass;” and Tombs and Whyte,
“Reporting Corporate Crime Out
of Existence.”

29. Levi, “The Media Construction of
Financial White-collar Crimes,”
1052. Levi (1055) points out that
commercial films such as Wall Street
and Catch Me If You Can periodically
construct white-collar criminality.

30. Lackey, “Visualizing White-Collar

31. Coleman, The Criminal Elite,

32. Ponzi, Charles (1882–1949) name-
sake and inventor of Ponzi fraud
scheme in which investors are lured
into providing funds in the belief
that they are buying into a high
profit venture based on early inves-
tors profits which are created simply
from the recycled money of later
investors minus the money skimmed
off for the runner of the Ponzi.

33. Gans, “Deciding What’s News;” Goff,
“The Westray Mine Disaster;”
Wright, Cullen, and Blankenship,
“The Social Construction of Corporate

34. Cavender and Mulcahy, “Trial by
Fire: Media Constructions of Cor-
porate Deviance.”

35. Friedrichs, Trusted Criminals, 18.

36. Geis, White-Collar and Corporate
Crime, 77.

37. Friedrichs, Trusted Criminals.

38. Friedrichs, Trusted Criminals, 18–19;
Levi, “Measuring the Impact of
Fraud in the UK,” 295.

39. Levi, “White-Collar Crime in the
News,” 25.

40. Friedrichs, Trusted Criminals, 18–19.

41. Levi, “The Media Construction of
Financial White-collar Crimes,”
1037. See also Levi and Pithouse,
White Collar Crime and Its Victims.

42. Tombs, “Corporations and Health
and Safety,” 23.

43. Levi, “White-Collar Crime in the
News,” 25.

44. Lynch, Stretesky and Hammond,
“Media Coverage of Chemical

45. Ibid., 121–122.

46. Coleman, The Criminal Elite, 123.

47. Friedrichs, Trusted Criminals, 19.

48. Lackey, “Visualizing White-Collar
Crime Generic Imagery in Popular
Film;” Nichols, “White Collar
Cinema;” Rafter, Shots in the Mirror.

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49. Friedrichs, Trusted Criminals, 19.

50. Levi, “The Media Construction
of Financial White-collar Crimes,”

51. Rebovich and Kane, “An Eye for an
Eye in the Electronic Age.”

52. Fleming and Zyglidopoulos, Chart-
ing Corporate Corruption, 140.

53. Shipley and Cavender, “Murder
and Mayhem at the Movies.”

54. Rafter, “Crime, Film and Crimi-
nology,” 415.

55. Rafter, Shots in the Mirror, 48.

56. Rafter, “Crime, Film and Crimi-
nology,” 403–420.

57. Ibid.,

58. Lichter and Lichter, Prime Time

59. Thomas, “The Psychology of
Yellow Journalism,” 491.

60. Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics—
2000. “Table 2.42 Attitudes toward
the Causes of Crime in the United
States,” and “Table 2.45: Respon-
dents Perceptions about the Primary
Cause of Gun Violence.”

61. Sasson, Crime Talk, 161.

62. Sparks and Sparks list five theoretical
groups: catharsis, priming, arousal,
desensitization, and cultivation as
potential violent media effect me-
chanisms (“Effects of Media Vio-
lence,” 278–280). For a recent
review of the media violence debate,
see Boyle, Media and Violence: Gen-
dering the Debates.

63. Recent reviews of this research are
offered by Ferguson, “Media
Violence: Miscast Causality,” 446–
447; Freedman, “Media Violence
and Its Effect on Aggression;”
Grimes, Anderson and Bergen,
Media Violence and Aggression;
Gunter, “Media Violence: Is There
a Case for Causality,” 1061–1122;
Huesmann, “The Impact of Elec-
tronic Media Violence,” 6–13;

Huesmann and Taylor, “The Role
of Media Violence in Violent
Behavior,” 393–415; and Murray,
“Media Violence: The Effects Are
Both Real and Strong,” 1212–1230.

64. The original 1961 reference was to
television by Schramm, Lyle and
Parker, Television in the Lives of Our

65. See, for example Heath, Bresolin,
and Rinaldi, “Effects of Media
Violence on Children;” and Wilson,
Kunkel, Linz, Apotter, Donnerstein,
Smith, Blumenthal and Gray,
“Violence in Television Program-
ming Overall,” 3–267.

66. Anderson, “The Production of
Media Violence and Aggression
Research,” 1260–1279; Browne and
Hamilton-Giachritsis, “The Influ-
ence of Violent Media on Children
and Adolescents,” 701–710; Pennell
and Browne, “Film Violence and
Young Offenders,” 13–28.

67. Wilson and Herrnstein, Crime and
Human Behavior, 343.

68. Huesmann and Taylor, “The Role
of Media Violence,” 394; Gunter,
“Media Violence,” 1110–1113.

69. Huesmann, Moise-Titus, Podolski,
and Eron, “Longitudinal Relations
between Children’s Exposure to TV
Violence and Their Aggressive and
Violent Behavior,” 210; Johnson,
Cohen, Smailes, Kasen and Brook,
“Television Viewing and Aggressive
Behavior During Adolescence and
Adulthood,” 2468–2471.

70. Coyne, “Does Media Violence
Cause Violent Crime,” 205–211;
Savage, “Does Viewing Violent
Media Really Cause Criminal Vio-
lence,” 99–128; Savage, “The Role
of Exposure to Media Violence in
the Etiology of Violent Behavior,”

71. Heath, Wharton, Del Rosario,
Cook, and Calder, “Impact of the

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Introduction of Television on
Crime in the United States,” 474.

72. Browne & Hamilton-Giachritsis,
“The Influence of Violent Media on
Children and Adolescents,” 701–
710; Coyne, “Does Media Violence
Cause Violent Crime,” 205–211;
Huesman and Taylor, “The Role of
Media Violence in Violent Behav-
ior,” 393–415; Savage, “Does
Viewing Violent Media Really
Cause Criminal Violence,” 99–128;
Savage, “The Role of Exposure to
Media Violence in the Etiology
of Violent Behavior,” 1123–1136;
Savage and Yancey, “The Effects
of Media Violence Exposure on
Criminal Aggression,” 772–791.

73. Bleyer, Main Currents in the History
of American Journalism.

74. Papke, Framing the Criminal, 171–172.

75. Hays, President’s Report to the Motion
Picture Producers and Distributors’

76. Surette, “Self-reported Copycat
Crime among a Population of Seri-
ous Violent Juvenile Offenders,”

77. Cook, Kendzierski, and Thomas,
“The Implicit Assumptions of
Television Research;” Canter,
Sheehan, Alpers, and Mullen,
“Media and Mass Homicides.”

78. Gunter, “Media Violence: Is There
a Case for Causality,” 1066.

79. Sadistic fantasy, often supplemented
by various media content (print,
films, video games, Internet sites,
pornography), has been reported as a
precursor to juvenile sexual homi-
cides (see Bailey, “Fast Forward to
Violence,” 6; and Meyers, Juvenile
Sexual Homicide, 163–164) and a
media role in the killing of children
by strangers (see Wilson, “Stranger
Child-murder,” 49–59).

80. Pease and Love, “The Copy-Cat
Crime Phenomenon.”

81. Heller and Polsky, Studies in Violence
and Television, 151–152.

82. “Self-reported Copycat Crime
among a Population of Serious
Violent Juvenile Offenders,” 46.

83. Curtis, “Gabriel Tarde,” 142–157;
Vine, “Gabriel Tarde.” 292–304.

84. Tarde, Penal Philosophy, 340. Re-
search on the diffusion of riots from
large to small cities has has supported
Tarde’s ideas while including the
impact of modern mass media. See
Myers, “The Diffusion of Collective
Violence: Infectiousness, Suscepti-
bility, and Mass Media Networks,”

85. Daniel Glazer’s 1956 article re-in-
troduced media as a concept worthy
of study to criminology (Glaser,
“Criminality Theories and Behav-
ioral Images,” 433–444).

86. Akers, Social Learning and Social
Structure; Bandura, Aggression: A
Social Learning Analysis.

87. Berkowitz, “Some Effects of
Thoughts on Anti- and Prosocial
Influences of Media Events;” see
also Berkowitz and Rogers, “A
Priming Effect Analysis of Media

88. Dijksterhuis and Bargh, “The
Perception- behavior Expressway;”
Roskos-Ewoldsen, Roskos-Ewoldsen,
and Carpentier, “Media Priming:
A Synthesis.”

89. Jo and Berkowitz, “A Priming Effect
Analysis of Media Influences,” 46.

90. Huesmann, “The Role of Social
Information Processing and Cogni-
tive Schema,” 73–109.

91. Claxton, “Joining the Intentional
Dance;” Goldman, “Imitation,
Mind Reading and Simulation;”
Huesmann, “Psychological Process
Promoting the Relation,” 131.

92. Huesmann, “Psychological Process
Promoting the Relation,” 130.

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93. Mazur, “Bomb Threats and the
Mass Media.”

94. Gunter, “Media Violence: Is There
a Case for Causality,” 1097.

95. Shrum, “Media Consumption and
Perceptions of Social Reality,” 69-95;
Petty, Priester and Brinol, “Mass
Media Attitude Change,” 155–198.

96. Green and Brock, “The Role of
Transportation in the Persuasiveness
of Public Narratives,” 701–721.

97. Slater and Rouner, “Entertainment-
education and Elaboration Likeli-
hood,” 173–191.

98. Ibid., 185.

99. Surette, “Self-reported Copycat
Crime among a Population of Seri-
ous Violent Juvenile Offenders.” In
addition, few differences have been
found between juvenile offenders
and nonoffenders in media con-
sumption and use. See Bandura,
Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis;
Hagell and Newburn, Young Offen-
ders and the Media.

100. Sacco, When Crime Waves.

101. As cited in Alexander, “Terrorism
and the Media,” 161.

102. For a specific example of the com-
plicated relationship between the
media and terrorism, see Hayes,
“Political Violence, Irish Republi-
canism and the British Media.”

103. Surette, Hansen, and Noble, “Mea-
suring Media Oriented Terrorism;”
Tuman, Communicating Terror; and
Weimann and Winn, The Theater of
Terror: Mass Media and International
Terrorism, 47.

104. Tuman, Communicating Terror.

105. See Paletz and Schmid, Terrorism and
the Media, for an overview.

106. Livingstone, The War Against
Terrorism, 62.

107. Weimann and Winn, The Theater
of Terror, 57.

108. Poland, Understanding Terrorism, 47;
and Weimann and Winn, The The-
ater of Terror.

109. Schmid and de Graaf, Violence as
Communication; and Weimann and
Winn, The Theater of Terror.

110. Chermak and Gruenewald, “The
Media’s Coverage of Domestic
Terrorism,” 428–461.

111. Holden, “The Contagiousness of
Aircraft Hijacking,” 874–904.

112. Surette, Hansen and Noble, “Mea-
suring Media Oriented Terrorism,”

113. Nacos, Mass-Mediated Terrorism; Ross,
“Deconstructing the Terrorism-news
Media Relationship,” 215–225.

114. Courtwright, Violent Land. A wry
comment on the level of violence
in pre–mass media society in the
United States is provided by the
Salt Lake Desert News in the 1860s:
“The place is rapidly becoming
civilized. Several men having been
killed there already” (as cited in
Ambrose, Nothing Like It in the
World, 337).

Chapter 4

1. Wilson, Cop Knowledge.

2. Gorelick, “Join Our War.”

3. Rafter, Shots in the Mirror.

4. Inciardi and Dee, “From the Key-
stone Cops to Miami Vice.”

5. Reiner, “Keystone to Kojak.”

6. Stark, “Perry Mason Meets Sonny
Crockett,” 239.

7. See Blumer, The Movies and Conduct;
Blumer, and Hauser, Movies, Delin-
quency, and Crime; Charter, Motion
Pictures and Youth: A Summary; Dale,
Children’s Attendance at Motion Pictures;
Holaday and Stoddard, Getting Ideas
from the Movies; Peterson and Thur-
stone, Motion Pictures and the Social
Attitudes of Children; and Shuttleworth

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and May, The Social Conduct and At-
titudes of Movie Fans. For a summary
of the Payne Fund studies, see chapter 2
in Lowery, and DeFleur, Milestones in
Mass Communication Research.

8. Hays, President’s Report to the Motion
Picture Producers and Distributors’

9. Wilson, Cop Knowledge, 91.

10. Ibid., 118.

11. Dirty Harry, 1971. Director Don
Siegel, Warner Brothers.

12. The discussion on cop narratives
draws on ideas from Wilson, Cop
Knowledge. In a similar vein, Reiner
(The Politics of the Police, 150–152)
offers twelve ideal type models of law
enforcement stories found in the

13. See Hale, “Keeping Women in Their
Place,” 159-179 for an analysis of the
portrait of policewomen in com-
mercial films from 1972 thru 1996.

14. Wilson, Cop Knowledge, 134.

15. Wilson, Cop Knowledge, 134; and
Eschholz, Mallard, and Flynn,
“Images of Prime Time Justice.”

16. Brown and Benedict, “Perceptions of
the Police;” Mawby, “Completing
the ‘Half-Formed Picture’? Media
Images of Policing.” See also Lawr-
ence, The Politics of Force, 15; Payne,
Brutal Cops, News Coverage, 1–10.

17. Bad Boys (1993) by Inner Circle,
Atlantic Records.

18. Donovan, “Armed with the Power
of Television.”

19. Doyle, Arresting Images.

20. Kooistra, Mahoney, and Westervelt,
“The World of Crime According to
‘COPS,’” Table 2: Index Crimes on
“COPS” and in the UCR (1994),

21. Ibid., 153.

22. Cavender, “In the Shadow of

23. Sherwin, When Law Goes Pop,

24. Doyle, “Cops: Television Policing as
Policing Reality.”

25. Hallett and Powell, “Backstage with

26. Robbers, Blinded by Science, 88.

27. Cavender and Deutsch, “CSI and
Moral Authority,” 67-81; Tyler,
“Viewing CSI and the Threshold
of Guilt,” 1073.

28. Tyler, “Viewing CSI and the
Threshold of Guilt,” 1054.

29. Dutelle, The CSI Effect and Your
Department, 113–114; Robbers,
“Blinded by Science,” 92.

30. Gillis, “New Crime Shows Educate

31. Cavender and Deutsch, “CSI and
Moral Authority,” 77; Tyler,
“Viewing CSI and the Threshold of
Guilt,” 1068-1073; Roane, “The
CSI Effect,” 48. Podlas (“The CSI
Effect,” 463) points out that “the few
times a CSI effect has found its way
into a criminal trial, it was the pros-
ecution who attempted to exploit its
mythology to obtain a conviction.”

32. Podlas, “The CSI Effect,” 429–465;
Shelton, “The CSI Effect: Does It Re-
ally Exist?;” Tyler, “Viewing CSI and
the Threshold of Guilt,” 1050–1085.

33. Shelton, “The CSI Effect: Does It
Really Exist?,” 5. Podlas (“The CSI
Effect”) reports similar lack of effects
on verdicts.

34. Robbers, “Blinded by Science,” 87.

35. Mopas, “Examining the CSI Effect
Through an ANT Lens,” 110–117;
Podlas, “The CSI Effect,” 442.

36. Perlmutter, Policing the Media.

37. Lenz, Changing Images of Law.

38. Lichter and Lichter, Prime Time
Crime. Reiner, Livingstone, and Allen
(“No More Happy Endings?,” 115–
116) found a decline in civilian heroes

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in films over the latter half of the
twentieth century.

39. The Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, an
American amateur detective living in
France, appeared in three stories: “The
Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The
Mystery of Marie Roget,” and
“The Purloined Letter.” He is described
in the Oxford Companion to Crime and
Mystery Writing (Herbert, 126): “Dupin
is an isolated figure. Well aware of his
intellectual superiority, Dupin is partic-
ularly contemptuous of the unimagi-
native methods of the police.”

40. Leishman and Mason, Policing and the
Media, 70, 74. Lenz (Changing Images
of Law) has put forth the notion that
recent media reflects a transition in
society away from conservative crime
control policies.

41. Price, Merrill, and Clause, “The
Depiction of Guns on Prime Time

42. Reiner, “Media Made Criminality,” 392.

Chapter 5

1. Sherwin, When Law Goes Pop, ix.

2. Robinson (Justice Blind?, 133) char-
acterizes the content of the media as
constructing due process protections
as if they were a cause of crime in the
United States.

3. Tyler, “Viewing CSI and the
Threshold of Guilt,” 1074.

4. Rafter, “American Criminal Trial
Films,” 9.

5. Asimow and Mader, Law and Popular
Culture, chapter 2; Stark, “Perry Ma-
son Meets Sonny Crockett;” Surette,
“Media Trials.”

6. Asimow and Mader, Law and Popular

7. Stark, “Perry Mason Meets Sonny
Crockett,” 275.

8. Lichter and Lichter, Prime Time
Crime; Rafter, “American Criminal
Trial Films,” 9.

9. Greenfield and Osborn, “Film
Lawyers;” Stark, “Perry Mason Meets
Sonny Crockett.”

10. Lenz, Changing Images of Law.

11. Rafter, Shots in the Mirror.

12. Bailey, Pollock, and Schroeder, “The
Best Defense.”

13. Carpenter, Lacy, and Fico, “Network
News Coverage of High-profile
Crime,” 901–916.

14. Fox, Sickel, and Steiger (Tabloid
Justice) discuss the impact of media
trials under their related tabloid jus-
tice concept.

15. Carpenter, Lacy, and Fico, “Network
News Coverage of High-profile
Crime,” 901–916; Valier, Crime and
Punishment in Contemporary Culture.
Andie Tucher (“Framing the Crimi-
nal,” 908) cites an 1836 New York
trial of a teenage clerk for the murder
of a prostitute as the first media circus
trial in America due to extensive
coverage in the New York penny

16. Barber, News Cameras in the Court-
room, 112–114; Carpenter, Lacy, and
Fico, Network News Coverage of High-
profile Crime, 901–916; Nasheri,
Crime and Justice in the Age of
Court TV.

17. Fox, Sickel, and Steiger, Tabloid

18. Mathiesen, Prison on Trial, 66–67.

19. Estes v. Texas, 381 U.S. 532, at 570

20. Altheide and Snow, Media Worlds in
the Postjournalism Era.

21. Fox, Sickel, and Steiger, Tabloid

22. Hariman, “Performing the Laws:
Popular Trials and Social Knowl-
edge,” 23.

23. Surette, “Media Trials.”

24. David Papke (Framing the Criminal,
22) reports that similar themes existed

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in the 1830s. Popular pamphlets
portrayed crime within two long-
standing themes—the rogue (a semi-
hero who commits property fraud)
and the fiend (a diabolical, frenzied
villain). This period saw the creation
of a new theme—the fiendish rogue.
An example from the early part of the
twentieth century is the 1913 Leo
Frank case involving the strangulation
of a fourteen-year-old female factory
worker in Georgia. As was common
in such cases, coverage was heavily
biased against the defendant. An
Atlanta paper was typical: “Our little
girl—ours by the Eternal God! has
been pursued to a hideous death and
bloody grave by this filthy, perverted
Jew of New York.” The commuta-
tion of Frank’s sentence from death
to life imprisonment led to Georgia’s
governor being driven out of office.
A year after his conviction, Frank was
taken from a prison farm by a band of
men, driven 125 miles to the scene of
the murder, and lynched.

25. Like many things in life, it appears
that being rich and famous and ac-
cused of a crime is double-edged.
Access to a top-notch defense assures
that your case will follow strict due
process procedures and that every
step in the criminal justice process
will be exercised. It wasn’t the race
card that helped O. J. Simpson in his
criminal trial, it was the money card.
The rich can depend on a strong,
aggressive defense. The poor are
much more likely to plea bargain and
be adjudicated guilty. However, if
you are rich and famous and are
found guilty, you are likely to receive
a stern sentence. Judges and the state
do not want to appear to be favoring
rich guilty defendants. Contrary to
usual sentencing practices, this ap-
pears to be especially true for female
defendants of late. Leona Helmsley,
Patty Hearst, and Martha Stewart all
received jail time as first offenders. In

sum, money and fame help you avoid
guilty verdicts, but if you are found
guilty, you are more likely to be
made an example of.

26. Sherwin, When Law Goes Pop.

27. Drucker, “The Televised Mediated

28. Surette, “Media Echoes.”

29. Loften, Justice and the Press, 138;
M. K. Wisehart (“Newspapers and
Criminal Justice”) makes the earliest
historical references to echolike
effects from media coverage in

30. Kaplan and Skolnick, Criminal Justice,

31. Surette, “Media Echoes.”

32. Marcus, “The Media in the
Courtroom,” 276.

33. 62 A.B.A. Rep, 1134–1135 (1937)
cited by Kirtley, “A Leap Not Sup-
ported by History.”

34. In a case important in Texas due to
Estes’s political associations, Texas
financier Billie Sol Estes was accused
of a salad-oil swindle. Cameramen
crowded into a tiny courtroom and
seriously disrupted the proceedings.
After the trial, which was televised
despite his objection, Estes appealed
his conviction, arguing that the
presence of television cameras denied
him a fair trial. The Supreme Court
agreed and reversed the decision,
reversing its own decision sixteen
years later in Chandler v. Florida.

35. Estes v. Texas, at 538 and 544.
36. Florida policeman Noel Chandler

was tried and convicted with another
police officer for a series of burglaries.
The case received a large amount of
regional media attention and was
televised over Chandler’s objection as
part of a Florida pilot program for
televising judicial proceedings. The
Supreme Court held that if other
constitutional due process guarantees
are met, a state could provide for

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television coverage of a criminal trial
over the objection of defendants.

37. “Public Confidence in Selected
Institutions, 1973–1996,” Table 2.9.

38. Examples include the 1992 Los
Angeles riots following the not guilty
verdict for the police officers involved
in the Rodney King beating; the
1980 Miami riots following the
acquittal of police officers charged in
the beating death of black motorist
Edward McDuffie; and the 1993
acquittal of police officer William
Lozano in the shooting death of a
black motorcyclist.

39. United States v. Burr, cited in
Marcus, “The Media in the Court-
room,” 237.

40. United States v. Burr, 25 F. Case 49,
49. (1807).

41. “Trial by Media,” U.S. Press.

42. For an overview and discussion of the
research and issues associated with
pretrial publicity and fair trials, see
Bruschke and Loges, Free Press vs. Fair
Trials. They note a discrepancy
between laboratory research, which
generally concludes that pretrial
publicity biases trials, and field re-
search, which reports that such effects
are not common and occur only
when the publicity is excessive and
includes persuasive information and
when trial evidence is inconclusive.

43. Bruschke and Loges (Free Press vs. Fair
Trials, 137) argue that combinations
of reactive judicial remedies appear to
be effective and that pretrial publicity
will only bias a trial outcome in rare

44. Tyler, “Viewing CSI and the Threshold
of Guilt,” 1062.

45. The Reporters Committee for
Freedom of the Press, downloaded
December 2009 from

46. Kirtley, “Shield Laws and Reporter’s
Privilege,” 164.

47. Dalglish, “Protecting Reporters Who
Protect Sources,” 30–32; Fargo,
“Analyzing Federal Shield Law
Proposals,” 35–82.

48. Kirtley, “Shield Laws and Reporter’s
Privilege,” 170.

49. Sherwin, When Law Goes Pop, 219.

50. An outgrowth of the dominance of
visuals discussed by Valverde (Law and
Order, chapter 9) is the legal dilemma
involved in the release or withhold-
ing of “gruesome pictures” from
crime scenes.

51. Sherwin, When Law Goes Pop,
34–35. Amy Fisher, the seventeen-
year-old “Long Island Lolita” who
shot the wife of her thirty-eight-year-
old boyfriend, Joey Buttafuoco, in
1992 became a tabloid legend. She
was released from prison in 1999.

52. Fox, Sickel, and Steiger, Tabloid

53. Lenz, Changing Images of Law.

54. Fox, Sickel, and Steiger, Tabloid
Justice, 188, 201.

Chapter 6

1. Freeman, Popular Culture and Correc-
tions, 208; Kieby, “Prison Life
Through a Lens,” 22–23; Levenson,
“Inside Information: Prisons and the
Media,” 14–15.

2. Graber, Crime News and the Public; and
Roberts and Stalans, Public Opinion,
Crime, and Criminal Justice.

3. Marsh, “A Comparative Analysis of
Crime Coverage in Newspapers,” 76.

4. Freeman, Popular Culture and Correc-
tions. 47.

5. The most successful television show
based on corrections was the HBO
network program Oz, which aired
from 1997 to 2003.

6. Mason, “The Screen Machine,”
279–280; O’Sullivan, “Representa-
tions of Prison in Nineties Hollywood
Cinema,” 317–334; Schauer,

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“Masculinity Incarcerated,” 28–42;
and Wilson and O’Sullivan, Images of
Incarceration. Bennett (“The Good,
the Bad and the Ugly,” 97–115 pre-
sents a unique take on the prison film
study by exploring how prison films
have depicted the relationship
between the media, crime, and

7. Cheatwood, “Prison Movies;” and
Freeman, “Public Perception and

8. Rafter, Shots in the Mirror, 127.

9. Cheatwood, “Prison Movies.” For a
critique of Cheatwood’s typology,
see Mason, “The Screen Machine,”

10. Mason, “Prison Decayed,” 607.

11. Ibid., 621.

12. For a discussion of British television
programs about corrections, see
Mason, “Watching the Invisible;”
and Wilson and O’Sullivan, Images
of Incarceration.

13. Mason, Captured by the Media; Mason,
“Lies, Distortion and What Doesn’t
Work,” 251–267; Russell, “Tabloid
Tactics,” 32–33.

14. Chermak “Police Courts and Cor-
rections in the Media,” 96.

15. Doyle and Ericson, “Breaking into
Prison.” See also Lotz, Crime and
the American Press.

16. For example, Andrew Hochstetler
(“Reporting of Executions in U.S.
Newspapers,” 8) provides evidence
that the backwards law of media
content extends to coverage of death
row so that the more sensational cases
receive the most coverage. A small
body of research has also examined
the portrait of capital punishment in
films. See Garland, The Culture of
Control; Greer, “Delivering Death,”
84–102; Harding, “Celluloid Death,”
1167–1179; Sarat, “Death Row,
Aisle Seat,” 1–3; Sarat, When the State

17. This was found to be true for the
1970s by Jacobs and Brooks, “The
Mass Media and Prison News;” and
for the 1990s by Doyle and Ericson,
“Breaking into Prison,” 157–158.

18. Mason, “Misinformation, Myth and
Distortion,” 481–496.

19. One counter balance to this is the
coverage that efforts to free wrongly
convicted inmates will periodically
garner. See www.InnocenceProject.
org. When they do result in a pris-
oner’s release the accompanying news
coverage contributes to the general
negative view of corrections, as well
as the police and courts. In these
cases, by portraying them as locking
up the wrong people.

20. Chermak, Victims in the News.

21. Campbell, “Journalists Should
Demand Prison Access,” 34.

22. Doyle and Ericson, “Breaking into
Prison,” 167.

23. Ibid., 183.

24. Ibid., 183–184.

25. An exception to this pattern of
negative sexually focused coverage is
reported for the coverage of the
imprisonment of Martha Stewart. See
Cecil, “Doing Time in Camp Cup-
cake,” 142–160.

26. Freeman, Popular Culture and
Corrections, 114–115.

27. Bennett, “The Good, the Bad and
the Ugly,” 112; Mason, “Prison
Decayed,” 616.

28. Ciasullo, “Containing Deviant
Desire,” 195–223.

29. Britton, At Work in the Iron Cage;
Ciasullo, “Containing Deviant
Desire,” 197; Clowers, “Dykes,
Gangs, and Danger,” 28.

30. Clowers, “Dykes, Gangs, and
Danger,” 28.

31. Cecil, Looking Beyond Caged Heat,
321; Cecil, Dramatic portrayals of
violent women, 243–258.

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32. Cecil, “Looking Beyond Caged
Heat,” 321; Freeman, Popular Culture
and Corrections, 46.

33. Cecil, “Looking Beyond Caged
Heat,” 322.

34. Freeman, Popular Culture and Correc-
tions, 46. See also Wilson and
O’Sullivan, Images of Incarceration.

35. Mason, “Prison Decayed,” 616.

36. Davis, Are Prisons Obselete?, cited by
Mason, “Prison Decayed,” 616.

37. Mathiesen, “Television, Public Space
and Prison Population,” 39.

38. Bennett, “The Good, the Bad and
the Ugly,” 99.

39. Ibid., 112.

40. Mason, “Prison Decayed,” 609;
Mathiesen, Prisons on Trial; Zaner,
“The Screen Test,” 64; see also
Getty, “Media Wise,” 126–131.

Chapter 7

1. Research on media effects on public
attitudes began in the 1930s with a set
of research projects collectively called
the Payne Fund studies. Among other
findings, this early research reported
that films such as Birth of a Nation—a
sympathetic and romantic portrayal of
the creation of the Ku Klux Klan—
could generate unfavorable attitudes
toward blacks among viewers. Al-
though the effects eventually wore
off, they were found to persist for a
significant period of time (up to eight

2. National Institute of Mental Health,
Television and Behavior, 90.

3. Lindesmith, The Addict and the Law.

4. Other movies in which illegal drugs
are shown positively include The
Forty Year Old Virgin, Harold and
Kumar Go To White Castle, and Dazed
and Confused.

5. American Association of Advertising
Agencies, What We’ve Learned About

6. Black, Changing Attitudes Toward Drug
Use; and O’Keefe et al., Taking a Bite
Out of Crime.

7. Surette, “Methodological Problems
in Determining Media Effects on
Criminal Justice.”

8. Weinstein, “Cross-Hazard

9. See O’Keefe and Reid, “Media Public
Information Campaigns and Criminal
Justice Policy;” and O’Keefe,
Rosenbaum, Lavrakas, Reid, and
Botta, Taking a Bite Out of Crime.

10. Rosenbaum, Lurigio, and Lavrakas,
Crime Stoppers, 110.

11. Rosenbaum, Lurigio, and Lavrakas,
“Enhancing Citizen Participation and
Solving Serious Crime,” 417.

12. An assessment of a Florida program’s
“crime of the week” and “most
wanted” cases for the first two years
of operation revealed that the types of
crime portrayed most often were vi-
olent crimes; nonviolent crimes were
rarely portrayed, and homicides were
the single most popular crime shown.
On the whole, the program por-
trayed criminality as an attribute of a
young, violent, dangerous class of
criminals composed mostly of mi-
norities. Crime was portrayed as
largely stranger-to-stranger, injurious
or fatal encounters in which hand-
guns had a dominant role. See
Surette, “The Mass Media and Crimi-
nal Investigations.” Yvonne Jewkes
(Media and Crime, 155–161) found that
in Britain nearly all of the crimes shown
on Crimewatch UK conform to news
values of predatory violence, particu-
larly against women and children.

13. Pfuhl, “Crimestoppers,” 519.

14. Lavrakas, Rosenbaum, and Lurigio,
“Media Cooperation with Police.”

15. Rheingold, Campbell, Self-Brown,
de Arellano, Resnick, and Kilpatrick,
“Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse,”
352–363; Santa and Cochran, “Does

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the Impact of Anti-drinking and
Driving,” 109–129.

16. Surette and Terry, “Videotaped
Misdemeanor First Appearances.”

17. Marx, “Electric Eye in the Sky,” 228.

18. Surette and Terry, “Video in the
Misdemeanor Court.”

19. Grant, “The Videotaping of Police
Interrogations in Canada.”

20. Patton, “Caught,” 125, quoted by
Stephen Graham in “Toward the
Fifth Utility?,” 89.

21. The looping of media content moves
some surveillance images into news-
casts so that the more entertaining
and newsworthy scenes are shown to
a mass audience.

22. The effectiveness of CCTV systems
for reducing terrorist acts has been
called into question however. See
Fussey, “Observing Potentiality in
the Global City,” 171–192.

23. Norris, McCahill, and Wood (“The
Growth of CCTV,” 110) credit the
first large scale open public space
CCTV system as opening in England
in 1985.

24. Haggerty and Gozso, “Seeing
Beyond the Ruins,” 169–187.

25. Williams, “Effective CCTV and the
Challenge,” 97–107.

26. Gill and Loveday, “What Do Offen-
ders Think about CCTV?,” 17–25.
See also Allard, Wortley, and Stewart,
“The Effect of CCTV on Prisoner
Misbehavior,” 404–422.

27. Hier, Greenberg, Walby, and Lett,
“Media, Communication and the
Establishment,” 734; Sutton and
Wilson, “Open-street CCTV in
Australia,” 310–322; Webster, “The
Evolving Diffusion, Regulation and
Governance,” 230–250.

28. Warren and Brandeis, “The Right to
Privacy,” 195: “Recent inventions
and business methods call attention to
the next step which must be taken for

the protection of the person, and for
securing to the individual what Judge
Cooley calls the right ‘to be let
alone.’ Instantaneous photographs
and newspaper enterprise have in-
vaded the sacred precincts of private
and domestic life; and numerous
mechanical devices threaten to make
good the prediction that ‘what is
whispered in the closet shall be pro-
claimed from the house-tops.”’

29. Fussey (“Beyond Liberty, Beyond
Security,” 121) estimates one camera
for every 14 Britains. See also Norris
and Armstrong, The Maximum Sur-
veillance Society, 39, quoting a 1997
assessment offered in an article in the
British newspaper The Economist:
“Britain is leading the world in
CCTV technology and its use. Pre-
cise figures are not available, but it
appears that Britain now has more
electronic eyes per head of popula-
tion than any other country in the
world, one-party states included
(“The All-Seeing Eye,” 52). See also
Wardell, “4.2 Million Cameras Keep
Eye on British.”

30. Chris Horne (“The Case for: CCTV
Should Be Introduced”) states that
one of the first systems was installed
in 1961 in Cumbernauld, England.
Norris and Armstrong (The Maximum
Surveillance Society, 18) state that the
first systems were launched in English
retail stores in 1967. Chris Williams
(“Police Surveillance and the Emer-
gence of CCTV in the 1960s,” 14)
places the first police use of a CCTV
system in Liverpool, England, in 1964.

31. Borg, “The Structure of Social
Monitoring in the Process of Social
Control,” 287–288.

32. Wardell, “4.2 Million Cameras Keep
Eye on British,” “Britain Is ‘Surveil-
lance Society.’”

33. Newburn and Hayman, Policing,
Surveillance and Social Control. Of
course, the traditional criminal justice

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system’s inability to deal with crime is
a mainstay of the entertainment me-
dia’s content.

34. Goold, CCTV and Policing, 34–35.

35. Marx, Undercover; Fussey, “Observing
Potentiality in the Global City,” 173;
Hier, Greenberg, Walby, and Lett,
“Media, Communication and the
Establishment,” 734.

36. Norris, McCahill, and Wood, “The
Growth of CCTV,” 110–135.

37. Graham, “The Eyes Have It.”

38. Fussey, “Beyond Liberty, Beyond
Security,” 120–135.

39. “The All-Seeing Eye,” 52.

40. Bloss, “Escalating U.S. Police
Surveillance after 9/11,” 213.

41. Marx, Undercover.

42. Short and Ditton, Does Closed Circuit
Television Prevent Crime? and “Seen
and Now Heard.”

43. Welsh and Farrington, “Evidence-
Based Crime Prevention,” 21.

44. Ratcliffe, Taniguchi, and Taylor, The
Crime Reduction Effects of Public
CCTV Cameras.”

45. For research reviews see Gill, CCTV;
Goold, CCTV and Policing; and
Welsh and Farrington, “Crime Pre-
vention Effects of Closed Circuit
Television;” Welsh and Farrington,
“Public Area CCTV and Crime

46. For a general discussion of CCTV
related issues see Lyon, Theorizing
the Panopticon and Beyond.

47. Surette, “The Thinking Eye,” 152.
48. Williams, “Effective CCTV,” 104.

See also Lomell, “Targeting the
Unwanted,” 3472–3561; Smith,
“Behind the Screens,” 376–395.

49. Surette, “CCTV and Citizen Guard-
ianship Suppression,” 100–125.

50. Hentschel, “Making (In)Visible,” 300.

51. Brown, CCTV in Town Centres;
Burrows, “Closed Circuit Television

and Crime on the London Under-
ground;” and Welsh and Farrington,
“Crime Prevention Effects of Closed
Circuit Television.”

52. Tilley, “Understanding Car Parks,
Crime and CCTV.”

53. The Supreme Court’s legal reasoning
is summarized in United States v.
Knotts 368 U.S. 276, 281–82 (1983):
“A person traveling in an automobile
on public thoroughfares has no rea-
sonable expectation of privacy in his
movements from one place to an-
other. When [an individual] traveled
over the public streets he voluntarily
conveyed to anyone who wanted to
look the fact that he was traveling
over particular roads in a particular
direction, and the fact of his final
destination when he exited from
public roads onto private property.”

54. Sechrest, Liquori, and Perry, “Using
Video Technology in Police Patrol.”

55. Jefferis, Kaminski, Holmes, and
Hanley, “The Effect of a Videotaped
Arrest on Public Perceptions of
Police Use of Force,” 381; Weitzer,
“Incidents of Police Misconduct and
Public Opinion.”

56. Parrish, “Police and the Media,” 25.

57. Hentschel, “Making (In)Visible,”

58. “Americans OK with Video
Scrutiny,” CBS News Poll.

59. Fussey, “Observing Potentiality in
the Global City,” 171–192.

60. Surette, “The Thinking Eye,” 152.

61. Allard, Wortley, and Stewart, “The
Effect of CCTV on Prisoner
Misbehavior,” 404–422; Newburn
and Hayman, Policing, Surveillance and
Social Control.

62. Young, The Exclusive Society, 192.

Chapter 8

1. See Packer, The Limits of the Criminal

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2. Tajgman, “From Estes to Chandler,”

3. Altheide, “The Mass Media, Crime
and Terrorism,” 982–997; Hron,
“Torture Goes Pop!,” 22–30.

4. Mason, “Misinformation, Myth and
Distortion,” 491.

5. Roberts and Doob, “News Media
Influences on Public Views on
Sentencing,” citing Canadian Sen-
tencing Commission, Sentencing in the

6. Iyengar, Is Anyone Responsible?

7. Graber, Crime News and the Public.

8. Beckett and Sasson, The Politics of

9. Barrile, “Television and Attitudes
about Crime;” Graber, Crime News
and the Public, 73; and Sasson, Crime

10. Christie, “The Ideal Victim.”

11. Altheide, Creating Fear, 146.

12. Sotirovic, “Affective and Cognitive
Processes as Mediators of Media
Influences on Crime-Policy Prefer-
ences,” 311.

13. Rennie, The Search for Criminal Man.

14. McCombs, Setting the Agenda.

15. Lasorsa and Wanta, “Effects of Personal,
Interpersonal and Media Experiences
on Issue Saliences;” and Protess, Cook,
Doppelt, Ettema, Gordon, Leff, and
Miller, The Journalism of Outrage.

16. Rogers and Dearing, “Agenda-
Setting Research.”

17. Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, and
Signorielli, “Growing Up with
Television;” and Morgan and
Shanahan, “Two Decades of
Cultivation Research.”

18. See, for example, Hirsch, “The ‘Scary
World,”’ and “On Not Learning
from One’s Own Mistakes.”

19. Grabe and Drew, “Crime Cultiva-
tions,” 167; Hetsroni and

Tukachinsky, “Television-world
Estimates, Real-world Estimates,” 134.

20. Banks, “Spaces of (in)security,”

21. Dowler, “Media Consumption and
Public Attitudes toward Crime and
Justice,” 116. Valerie Callanan (Feed-
ing the Fear of Crime), for example,
found that in California heavy con-
sumers of crime-related media are
more fearful of crime, more likely
to believe crime is increasing, more
likely to rate crime as a serious
problem, more likely to believe the
world is “just,” less likely to support
rehabilitation, and much more likely
to support three strikes sentencing.

22. Chadee and Ditton, “Fear of Crime
and the Media,” 322–332.

23. Heath and Petraitis, “Television View-
ing and Fear of Crime.” Specific media
effects are discussed by Weitzer and
Kubrin (“Breaking News,” 516–518).

24. Sparks and Ogles, “The Difference
Between Fear of Victimization and
the Probability of Being Victimized.”

25. See Ditton, Chadee, Farrall, Gilchrist,
and Bannister, “From Imitation to
Intimidation, 595–610; Eschholz,
Chiricos, and Gertz, “Television and
Fear of Crime;” and Lane and
Meeker, “Ethnicity, Information
Sources, and Fear of Crime.”

26. Mason, “Misinformation, Myth and
Distortion,” 491.

27. Gillespie, McLaughlin, Adams, and
Symmonds, Media and the Shaping of
Public Knowledge.

28. Green, “Public Opinion versus Pub-
lic Judgment,” 132; Allen, “There
Must Be Some Way of Dealing with
Kids,” 5.

29. Green, “Public Opinion versus
Public Judgment,” 141; Griffin and
Miller, “Child Abduction, AMBER
Alert, and Crime Control

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30. Surette, “Media Echoes.”

31. Sacco and Silverman, “Selling Crime

32. For example, Snell, Bailey, Carona,
and Mebane (“School Crime Policy
Changes,” 208) report that highly
publicized school crimes impact
school policy decisions to install metal
detectors and video cameras in distant

33. Green, “Public Opinion versus Pub-
lic Judgment,” 141.

34. Raney and Bryant (“Moral Judgment
and Crime Drama,” 402–415) argue
that crime dramas contain implied
pro and con statements about justice
policies. The greater the enjoyment
of the drama, the more likely an ef-
fect on judgments and support of
those justice policy statements will

35. Pfeiffer, Windzio, and Kleimann,
“Media Use and Its impacts,”

36. Green, “Public Opinion versus Pub-
lic Judgment,” 144.

37. Altheide, “The Mass Media, Crime
and Terrorism,” 982-997; Fussey,
“Beyond Liberty, Beyond Security,”
124; Goidel, Freeman, and Procopio,
“The Impact of Television Viewing
on Perceptions of Juvenile Crime,”
119–139; Ruddell and Decker, “Kids
and Assault Weapons,” 45–63.

38. Dardis, Baumgartner, Boydstun, De
Boef, and Shen, “Media Framing of
Capital Punishment,” 15–16.

39. Mason, “Prison Decayed,” 607-626;
Mason, “Misinformation, Myth and
Distortion,” 491.

40. Reiner, “Media Made Criminality,”

41. Kupchik and Bracy, “The News
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42. Altheide, Creating Fear, 137.

43. Bennett, News, 96.

Chapter 9

1. Sotirovic, “Affective and Cognitive
Processes as Mediators of Media
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ences,” 313.

2. Gorelick, “Join Our War,” 429.

3. Surette, Hansen, and Nobel, “Mea-
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4. Manning, “Media Loops.”

5. Penfold, “The Star’s Image, Victimi-
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6. For example, the success of the reality
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7. Mathiesen, “The Eagle and the Sun.”

8. Grabe and Drew, “Crime Cultiva-
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9. Rushkoff, “Media: It’s the Real

10. Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place, 319.

11. Valier, Crime and Punishment in Con-
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12. Richmond, “Can You Find Me
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13. Thomas, Social Behavior and Personal-
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14. Rapping, Law and Justice as Seen
on TV.

15. Poyntz, “Homey I Shot the Kids,” 8.

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